Navigating Truth and Reconciliation as a Descendant of Migrants
Written by Ayesha Khan
Sunday September 3, 2023
September 30th in Canada is now named the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It’s a statutory holiday, born out of the annual commemoration of Orange Shirt Day, in haunting memoriam of all that was lost to the Canadian residential schooling system. Throughout the month, many Canadians host conversations and events around Indigenous history and justice. Those who have been paying attention for years may be sharing a thought: that finally, this is being given the attention it deserves.
Within recent years, mainstream society has begun meaningfully reflecting on the sordid open secret of Canadian history--that it rested on the genocide of Indigenous peoples. (Now, whether or not it is meaningfully acting is another story. But we'll come back to that later.)
This September, we all must acknowledge that we are settlers on stolen land. This is a catchy phrase. I hear it a lot these days. It is pithy, and aphoristic. Perhaps on the verge of turning into a cliché. But it's the truth.
This duality of growth and destruction is no stranger to descendants of Indo-Caribbean heritage. Our ancestors knew well the hilt of the British blade. And the indentured workers that left our homeland knew too, the taste of foreign soil drenched in Arawak blood.
My parents' families made the difficult choice to send their children to Canada because in many ways, the situation was unlivable for them there. This is a historic reality. They sent them to a colonized nation where the original population was subject to acts of physical and cultural genocide. This is a concurrent historic reality. Both are true. Both are valid. Neither exist in a vacuum.
Not one of us born of any which creed will ever be able to escape the immutable law that identities are complex. Colonization did not begin with the Americas, and it certainly is not over as we speak. We each bear within us fragmented histories of various tribes, clans, populations and phenotypes from across territories. And we all know, whether we like to admit it or not, that blood does not mix only in times of peace.
Human migratory history is too vast and omnipresent for us to truly understand. But we should still seek out pieces of truth where we can find them.
When settlers, colonists and future slave-owners arrived in the “Indies” and “Americas,” they were often astonished at what seemed like Eden-like natural paradises. In reality, many of these seemingly serendipitous slices of heaven were meticulously cultivated by Indigenous caretakers of the land, whose methods of agriculture would, of course, seem strange to a people who could think only think of land relationships in terms of "husbandry" (see: dominion over. Notice the connection to language around relationships, but that's a conversation for another time.)
It is often forgotten by us that the written word is best described as a transformative technology. Words give us the illusion of consequence, and much with any ear of progress, largely erase or dismiss what came before it. Many of the values we espouse today, we do so thinking that they are inevitable consequences of human nature. Man is stronger than woman physically, so he must be dominant. Proto-Indo-European man rode on a horse while everyone else was walking around like a set of bipedal plebeians, so he must be superior. Hungry man has a tendency to over-eat, so he must be covetous. (Notice my use of the male default. That's not passive.)
But what say us of rampant archaeological evidence that societies of yore often structured things very differently? And what if the lengths of time they did so stretched far, far beyond what we even consider an epoch? How do we rationalize our over-inflated sense of self-importance then? Are we really, truly, the only natural conclusion, as we are?
Evolving with the land is a privilege, and if done well, a responsibility. It was a process that was interrupted for my ancestors. Many cultures of the ancient world developed their mythologies and worldviews around their local flora and fauna. In this way, the Earth was woven right into their theologies. But mass migration has shifted how we view land. When land becomes interchangeable, traversable, negotiable, ownable, it becomes a commodity. An object. And one can do with an object as they wish.
But it has not always been this way. Of course, Indigenous cultures are no monolith. But if Indigenous people on Turtle Island/Canada have largely been guardians and stewards of biodiversity here since time immemorial, then we must learn how to show deference to that. We must learn respect. When Indigenous leaders hesitate on mass resource extraction projects, or infrastructure developments, or any kind of negotiations, we must honour the wisdom in their instincts. Their natal line knows the molecules of this soil better than we possibly can.
The sour taste in my mouth from learning that in a nation on Earth with over 20% of the world’s freshwater, we can't find it for the descendants of its original inhabitants, has never gone away. The nefariousness of resource extraction is, quite literally, a blight.
As much as lands may differ across the planet, there are some commonalities we cannot escape. We all need water to drink. We all need soil to grow food. Within this is the inescapable, inexorable truth that growth should never come at the cost of sustainability. At the very least, it can only do so for so long before we implode. Many Indigenous cultures already knew this. And it is the answer to so many of our problems.
I did my undergraduate degree at York University, in environmental studies. And one thing I truly admired about the program was how deeply ingrained Indigenous values were in our curricula. Indigenous teachings were braided into the fabric of our learning, not grazed over as addenda. The experiential learning opportunities facilitated by York, both curricular and extra, such as the 4REAL program and all its subsequent iterations, situated students (myself included) right at the heart of our land. I cannot help but think this was truly formative for me, and developed an ethic of preservation and awe for natural spaces. The net positive that inclusion could have on a macro level could do much to mitigate the damage we are doing to our Earth. To take some of the teeth out of the jaws of this consumptive monster we are riding into oblivion.
Most of us, generally, are not responsible for our being here. And even if we are, many times it was not because we were given a choice. But even still, we cannot change our pasts. We cannot correct history. But we can change the future.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that my parents did not arrive at this land to take anything from anyone. They came because they themselves had been taken from. And the shared pain of abuse underfoot of a rampant ethic of domination should be enough for us to know that we must join hands.
It is a complicated reality to navigate, knowing that your sheer presence might have worsened a situation for someone else. Canada is a vast place, with rich resources. Some would say, enough for everyone. But allocation matters. Politic matters. When Indigenous people are sidelined to ecologically disrupted areas, and growth encouraged in other assimilated ones, the dynamic becomes at odds. It was made that way. And it may be a deliberate separation that keeps us from each other. This, we must transcend.
I want you to know, reader, as I draw this little essay to conclusion, that I am not asking you to self-flaggelate. I am, however, asking you to pay attention. The bodies of children being found under churches should boil all of our blood collectively. When an Indigenous woman goes missing, we should all be standing strong, be it hopefully in search, or supportively in sorrow. I am not telling you that in your descendence here, it is your job to feel bad for Indigenous people. I am telling you conclusively and decisively, that it is your duty to stand with them.
If we, as people, can fight for our independence from colonial rule, we can fight for the independence of others, too. Everything is interrelated. We are all beholden to the whims and fancies of our true Mother, the Earth. If any culture was aligned enough to know that, we must protect it. We must fight for the survival and teachings of its purveyors.
In summation, and perhaps more important than all of our individual lives, is the haunting nature of how we are governed by ideology whether we are honest about it or not. Our land will not be protected by logic alone. We will not be able to science our way entirely out of this mess. Each of us must, in some sense, return to our ancestry. There was a time in all of our past, when our mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother lived off the land.
Place your hand on your bellybutton, and breathe. You can feel her.
About the Author
Ayesha Khan is a resident and activist in the Jane and Finch community. A child of working class Guyanese immigrants, Ayesha was raised with understanding of the many barriers immigrants face in Canada, as well as the importance of labour and the fraught histories of slavery and indentureship. She now works as a Constituency Assistant to Member of Provincial Parliament Tom Rakocevic, and is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy, Administration and Law. She is one of the Vice Chairs of the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association.