ISSUE 12.3

Unsettling Ancestry in Artistic Spaces

The Treaty Canoe, an art project by Windsor artists Alex McKay and Tory James. Photo by Don Bouzek

Written by Fiona Raye Clarke

Who is a settler? This was a key question of Train of Thought, the west-to-east, two-month-long travelling community arts journey from Victoria to PEI produced by Jumblies theatre and dozens of other partners in 2015. For Train of Thought, I worked both as an organizer in Toronto and as a traveller, visiting the stops in Kingston, Ottawa, and Montreal. During my brief time on the tour, I experienced some of the key aspects of Train of Thought: enjoying cross-cultural collaboration with indigenous artists and communities in spontaneous creations, workshops, feasts, and song, and spending concerted time contemplating indigenous historical, political, and current realities. What makes my time on the Train of Thought unique is that I experienced it as a conscious person of colour—-one of the few non-white, non-Indigenous travellers.

As a Black Trinidadian-Canadian on the Train of Thought, I found myself asking: what is the role of people of colour
in the settler colonial project? Moreover, how can people of colour enter the decolonization conversation if space is not made for our distinct points of view? In this article-—through consideration of academic debate, interviews conducted with travellers post-tour, and my personal reflections—-I attempt to address these questions as they manifested on Train of Thought.

Settler as White

In recent debates on the role of non-Indigenous people of colour within the settler colonial project, three main views emerge. Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, in their 2005 essay “Decolonizing antiracism,” admonish people of colour specifically, naming them as settlers who do not acknowledge their role in the continuing colonization of Indigenous peoples. Responding to this view in 2009, Nandita Sharma and Cynthia Wright, in “Decolonizing resistance, Challenging Colonial states,” argue that people of colour should not be called “settlers,” as such a view inevitably leads to neo-racist narratives in which all “foreigners” are necessarily unwelcome. And finally, Corey Snelgrove, Rita Kaur Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel present a third view in their 2014 essay “Unsettling settler Colonialism,” in which people of colour are settlers but are a different sort of settler from their white counterparts.

Personally, I favour the third view: people of colour, being non-Native, are settlers to Canada and therefore complicit in the settler colonial project. However, I think it is also necessary to note that the privileges afforded to white settlers surpass those of non-white settlers, as all are not created equal in colonialism. Moreover, being people of colour, our relationship to colonialism is layered, as many of us are also likely to come from a background of being colonized. As one traveller of colour stated in a post-tour interview,(1) “I was surprised at my feelings that arose especially before Toronto when I was really grappling with what it means to be a settler-–personally what it means to be a settler as a person from a colonized ancestry that’s differently colonized.”(2)

This duality within settlers of colour is not commonly addressed in mainstream conversations about reconciliation and indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships, nor was it addressed during the Train of Thought. Instead, within the scope of the tour, the term “settler” was effectively constructed as white. More than there being a lack of non-Indigenous people of colour present on the tour, which there was, there was no sense of the experience of such conflict: that is, the dual experience of being colonial and colonized. Instead, the tour only seemed to recognize white settler colonials and those who are presently colonized: Indigenous travellers. As one interviewee observed, this created a feeling of isolation among non-Indigenous travellers of colour: “it was a kind of isolation being the only non-white, non-Indigenous person for my first leg of the trip. I guess—-that’s stuff I thought about before but I was surprised by how much it shook me.”(3) Moreover, for people of colour, including myself, there is a strong desire to be excluded from such a classification as settler, because of resistance to being subsumed into whiteness. One traveller told me:

“there was this cyclical experience of feeling annoyed at that sort of binary that was emerging and that I was
sort of being de facto-—in the toft culture—-classified as white in that way—-because that’s not true. And then I was confronted with feelings of: why is this bothering me so much? Is it because it’s a legitimate thing-—and it is-—or is it also because of some kind of settler guilt, and maybe it’s that too.”(4)

Opportunities for people of colour to share, and the space to investigate their dual experience as colonial and colonized, were keenly missed.

