The idea for this letter emerged in a conversation between a group of Indigenous researchers and immigrants residing in what is currently known as Canada and involved with the GTDF collective. The first draft was written in March 2021 for a conference about the intersections of Indigenization and internationalization in education. Subsequent drafts were expanded by Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators.
The current version is an invitation to make space for conversations that we feel are very important, but that are also very difficult to have: conversations about relationships at the interface between Indigenous and immigrant communities.
In the work of our collective we have found that having these conversations is difficult because they tend to be filled with complexities, paradoxes, tensions, and contradictions that can be very uncomfortable to face and easy to oversimplify. As a result, the conversations tend to be avoided, or engaged in ways that do not always attend to the many layers of complexity involved. In addition, there is a great deal of misinformation about Indigenous peoples and issues disseminated by the media and government agencies, including agencies that promote and support immigration to Canada.
This letter was written as a thought experiment and as a pedagogical effort to address misinformation and to be a stimulus for conversation. Although the letter is addressed to prospective immigrants, it invites us to consider the responsibilities that all non-Indigenous people already in Canada have towards Indigenous peoples here.
We invite you to read this letter paying attention to the range of emotional responses you will experience. Observe these responses without investing in them. If you feel discomfort or resistance, turn these emotions into learning opportunities about your own desires, fears and insecurities. We have offered some questions at the end that can support conversations about this topic. This text is based on depth pedagogy and the SMDA (sobriety, maturity, discernment and accountability) orientation.
Dear prospective immigrants,
We are a small group of Indigenous researchers writing this letter to offer you information about Indigenous peoples in what is currently known as Canada that is not often available to people from other countries coming here. Canada receives around 300,000 immigrants every year. The vast majority are economic migrants, but there are also refugees (around 30,000) and asylum seekers (around 30,000), whose circumstances are different. We are doing this so that those who have a choice to come to Canada or not can make an informed decision. If you do decide to emigrate, we hope this letter helps you understand the historical context of Canada and the different realities of Indigenous peoples here. We also hope the letter can support you to recognize the responsibilities that non-Indigenous people have towards Indigenous peoples.
The information you have about Canada may have come from the popular media, word of mouth, or perhaps from the government agencies that want to promote Canada as a desirable place for education and immigration. EduCanada, for example, is a government brand that promotes education as an export of Canada. This is big business for Canada. International students bring more revenue here than many other exports. For this business to be successful, it is important to paint a beautiful picture of Canada, as one of the most multicultural, tolerant, peaceful countries in the world, a country full of opportunities for social mobility; where those who work hard enough can earn a comfortable, safe, stable, and prosperous life. This may be true for a few people, but it is not true for most .
Canada is a settler-colonial country. Understanding this is important. It means that Canada was built on lands of Indigenous peoples, which includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Colonization is a very violent process that has been happening in this continent for more than 400 years, and is still happening today. There have been many different waves of immigration and different relationships between immigrants and Indigenous people throughout this time. When the first waves of immigrants arrived, for instance, some Indigenous communities nurtured, healed, fed, clothed, and oriented them to the land. However, especially as the numbers of immigrants grew and the quest for ‘natural resources’ and land intensified, the dominant dynamics started to shift toward violent relationships of domination, theft, humiliation and subjugation, what we call “settler-colonialism”.
