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Why Forcing Indigenous People to Move Off Their Land Won't Solve Anything

Here's why moving First Nations isn't the answer that white critics think it is.

Eight-year-old Shakira Koostachin plays on a swing in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ontario. The community of 2,000 is under a state of emergency due to a spike in youth suicide attempts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

On April 9, Attawapiskat First Nation—a Cree community located near Kenora, Ontario in Canada—declared a state of emergency.

Eleven people had attempted suicide within 24 hours. Just over 1,500 residents live in Attawapiskat. So it was the equivalent of 6,500 people in the city of Edmonton trying to kill themselves in a single night.

That 24-hour window pushed the count to over 100 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat since September. And that's not the only community: both Kuujjuaq, Nunavut, and Manitoba's Pimicikamak Cree Nation are facing similar crises.


So how did much of Canada's media and political elite respond? By suggesting the community give up on its inherent treaty rights, spiritual relationship with the land, and desire to live in a socioeconomic system that isn't viciously exploitative and alienating, of course.

It was a horrifying thing to watch unfold.

First, former prime minister Jean Chrétien suggested "people have to move sometimes." Then Scott Gilmore, who's married to federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, penned an atrociously unsourced article for Maclean's that drew intense criticism on Twitter and resulted in him blocking pretty much every major Indigenous scholar and activist and child in the country.

Rounding out the Holy Trinity of Absolutely Unsolicited Advice From White Men was—surprise, surprise—the National Post's Jonathan Kay, who actually argued in a column that Indigenous culture "started to go extinct once Canadian aboriginals [sic] began moving into modern houses and eating food out of cans."

So instead, VICE Canada spoke with five Indigenous people about their thoughts on the call for "relocation."

Photo via Twitter

Ryan McMahon, comedian and host of Red Man Laughing, currently living in Winnipeg (Anishinaabe/Métis)

What did you make of the calls for relocation?
Well, it's premised on the false idea that moving people from their home territories will be a fix when Indigenous youth, women, and two-spirited people die in disproportionate numbers inside of the city as well. Moving them alone is not an answer, and it's never a solution. My initial reaction, whenever I read something like that, is that it's clear that whomever's saying this really doesn't understand the issue because this thinking was shot down outright with the Red Paper in 1970 by Harold Cardinal and his comrades. Here we are, close to 50 years later and this same ideology leaks out into the media this way. It's just irresponsible.

What do you think Scott Gilmore's behavior on Twitter has said about his perspectives? I've seen a number of people blocked or trying to engage but not getting anywhere.
I think the reaction you get from Jon Kay or Scott Gilmore or anyone else is fear. What I say is that this writing that we see is the sound of fear coming from someone that is about to lose power. When I confront race or colonialism doing comedy—if I get heckled, if after a show someone wants to fistfight me, if I get a hateful comment on a blog post, if I get a death threat—I always face these things the same way. When you stand up to people like that, they cower. It is fear based. What you're witnessing from the activist community and Indigenous people in general is we have nothing to fear. We're dying anyway. So we're not afraid. Standing up to people like this is an easy thing to do.


Photo via Twitter

Chelsea Vowel, educator and freelance writer, currently living in Montreal (Lac Ste. Anne Métis)

This is the third time Scott Gilmore has written about remote Indigenous communities for Maclean's. Why do you think they keep publishing this kind of garbage?
At this point I think it's just clickbait. He obviously gets a lot of attention. He never provides sources: this is pure, unadulterated, ignorant bullshit. I think they're just doing it to get the clicks.

Is the suggestion that these communities should relocate a way of masking some of these bigger issues, like the Indian Act and underfunding education and healthcare and Canada actually dealing with settler-colonialism?
Sure, it's an easy answer and it lays the blame entirely at the feet of people who want to stay in those communities. Scott Gilmore accused elders and parents basically of abuse as though they're forcing their children to stay there. And it also removes all of our autonomy. It just assumes we're not autonomous human beings that can make decisions on our own. Then we do what we're doing right now: we talk about this suggestion instead of focusing on what Canada is doing or not doing.

The piece you recently wrote for the Ottawa Citizen outlined a lot of the things that Canada could and should be doing if it wants to take reconciliation and decolonization seriously. Do you think such arguments will ever click for people like Gilmore and Chrétien?
I don't think it is actually going to click with these people. I don't know what level of education Gilmore has about Indigenous issues: it seems like none. But Chrétien was Indian Affairs Minister. He knows this stuff. He knows about the reports that have come out. He's had access to all this information. And he still feels this particular way about it. So nothing I say is going to change that. This is white supremacist thinking. This is a deep desire to keep the colonial project happening. Because it benefits them. So of course they're not going to want to do anything that challenges that.