While one could respond that conversations about decolonization in Canada are not about non-white, non-Indigenous persons, but instead—-and rightly-—focus on Indigenous perspectives, there are, nevertheless, more histories and peoples in Canada than those of white European-descended settlers. Thus, spaces—-artistic, academic, or otherwise-—that focus exclusively on whiteness and Indigeneity as a binary fail to address the full scope of colonization, particularly as it operates in Canada. If this is the case, we can then ask whether spaces like Train of Thought dismantle colonial structures for non-Indigenous people of colour, or reinforce them.

An Art-based workshop on Indigenous history that took place during the Ottawa Train of Thought stop on unceded Algonquin territories in June 2015. Photo by Don Bouzek

Complicating Ancestry

Rather than constructing settler colonialism as a binary, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang construct settler colonialism as a triad, one that includes not only European colonial settlers and colonized Indigenous peoples, but also the chattel and domestic slavery, indentureship, and migration for exploitative labour that were essential to the colonial project.

Decolonization first came to my attention during a workshop in Ottawa. At this point of the tour, the larger group had split off into three factions, so it was a smaller contingent of Train of Thought travellers, including myself, attending this workshop. As part of the introduction, our facilitator, who was of Indigenous ancestry, asked us to name our ancestry. This was not particularly triggering-—that is, until she insisted that we name the exact countries that our ancestors came from.

The naming and describing of one’s ancestral history emerged as a central protocol on Train of Thought. As one travelling artist observed, “knowing your name, it’s a place of power.”(5) It was clear that that the power of naming one’s ancestry, and witnessing such naming, were significant parts of what made Train of Thought an extremely relevant and important community arts project. What made the tour complex and unsettling, however, was the lack of acknowledgement for those whose ancestries are not as easily named due to factors beyond their control.

To begin, there is my complicated ancestry: my family is from Trinidad, a country colonized by the British that received independence in the 1960s; my ethnicity is black mixed with other races, as my family is Creole; before Trinidad, my African-descended ancestors were from Barbados; and before that, my ancestry is unknown, as our history, our names, our language, and our culture were stolen by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Thus, the insistence by the facilitator in the Ottawa workshop that I must necessarily fit either the white European settler or the Indigenous binary triggered feelings of anxiety pertaining to being a descendant of enslaved persons who were victimized in a very specific way. I felt extremely silenced by her insistence, because I did not know where to begin to explain my ancestry, and the exercise did not give space for people who are not able to name the countries from which they came. Despite the fact that this facilitator and I seemed to have a parallel ancestral history—-that of being colonized by the British—-she did not understand that there could be other kinds of experiences of colonialism.

This privileging of ancestry as a key entry point to decolonization was similarly isolating to people on the tour with different relationships to their ancestry, particularly those who were adopted and those from queer families. In the context of Train of Thought, being a person who was adopted into a family became a plane of marginalization. one traveller said,

“I’m adopted and so I don’t have my own blood lineage ancestry. I have my adopted ancestries. And so it always opens that space of dislocation within me ‘cause I do not know who my people are. And so, yeah, it plummets me into a very vulnerable place.”(6)

Another travelling artist, one who was the child of queer parents, described a similar isolation:

“[I was] uncomfortable with the number of times that, while on Train of Thought, I was asked about where the hell I was from or anything like that, ‘cause as someone who’s the child of queer parents, that alone is a trigger, and that’s not really culturally specific. I feel like any child of queer parents would have an issue with [it]. Or not even queer parents, but people who don’t necessarily know who their parents are for whatever reason.(7)

Train of Thought’s ancestry framework thus failed to adequately engage participating artists who were from differently colonized ancestries or were not from a heteronormative, biological family lineage in conversations about decolonization.

