Rallying against racism: How Black and Indigenous communities can come together

TVO.org is speaking to activists across Ontario to find out what’s happening in their communities — and how they’re fighting injustice. Today, we interview Keisha Erwin, an Afro-Indigenous member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Jun 12, 2020
Keisha Erwin (left) with their father Martin Erwin Roberts, who is from La Ronge. (Courtesy of Keisha Erwin)

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George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25 has sparked a wave of protests in the United States, in Canada, and around the world.

Over the past two weeks, millions of demonstrators have taken to the streets. Coverage in the U.S. has focused largely on the massive displays of support in major cities, but demonstrations have also been held in smaller towns across the country.

The same has been true in Ontario: thousands have grouped, gathered, and marched in such major centres as Ottawa and Toronto to speak out against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. But events have also been held in Guelph, Thunder Bay, Niagara Falls — and the list goes on.

This week, TVO.org will talk to those involved in the movement in cities, towns, and other communities across the province about what they're fighting for — and where Ontario should go from here.

Today, we interview Keisha Erwin, who is Jamaican, urban Nihithaw (Woods Cree), and a band member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. They, along with Shanese Steele, are currently working on producing a zine, called To Our Future Afro-Indigenous Kin.

Keisha Erwin: Keisha nitisithihkâson. Nihithaw kaskitīwithiniw nitha oma. Niwahkōmākinak mistahi sākahikanihk ochi. numepith sipiy ohci witha kayahtê nohtāwiy ekwa kaskitīwithiniw nikāwiy. Tkaronto nitohcîn.

My name is Keisha. I am Black and Woodland Cree. My ancestors are from La Ronge. My dad is originally from Sucker River reserve, and my mom is Black. I am from Tkaronto (Toronto). The last names that I do carry, since my dad was scooped; I have his foster care last name, which is Erwin.

TVO.org: What does the term Afro-Indigenous mean to you?

Erwin: Afro-Indigenous, the way I use it, is for people who intersect between being part of the African diaspora and also are Indigenous to the land that many call Turtle Island (North America). The African diaspora includes people who were displaced and forcefully brought here through slavery, and it also includes continental African folks. So I, myself, I’m Jamaican; my mom’s from Jamaica. She migrated to Canada in her late teens, and her ancestors were brought to Jamaica as slaves. My dad’s side, he’s Woodland Cree from Treaty 6 territory, and he was scooped and adopted into a non-Native family. So, that being said, Black is not a monolith, and I also don’t want to pan-Indigenize, so I use Afro-Indigenous to connect to other people who also have similar experiences in terms of experiencing anti-Blackness and also anti-Indigenous erasure on this land.

TVO.org: And what does it mean to you to identify as an Afro-Indigenous person?

Erwin: For me, it means, despite the traumas that both ancestries carry, being proud of my ancestors and their resiliency, and living in a way that honours them. It also comes with a lot of responsibility, especially being from two marginalized communities that are in dire conditions — and that feeling of obligation stems from love for both of those communities.

TVO.org: I want to talk about what it means for Indigenous people to be allies to the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of Indigenous folks are hurting because of the violence that we experience. What advice would you have on how to decentralize our pain and refocus on the pain of Black folks and helping to create a safer world for them?

Erwin: I believe that both pains can be validated at the same time, but not in a way that decentres the other. I’ve seen a lot of posts about being “natural allies,” and, in my eyes, that’s not true. Yes, we have formed kinships before—and solidarities—and, yes, we share parallel realities today in our communities with higher rates of Indigenous and Black children in foster care, high rates of incarceration, high rates of impoverishment, all stemming from the same thing: sanctioned violence and racism within these structures. But the differences matter. The fact that both Black and Indigenous peoples on this land are going through and have gone through and continue to go through genocide really does matter, and I don’t think we need to silence Indigenous people who are going through pain as well.

I do strongly believe that Black liberation is tied to Indigenous sovereignty. White supremacy and the “oppression Olympics” dictate that we always have to be competing against other marginalized groups for recognition of our traumas — but what are we competing for? Recognition from whom? So my question is, what would it look like for both groups to validate our humanities to each other? There are a lot of examples of Black and Indigenous peoples already forming kinship and solidarity on these lands. We have been in intense contact for more than 400 years together on these lands, and those connected histories have been deliberately erased because white supremacy does not want us to be in solidarity with each other.

TVO.org: Do you think racism has uniquely affected you as a mixed-race person?

