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.