From Anti-Poverty to Indigenous Sovereignty: A Roundtable with OCAP Organizers

The following article that it is one of three from a round table discussion by Upping the Anti on the important land reclamation effort now being carried out by the Six Nations people of the Grand River Territory, and the role of non-native solidarity work in that struggle. To begin with, Brian Skye of Six Nations, who has been heavily involved in the activities of the site, provides his perspective on the significance of the reclamation and the place for external support. Jan Watson, a local Caledonia resident and founding member of Community Friends For Peace and Understanding with Six Nations, then talks about the work she has been involved to build support in her community for the Six Nations reclamation. Finally, we interview three longtime members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty – AJ Withers, Josh Zucker and Stefanie Gude – to ask for their thoughts about organizing support as non-native activists.

Even though they are older (2006) I will be posting all three as they continue to speak strongly about what is going on at the reclamation site and how non-Native activists and radicals can best work in Solidarity with the people of the Six Nations.

This roundtable was conducted in September 2006 with AJ Withers, Josh Zucker and Stefanie Gude of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty

What led you to get involved in supporting indigenous struggles in general, and the Six Nations struggle in particular?

AJ: The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is a social justice organization and, as such, we support indigenous struggles. I hadn’t heard of what was going on outside of Caledonia until some friends of mine in Tyendinaga told us about it and suggested we go. We went to check it out and see if there was anything we could do to support it. We didn’t know anyone and were quite shy so we sat silently by the fire a lot and hoped people would speak to us. Finally, we learned about things we could supply, and asked if there were things in Toronto we could do to show our support.

Josh: I got involved with indigenous struggles through working with OCAP. When I joined OCAP in 2001 there were 5 paid organizers, one of whom was Shawn Brant, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory which is near Belleville on the Bay of Quinte in southern Ontario. Most members of OCAP, I would say, started learning more about native issues and sovereignty through the links Shawn brought to OCAP, which went back to before 2001.

There were a number of actions over the years that built this connection, the most notable of which was the attempt to open up the bridge that runs from the U.S. through the Mohawk territory of Akwasasne into Canada. This action was planned when demonstrators came from the U.S. to attend the anti-FTAA demonstrations in Quebec, and it was done in conjunction with Mohawk people. The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte have also been providing OCAP with deer meat, fish, and other kill from their hunts for a number of years which we serve at demonstrations in Toronto. They always reminded us that “every hunting issue is a sovereignty issue.” These connections increased our consciousness about the issues grew greatly.

Why do you see these indigenous struggles as being such an important issue to organize around? What is their connection to your anti-poverty work?

AJ: I am white. Everything I have is a result of the theft from and genocide of Native people. I have a responsibility to fight for justice and support their struggles, we all have that responsibility.

The obvious connection to OCAP’s anti-poverty work is that a lot of Native people are poor, especially in the cities. Systemic racism leads to less opportunities, lower pay and lower standards of living for many Native people. Further, Canada’s current and historical violation of treaties means that most First Nations do not have access to the lands, resources and funds that they are entitled to.

More than being about poverty, though, connecting anti-poverty and Native rights movements is about building resistance. Aside from there being a lot of poor Natives, poor people and First Nations people have a great deal in common in regards to our issues, struggles and the repression we face. As a poor person, I know that our movement is stronger when we are united with other communities and movements. The only way any of us will be truly victorious and free is if we all are.

Josh: I remember the first conversation I had with anyone at the reclamation site was about welfare rates. It was the first day I was there and I was talking with a man named John about when he lived on the streets in Toronto. He told me point blank that we should be fighting to get the welfare rates raised in Toronto and so we talked a bit about the OCAP “Raise the Rates” campaign. The connection is obvious. Native people live in extreme poverty unknown in many other communities across the country.

Beyond that, I see the struggle for native sovereignty as the most fundamental issue for people who want to see radical change in this country; it’s the bedrock, the first issue. There’s a quote from the paper by Taiaiake Alfred on warrior societies that was excerpted in Upping the Anti #2, which has really stuck with me. It’s from an interview he does with Sakej Ward, the head of the East Coast Warrior Society where he’s talking about his aspirations for sovereignty. He says, “I don’t see us having a strong enough military power to conquer Canada, but I do see us having the strength to create a condition of deterrence where colonial domination becomes very difficult for Canada to continue. This will create the physical and political space for us to pursue our own definition of our rights and our ways of life.” I think that’s very powerful and something that we could see in our lifetimes; not the conquering of Canada, but autonomy for Native Nations from it. Would this, in and of itself, end poverty, racism, exploitation? No. But it would shake the foundations of Canadian identity as a benign power, one that cares for its poor, and one that encourages peoples of all nations and colours to become part of its fabric. Exposing these myths is critical for all our various struggles.