Erwin: I have had a lot of anti-Black experiences within the Indigenous community, like glances and stares of people assuming that I’m not indigenous. I remember going into Anishnawbe Health in Toronto and registering, and the secretary completely glanced over the part where I filled in my band-registration number and my status-card number because she assumed from the get-go that, because I look so Black, that I can’t be status. I don’t have enough blood quantum to be status. There’s also times where I’ve been at rallies and a lot of organizers try to emphasize that if it’s an Indigenous rally, to put Indigenous people at the front of the march because they’re trying to centre them, and I’ve been told by people organizing these things that I’m not Indigenous so I shouldn’t be at the front.

But in terms of racism from broader society, I am read first and foremost as Black. I have only been kind of categorized as Black because settler colonialism likes to compartmentalize and categorize people into only one box, so it’s kind of hard to hold both of these identities at once and to, even within myself, validate both of those identities at once. When I’m in the Indigenous community, I sometimes they feel guilty because I’m not prioritizing being part of the Black community, for example.

TVO.org: You mentioned rallies. Have you been going to any rallies or marches?

Erwin: I have been to the one for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, but I felt too overwhelmed, so I ended up stepping out.

TVO.org: How do you think Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s identity as an Afro-Indigenous woman affect the conversations that have happened about her death?

Erwin: Regis was Black and Mi’kmaq, and she died after a police encounter. And then Chantel Moore died on June 4 after a police encounter, and both of these women were Indigenous, and both deserve justice — both deserve recognition and to be honoured by the Indigenous community. But what I witnessed is that people started posting about Chantel but stayed quiet about Regis. And a lot of other Indigenous people I follow on social media, they stayed quiet about Regis and also stayed quiet about George Floyd. I think because one of the women, Chantel, looked more Indigenous — whatever that means — more Indigenous people could relate to her and sympathize with her and her death. To me, it raises questions to broader humanity: Why do we care more about the lives and deaths of people we can relate to? Does that determine whom we care about?

TVO.org: What do you think of this moment? Why are people paying attention now?

Erwin: Is it really different from what has happened previously? It does become all over social media for a while, and then it fizzles out, like people don’t care anymore. Even with what happened in Attawapiskat, with the suicide crisis — no one cared about that after a few weeks. No one understood that the suicide crisis stems from bigger issues; it stems from the housing crisis in Attawapiskat as well. These things are not going to go away and thus our attention to them should not go away. So I don’t even know if it’s different from any other time, but we won’t recognize it until after the fact.

TVO.org: What would you like to see come out of this time of increased awareness?

Erwin: I feel like I’m already seeing something coming out of it. A lot of non-Black Indigenous folks are beginning to see the necessity of amplifying Afro-Indigenous and Black voices. I have had a lot of non-Black Natives reaching out to me, showing solidarity and amplifying my voice, but we need to continue this momentum and to have these hard discussions with each other and bridge these communities. How have we harmed each other, and how can we show up for each other now? We need to come together. We need to learn from each other. We need to learn of each other’s traumas so that we don’t replicate and harm each other — and we need to demand justice from states that continue to dehumanize and kill us.

TVO.org: You are currently working on a zine called To Our Future Afro-Indigenous Kin. Could you talk a bit about what that is and what you hope to accomplish with it?

Erwin: It’s in the initial phases, but we have raised $7,000 in donations, which is far beyond what we need to create that one zine, so we’ve been thinking and imagining ideas that can come out of the money we’ve raised through crowdfunding. What I want to come out of this is for our future Afro-Indigenous folks to feel validated in their experiences, in terms of navigating both of those identities — and also to showcase and validate Afro-Indigenous experiences within Canada, because, especially within Canada, Black history has been erased and Black and Indigenous connections within Canada have been erased. The Black and Mi’kmaq people on the East Coast have been erased; the Black Anishinaabe people have been erased. So the zine is to talk about contemporary Afro-Indigenous people but also to honour the past kinships and connections that Afro-Indigenous people and Indigenous and Black peoples have made as well.

TVO.org: What would you say to people who don’t think racism exists in Canada?

Erwin: A lot of people are silencing people here by comparing us to the United States, so I feel like that question is very important. I feel like a lot of people are comparing racism from the United States to Canada, and no form of racism is good racism — all racism is bad racism. All racism is inhumane, and Canada was founded on racism. Always tie it back into that: Canada was founded on the theft of Indigenous lands and on Indigenous erasure. And slavery existed in Canada for more than 200 years. We always need to throw that into the conversation, because people try to silence us and people try to gaslight us and dismiss our experiences within this settler nation-state.

This interview has condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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