Rev – a member in exile v1.1
Anyone who has travelled on the prairies knows the meaning of a big sky. It is here that the heavens look their grandest. It looks like the horizon never ends. It is really interesting to imagine what it would like when there was no hydro lines scattered towards the far off horizon. These Great Plains were the sight of significant historical resistance to capitalist accumulation by oppressed populations. Here is where many Indigenous nations made their stands against imperial domination. Métis, Nehiyaw (Cree), Anishinaabe, Dakota (Sioux) all have a history of resistance here. Maybe it’s the fact the world seems limitless on the plains. Our destination is past the tree lines, amongst the boreal forests. We are going to the community of Grassy Narrows, an Anishinaabe reserve known for one of the longest blockades in Canadian history. This community has fought hard against exploitation of its traditional treaty territory.
Grassroots activists in Grassy Narrows have a strong relationship with members of the Winnipeg activist community. This trip is dedicated to honouring those relations, it is a time of remembering the relationships made and the people returned to the earth. In particular, this trip is to honour Dave Brophy. Brophy was one of the original solidarity activists involved with Friends of Grassy Narrows and a dedicated supporter of Indigenous resistance. Brophy is talked of as a mainstay and his loss in the community is still felt. This trip was to honour his memory, to wipe each others’ tears, but to also renew the relationships between people left behind.
The trip to Grassy took us through the Great Plains and into the Shield which many in the land known as Ontario recognize so well. To many others this land is known as Treaty 3 Territory. We drove through Kenora, Ontario which is known as the Mississippi of the North. Kenora is known for its history and present of racist violence steeped in colonialism. It was here in 1974 the Ojibway Warrior’s Society took over Anicinabe Park. In this small city the Indigenous population is brutalized by racist police and racist residents on a constant basis. A public meeting was held two days earlier to initiate a grassroots response to this consistent trend of brutality and disrespect.
After a short break to catch a bite to eat we begin our trip up the regional highway that starts in Kenora and ends in Grassy. Highway 671 is a driver’s dream: it has sharp turns, lots of rolling hills and beautiful cascading views of fall yellows and deep blue lakes that only the shield can provide to the onlooker. It is like the propaganda paintings of group of seven members, which we use to hide Canada’s ugly realities. At the end of this picture perfect road we are coming to an Indian Reserve. Indian reserves are patches of land all across Canada designated for Indians to live on. They are essentially the remnants of segregated communities produced by the combination of deeply held racism and liberal attitudes of humanitarianism. Indian reservations are often places of extreme poverty and poor health quality. Most reserves in the north of a province are under boil water advisories and have poor sewage systems. They are rural post-colonial ghettos, where people hope for freedom but are marginalized from the slim luxuries of Euro-Canadian industrial civilization.
They are places where racially coded poverty is plain to see for everyone brave enough to come and look. At the same time these are the only places where Indigenous peoples get recognition of ownership of the land by the Canadian government. Reserves exist because our families, our communities and our nations-states stole the land from the Indigenous families and we didn’t give the Indigenous families enough to survive on. The legacy of this treachery and banditry lasts to this day.
As we arrive on the reservation we are greeted by comrades and companions who have also travelled to honour Brophy. This is a time when people are open and honest and simply speaking from the heart. It is one of those rare times when conversations are true and there is no awkwardness and people can be in the moment. People share their stories, their ideas and their dreams. It’s painfully funny how it takes this occasion for many people to be real. I am here to honour someone who walked the pathway before me in my newly chosen home. It is a very Indigenous way of thinking to truly honour those who came before you. It is one concept I really have respect since my introduction to Anishinaabe ways of knowing.
There are a lot of things that people are forgetting to honour. I think one very important thing to honour is the treaties signed between Indigenous peoples and the settlers who came to live in this land. Harold Johnson, an Indigenous Lawyer, describes the treaties as the adoption of the European family by the Indigenous peoples. He insists that the right of Canada to exist stems from the treaties signed with Indigenous peoples. Harold Johnson’s explanation stems from his discussions with Nehiyaw elders of Treaty 6.
