Solidarity is not a metaphor
Remarks from International Women’s Day event, given March 7 2021 to the Peel Labour Council.
One day Nanabush was walking along the shoreline. He was hungry. And he was lazy. So he looked for a way to get food without working too hard. He saw some ducks. He liked roasted duck. So he came up with a plan.
Nanabush called out to the ducks, Aniin! Zhiishiibag! Come over here. I have a song to sing for you. The ducks were cautious, but also curious and they came over. A loon, Maang, may or may not have been among them.
Nanabush told them they must keep their eyes closed while he sang. Just listen to the song and the drum he said, but keep your eyes closed or the power will be lost. Maang, who may or may not have been there, was suspicious, but eventually danced together with the ducks.
While the birds danced Nanabush grabbed one duck and wringing its neck he threw it into the fire. Nanabush kept singing and drumming and the birds, with their eyes shut, kept dancing. Eventually Nanabush had six ducks roasting in the fire. More than he needed. Greedy.
Maang, maybe there maybe not, smelled something different and opened one eye. She saw the ducks in the fire and cried out, or maybe one of the ducks saw and cried out, Oh my relatives, look what Nanabush is doing. He’s tricking us. And they flew away.
Nanabush was angry and got up, chasing them and throwing rocks. In his anger he may have cursed the Zhiishiibag with red eyes because they looked when they promised not to. In his anger he may have harmed Maang and caused her to walk low to the ground.
When he got back to the fire, the ducks had burnt and he wound up with nothing.
Peel sits within the lands governed by the One Dish and Two Row treaties. These treaties, the first between between the Anishnaabe and the Haudenosaunee peoples and the second between the Haudenosaunee and the newcomers are, like all treaties, applicable to the people who signed them as well as their allies and other governments. These treaties govern our relationships in principles of peace, friendship, and respect.
So as we work together, seeking solidarity and good relationships, we need to think about what it means to live in principles of peace, friendship, and respect. We need to think about this shut eye dance we have been invited into and what it is costing us.
I worked in child welfare for 16 years, a member of CUPE Local 2328 and have served as a union steward, Secretary, and spent several years as a member and then co-chair for the Health and Safety Committee. Despite its challenges, I still believe that the Health and Safety Committee is a good place to do effective work in improving the workplace so shoutout to all of you who sit on those committees. I know your pain and I wish you strength because it’s worth it.
Before that I worked for the Niagara Region Sexual Assault Center where I supported victims of sexual assault who come to the hospital within 72 hours of that assault. A trained nurse provided the victim with medical care and, if the victim gave consent, the nurse collected and documented the evidence.
Before that I worked as a secretary. I sold shoes when Kinney was still a thing. I have waited tables and made pizza. Answered phones and for one brief month I worked at a call center, going through the phonebook and calling people to see if they wanted to get a Zellers credit card.
Alongside all of those things I have raised children who became men who have gone off into the world. I have helped to organize vigils and solidarity events, dancing and drumming in intersections from Niagara to Toronto. I have gone to solidarity events and stood outside the mosque after the shooting in Quebec along with hundreds of others holding our candles while snow drifted down. I have shared a stage with my drum sisters at Pride and made sure that we were a drum group that did not require skirts of our members who were not comfortable in them. I have collected sweaters and coats for migrant farm workers, and dropped off watermelons in the summer heat.
I have shared my story and my thoughts and my food with anyone who would listen and now I have a podcast and a bookclub and a website where I collect all of these thoughts and conversations in one place. You can find me at Daanis.ca I have written essays and endless twitter threads and I’m working on a book about how we got here, and how we can move forward so I am excited to be here today talking with you about how we can move forward.
I’m going to brave and let the words fall out.
Over the years there have been increasing conversations about decolonizing child welfare just as there are conversations about decolonizing education and medicine and just about every field we work in. We’re going to decolonize and we’re going to reconcile. But we live in a world where decolonization means putting settler colonialism into a medicine wheel and reconciliation means that one side keeps the power and the other gets reconciled to it.
Decolonization is not a metaphor
In their essay, Decolonization is not a metaphor; Eve Tuck and K Wayne Chang assert that decolonization is not interchangeable with other ideas about social justice and human rights. It’s not something we do along with accessibility and anti-racist work. It is profoundly different and asks much more from Canada and its citizens.
At the core, decolonization means restoring land and recognizing sovereignty. These are the fundamental harms of colonialism and therefore frame the solution. Land Back.
We are not one of many minority groups in a nation of immigrants. We are the original people and if we existed at that time as independent sovereign people, then Canada, and labour, needs to reckon with what that means today.
At what point did we give up our sovereignty? I put it to you that we did not. That every treaty and agreement we made was, from our point of view, an agreement between equals in which our sovereignty, our collective independent existence, was the authority by which we made these agreements.
In a very real sense, it was we who recognized you and dealt with you as if you were sovereign entities like us.
