Erin Flegg: On white people and going home

While I was living in Kingston, Ontario, a few years ago, I had a good friend who was Korean. She was walking downtown one evening when an older woman, also Korean, approached her and grabbed her by the arm, leaned in close, and told her to go home. A convenient, if odd, request, since my friend happened to live a few blocks away, and she told the woman so. The woman shook her head and looked my friend in the eye. Canada is not your home, she said. You need to go home.

As a white person, it didn’t occur to me then that someone would ever suggest the same thing to me. But I’ve started to hear it, and the more time I spend talking to people involved in land defence across the country, the louder it gets.

There has been a low rumble of a movement, within the broader movement of indigenous sovereignty, telling white people that if they want to help, the best thing they can do is go home. Not home like around the corner. Not even home like your childhood bedroom in your parents’ house.

Some people have been saying it literally. Sacheen and her husband Crow, land defenders and community organizers in B.C., decided a few years ago that they couldn’t win the fight for indigenous land if they weren’t living on it. So they held a gathering, potlatch-style, and sold or gave away everything they owned. In spite of having spent most of her life in East Van, working and going to school in conventional white institutions, Sacheen moved her family back to the ancestral territory of the Ahousaht on the west site of Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound. The place is only accessible by boat, about 40 minutes off the coast of Tofino.

Badger, a two-spirit indigenous person of the St’át’imc people of Lillooet, says it has more to do with spiritual connection than with physical geography. We are spiritually homeless, and we need to find a way to pick up the thread that goes back to the land, especially when we can’t. We’d feel differently if we had some deeper connection with the culture, the stories that come from the land. “No culture is lost if the land is still there,” they say. “It will come back in the way that’s right for this generation.” The sense of distance white people feel with regard to our supposed homelands is just a sign of how far gone we are.

The first iteration poses a few not insignificant problems. Many of us in Canada, white or not, are only here at all because our ancestors were no longer welcome in their homelands. Some were expelled forcefully, violently, and came here to seek shelter on land that, unbeknownst to them at the time, was already hosting an array of nations busy with the supposedly uncivilized work of maintaining laws and trade systems and generally being a little less shitty to their women. My own Mennonite antecedents fled religious persecution in Russia before landing on the Prairies with a promise from the Canadian government they’d be allowed to teach their children Low German. Even without this, Mennonites as an ethnic group are transitory. To go home would involve a transnational trek through Russia and Germany, possibly Ukraine, and eventually back to the Netherlands. I am lucky that my great-grandmother, the only one left who still speaks our native dialect fluently, is alive and might be able to teach me, but what then? Move to Waterloo and converse with the black-bumper crowd? That’s not my home either.

The second, slightly more metaphysical iteration makes a certain amount of sense to me. I read the Mennonite cookbook my aunt gave me for Christmas and I occasionally make the perogies my great-grandmother fed me, albeit rarely, as a child. But I do it with recipes I learned on the Internet rather than in her kitchen. I do it in isolation, cut off from the roads these traditional things had to travel to get here, and I feel less connected to the ancestors than I do to the grandparents I see twice a year. The land and its attendant traditions are too far apart.

And then there’s the issue of appropriation. What would it mean for me to hop a plane to a country I’ve never seen, and attempt to communicate in a language I don’t speak that I’ve come to claim my ancestral homeland? Such a claim implies rights I can’t possibly be entitled to. I have a hard enough time feeling comfortable claiming Mennonite as my ethnic identity, let alone claiming someone else’s land as my ancestral home. The irony is almost overwhelming.

It’s very tempting to go looking for stories more closely connected to the dirt under my feet, and it’s well meaning perhaps, education in the name of understanding, cultural sharing, et cetera. But those good intentions often seem to exist at the confluence of the willingness to learn and the failure to recognize white privilege when it stands up and demands to be let in on thousands of years of oral tradition that have nothing to do with you. And if we’re not careful, it leads right back to the beginning. Repeat after me: This land does not belong to us.

Or rather, repeat after Badger. “We are not saving the land for everyone,” they say bluntly, though not unkindly. “We are saving it for us.”