In what concrete ways has your support for Six Nations manifested itself?

AJ: Most of my solidarity work with Six Nations has been on site. I see that work as playing four different roles.

The most obvious thing that I do to support Six Nations is cook. As there are a number of people who live permanently at the reclamation there is a cookhouse that feeds the people there. Primarily filling that role with people from outside of Six Nations (Native and non-Native) allows people from there to focus their energies on other things. This is especially true for freeing up some women to do jobs like security when they would otherwise be cooking. There are a number of other practical skills that I try to offer. From time to time, I act as a medic or provide legal information. I am also helping to compile a Kanenhstaton cookbook to raise funds.

Secondly, I am there as a witness. The presence of non-native people there shows support for the struggle outside of the Native community. This is important for the people there and for the Caledonians and the government to see. There is also a theory that the state will behave differently if they know there are non-Natives (especially white people) behind the lines. I do not know if this is true or not, I do, however, know that the white people there the day of the raid were treated dramatically different than the Native people were. Only three of the eight or so white people were arrested. Those who were arrested were not tasered or pepper sprayed and only one was injured. The only white woman who was arrested was released on the spot, for no reason that we could tell other than that she was a white woman.

Additionally, I act as a communications person between Toronto and Six Nations. The work that I do on site is closely tied to the work that OCAP and the Coalition for Indigenous Sovereignty do off site. Like any community, the people at Kanenhstaton have a diverse range of opinions about when, how, why and what things should be done, including solidarity work. I try to engage different people about their thoughts on the issue on a regular basis to help ensure that we are actually taking leadership from the community. I also attend meetings and raise ideas we have about organizing with the people. Because decisions are made by consensus it is crucial that people doing solidarity work are getting leadership from the people, not just one person.

Lastly, both myself and OCAP do not view the struggle over The Protected Place as an emergency issue at this point. That is to say that things have somewhat regularized in the six months that we have been doing support work with them. There is no longer the sense of crisis that there was in April and May and we had to cut back the level of support we are doing (especially on-site support) in order to be more sustainable. We are behind the people of Six Nations in this struggle for this land but we also look forward to working in solidarity with them for years to come. Part of my presence there is about building relationships so the respect and trust exists between us to have a meaningful, lasting solidarity relationship.

Stefanie: As an individual, I worked both to support the people from my organization who were spending intensive amount of time on the site, and to help make supportive actions, events, and education around the Reclamation happen here in Toronto. I did not ever spend a considerable amount of time on the site itself, but, beginning in late March, I traveled back and forth quite frequently, sometimes spending a night or two, but most of my work was a manifestation of this back and forth.

In and around the more severe crises at the reclamation site – the police invasion on April 20th, Caledonian mobilizations against the site, alarms being sounded about the military being called in, etc. – I worked with others in Toronto to respond to requests from the site to bring people and supplies in very short amounts of time. This kind of response – people coming to observe and support through their very presence, be it for a few hours or a few days – was definitely at its height in late April and May. This activity brought with it a responsibility to share with other supporters as much as we knew, in terms of what to expect, what codes of conduct were in place (respecting the sacred fire, staying away from the front lines, etc.). Within 12 hours of the early morning invasion, we helped to send almost 20 cars full of people to the site. Such efforts continued, to a lesser degree, throughout the next two months.

Specifically, in Toronto, I acted as the elected representative of OCAP within the organizing space of the Coalition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty. In co-operation with other organizations who participate in the coalition, we held information sessions, a demonstration against the Minister of Indian Affairs, demonstrations in front of federal government buildings and letter-writing campaigns. We co-organized a couple of large visits of people from Toronto to the site, bringing food and other supplies. One such effort resulted in people from a downtown drop-in that OCAP is very connected to being able to meet people from Six Nations and be impacted by the experience of listening to stories at the fire on the site, as well as people who came through urban native networks. As well, in consultation with people from Six Nations, I was involved in organizing to prepare actions to take place in Toronto in the event of a raid on the site.

How does OCAP as an organization relate to Six Nations in terms of knowing what kind of work to do and how to do it?

AJ: We discuss our work with people from the community both on specific issues and in general. There are a number of different perspectives there and people who are part of different clans, nations, political factions and communities and it is very important that we get input from all of them, at least to the extent that is possible.