It is necessary to mark the distinction between Settler and Indigenous when we are talking about solidarity because these relationships matter. Remember the shut eye dance. Understanding these relationships helps to open our eyes.
Settler colonialism is the imposition of new political, economic, and social structures on top of Indigenous peoples, pushing them aside in the process and taking control over land in order to control and extract resources. We know the history of Canada. The annexing of land over hundreds of years and then moving people onto it, displacing the Indigenous people. This is the relation that settlers have to the land and to the state.
Indigenaeity is dynamic and complex. It is not an identity, it is not a noun. When I introduced myself earlier I gave you my identity. My name, my clan, my tribe. When I say that I am an Indigenous person I am describing my relationship to both the settler state and the land. As a racial category, being Indigenous locates me geographically not phenotypically. It places me here, but also in the way. A people to be pushed aside or absorbed into the body politic, either way we cease to exist and the land is free from the encumbrance of our existence.
Black Canadians also exist in a particular relationship to the settler state. They are the real and metaphorical descendants of those who came in chains because although many have immigrated since then, the way that Blackness was constructed in North America means that they are all seen the same way, seen as movable property, exploitable and excess labour.
To be racially marginalized in Canada is to be forever out of place.
It is true that there are inequities and harms within the settler population and that not everyone arrived here in the same way. These are the social justice issues that we rightly work to address. Housing. Food security. Health care. Child care. Elder care. Those essential workers who are not paid as if they mattered. Who carried the load of care during the past year, both the work itself and trauma of losing our clients as Mina noted. Most of the people getting sick with Covid are not getting sick because they refuse to wear masks, most of those who are sick are working-class or racialized or both. This matters because how we remember this pandemic and it’s impact on labour, particularly feminized and racialized labour, will matter.
So I understand that there are important matters to be resolved and that simply being a white settler is not being handed the keys to the kingdom. There are matters of accessibility and anti-racist work that need to be done. Matters of inclusion for those outside of the gender binary. But inclusion into what?
Solidarity with those whose existence puts them in conflict with the colonial state demands more than access to human rights. Demands more than access to the source of our oppression.
Decolonization is not a metaphor, and neither is solidarity.
Organizing as a place to develop collective voice
In her book Take Back the Fight, Nora Loreto quotes Harsha Walia from an interview she did with Feminist Wire.
“Feminism is not only about the issues affecting women or those outside of the gender binary – in terms of violence against women or reproductive justice – but also about completely shifting our paradigms of what justice and equality means and how we embody it – in particular our relationship to community care and the gendered division of labour that sustains it. Feminism’s most transformative potential lies in the valuing of relational work, in care work like child care, elder care, and emotional labour, in lifting up ancestral knowledge of grandmothers about land stewardship and how we manifest our responsibilities to each other, and in nurturing our communities through interdependency and resiliency.
“So dismantling patriarchy to me is as much about breaking down a system that privileges male and cisgendered supremacy as it is about breaking down a societal paradigm predicated on competition, domination, commodification, expendability, and isolation. “
When politicians talk about job creation their focus is on industry, a primarily male area, while the public sector gets demonized and cuts to social goods like education and healthcare results in the layoffs of women and those outside the gender binary who gravitate into care work as well as those who are in precarious jobs and rely on publically funded care work so that they can maintain their own employment. Are these not also jobs? The public sector is jobs and we know what the impact of chronic underfunding and devaluing of these jobs has led to. It has led to inadequate care of seniors. It has led to inadequate care of children. It has led to inadequate housing and mental health services. It has led to increased policing and incarceration, jobs dominated by men.
Labour unions provide a place to address these inequities. They provide a structure in which we can have conversations about priorities. We can develop and articulate positions and then give weight to those demands through public and political pressure. We saw this happen in 2018 when students organized against the changes to Ford’s sex ed curriculum. Their actions coordinated with the ETFO legal challenge as well as pressure by groups like PFLAG and the Conservatives abandoned the roll back that they had promised. We see it in the ongoing work of the Fight for 15, which is not even a living wage in many places anymore. Labour unions provide the kind of structure that can move awareness campaigns from #MeToo and the Women’s March to articulated policy recommendations that change systems and not just individuals.
But too often when we talk about inequity we are not talking about breaking down the societal paradigms predicated on competition, domination, commodification, expendability, and isolation.
Dismantling patriarchy is not just about having more women in the places dominated by men when those places are sites of domination. White feminism has a long history of enacting oppression on women who are racially marginalized. They break through glass ceilings and then repair the hole.
Just as settler colonial governments annexed land and moved people onto it, displacing the Indigenous peoples, settler unionism annexes jobs and displaces racialized workers. After emancipation and after the movement of Indigenous peoples into urban spaces labour played a significant role in controlling access to jobs. Racist ideas shifted from the system of plantations and reserves that confined Black and Indigenous people to an ideology that confined us and enacted violence on us. As Black and Indigenous people moved to cities and entered the labour market racist beliefs moved from the elites as a system of power to the organized proletariat. With government endorsement in the 30s it became the associated state, arguing for better circumstances within it and gatekeeping those newly emancipated without.
