My family found refuge on Canadian soil in 1983. I was still an infant (that’s me on the left!), and completely unaware of the drama that would mark the opening act of my life. At the time, my young parents were oblivious of the fact that they had arrived in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. Yet, there they were, displaced from their native land onto Native land, and yearning for a measure of stability to end their harrowing journey of uncertainty.
My parents were welcomed by a warm and loving community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but still had to find their place at the Canadian table, so to speak. Do as the Roman’s do, and they did – willingly. In doing so, they also had to suppress or even abandon some of their cultural norms and customs until they could blend in with the locals. It was a sacrifice they were, perhaps, happy to make given the alternatives of oppression and social isolation they would have to face in Iran. Yet, there’s something uneasy about being forced to make that choice. It doesn’t seem to align with the right to self-determination – so goes the refugee story.
While this contemporary drama was unfolding in Canada, a parallel narrative of displacement and cultural assimilation was also taking place – a far older, made in Canada, kind of tale. The Indigenous Peoples of Canada settled on this landmass thousands of years before the first European explorers claimed it in the name of God, King, and Country. It was a land of many Nations with all the necessary ingredients: social complexity, territories, trade routes, traditions, justice systems, and spiritual convictions based on elaborate cosmologies.
This isn’t a history paper and I’m no expert, but somewhere along the timeline (as far as I understand it) the peoples who established the first nations of Canada were stripped of their nationhood. Their communities were relocated, their people were uprooted and displaced, and their culture was suppressed. Their social evolution was suddenly interrupted and replaced by a fundamentally different European modernity. On the ideological front, Indigenous people were dominated and assimilated because they were seen as inferior, or because assimilation was viewed as a benevolent act of piety. Politically, the Indigenous peoples were obstacles in the path of territorial and economic expansion; the Dominion of Canada was a land rich in resources, a prize to be won in the name of God, King, and Country. Whatever lens you want to take, the original occupants of this land were robbed of their lands and titles and forced to participate in a foreign narrative.
Fast forward to June 11, 2008.
“The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation. Therefore, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this Chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples […].”
These were the words of apology issued by former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to the survivors of Canada’s Residential School System. Today, the Indigenous Peoples of Canada face a seemingly insurmountable challenge: How to reconnect with a historical narrative that predates colonial interference while at the same time shaping a self-determined modernity that is resilient to the relentless forces of globalization. Oh, and there’s that additional bit about reconciliation through “forging and maintaining respectful relationships.” No sweat!
So, what does this all have to do with the refugee story? When I first started my journey to learn about Canada’s turbulent relationship with its Indigenous Peoples, I found myself treading somewhat familiar territory. Refugees and Indigenous populations battle many of the same issues: loss of identity and culture, challenges with integration, social isolation, displacement, intergenerational trauma, domestic instability, etc. It dawned on me that maybe Canadian refugees have a unique role to play in the unfolding narrative of Indigenous self-determination. The similarity in our experiences means that we can truly empathize with our Indigenous friends. This empathy should, in turn, compel us to advocate on behalf of all First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, and to support them on their journey towards self-determination. Further, as refugees we have a moral obligation to acknowledge and give thanks to our benevolent hosts, to seek their friendship, and to contribute our share in order to reduce the burden of our stay on Turtle Island.
My family swore “true allegiance” to the Queen of England on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. This seems absurd to me now. Today, I see myself as a refugee on Native land with a profound responsibility to contribute towards truth and reconciliation.