Photo by Don Bouzek

Ancestries Unfriendly to the Train (of Thought)

LKastly, I will call attention to the experience of one traveller whose heritage is a mix of British and Chinese- Canadian, the latter ancestral history being part of the legacy of migrant labour-—specifically, the exploitation by white settler Canadians of Chinese workers in building the Canadian railroad. Her (visibly racialized) family’s multigenerational history is in effect questioned when she is asked about her ancestry. In her words: “My family has been here for four generations, but we’re still newcomers.”(8)

Moreover, the tour failed to adequately address the history of the train as a tool of colonization in Canada. The tour offered a thematic idea that by travelling west to east—-instead of the more eurocentric east-to-west route-—we were taking a counter-colonial direction. This theme only began to address the destructive history the Canadian railway had on the Indigenous people of this land, and did not at all address the violence the train’s construction had on Chinese-Canadian labourers. As this traveller said, “the train . . . murdered so many of my . . . community and then, essentially, left them stranded in Canada and tried to kill them off.” Since the train was such a large part of the tour, I feel space should have been given for this perspective to be acknowledged publicly as an important piece of colonial history, especially since the tour did go by the original site of the Chinese railway workers’ death and sacrifice in the west coast.

These particular experiences of colonialism, while present on the tour, were never invited into the main conversations, activities, or art-making projects. In fact, I only found out about this story when speaking to this traveller weeks after the tour’s end. While it affirmed to me unsettling feelings I had while on the tour, I came very close to not knowing her perspective despite having worked together for months on Train of Thought.

Conclusion

While it was definitely not possible for every issue that came up on the train of thought to be discussed in detail with the entire group, the tour seemed to operate from two very specific points of view: (heteronormative) white settlerism and indigeneity. The few of us who did not belong to either of these two perspectives could not help but feel a bit inhibited while engaging with the tour. as a result, the train of thought missed the opportunity for a multi-layered conversation around colonization that included other experiences of colonization.

Overall, I do believe Train of Thought was an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience that opened a lot of people up to realities they had never contemplated before. the project created many connections between indigenous and non- Indigenous communities and artists-—in some cases, where there had been few or none before. It forged many paths.

But did Train of Thought help me reflect on or figure out my role as a person of colour within the settler colonial project? Not entirely. However, it did encourage me, in the quiet moments, to start my own conversations. Train of Thought forced me to reflect on the ways in which I, as a person of colour, am not part of the (inherently racist) colonial project, and the ways in which I, due to my ambiguous settlerism, am not a part of the conversation about decolonization in Canada. If we had had the opportunity, space, energy, and forethought to realize the gap this would create in the tour’s contents, we could have had these conversations with the wider group and created new opportunities for solidarity between people of colour and Indigenous people. But the tour was constrained by time, funds, energy, and interest; and so, as many of us find ourselves saying coming out of Train of Thought and reflecting on its enormous task, such will have to happen on the next Train of Thought.

NOTES

1 I was part of a team at Jumblies theatre that conducted one-on-one evaluation interviews about Train of Thought, at the ground Floor, Toronto, Ontario, in 2015. The comments in this article are from that process.

2 Interview with author, 29 July 2015, Toronto, Ontario.

3 Interview with author, 29 July 2015, Toronto, Ontario.

4 Interview with author, 29 July 2015, Toronto, Ontario.

5 Telephone interview with author, 17 July 2015, Toronto, Ontario.

6 Telephone interview with author, 17 July 2015, Toronto, Ontario.

7 Interview with author, 20 August 2015, Toronto. Ontario.

8 Interview with author, 13 July 2015, Toronto, Ontario.

WORKS CITED

Lawrence, Bonita, and Enakshi Dua. “Decolonizing Antiracism.” Social Justice 32.4 (2005): 120-43.

Sharma, Nandita, and Cynthia Wright. “Decolonizing Resistance, Challenging Colonial States.” Social Justice 35.3 (2009):
120-38.

Snelgrove, Corey, Rita Kaur Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel. “Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3.2 (2014): 1-32.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1.1 (2012): 1-40.

At the time of pring, Fiona Raye Clarke was the editor of basodee and the forthcoming anthology black like We. She led the youth oral history theatre project Intergeneracial funded by artreach and the Toronto Arts Council and was expanding her ten-minute play, Broken Windows, with the support of Obsidian Theatre Company and the Ontario Arts Council Theatre Creators’ reserve. At the time, an artist-facilitator at Jumblies theatre, she holds an LLM from Osgoode Hall Law school.