Job descriptions and non-interchangeability clauses in collective agreements prevent workers, mostly racialized, from moving out of low paying positions. And just as colonial governments frame their violence as defence or national security, labour frames its actions as protecting Canadian jobs in the face of immigrants who would steal our jobs. In the face of Indigenous people who block construction or pipeline jobs. Just protecting jobs. Doing our jobs.
It reminds me of a quote from Amilcar Cabral, a Black revolutionary who was assassinated in Guinea in 1973.
“Imperialism is quite prepared to change both its men and it’s tactics in order to perpetuate itself. It will kill its own puppets when they no longer serve its purposes. If need be it will even create a kind of socialism which people will call neo-socialism”
In December 2020 CUPE sent out a tweet in support of striking farmers in India, but blurred out the communist symbols in the signs they were holding.
And although they had showed strong solidarity with the overdose prevention site at Moss Park in 2018, in February CUPE Local 416 helped Toronto Police tear down tiny homes that had been built to shelter homeless people in the winter.
In 2019 two large unions voted for pension changes that benefitted them but harmed some smaller unions with larger numbers of new employees.
Unions make statements of solidarity, unions read equality statements at the beginning of every meeting but what does solidarity really look like when labour comes into conflict with pipeline protestors or Mi’kmaq fishermen or Haudenosaunee land defenders at 1492 Landback Lane?
Mina is the first woman of color in her role. What does solidarity really look like when our executives are white and our lowest paid workers are not.
Solidarity is not a metaphor
Decolonization is not a metaphor. It means restoration of land and sovereignty. And solidarity is not a metaphor. It means thinking about what you are enacting on Indigenous land and racially marginalized people.
It means getting behind those who experience the greatest oppression and ensuring that we are working to breaking down a societal paradigm predicated on competition, domination, commodification, expendability, and isolation, rather than working for more inclusion in that paradigm. How will the things you are asking for impact the most marginalized among us, not just your members? In the 30s, a time often recognized as a high point in the labour movement, the New Deal brought about improvements for white labour at the expense of Black sharecroppers and Indigenous peoples. Woody Guthrie sang “this land is your land” and promoted the building of dams which dispossessed Indigenous peoples of that land.
Evolving revolution: Imagining what is possible
Unless labour stands behind those who are experiencing oppression, solidarity will only and forever be a metaphor. Unions cannot stand only for their members, seeking what is best for their membership in a colonial state that relies on the oppression of others in order to function. In that way labour is, and has been, part of the colonial project. We could organize all workers into unions and then fight for better lives for all of our members and win and then what. Canada had outlawed slavery decades before the US did, but our industries relied on the products of enslaved labour just as they do globally today.
What of those whose labour is unpaid? What of those whose unpaid labour we rely on? Those whose excess labour is imprisoned in Canada or erased in the global south. What about their lives? At what point in our fight do we keep our promise to go back for them?
Look to your executive, whose experience do they represent? When we talk about representation is it enough to make that representation proportional? Should your executive look like the workplace? What if it inverted the workplace? If the workplace is 75% white, what if the executive was only 25% white? What if your executive reflected your clients, the people you care for in the course of your work.
And how do we do that? How do we do it now. People are approached and encouraged to run. People are appointed to committees to build their confidence. People are sent to training. People are cultivated and encouraged so I am putting to you that you cultivate and encourage those whose social positioning forces them to the margins. And that means building relationships.
What kind of solidarities can be built on stolen land?
What is possible when we imagine a solidarity that does not consist of bringing everyone inside an oppressive system. Winning rights within an oppressive system is not anti-oppressive work. What kind of solidarities are developed that ultimately rely on stolen land and exploited labour?
We win things for ourselves, and make strategic alliances that are not solidarity because they serve white interests and do not liberate land or people. Interests that are built on maintaining a societal paradigm predicated on competition, domination, commodification, expendability, and isolation. Interests that seek more inclusion in that paradigm rather than it’s dismantling.
We need to develop meaningful relationships. It always comes down to relationships. Solidarity is about showing up to actions, but it is also about developing meaningful relationships between actions. Relationships with the people who are most impacted by the harms this society relies on. Relationships with those that our jobs pay us to care for, to teach. To work with them as interns, not allies. To be there to learn and support their sovereignty.
We need solidarities that cross labour and activist lines are what will create a better future.
We need solidarities that consider the realities of exploited Black labour and stolen Indigenous land.
It is easy to see the other, the bosses and the politicians as the ones inviting us to dance with our eyes shut. But what is the solidarity that you invite Black and Indigenous people into?