To give you a brief idea of what these colonial relationships have entailed, settlers have:
- violently removed Indigenous peoples and occupied their lands in order to claim property and access to ‘natural resources’;
- confined many Indigenous people to restricted areas called reserves, and at times, forbidden them to leave those reserves without official permission;
- excluded Indigenous peoples from accessing public education and health care; prevented Indigenous peoples from retaining lawyers to contest the seizure of their lands and children;
- categorized Indigenous dissent as terrorism;
- outlawed Indigenous ceremonies and cultural practices, such as the potlatch; decimated Indigenous peoples’ traditional livelihoods and sources of food;
- created resource extraction industries that spread toxins and harm plants and wildlife;
- spread western diseases such that whole villages were wiped out;
- witheld supplies to intentionally create famine;
- forcibly sterilized and sanctioned multiple forms of violence towards Indigenous women and girls; and
- taken away Indigenous children from their families and put them in boarding schools where the children were forbidden to speak their language or retain their culture, and were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
It is estimated that thousands of children died in these boarding schools, often called residential schools, the last of which only closed in 1996. Those in charge of the schools failed to record the deaths of many of these children and placed them in unmarked graves. In May 2021 a mass grave with 215 Indigenous children was confirmed on the grounds of the former Kamloops residential school. As more investigations followed on other residential school grounds, by September, more than 1,300 mass graves have been found, the number of children in these graves are still unknown. For years, Indigenous communities had repeatedly asked the government to fund similar investigations at other school sites, but the government refused to listen. These recent public revelations are pushing Canada to face its shameful recent history.
There are also untold histories of slavery, indentured labour, internment camps (where human rights and civil liberties of entire racialized communities were denied) and racist immigration laws in Canada, but these are not our stories to tell and, thus, they are not the focus on this letter.
Some people in Canada still believe that colonialism is all in the past, and that it doesn’t shape the present in any meaningful way. Therefore, when Indigenous peoples and others suggest that there is more work to be done to address the impacts of colonial legacies, they are often dismissed, and told to “move on” or “get over it already.” However, colonialism is not just something that happened in the past; it continues to shape everyday life for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. This is clearly evident in various paternalistic policies and pieces of legislation, including “The Indian Act”, through which Canada governs the daily lives of many First Nations peoples, treating them as children or “wards of the state.” The act was designed to favour settler interests, and although it has changed over time, among other things it has been used to regulate the movement of Indigenous peoples, undermine Indigenous governance structures and self-determination, exclude Indigenous women from their rights and preclude them from passing on those rights to their children, and thereby to ultimately decrease the number of Indigenous peoples through forcible assimilation. Different legislation dictates the relationships between the government and Inuit people, and the government and Métis people. However, many Canadians are unaware of the historical and ongoing implications of this and other legislation and policies that affect Indigenous communities. Many are also unaware of the rights of Indigenous peoples and the various responsibilities that the Canadian government has to Indigenous peoples through treaties, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and other agreements.
In fact, the United Nations has repeatedly drawn critical attention to Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, including the negative health effects on Indigenous peoples due to their disproportionate exposure to toxic waste, and discrimination against Indigenous women. In 2021, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination critiqued Canada’s continued efforts to build oil and gas pipelines without the consent of Indigenous peoples when they are built in their territories, close to their homes. Indigenous people have higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, and incarceration than other Canadians. As of 2021, 40 Indigenous communities still don’t have access to clean water on their reserves. The lives and livelihoods of many Indigenous peoples are often threatened by colonial government policies and racist crimes. A very recent example of this happened in Nova Scotia, where Indigenous fishery facilities, equipment and boats were set on fire.
Over 50% of all children in foster care are Indigenous, even though they make up less than 8% of all children in Canada. Indigenous communities have much higher suicide rates, especially amongst children. In 2021, 84% of all Indigenous people in the province of British Columbia reported experiencing racism in the health care system. Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized by health practitioners as recently as 2018. From 2000-2015, Indigenous women were murdered at a rate almost six times higher than non-Indigenous women. More than one thousand Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing over the last 30 years. In 2016, Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man, was shot in the back of his head by a white man, Gerald Stanley, who was found not guilty of Boushie’s murder by an all-white jury. This is just one of many examples of how violence against Indigenous people is rarely addressed through the Canadian justice system. In fact, some members of the Canadian police publicly blamed Boushie for his own death, claiming “he got what he deserved.”
The effects of colonization, especially residential schools, have left a terrible legacy for Indigenous communities. Most individuals who experienced these state-sponsored abuses returned to their communities traumatized, hurting, ashamed of their culture, and with little possibility of healing. Trying to numb this pain, some turned to substance dependence and mis-use, some resented the settlers, some resented their own people or culture, some turned violent on their own families, some ended up in prison, some ended up in the streets, some took their own lives.
