Shelagh Balfour is a recent graduate from the Centre for Christian Studies’ course for Anglicans exploring the diaconate – Ministering by Word and Example. One of the goals of the course was to help students develop their capacity for biblical and theological reflection, and to connect their reflections to pastoral and social responses. She’s agreed to share her reflections on Leanne Simpson’s article “Liberated People, Liberated Lands” as an example of the kind of critical thinking our students are invited to engage in.
Right Relationship and the Land – Shelagh Balfour
In preparation for a class at Centre for Christian Studies, I read the article “Liberated Peoples, Liberated Lands” by Leanne Simpson. This was the first time I had read Simpson, a Michi Saagik Nishnaabeg scholar and poet who has written extensively on the effects of colonialism on First Nations. On first reading, her article left me feeling very uncomfortable, threatened even. I found myself wanting to object and yet, when I reviewed the facts she presented, I knew I could not. The broader history which formed the backdrop to the particular story of Ms. Simpson and her people was not in dispute. I agreed wholeheartedly that everything about colonialism was wrong in so far as it pertained to Indigenous peoples. I agreed that land was taken, treaties were not honoured, people were robbed of their traditional lands, their livelihood, and their independence. I agree that a terrible, ongoing mess has been made of the lives of the First Peoples of our country, a mess we, the group this article refers to as “settlers”, bear responsibility for.
In fact, there was little in the article I didn’t agree with, and yet I still found it rankled. The words “whose land is it?” struck me like a direct challenge. What my gut was hearing in those words was that I didn’t belong here because I was living on someone else’s land, land for which I did not have adequate respect. Simpson wrote, for example, “Canadians enjoy the highest standard of living in the Americas. Their economy is built upon and relies on resources that were stolen and continue to be plundered from Indigenous territories.”(Simpson, 54) Again, it was hard to argue with the underlying facts. But what if I agreed that the land was not mine? What if I agreed that my culture is, by-and-large, disrespectful and short-sighted in our treatment of the land? Was I also agreeing that I, personally, didn’t belong here? And, if I didn’t belong, where would I go? I have no other home. There is no other place I do belong.
As I continued to reflect on my response to the article, I realized that what I struggled with most was being referred to as a “settler”, a part of “settler society”. I found I didn’t like being labelled as a “settler”, stuck in a grouping that defined me in simplistic terms. It gave me the feeling that, were she looking at me, the author would only see a “settler” stick figure, not a complex human being. Which is to say I didn’t like being put in the position Indigenous people in Canada are placed in all the time. Those little words “settler” and “whose land is it?” made me vulnerable in the moment I read them. I felt labelled, blamed, and dismissed because of the group I belonged to when I didn’t think I, as an individual, had done anything to deserve it.
But then I thought maybe I needed to stay with those uncomfortable feelings. Because I am on the side with the power, I could reject the feelings, walk away from them back into the comfort of Canadian society as I know it. And I have to be honest and say that’s just what I want to do. But Leanne Simpson can’t walk away from being harassed and laughed at for keeping her traditions. She can’t walk away from the message that she and her people are no good. She can’t go back to the comfort of her land and harvest rice as her people have always done. In my moment of discomfort, I am given a tiny scent of the bitter, pain-filled cup Indigenous people drink from every day – just a scent of the flavour of their experience, not even a full taste. Am I offended by what Simpson wrote? Am I threatened? Do I find my sense of self on shaky ground? Perhaps that is precisely what I need.
So I came somewhat unsettled to the CCS class. Leanne Simpson’s was not the only article I had read in preparation for the class and hers weren’t the only words that troubled me. I was uncertain how I would react to the two guests who would be presenting – Adrian Jacobs and Vincent Solomon. It is one thing to read and reflect on an article in the privacy of one’s study. It is quite another to respond directly to others in discussion.
This turned out to be a very important point, but not in the way I anticipated. I discovered that, far from being threatening, the presentations of our guests and the opportunities to discuss matters of land and right relationship directly with them led to a significant widening of my understanding. I’ve read a few things over the years – Including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Summary Report – attended workshops and Sacred Circles. I’ve listened to the witness of Indigenous colleagues in the church, both public declarations and private conversations. On a personal level, I have been motivated to understand because my younger brother is Cree. I have watched over the years as he has embraced and integrated all aspects of who he is into one beautiful, gifted human being. It is clear how fundamental to his identity his aboriginal roots are. His life work as a musician and composer reflects this deeply.