We do go to council fires and ask people’s opinions on what we are doing or planning on doing. Frankly, our presence at these meetings complicates things for us. There is a lot of power in sitting at a decision making table and it is power that I, as someone who is doing solidarity work, don’t want. However, because it is a government of the people it is the only real way to ensure that we are taking leadership from the people.

With that in mind, though, it is important for us to remember that we are doing solidarity work and that our need for leadership from the community not take up more space than is welcome or necessary. I do not think it is possible to do solidarity work properly or with integrity without constantly questioning your roles, tactics and actions. However, that questioning can lead to a lot of insecurity about what we are doing. No matter how much we want be constantly reassured that we are doing a good job, it is unfair to demand that kind of guidance and reassurance from the community, as they have more important things to be doing.

Stefanie: Our relationship to supporting indigenous struggle, as an organization, is centered in our own struggle against the government, for welfare, disability, housing, access to health care – a fight for respect and dignity, against poverty and oppression. It is also strengthened by our understanding of the impact of fighting back together as a community and shaking the power structure, can have.

On-site, after the initial heat of late April, many people in OCAP began to transform the request for non-native observers to the situation into something more concrete. You can’t stand around, watching, and feel useful for very long. This is how the work in the kitchen, which many people spent considerable time doing, began. Working in the kitchen was a means of freeing up people from the community to do other things, to get some sleep, to stay at the various camps farther away from the main kitchen, to go home to their kids, and so on. Because the volume of people from the community spending time on the site was so massive in the period after the invasion, and throughout the ensuing periods of high alert, there was clearly a need for people to fill this role. Obviously, the fact that people who stayed on the site slowly developed relationships with people from the community critically informs our organizational perspective and decision-making.

After the heightened tension subsided, from mid-June onwards, the number of people spending a lot of time on the site began to ebb. And the clarity of purpose in the kitchen work also subsided. So, non-Native on-site support began to make less sense, in very practical terms, and people stopped spending the same kind of intensive time on the site. At the same time as we were trying to support the membership on-site, we were also supporting within the city boundaries. And within this dual purpose is where some of the major criticisms begin to emerge.

What have been some of the challenges that you have faced in supporting Six Nations?

AJ: Kanenhstaton is a community with problems like any other. It is very challenging as an outsider to negotiate the need for me to be in my place as a supporter and still be myself. In the beginning I acted very differently than I do now as I increasingly feel confident in myself and my actions. My desire to be pleasing when I first started going meant that I actually behaved poorly. Because I was afraid I would offend someone. I wasn’t as honest as I could have been, even when I was being asked for my opinion. That wasn’t fair to anyone. Once I started being myself more and dealing with things how I would normally do so, I became more comfortable. That was when people actually started respecting me.

I also used to be paranoid that I would do something offensive without knowing it because I have a very limited understanding of Iroquois culture(s). At some point I realized that I had to respect and trust the people around me to let me know if I was doing something improper. Folks there knew that I was trying hard to learn things and if I was out of place I had to trust that I would be put back in it. To be clear, I am not saying that it is native people’s responsibility to educate me or correct my behavior but I am saying that at some point you have to accept that you don’t know shit and that you aren’t going to. At that point you have to be vigilant about learning but you also have to know you can trust your friends.

Stefanie: We should have worked harder to support our indigenous allies in the city, to ensure that native people from Toronto who wanted to be there or learn about the reclamation had access to resources available to us. It’s hard to make those things happen when your relationship with people from the native community living in your city isn’t strong, and I know this is something we need to understand how to develop – the capacity to share limited resources also within our own city blocks. This is where the relationship between OCAP and the Indigenous Caucus of the Coalition for Indigenous Sovereignty also becomes so important, which has been a crucial part of my experience of supporting Six Nations.

For those OCAP members supporting from Toronto, it was a priority to work with radical indigenous people that we met through the structure of the coalition, and being guided by their perspectives and experiences, both of their own struggles and their relationship to the reclamation. We respected the structure requested by them, in order to ensure that the group was not overwhelmingly non-Native. However, we failed to pursue the interest and energy being felt by countless people from all different sectors and populations outside of that structure and outside of OCAP. We had a responsibility to harness those things, and between supporting our people on the site, respecting the framework of CSIS, and trying to understand the constantly shifting ‘facts’ on the ground at the site, we did not live up to this as we should have.

There are many reasons why the work we were doing in the city has floundered. There was a tendency to be very susceptible to the complex unfolding of events at the site – often to the point where we were second-guessing our actions and next steps all the time. In terms of working constantly to respect the wishes of the people engaged in the struggle, this is not wrong. It is also appropriate to be cautious given the amount of time it takes to build trust with people across centuries of mistrust and racism. But we also lacked the confidence and the numbers of people organizing here in Toronto to put forward ideas, to think creatively, and have trust in the work we know how to do because of our own struggles here in Toronto.