However, many Indigenous people today are working to reclaim their cultures and languages, in order to heal from these legacies, as well as to restore relationships to their ancestral territories. Many are revitalizing Indigenous governance systems, laws, education, and practices of nutrition, health and well-being. Some Indigenous people believe that non-Indigenous people living on Indigenous lands should respect Indigenous governing and legal authority. Some advocate for shared governance of their territories. Some demand financial reparations, others want their land back. A few Indigenous people would prefer not to have non-Indigenous peoples living in their territories.
While colonization has been happening towards Indigenous people, the rest of the Canadian population has been told another story. Until very recently, they have been led to believe that colonization was good for most Indigenous people and it was what they wanted. Children were not taught about this terrible side of Canadian history in school. Many people grew up being taught in schools that Canada was mainly white, but open to multiculturalism, that it was a welcome, peaceful, and fair country, one where discrimination and bigotry was not part of the national identity (especially compared to the USA). Indigenous peoples were often portrayed as dangerous, promiscuous and untrustworthy. Their cultural practices and objects were appropriated and either ridiculed or turned into cliches. Thus, the people who grew up in this time mostly saw Indigenous people as lazy, violent, and less intelligent, or free-loading on the “charity” of government handouts. At best, they thought that Indigenous people needed the help of white/‘civilized’ people to “catch up” with progress and assimilate into the rest of the population, or they wished Indigenous people would disappear altogether.
This is slowly changing now as K-12 schools are obliged to tell the history from the perspective of Indigenous people; however, there are many Canadians who did not grow up with this as part of their formal education and who do not take it well. These people often get angry and show explicit racism towards Indigenous people when their views of themselves or of Canada are challenged. They believe that Indigenous people are to blame for their own vulnerable and precarious conditions.
Some non-Indigenous Canadians advocate for the government to do more for Indigenous people, but the government is not designed for that. The education, health, and justice systems were not created to serve Indigenous people, and instead often end up punishing them, and there is little hope that this will change any time soon. Indigenous people are systemically excluded from mainstream institutions and many of the opportunities and benefits that are afforded to other Canadians. However, it is important to clarify that this is not just about exclusion; it is also about the fact that many of the institutions, benefits, and opportunities that other Canadians enjoy are made possible because of historical and ongoing colonial processes – these promises, benefits and opportunities often come at Indigenous peoples’ expense. The issue of non-potable drinking water in many of Canada’s First Nations communities is an example of that.
There are more than 630 First Nations communities in Canada, as well as Inuit communities in the Arctic, and Métis communities. Both between and within different communities, Indigenous people are diverse, and have responded in different ways to colonization. Some Indigenous people rebelled against the settlers, and some still do today. Some wanted to become like the settlers, some still do today. You will see that while some Indigenous people embraced the colonial system and assimilated, many others believe that their Indigenous systems are better than the Canadian system and fight to maintain them. Some argue for a blend of the Western and Indigenous systems, but they want this blend to be done in Indigenous ways. Some Indigenous people accept or embrace capitalism, others resist it. A handful of Indigenous people are wealthy; most are not. Some Indigenous people are seeking to reclaim their traditional forms of spirituality, while others have become Christians or moved away from spirituality and religion altogether. Some Indigenous people are advocating for the return of their land to their Indigenous owners, either by way of formal legal processes, or by purchasing the land outright. As Indigenous issues have gained more media attention, the diversity of Indigenous perspectives is becoming more visible.
Some Indigenous people believe that Indigenous systems of governance should share authority and decision making power with the Canadian government in relation to immigration policies. Some Indigenous people think that immigrants are just the same as the colonial settlers or that they represent a new wave of colonization. Some believe that immigrants are given opportunities that should be given to Indigenous peoples first. Some think that the government should only encourage immigration once no Indigenous person experiences poverty. However, many Indigenous people are open to alliances of solidarity as they recognize that many immigrants also experience racism in Canada and some come from places where they have suffered similarly under other governments and foreign interventions (for example, Indigenous people in Latin America whose livelihoods have been destroyed by Canadian mining companies).
