How can Indigenous and Black communities be better allies to one another?

Professor Bonita Lawrence speaks with about Black Lives Matter, the erasure of Indigenous history, and the myth of Canadian multiculturalism
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Oct 01, 2021
Protesters gather during an anti-racism rally at Queen's Park in June 2020. (Chris Young/CP)



The past year has featured prominent public demonstrations in support of Black and Indigenous communities across Canada — and greater recognition of the wrongs they continue to face due to the legacy of European colonialism. But how do these communities interact with one another?

Bonita Lawrence is a Mi’kmaq professor of Indigenous studies at York University — and, along with Zainab Amadahy, she wrote a paper in 2009 that examines relations between Indigenous and Black people in Canada.

Lawrence speaks with about the merits of educating newcomers on Indigenous history, the importance of allyship between Black Canadians and Indigenous people, and what has — and has not — changed since her paper was published. The common narrative is that Canada values multiculturalism and is a welcoming place for newcomers. But that narrative doesn’t acknowledge that this country was built on the displacement of Indigenous peoples. What effect does that have?

Lawrence: A lot of people who work with refugees, who are themselves immigrants, have said that, in forcing a Canadian narrative on immigrants, it not only encourages an erasure of Indigenous peoples, but is also part of forcing people out of their own identities to try and force assimilation as quickly as possible. Especially for refugees, learning more about Indigenous peoples and challenging Canada's myth of being a country that welcomes all is better for their own identities — as well as for Indigenous people. Multiculturalism sidelines Indigeneity, because we become part of a multicultural mosaic.

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So the idea that Indigenous peoples have a primary relationship to Canada that has been violated gets erased, and suddenly you're just part of a multicultural group. Educators in the prairies have talked about how even though, in context, the subordination of Indigenous peoples has been recent, they can't really teach about Native peoples much because there are other people here. Multiculturalism is used as a way of silencing teaching about Indigeneity through the claims that it will exclude all these other multicultural groups. That's part of how Canada works. It's not only not welcoming for migrant people of colour, and racialized people generally — it’s also used against Indigenous people.

Bonita Lawrence
Bonita Lawrence is a Mi'kmaq professor of Indigenous studies at York University. (Courtesy of Bonita Lawrence) Journalist Fatima Syed wrote an essay for Chatelaine arguing that immigrants to Canada often don’t understand the history of Indigenous people. How do you think that affects the relationship between newcomers and Indigenous communities?

Lawrence: It puts us at loggerheads — we both become a problem to one another. Newly arrived people learn how to function in Canada in terms of dealing with the language and everything else, but there's certainly a suppressing effect that the children face: that you shouldn't be speaking your own language and all of that. So, it does put us at loggerheads to one another because Indigenous peoples, then, ignore the presence of immigrants, and that's a problem, too. The paper, when I look back, was challenging the coloniality of some Black writing, and the exclusion of Indigeneity — especially in Black writing in Canada. So, in that respect, it wasn't concerned with anti-Black racism in Native communities as much as it could be, but it was a real attempt to challenge the erasure of Indigenous peoples, which in some cases comes from lack of knowledge, and in other cases comes from divergent claims. What does the exclusion of Indigenous voices by Black and racialized communities look like, and how does it happen?

Lawrence: I think it's more common in Canada than in the United States because Native people are so minoritized in the U.S. But it means that there's a discourse coming from the U.S., which is oblivious to Indigenous rights; they're oblivious to the idea of settler colonialism. In Canada, [poet, novelist, and essayist] Dionne Brand has said that many new immigrants are afraid of Indigenous sovereignty because they're afraid it's going to be a counterculture that excludes them — that not only is Canada excluding them, but then, if Indigenous peoples have any power in Canada, maybe Indigenous peoples will exclude them.

Again, it becomes another discourse that erases, and it's harder to build alliances when there are erasures. So the paper was to challenge that aspect of inadvertent coloniality. I say inadvertent because there's no way Black people are in any position to colonize. Dionne Brand’s ‘What happens if Native people have power?’ is the kind of power that Native leaders struggle for. That's not necessarily the kind of situation that everyday Native people would endorse, and it also doesn't omit anti-Black racism, which has permeated Native communities, and which also comes from a fear of erasure.

This isn’t as big in Canada as it is in the U.S. Native people in Canada are afraid of erasure, but not to that extent, because there are more of us by percentage of the population — and Black people have been much more minoritized here and much more weakened. African Americans: there's a whole cultural framework and a whole history of resistance. But I think Black people in Canada have less power of resistance than in the United States. You and Zainab Amadahy indicate that a roadblock to a mutually supportive relationship between Black and Indigenous communities is the idea that both groups “may insist that the primacy of their own suffering and powerlessness is so unique and all-encompassing.” How can we move past that?

Lawrence: Black Lives Matter has stood up for Native rights, which is important. And Native people marched with banners for Black Lives Matter. It allowed them to also articulate that Native lives matter. That's one thing that I don't know if the paper articulates, but the presence of Black people in Canada has been a strength for Native people in one way. I remember one Native man saying to me that wearing long hair has been culturally important for many Native people, and he said, “I could never walk around with my long hair in a braid before in just white contexts.” But the presence of people of colour acts like a buffer. It could be stronger if there were more of a sense of alliance, but that's one thing Black Lives Matter did: they have been supporting Native people. So things are looking much better than when the paper was written.

But I still find that particularly different immigrant groups struggle with it. I would ask questions like, ‘What is your relationship to Native people?” and hear: “It doesn't matter.”  That comes from an idea that Native peoples are only in the past and that Native people don't have a future. I found that in the classroom — and so many Native faculty find that, too, because we're teaching young adults who are people of colour, and white people. White people are one thing, but when people of colour say, “It has nothing to do with us,” it becomes discouraging, because they've bought into Canada's myth that Native people were here at the beginning, and then there's this massive silence like, “Well, they died.” And I think that that's what a lot of people who don't know anything about Indigeneity have been told when they arrive. It seems as if, because there aren’t many formal opportunities for newcomers to learn about the history Indigenous peoples when they arrive, it becomes easier to adopt the negative stereotypes about Indigenous peoples that often infiltrate informal settings.

Lawrence: Yeah, I think that’s what happens. When you haven’t been given any formal connection with the real picture, all you have is the everyday racism of white people and that makes it much more difficult. I think that’s why so many people have said to me, “It doesn’t matter that my house is on Native land.” How can racialized Canadians be better allies to Indigenous people in Canada?

Lawrence: That's a hard one, because, again, there are so many different situations of Native people in Canada. I think it comes back to a knowledge that Native peoples can be allies to Black populations if people know about Native issues. It comes back to that clarity that, “If Canada was doing all this to Native people, then it's probably not surprising the way I'm being treated.” It arms the youth, especially.  I think for the young people who grow up in Canada, especially, that knowledge of and clarity on Indigenous issues can help them negotiate the pressures of assimilation in Canada. I think that knowledge of what's happening with Native people can only strengthen them and strengthen us.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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