After the heightened tension and large numbers of community members frequenting the site subsided, we did not adapt our support strategy fast enough. We had a lot of people who had burned themselves out on extended stays on the site, who needed to pick up with surviving in Toronto, doing their work in the city, and who struggled to make the experience of being on the site translate into Toronto-based support work. The number of people who had been consistently thinking about city-oriented support organizing had been few, and we had missed big opportunities to outreach to a broader public who had clearly shown interest and a desire to support Six Nations in the spring. We were left with a small, drained core of organizers. We should have put more energy into attacking the government from Toronto and confronting the racism of the Caledonian citizens, through the media and through actions and events in Toronto, in order to give voice to the other supportive opinions which non-natives have of the reclamation.

What drawbacks or dangers does this on-the-ground support pose?

AJ: A lot of the people we had on the ground were a part of the organizational core of OCAP. We had a lot of very skilled organizers doing a lot of unskilled work. While there were still people in Toronto working, there were times when they were largely unsupported and our work in the city did suffer for a period. We shifted focus too late and lost some organizing potential at the time and I think we should have refocused our energies onto doing other forms of support work sooner. Further, it took us a long time to start to figure out how to actually offer our skills at the reclamation site and we are only beginning to do that now.

I would certainly do things differently if I were to do it again. I think it is important to have people on site but that shouldn’t be the primary focus as it was at the time.

How do you conceptualize the role of non-native supporters in the struggle for indigenous sovereignty? What kinds of allies within settler communities can be relied upon to support indigenous struggles?

AJ: I think here, the question provides the answer; we are non-native supporters. It is important to remember that we are not and never will be the central players in this movement. Solidarity work is not in itself liberatory, only the struggles of the people directly affected will see their liberation.

I think that it is key that we take leadership from native people and that we ensure that we are taking it from the people, not a few people. It isn’t hard, in a community of a few thousand, to find someone to tell you what you want to hear and call that leadership. It is hard to try and figure out what an actual community wants and do that. In Six Nations, we are quite lucky because they have consensus based community meetings so it makes things a lot clearer than having a lot of individual conversations.

As far as what kinds of allies within settler communities can be relied upon, I don’t know if any can be relied on. The only thing you can ever actually count on an ally for is to screw up. I know that this is a pessimistic view but as a disabled person I know that I constantly question if allies even exist. As a white person doing solidarity work with First Nations people I have to believe that allies do exist. I haven’t solved those contradictions yet. I can’t call myself an ally, I only say I am trying to be one.

I do however know that there are lots of people who want to support somehow. I think it is important that we try to reach them and get them involved. I do think it is important that we work in our communities. My community isn’t Caledonia, I didn’t know anyone there, didn’t live there and hadn’t gone there prior to this. I think it is important that we support the work of the Caledonians who are organizing but that we actually look at what we can do in our own communities.

That means talking to our neighbours, friends and families. It means educating people beyond activists. And it means trying to identify those people who show interest and get them involved.

Josh: There’s a story I’ve been told from someone who was involved in the Oka Standoff in 1990 about the solidarity activists there that I find pretty compelling. In Oka there was a peace camp supporting the stand by the Mohawks that formed on the opposite side of the military line and at its peak had about 1000 people staying there. This person told me they thought one of the greatest failures of the whole standoff was that the people at that peace camp didn’t try to cross the military line. That if they’d just tried to cross, to challenge and confront that line, it could have changed the dynamic of the whole situation. To quote the Doors, you gotta “break on through to the other side” (and I’m talking in our actions here, not some kind of identity crisis “going native” bullshit).

Stefanie: Toronto is where I am from, it is where I organize, where I live. That has to make sense to supporting indigenous struggle. Whether this means prioritizing working with the framework of native activists in the city, sharing information and experiences with people from my world in Toronto, through conversations, sharing resources to ensure it isn’t only people with the time and money who get to travel to the community that is resisting, pushing against the power structure that oppresses where we can do it here in the city, it has to make sense to where you are standing.

Having said this, you can’t support unless you understand, and you can’t understand unless you break down the distance between people. It is really hard to argue with the power of meeting people and talking to them. The power of meeting people in a crisis is that you spend hours and hours and for some people days and nights and in some ways this collapses the amount of time you need for trust to build normally. But I have learned that it is not a true or complete collapse. Trust is still slow.