This is a hard lesson at the best of times, and there has been some conflicting messaging on the issue.

Rueben George, Sundance Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and frequent speaker at public events across the country, often brings up Stephen Harper’s children in his speeches. He says the future of this country belongs to them, too, and if dear old dad won’t protect the land and water for his own children and grandchildren, then indigenous people will do it for him.

It’s a nice message and true to a certain extent. We all drink the water and breathe the air, so keeping it clean helps all of us by default. But it also pushes the notion that white people can only be motivated to help if there’s something in it for us. We’ll go to war with the energy companies if we get to share in the spoils. In this case, land and water and fish and trees. So we come to the table, but we bring with us the expectation that we’ll be rewarded for our selflessness.

This is understandably difficult for some white people to stomach, particularly those who were raised in the middle class and told that if we’re willing to work for something, we’ll get to take it home.

The key point here is that the land indigenous people are currently fighting for doesn’t belong to white people, no matter how many articles we read, rallies we attend, no matter how much money we contribute to resistance camps, or how many times we get arrested for standing in the way of the machines. If I stand up for the sovereignty of indigenous territory, I am essentially standing up for the right of indigenous people to kick me off of it as soon as we’re done.

But since I have nowhere to go but this chilly chunk of continent so rudely misnamed Canada, I’ll just have to hope they’ll invite me to stay.

Comments (27) Add New Comment
Jamie
You're absolutely right. I say this as someone who is Slavic, Scandinavian, Jewish, and Anglo-Saxon, second generation born here, but for whom Denmark is possibly the only remaining home I have in the world. You are absolutely right.
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Bruce
Sorry to say, but the entire construction of postmodernist identity-based politics is rotten. It does not withstand examination. It will inevitably lead to bad places in the long term. Do you think that if we make excuses and exceptions for racialist attitudes on the part of groups with "less privilege", it doesn't give license to privilege/class/ethnic based thinking on the part of all people?

Do you think such things as racialism and nationalism are things you can keep contained in pretty rhetorical boxes?
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Cuiet
I love it when white folks guiltily step up to shoulder the blame for the world's troubles and then go on to say that there is just no good fix out there and nothing can be done. Enduring the guilt is just another form of white man's (or woman's) burden, I guess.
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Hayley Read
What is land ownership anyway. I was born here so this is just as much my home as anyone else.
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RUK
By this logic, we must all return to Tanzania, home of 'Mitochondrial Eve.' Of course, what is now Tanzania would not resemble East Africa 2.5 million years ago.

Or does the author mean we should return to the homes we (that is, great-great-grandparents personally unknown to us) had, pre-contact? I'm wondering what also must be withdrawn from our colony in North America so as to leave it pristine. Shall we remove all antibiotics, metallurgy, written language, electricity, the wheel...?

What, you say? You can't do that?

Of course we cannot go back. To even wish it is a desperately absurd fantasy that Rousseau might have found sentimental and naive. Yet I strongly encourage the writer to keep coming up with these ideas, as their exposure to the oxygen of mass discourse will hasten the widespread debunking of racialist politics from the well-meaning left.

All we can do is go forward.

Status quo? Obviously not. Obviously we have been shitty neighbours to each other. A legacy of pain and exploitation - leavened here and there with acts of kindness, glimpses of good governance, and of course plenty of intermarriage - vast scars yet unhealed. But the Canadian sensibility of 2014 is not that of 1650, so hopefully we can make fewer (or at least smaller, less obviously cruel and greedy) mistakes as we go forward.

Hand in hand, skipping. Damnit. That is what we have to be working for. If you want to lose yourself in fantasy, try Netflix.

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Coolhand
White people who dug farms out the mud and survived the brutal conditions, who were often lied to by Canada before immigrating, have earned the right to live on the land. It's not "white people" who are occupying, it's the state. It seems currently in vogue to promote the racist, overly-simplistic notion of collective white guilt when the real culprits are states and the ruling class.
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Timmy
" This land does not belong to us."

What a ridiculous statement.
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S. Tan
Maybe 'Badger' and friends should move back home to the area rudely misnamed Siberia. Even better lets just shove all humans back into Olduvai Gorge. Would help poor Erin's guilt?

