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On the theft of indigenous struggles

Decrying comparisons between Palestinians and the plight of indigenous North American peoples
Photo entitled "Cree Indian" taken in  Saskatchewan, 1903.  (Photo: G. E. Fleming, PD, Wikipedia)
Photo entitled "Cree Indian" taken in Saskatchewan, 1903. (Photo: G. E. Fleming, PD, Wikipedia)

When Sonny was a small child, he had a mousetrap closed on his tongue for speaking Cree. He was forced to kneel on dried rice that was spread on the ground for hours, until his knees bled. He was beaten until he almost died on at least two occasions, and he was almost certainly sexually abused by the very people who took him away “for his own good” to the St Henri school in Fort Vermillion.

Sonny didn’t deal well with his abuse. He packed it away, and when he became a father, he abused his own family, an alcoholic who beat his wife and then his children. On one occasion, he took his 6-year-old son and hung him on a meat hook for two hours until one of the boy’s uncles came to the house to drop something off and heard the boy’s screams, took him down and took him to the hospital. Sonny didn’t think what he had done was wrong – or maybe he did, and he just drank to kill that small voice in his head that reminded him that what he was doing was not just wrong, but possibly also criminal.

Sonny was Merv’s dad. I do not call him my grandfather, because I do not think of him as such. Merv didn’t allow Sonny to spend any time with me, and we never referred to him as grandfather – he was just Merv’s father. I didn’t understand that when I was small, because I didn’t know the abuses Merv suffered. (I learned that later from my aunts.) I won’t go into details, because it’s not my story to tell, but it absolutely affected my life, even though Merv managed for the most part to break that cycle of abuse. He was harsh sometimes, and very stoic, but I was never punched or beaten as a child by Merv, other than the odd spanking. Oddly enough, my abuse came at the hand of my white stepmother. Merv just didn’t understand how bad it was due to his own experiences as a child at the hands of Sonny.

This is the reality for Metis people and most native north Americans in general: our sad commonality is the almost unfathomable abuse that led to generational abuses and that has led to the fracturing of families, dysfunction, and other things that are difficult to speak of. It has led to my people having ridiculously high suicide rates, disproportionate percentages of sexual abuse, ridiculous numbers of substance abuse, and other hallmarks of abuse.

But why am I telling you this? The short story is that I am so angry right now that I feel I must share something so intensely personal, but first I need for you to understand why I am so angry.

I see people claiming commonalities with my people all the time. They tell me “My people are just like yours,” but the reality is quite different. I hear people telling me “My people have similar experiences to yours,” when the reality is that they have undergone nowhere near the marginalisation or oppression that my people have somehow survived.

When someone invokes the experiences of Native North Americans in order to claim commonalities with us, it’s almost always in order to demonise another country. In the majority of cases I see, it’s Arabs or white people trying to demonise Israel, first by calling them colonisers, and second by inferring that they stole the land on which they built their state. The irony should be obvious.

What I have learned after years of study is that if there is one people in the entire world who can legitimately claim commonalities with us, it is not the descendants of 7th century conquerors who were ascendant for 600 years, until the past century, when the cycle was reversed. The Arab Muslims who dominated the region after conquering it are the furthest thing from my people. Rather, our fraternity here is with the people who only recent underwent a real genocide and who have still managed to maintain their cultural integrity. That people are the Jewish nation. I do not say this lightly; it comes after years of research, years of speaking to and listening to survivors both of residential schools and the Holocaust. It is not a comparison of tragedies, nor is it a contest; rather, it is about empathy and understanding through common experience.

You may wonder why this claim to commonality from Arab Muslims calling themselves Palestinians offends me so much – after all, they are a displaced people, are they not? It bothers me for several reasons but the most important one is that it marginalises my own people’s experiences. While my people were killed in the millions, forced to take on the religion, traditions, and language of the oppressor culture, put in residential schools to further those goals, and made to feel inferior for even daring to want to maintain our culture, the Palestinians have not in any way been treated with such opprobrium by Israel.

The Arabs calling themselves Palestinians have not only adopted the mantle of the coloniser/ occupiers, but have also embraced it. They were not forced to take the Arab language, nor were they forced to become converts to a religion that is not their own. There are no residential schools forcing them to keep that foreign language, that alien religion, or those unknown traditions. They do so by choice. They were offered a state of their own three times and refused each time. It’s patently offensive to compare that with the history of my people, especially the Metis, who fought two rebellions and were expelled from their homes a third time. The Arabs who call themselves Palestinians have been given money and weapons consistently by Iran and other supporters of terrorism. They have been encouraged to kill civilians indiscriminately – they talk about resistance, but the truth is that they are pawns fighting a war against Israel as proxies for the Arab world. They are not freedom fighters, because they fight against the only truly free country in the region. Don’t believe me? Try building a church or synagogue in the Palestinian authority.

I guess I missed the genocide they suffered as well, mostly because I was always taught that genocide results in the deaths of many people, that a vast reduction in population is pretty much the hallmark of the attempted destruction of a people. Not a population explosion resulting in a jump from 750,000 to more 6 million people, in which the descendants of those first displaced persons call themselves – with no trace of irony – refugees. My knowledge may, perhaps, be limited, as I can measure this story only against every single genocide perpetrated by mankind during recorded history – and when I do that, the standard Palestinian narrative fails.

The country in which I live has a great reputation, but if it is not quite an apartheid state, it is uncomfortably close to one, as it has separate rules for people who live here – one set for Aboriginal or First Nations peoples, and another for the rest. In Canada, there is no real representation of Native people in our mainstream government; there are no Indians in Parliament, unlike Israel, which has Arab members in its Knesset. So again, you tell me why I should allow the demonisation of the world’s only indigenous state, governed by its indigenous people, on their ancestral homeland by using my people’s experiences? Such absurd claims against Israel cannot be permitted to go uncontested.

And yet… I am inundated with white people, Arabs, and the occasional uneducated token Indians who spout off leftist memes denouncing Israel and invoking our situation with invalid comparisons. I can understand when white people do it, because they have always been a colonial people; I can understand when Arabs do it because they have also been colonial people. I simply cannot abide when a Native person is convinced to participate in this, because it behooves a Native person to study and understand history before taking a side in these conflicts. I don’t want them to change sides because “Ryan said so.” I want them to change sides because after examining the history and facts, they should see that I am right and agree with me.

It is not ok to take someone’s history from them; it is not ok to appropriate and marginalise their pain – and this is precisely what Arabs who claim commonalities with us are doing. When I am speak with Jewish people about our experiences, it’s empathy and not paternalistic sympathy: it is, in fact, about our shared experiences.

We do not want nor will we accept this pro-Palestinian solidarity with its price tag of betrayal of another indigenous nation. I am often quoted as saying, “You cannot become indigenous through conquering indigenous peoples, and nothing a conqueror does can remove indigenous status, it can only be given up freely, never forcibly.” Those who would claim otherwise must consider that, because the argument applies to all indigenous peoples, including the Jewish people. That might not be popular with them, but it’s the absolute truth and when it comes to indigenous rights, I will always support them absolutely.

About the Author
Ryan Bellerose is the Advocacy Coordinator, Western Canada, of B'nai Brith Canada's League For Human Rights.