Early this summer, I introduced Mik’maw lawyer Pam Palmater’s Reconciliation Book Club.
My partner and I headed into the first assigned reading with enthusiasm and interest, and we were not disappointed.
Whose Land Is It Anyway: A Manual for Decolonization” is a collection of 14 essays, written by Indigenous academics and activists as well as allies, that examine the machinery of colonialism, the resurgence of Indigenous resistance and possible paths to reconciliation. The essays are short (4 to 6 pages for the most part) and very accessibly written.
Kanahus Manuel’s essay “Decolonization: The frontline struggle” spoke powerfully to me. She begins it with:
“When I was arrested, I was in a truck with my three-month-old child, my sister and my mother in the hills above Bella Coola.”
She writes about her experience of being separated from her infant son for the 80 days she spent in jail as a result of taking action to protect her people’s land from development into a massive ski resort, and ends her essay with these words:
“And today I am not afraid of jail and I am not afraid of the police. I urge all those who are fighting to decolonize Canada: Fall in and carry out your duties. The sides have already been chosen for you. You will not play mediators on our soil. We are the rivers and all bridges connecting both sides. There is no middle ground. I urge all of our people: Fall in and we will struggle together for our future.”
An act of genocide
Taiaiake Alfred’s essay, “It’s all about the land,” lays the groundwork for the second book we were given to read. He writes:
“The voices of our ancestors continue to call out to us, telling us that it is all about the land: always has been and always will be . . . get it back, go back to it.”
An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, by Karen Stote, as the title suggests, is not a light read. It is a densely written, heavily referenced book. Some days, I could only read a few pages before I had to put it down in favour of something a bit easier to digest.
That said, this is a really important book, and I am very glad I read it.
Stote tracks the history of the sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada, followed by the forced use of birth control and abortion and then the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families by child protection authorities. It is a brutal story; one that we should all know more about.
I had no idea, for instance, until I read this book, that Indigenous women were being given birth control (mostly the pill) without their knowledge or consent during the years when it was illegal for women like me to get that very same birth control.
It really is all about the land
Stote draws a straight line between the management of Indigenous women’s reproduction to the colonial desire to take more and more land away from Indigenous peoples. As she writes in the book’s Preface:
“My main argument is that the consistent undermining of Aboriginal women and their reproductive lives through policies and practices like coercive sterilization has been part of a longstanding attack against Indigenous ways of life in an effort to reduce those to whom the federal government has obligations, and in order to gain access to lands and resources.”
Her research is exhaustive and meticulous: every claim she makes and every number she produces is supported by letters and speeches by politicians, senior bureaucrats and public health officials.
And she doesn’t mince words in labelling these government policies as an act of genocide:
“The imposition of measures to prevent births within a group constitutes an enumerated act of genocide under international law, yet the sterilization of Aboriginal women is not generally considered within this context.”
The resistance continues
The third (and most recent) book in the book club is Gord Hill’s 500 years of Indigenous resistance, first published in 1992. Hill is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation on the northwest coast who has been involved in Indigenous resistance for many years.
He chronicles this resistance, beginning with a look at life before colonization and then examining the struggles and resistance of Indigenous peoples throughout Turtle Island. He concludes the book by referencing a number of acts of resistance in and around 1992: the Oka fight to reclaim their lands from development into a golf course, the resistance of the Peigan Lonefighter Society to protect their sacred Oldman River from a dam development, the struggle of the Lubicon Cree to stop commercial logging on their land and the resistance of Bolivian Indians and Ecuadorian Indigenous peoples.
He closes with a quote from material developed by 1992’s Campaign 500 Years of Resistance and Popular Resistance:
“In our continent, history can be divided into 3 phases: before the arrival of the invaders; these five hundred years; and that period, beginning today, which we must define and build.”
It is now more than 25 years since the 500th anniversary of the start of colonization. Despite the persistence and strength of Indigenous resistance, colonization continues to destroy the peoples who first lived here and the land on which they once lived.
Perhaps the education offered through the Reconciliation Book Club can slow that ongoing colonization down. If you haven’t joined, it’s not too late.