Johnson insists that the right for the settlers to live and grow on this land, in other words, settler nation’s sovereignty stems from their treaty rights. This was the settler Europeans’ initial acceptance of the supremacy of the Creator’s law. Johnson insists that his family, the Cree people, never accepted the authority of the Canadian government over them because their law does not recognize abstractions, paper, or crowns as holding power. Treaties were about making relations between equal peoples, nations, families. He insists much like the Two Row Wampum, of the Haudenosaunee, that these are treaties of non-interference in each other’s affairs. They are treaties of friendship and cohabitation, they are treaties of companionship.
The meeting of friends and allies at Grassy Narrows to honour Dave Brophy highlights how the treaties intended us as peoples to interact. We have different laws, different customs, different lives but we can be friends and have relations as equals. We can share experiences of loss, of happiness and of healing. We can hold each other tight when we grieve and smile as the pain begins to go away, we can eat from the same cup and share our stories together. We do not need to have the same family structure, same political structure or the same cultures to be equal and have meaningful friendships. This is the meaning of peaceful coexistence. Dave Brophy’s memory lives on and reminds us of how we were intended to live together settlers and Anishinaabe.
As we stand on the edge of the pow-wow grounds, a tree in honour of Dave is being planted where a tee-pee once stood during the blockading days. A tree to symbolize his commitment to the protection of Grassy Narrows, a tree to symbolize his friends and families love of him for all he was, and a symbol of respect. Planting a tree can also symbolize what we as settlers and Indigenous peoples need to begin to do together. Rebuild and renew our connections to the Earth and each other. We need to reclaim the original intent of the treaties and begin to walk in a good way. We need to plant many more trees of friendship and let the roots grow strong.
As activists, anarchists and supporters, we need to do well to honour the treaties that give us our entitlement to exist here on Turtle Island; we need to honour these relations. In our theories and our daily practice we need to develop a practice of anti-colonial organizing. We need to daily think about challenging the government’s authority over Indigenous communities, and still keep our covenants with the other peoples of Turtle Island. When we tear apart the state and end capitalism we still have the treaties and our relationship to the original peoples to deal with. A revolutionary organization based in the settler community still needs to deal with the treaties and displacement of Indigenous peoples. This problem will not disappear with the end of capitalism. This issue of land supersedes any change in state or economic system. As long as we do not reconcile the principles of social equality with prior occupancy of Indigenous peoples there will be the possibility for conflict.
As supporters of Indigenous struggles we need to remember they are in part struggling against communities we are a part of. We need to remember and be mindful of our relations to those who oppress and benefit from the oppression of Indigenous peoples. We need to be conscious of how our lives are related to oppressing Indigenous communities. This means attention to organizing in our community. Supporting Indigenous struggle is directly linked to reform, revolution and change in our community. We need to be able to restrain corporations and government from breaching Indigenous sovereignty. The way to do this is to gain control of our communities and do anti-colonial education to gain support for our collective liberation. Organizing our own communities for resistance is the way we can best conduct true solidarity organizing. This is the pathway of action we must take.
This article was written in the fall of 2008 and kept until now to pay respect to the friends comrades and family of Dave Brophy.
Rev is an exiled member of Common Cause and an anarchist militant involved in organizing against Police Violence in Winnipeg, Manitoba and an organizer in the IWW. From these groups he supports Indigenous Struggles.
Deborah Simmons, “Farewell to a Comrade” – http://www.newsocialist.org/index.php?id=1314
Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government, Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing, 2007.
Howard Adams, Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View, Calgary: Fifth House Publishers, 1989.
Peter Kulchyski, Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2005.
Robert Williams, Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800, New York: Routledge, 1999.
Taiaiake Alfred, Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005.
Waziyatawin, What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland, St. Paul: Living Justice Press, 2008.