The difficulties of reconciliation
In conversations about reconciliation, it is possible that you will not be considered an immigrant, but a “settler”in Canada. This means that, although you did not start colonialism in Canada, you benefit from it as an on-going system.
It is only very recently that the Canadian government has acknowledged the depth of harm that was done to Indigenous people here and apologized through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process. But an apology cannot fix this legacy of violence, suffering and trauma; a lot of difficult work is necessary to stop the effects of what happened in the past and the harm that is still being done today, often by well-meaning people. In fact, the TRC included 94 Calls to Action in its final report. However, several members of the commission have claimed that five years on, there is little demonstration of urgency in Canadian society to put these calls into action. More institutions have moved to “include” Indigenous people, which is often fraught with problems. For instance, many non-Indigenous people resent these efforts – they prefer not to talk about the issue. They say it is in the past, they are not responsible for what their ancestors did, and they want to move on quickly. However, as institutions are pushed to acknowledge historical harms, it is getting harder for people to deflect and defer these difficult issues and conversations.
Indeed, since the end of the TRC, some things have changed and many of these things will affect you. The conflicts of colonization are still present, visible and intensifying. You will be exposed to these issues in multiple places, for example you will likely be required to engage with these issues in your workplace. You won’t be able to escape or opt out of this conflict. For example, you may need to know about this to be effective in your job. You may need to demonstrate an understanding of Indigenous struggles, and if you interact with Indigenous people you will be observed closely. A misstep can cost your job. Your children will learn about this at school. Your children may be impacted by this conflict in other ways, for instance, they may be held responsible for Canada’s historical mistakes in the future. You will need to position yourself in relation to the lands where you live and work and you will need to think about your responsibility as a settler towards Indigenous peoples. You will be required to know the communities who were here before you arrived…and perhaps establish relationships.
What is expected of you
If you decide to come to Canada, when you arrive it is likely that you will encounter Indigenous people in at least one of the following situations:
- You will see them in protests against oil pipelines, police violence, poor social services and living conditions, government double standards
- You will see them in institutions advocating for better services for other Indigenous people and pushing for institutions to recognize the harm caused to Indigenous people and the value of Indigenous knowledge systems
- You will see them sometimes in precarious circunstances, experiencing hardship, homelessness, and substance misuse.
- You will also see stories in the media and social media that are dismissive of Indigenous peoples’ perspectives and that reproduce colonial stereotypes.
- Depending on your job, you will encounter them as customers, clients, patients, students. They may also be members of trades and professions such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, etc, although they are generally underrepresented. They may not look or act as you expect Indigenous people to look or act like.
When you hear that Indigenous people are protesting, remember that they are demanding the government to uphold their rights, and sometimes fighting in the name of all of us, against a racist, colonial system that is harmful for all, especially for the children to come. Please listen and support them if you can.
When you come across advocates in organizations who are trying to improve the lives of Indigenous people, who are pushing Western/colonial institutions to remember the violence they participate in, or who are trying to show the value of Indigenous knowledges and cultures for present and future generations, please listen and support them if you can.
When you come across Indigenous people in the streets, remember the historical and present systems of oppression that have contributed to why they have ended up there. Put yourself in their shoes, having everything taken away: your land, your language, your cultural identity, your livelihood, your dignity, and even your children. In exchange, you were given a system that keeps you in poverty and subjugated. Please support them, if you can.
When you see stories that mis-represent Indigenous peoples or that silence Indigenous peoples’ voices, look for more perspectives, including those represented in Indigenous media channels, such as APTN.
When you encounter Indigenous people through your work, remember that there is a history of harm and trauma in how these encounters have happened in colonial institutions before. Be kind, be patient, work towards trust and respect, and prioritize consent.