Despite these attempts to understand the history and current situation of First Nations people in Canada, however, I have been aware that something significant has been missing. I have been frustrated with talk about the importance of land and culture and self-governance, talk that emphasised the distinctiveness of aboriginal culture, aboriginal values, aboriginal needs. As with Leanne Simpson’s article, I couldn’t explain what was frustrating me. I just knew I felt a barrier go up, a block I couldn’t see past.
The conversations with Adrian and Vincent helped me realize what a major part of my problem was. All this while, I have been listening to what has happened to Indigenous people in Canada from my own location, with my own culturally-based assumptions on what the priorities of life should be. I was hearing phrases like “the importance of the land to our culture” and “self-governance” and assuming I knew what they meant for First Nations people. Listening to Adrian and to Vincent helped me see that I did not. Adrian offered a picture of interconnected relationships which included the relationship to the land. He presented an understanding of oral history that made me aware of my own assumptions about the superiority of words that have been written down. Vincent’s description of work toward an Indigenous Province in the Anglican Church of Canada allowed me to hear why such a move might be necessary.
I would like to say that I’ve got it now, that I understand and I know what I personally need to do in the work of establishing right relationships. But that wouldn’t be true. While I now understand something about the significance of the land and self-governance, about the power and importance of oral history and the importance of a separate Aboriginal church, I’m aware that I don’t know much.
This was further clarified for me by the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire. Freire describes all people as “historical-social human beings.” who exist in a particular moment in history with its “complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values, and challenges.” (Freire, 91) Those hopes, values, etc., constitute the historical themes of a community and will be influenced by the circumstances of that community. The lived experience of men and women in their particular location and time in history, and their ongoing interpretation of and reaction to that experience, form their “thematic universe”.(Freire, 86) Thus, even though both live in 21st century Canada, the thematic universe of a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman who has lived all her life in large urban centres will be very different from that of a similarly-aged Aboriginal woman who has lived all her life on a reserve and attended a residential school. One need only recall a few recent news items from reserves – undrinkable water, overcrowded homes, and suicide crises, for example – to begin to see the extent of the difference in contexts.
This is, and should be, a humbling realization. My limited ability to understand what voices like Leanne Simpson’s have been saying makes sense. I don’t have the conceptual framework to accurately receive and integrate their words. An important question for me, then, is how to listen with a more open mind. In dialogue with anyone who comes from a different starting place than my own, how do I remove the resistance created by my own prior assumptions? A first step in this, I think, is to be aware that they are assumptions arising from a conceptual framework that is built out of my life location and experience; the thematic universe I take for granted.
There is a further and more challenging lesson from Paulo Freire’s work, one that brings me back to the language I was finding so difficult in Simpson’s article. Freire writes of the oppressor and the oppressed. At least for me, the word “settler” speaks to a moment in history that has passed. It does not adequately represent the ongoing relationship between First Nations people and dominant Canadian culture. To my ears, it avoids a direct confrontation with what is going on now. As I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I became increasingly certain that “oppressor” was the word I needed to own.
Am I more content to be called an oppressor than to be called a settler? Strangely, yes, because I think it is a word that tells the truth about what continues to happen to First Nations at the hands of the dominant culture. It is a word that requires us to take responsibility for our behaviour both in the past and today. As long as systemic inequalities exist, we are all culpable. To recognize that what we are culpable for is the oppression of a whole people might help us make the sacrifices necessary to make things right. Creating right relationships with people and the land means giving up the sense of entitlement and ownership we take for granted. Again, this means listening from a place of humility that does not assume my way is the right way.
In the end, Leanne Simpson is not telling all non-aboriginal people to ‘get out’. She is looking for non-aboriginal Canadians to be educated out of their ignorance about colonialism, residential schools and other elements of systemic racism. She is looking for “liberated and just lives, free of oppression”. (Simpson, 57) For everyone. Which, at the end of the day, I think is remarkably gracious.
Leanne Simpson, “Liberated Peoples, Liberated Lands” in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together ed. Steve Heinrichs (Virginia: Herald Press, 2013)
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1970)