It is also very important to acknowledge that non-native supporters are not only white. There was strong support for the reclamation site by people of colour, which is often overlooked by white people when we talk about non-native support work. The power of the Palestinian flag flying tall on the site in the very early stages of the reclamation, and what this meant to people visiting the site as well as the frequency with which kaffiyehs were worn by natives on the front lines, was very visible. I was certainly made aware of different kinds of trust being built along colour lines, both on the site and off. Obviously, this makes sense and as a movement of people supporting indigenous struggle, the awareness that questions of resources, voices, access to information should always be asked, even in the rush to support a crisis situation.

The struggle at Six Nations is obviously ongoing, but how would you relate to it if the Douglas Creek Estates issue is resolved and the struggle takes place in less high-profile ways? What suggestions would you have for non-native activists in other parts of Canada who may get involved in supporting indigenous sovereignty in the future?

AJ: There will always be struggle by First Nations people, at least as long as our government and economy are structured the way they are. When Douglas Creek is won, there is still the rest of the Haldimand Tract, let alone broken treaties, broken promises and a whole lot more. I have a feeling that Six Nations won’t be going low-profile anytime soon, even with a victory at Kanenhstaton. However, should that happen, I know that OCAP would continue to support Six Nations. We would step back and look at what we should be doing and what the situation merits and then bring it back to the community. Frankly, if nothing overt was happing in Six Nations, we would continue to support the community and maintain communications through our personal relationships.

If I were to give advice to someone who is starting out doing solidarity work I would tell them to build relationships. Do not look at indigenous people as a means to an end or as a campaign. Liberation movements are long term. They are not there to be used to help you achieve your own political aims, be they environmental, anti-capitalist or anti-government.

I used to believe that if people saw you as an ally that you had achieved something and things would get easier. Six Nations has taught me that from that point it only gets harder and more complicated.

Josh: Often the best time to get involved in solidarity and foster connections with people in native communities is in the midst of high-profile struggles like the one taking place in Six Nations now. But the most important time is in between these battles. In OCAP, we’re lucky to have a close relationship with people actively involved in fighting for sovereignty up in Tyendinaga where there is a mutual aid sort of thing going on and we support each other’s initiatives pretty regularly. That’s a most ideal situation, where you have people in the community who you trust and trust you to shoot the shit with about what’s going on, to share stories and exchange advice about all the little battles. If this isn’t there then the solidarity can only go so far when the bigger struggles erupt.

Across the country there are good examples of varied organizations supporting communities that are geographically close to them like the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement in Montreal with the Mohawks of Kanehsatake and No One Is Illegal in Vancouver with the Secwepemc. I think we also need to do a better job of studying struggles like Oka and looking at what non-natives in solidarity have done before and also seek them out for their experiences. On that note, I want to thank Upping the Anti for provoking conversations about Six Nations and solidarity.

Stefanie: I don’t think our numbers at the site were ever significant enough to comprise some kind of supporters’ army, in terms of showing the state how huge the numbers of people standing with the community were. And that wasn’t needed – the community was the strength, the numbers, the force. We were never to be there as a fighting force, much as I think some people get caught up in the messed up romantic notion of being on the battle lines, being where the action is, and fighting a ‘real’ fight. The community of Six Nations never needed us in this way. But I do think that we did work to provide some of what was being asked for, in terms of supportive non-native faces and presence and respect. Your work as a supporter is to hear what is being asked of you. It is to offer up what you appropriately can without having to lean on the people you are supporting for constant instructions. It can also be to know that you are implicated in what is being fought against, which has motivating consequences – not crippling or indifferent ones.

Non-native activists need to understand that indigenous struggle will never be won because of the actions of settlers. We need to understand our responsibility to fight the racism and power on the settler side, which may not be the most glamorous or exciting part of the fight, but a part of it only we can and should do. Many people who spent time at the site or who came together to plan support for the reclamation here in Toronto are rooted in struggles of their own. This is one of the reasons why we came together, because we are already fighting. This is also one of the reasons why it is hard, albeit crucial, to support the Six Nation peoples. You can’t drop your own fight – because it is exactly that which grounds you and offers one way to understand why indigenous struggle is so crucial and what your role supporting it should be.

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Posted on November 4, 2009, in Indigenous Struggles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Why does AJ Withers say that the men of the Six Nations are the “worst red-neck mysogynist homophobes” she has ever met?

  2. I wasn’t aware that AJ Withers had ever said anything like that. Where was it said?

    Also, I am not from Six Nations myself so I cannot speak to the truth of such a claim, but as an Indian man I can say that in my experience some of the worst/stupidest homophobes and misogynist men I have ever met have been Native. In a way I think it is because of the internalization, followed by amplification, of certain colonial mindsets.

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