With all of this in mind, if you do come, you may not be responsible for Canada’s painful colonial legacies, but you will be held responsible for the ways these colonial legacies continue to harm Indigenous peoples and lands.
This is what we would personally ask you to consider doing:
- Educate yourself – what I offered here is a glimpse of a very long and complex story that you and your children will need to know as residents and perhaps future citizens of Canada. The UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the TRC Calls to Action are good places to start;
- Reflect on promises and expectations that have been sold with regards to how your life is going to look like in Canada, and who bears the costs of those promises;
- Consider your responsibilities to Indigenous communities in Canada, and the Indigenous communities of your own country;
- If you come across a situation where an Indigenous person is being discriminated against or harassed, especially by those in positions of authority (e.g. police, doctors, teachers), be a witness if it is safe (e.g. record the interaction on your phone). If you come across other forms of discrimination towards Indigenous peoples, try to interrupt it, if you can;
- Pause before you decide to buy land; consider not buying it, and if you do buy it, consider leaving it in your will to the original people from whom these lands were stolen. There are also organizations being formed to support Indigenous people to buy their land back: look for these initiatives in your local area, and consider contributing monthly to these initiatives, as a way of being accountable.
In some ways Indigenous people and Black and racialized immigrants have similar experiences of systemic oppression in Canada and share a history of alliances. In other ways, as settlers, immigrants are contributing to the on-going colonial oppression of Indigenous people in Canada in many different ways. Our capacity to hold this paradox and the complexities that it entails in generative ways will dictate the depth and resilience of relationships in this context. In each encounter between Indigenous and immigrant communities, these issues will be held and addressed differently, because Indigenous peoples – and immigrant communities – are very diverse (both within and between them).
Therefore rather than proposing a single easy pathway for us all to move together towards the future, we propose that we need to learn to weave relations and move together differently in this foggy landscape, making room for what is real, painful and difficult about this process, without shaming, romanticizing, idealizing or demonizing anyone or anything. However, it is important to remember that other Indigenous people may not agree with what is proposed here – that is why we all need to avoid simplistic solutions and naive ideals of solidarity. We need to be open to having never-ending difficult conversations with sobriety, maturity, discernment and accountability.
Thank you for considering this.
- What complexities, complicities, and paradoxes does the letter invite the reader to consider?
- How does the letter address diversity and heterogeneity within Indigenous communities?
- Although the letter is addressed to a prospective immigrant, what might all non-Indigenous Canadians learn from engaging with this letter?
- Why has the conversation about the place of immigrants in a settler colonial context generally been avoided?
- What is the next, most responsible small thing you can do to deepen your engagement with the complexities, complicities, and paradoxes raised in the letter? How is this shaped by your context and positionality?
Diving Deeper Questions:
- What affective/emotional responses emerged during this exercise? Anxiety? Sadness? Resistance? Relief? Exhaustion? Excitement? Hope? Hopelessness? Anger? Frustration? Defensiveness? Loss? Grief? Did you manage to observe these responses without investing in them?
- Where in your body did you experience these responses? Did you feel constriction in your throat or chest? Heaviness in our stomach? Elevated heart beat? Dry mouth? Sweaty palms?
- Did you witness a desire for hope in an easy form of solidarity that does not acknowledge the tensions involved in this context? How could this form of solidarity reproduce harm?
- Did you witness a desire for the text to end with a set of solutions or satisfying resolution?
- To what extent are you able to hold space for the aspects of yourself that you or other people would not consider pretty? How much time and energy do you invest in seeking and/or demanding validation for your knowledge, work, innocence, authority or your positive self-image? Why is this important? What do you (and others) gain and/or lose with this? What insecurities could be driving this behavioral pattern? What sensations have arisen in your body when engaging with these questions?
- How prepared are you to hold space for difficult (painful, overwhelming, irritating) issues and conversations without wanting to be rescued/coddled or demanding quick fixes? How can you expand your capacity for that? From whom or what might you need to learn to do that?