Photo via Twitter

Ariel Smith, filmmaker, video artist, writer, and cultural worker, currently living in Ottawa (Plains Cree)

There's this idea that what these commentators don't understand is how many people do try to return to their homes in remote communities. What's your take on that?
People leave communities for many reasons, but in a lot of instances that's where their family is: either their immediate family or people in their extended family. Also, a lot of times that's the little piece of traditional territory that's being left there, so if people are trying to engage in any kind of traditional activities, that's usually the only place they can do it.

If people want to exert their inherent treaty rights to fish and hunt and do these things, that's where they have to go to do it. Our communities are not only these horrible places. There's also amazing stuff going on: a lot of times when people want to go be in ceremony that's where they go, if they want to go fasting that's where they go. There are spiritual connections.

It's also our sovereign right. There's so much taken away that I think there may be an underlying thing that "if we all leave, they'll just take this too and we'll just be fully assimilated." I think that's part of it as well. I think a lot of people that leave communities and go on to gain skills outside the community often have an idea that they want to come back and use those skills within the community. I definitely see that happening, and it makes complete sense to me.


There's not a value assigned to things that are only existing in the [remote] communities and out on the land. That's part of the problem. People who are only getting a certain kind of education or making a certain amount of money or living a certain kind of life as being the "good life." If the value isn't even assigned to other ways of living then it's hard to even explain to those people an argument for "why stay or go back?"

Daniel Heath Justice, professor and chair of First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program at University of British Columbia, currently living in Vancouver (Cherokee)

What do you think it says about this rhetoric that the biggest proponents of it are not even willing to listen to Indigenous voices?
Why would they listen when they're so insistent on their rightness? Again, this practice is old, old, old, old. These are not new attitudes. These are not new behaviors. Always, we have generally white men who claim to know better for us than we do. This has very deep historical roots. This is actually the history of Canada. This is the history of the US. Ultimately, their presumption is they know best for everybody. No matter what the rest of us think, they have the answers and by god we're going to listen and if we don't listen then they say we're ungrateful, we're naive, we're ignorant, we're backwards, we're primitive.

There's obviously been a lot of conversation on the subject of "reconciliation" over the past year or two with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. What do these conversations being had in such major publications say about the possibilities of "reconciliation" given, like you say, these people are still propagating rhetoric from 150, 200 years ago?
I think a lot of these folks, when they hear "reconciliation" they're thinking Indigenous people need to reconcile themselves to oppression by the settler state. Reconciliation to them is about making the erasure of Indigenous peoples and rights a more expedient process. They aren't actually interested in Indigenous peoples' resurgence and continuity. They want Indigenous peoples—as distinctive peoples and nations—wrapped up within an assimilationist, ethnicity-based model of Canadian identity.


Problem is, again, that's been the driving desire of settler-colonial subjects for many, many years, and it's always failed. And it's going to keep failing. Until they try some new ideas like, oh, mutual respect, regard for Indigenous sovereignty, actually working with communities maybe not just on extraction but on the healing of our lands and relationships. Maybe listening? It's going to be the same old, same old. Reconciliation for the agents of the state is not the same as reconciliation for Indigenous communities.

Photo via Twitter

Cliff (Kam'ayaam/Chachim'multhnii) Atleo, PhD candidate in political science at the University of Alberta, currently living in Victoria (Nuu-chah-nulth/Tsimshian)

How much of the idea of relocation do you think ties back to the Canadian state's interest in resource extraction?
I think it's fundamental. Patrick Wolfe talked about settler colonialism being almost entirely about land and access to land. Whether it's oil sands, or diamond mines, or pipelines, Indigenous peoples have been constantly seen as in the way. There are certain places where arguments could be made that there were earnest efforts to maintain some sort of agreement to coexist, and people will feel that way about certain historical treaties. When you remove us from our lands or waters, it opens up space for capitalist development.

We've seen what it looks like for white settlers to be really awful in response to crises like Attawapiskat. From your point-of-view, what would be helpful for white settlers to do, if anything, in these sorts of times?
I'm always partial to Vine Deloria, Jr.'s comments in Custer Died for Your Sins where he says "what we need is a cultural leave us alone agreement." What I mean by that is there's a significant amount of difficulty we deal with that has come from government imposition and intrusion and intervention that hasn't worked out very well for over 150 years.

But at the same time, we are in this situation where we do occupy neighboring areas and we do need to come to some sort of renewed relationship. I think the foundation would require an actual vacating of political and economic space.

So when I say "leave us alone" it also means that other aspect where Canada has to stop making our decisions about fishing or ricing illegal. It's more complex than simply "leave us alone" but that's certainly the sentiment. If Trudeau is genuine when he talks about "nation-to-nation" then there has to be a fundamental respect for our autonomy to make decisions on our own, without coercion.

Follow James Wilt on Twitter.