Pathetic article only printed to generate clicks. Pretty shameful.
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Davood Hersh
The notion of ownership of land in a world that has colliding cultures is ridiculous. People are always on the move and will continue to do so. Even so called First Nations have been and are on the move, always coming and going, from Africa to China and the Middle East to Europe. Who owns what? What does sovereignty really mean? Maybe sovereignty means you can be a rent collector for a while, until you are overwhelmed by other forces you have no control over. Hanging on to ownership of land seems so very archaic, so primal that it is now senseless to fight over.

Maybe we as humans living on a planet so over populated we should all respect ourselves and release us from the bonds of land ownership and convert ourselves to land stewards. It makes a lot more sense to join together for a main cause than to fight another land war. I'm white, born in Canada and this is my home. I do not rent this land nor do I give it up, but I will allow anyone else to live here that respects it and respects me. I have a right to be here just as anyone else. I will feel no shame, guilt or fear that I am on the wrong planet, or that I owe anyone anything for being here. I fight for the planet as a whole, not some ridiculous notion of ownership. I will protect the whale as it passes my home and I will protect it even when it is out of view. Sovereignty and land ownership means nothing to me. The planet is my home, just as it is yours.
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RUK
...wait a minute...what day is it? Is this an April Fool's prank? Did I just fall for a parody of progressive navel-gazing drivel?
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Brazen Lee
Interesting how white folks are calling the notion of "land ownership" absurd, yet are just as quick to deny rights to First Nations' Peoples based on that exact argument. Sure, a lot of us were born here, and returning to ancestral lands is impossible for many of us, but that doesn't make this any less true.

I'm a white settler, and will continue to fight for rights of this land's original inhabitants to reclaim what was stolen, and to reclaim their traditional way of life, a way which, I might add, was in total harmony with nature, the opposite of the horror show white settlers have created.
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sophie
Wow, way to alienate hundreds of thousands of potential allies in the fight to protect this land from big oil and big industry. I thought we were all in this together.
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kt
This conversation is an absolutely necessary one, as are all others.

To deny the conversation air and light is like burning books instead of reading them to understand a wide array of opinions, experiences, fears, feelings.

Those who deny any conversation, particularly from those who have been silenced the longest, are the ones that are forcing us all down a road toward conflict, rather than resolution.
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Coolhand
@Brazen Lee:

Let me guess... you haven't helped them reclaim the land by moving off it, amiright?
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Slight correction...
Brazen Lee, just a quick correction, pre-contact indigenous lifestyles were not necessarily "in harmony with nature". While I can not comment on the lifestyles of the peoples of the North-west coast with authority, an excellent example of peoples who stressed their local ecology were the American South-west Pueblo people. Similarly, archaeologists suspect that the people who populated the Americas when the Ice Age receded led to the mass extinction of mega-fauna. To say that indigenous lifestyles were completely harmonious with nature is to promote white romanticism of aboriginal societies the world over which is also a bit of a slippery slope. This is NOT to de-legitimize their land claims, nor to say that their lifestyles were as destructive as our consumerism today and colonial structures, but rather to point out that pre-contact aboriginals were humans, capable of making the some of the same mistakes as any other homo sapiens on this planet. Indigenous peoples are not static, but rather dynamic actors across time and space.
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Iain
Ahousaht is actually located on Flores Island, not Vargas
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Jas.C
Sorry, I don't really agree with this.
The best thing to do would be to unite against those that are all for the pipelines and destroying the land AND making a better effort to get along and understand each other better, first nations and non first nations alike.
I understand what the writer is trying to say but she is wrong about going home, it;s just stupid so why not just stay and be a better person to each other instead?
I do not care for this ever widening racial divide I have been witnessing for the past couple of years. I usually don't comment but I had to this time
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HS219
Sid Tan obviously hates competition for his precious victimhood status!
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OMG
I must be getting old but every time one of these Rosenbergesque commentaries comes out i start humming "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"
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Coast Salish resident
Great article, Erin. Don't mind all the defensive criticisms.
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