“Let me begin with a story. A story from your history. One that I hope will stay in your minds as you think about our common future.”
These are words taken from a speech recently delivered by Justin Trudeau, a well-known Canadian politician, to the thousands of Muslims in attendance at the most recent Reviving the Islamic Spirit convention. I was not in attendance at the conference, but after reading Trudeau’s speech, which he published on the Huffington Post, I was enraged by his audacity in simplifying the experiences of marginalized people in Canada, erasing histories of colonization and dispossession, and spreading a classist and colonial message to the Muslim community, as a means of placating any thoughts of resistance.
Here on MMW, we have written about RIS in the past, mainly focusing on the presence (or lack thereof) of female speakers and perspectives (see our three posts from RIS 2011, 2009 in two parts, and 2008). At a glance—since I did not attend the conference—it seemed that there was some progress, in that this year there were five women who were on the speaking list (sad that such a low number is considered to be an “improvement”) who also spoke about issues that went beyond topics of “women” and the “family.”
As important as it is to write about the ways that we, as Muslim women, are pigeonholed or are restricted from full participation, I believe there are other matters that need to be called to attention. So, as a Muslim woman, I have decided to provide a critical lens on Trudeau’s speech to highlight the interconnectivity of communities that fall outside the white-Christianized-middle-class mythical foundations of the colonial Canadian project.
Trudeau was originally criticized by some right-wing groups and the media for speaking at RIS, because of claims that one of the co-sponsoring organizations of the conference, IRFAN-Canada, fundraised money to support Hamas-affiliated organizations. Due to the publicity that the controversy garnered, IRFAN pulled out of the conference due to the allegations, which resulted in the revoking of their charitable status by the Canada Revenue Agency last year. IRFAN is currently in the process of challenging the allegations and decisions to revoke their status and has denied any connections to funding Hamas who is the governing body of the Gaza Strip in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, the criticisms of Trudeau’s talk that I am about to address are of a different nature.
Canada’s Nation Myth
Liberal Member of Parliament Justin Trudeau, for those who don’t know, comes from a family that is renowned in recent Canadian history. His father, Pierre Trudeau (now deceased), was a French-Canadian Prime Minister of Canada and was known for “bringing the constitution home,” thus, allowing Canadians to amend their laws without having to consult with the Queen of England. Pierre Trudeau has been revered as a bold hero in Canadian history, however his intention to do away with grievances of indigenous communities under the White Paper (which would have dissolved aboriginal status along with other provisions) are often down-played. Today, Justin Trudeau seems to have become the legacy-holder of his father.
Canada has developed its own identity through the erasure of other stories that complicate the national story that Canada is a country founded on peace, justice and human rights. One way of coming to terms with these contradictions this is to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a post-colonial world and in fact, colonial processes are on-going in both the Americas and the Global South. These processes are the same written scripts that are etched on to the bodies of both Muslim and non-Muslim men and women who fall outside of the white-able-bodied-middle-class norm. My critique of Justin Trudeau’s message is grounded in theories that seek to put into question who is deemed Canadian in regards to citizenship and socio-cultural values, whereby those that stand outside the category of “whiteness” must constantly prove that they are not radical or extreme and thus are deserving of citizenship and whatever rights that tie into such a status.
Trudeau’s words of encouraging “shared values and common ground” are intertwined with the colonial myth of the creation of Canada’s history starting with the English and French settlers on otherwise “uninhabited territory.” He patronizes the audience by telling them to listen up and take in their history, now that they have been assimilated into Canada and are no longer of the soils they once toiled, walked and lived. He continues the drama by speaking of a mysterious man who, apparently like the Muslim community, dealt with the struggles of remaining true to his values, while “serving the interest of the society” to which they belong. Trudeau goes on to stress that this “young man” is a very “important part of your [read: our, read: those of us from lands far from here] history.” Now that you are a Canadian (which ignores the fact that a significant percentage of those in the audience are landed immigrants, refugees, international students, international visitors, or have had their status revoked at some point, or otherwise not full citizens), you must forget the histories of the countries in which we, our parents fled due to war, famine and the need to escape lack of economic opportunity.
As the suspense builds up to who this “brave young man is” we find out that it is none other than Mr. Trudeau’s second-favourite prime minister, Wilfred Laurier (in office from 1896-1911) who was the first Francophone prime minister of Canada. Caught in between the tensions of “English v. French, Protestant v. Catholic,” Laurier, according to Trudeau, is the man to look to when trying to seek ways to find common ground and shared values.
I’m sorry, but where is the recognition of many Native nations who were experiencing the establishment and breaking of treaties that were made in bad faith by the Crown (Canadian government) in his imagining of the tensions felt by those living on the same land? To complicate matters further, he manages to erase the stories of Chinese, Indian and African populations whose labour contributed to the state of Canada as we have come to know it.
He then quotes Laurier,
“In what other country under the sun, can you find a similar monument reared to the memory of the conquered as well as of the conqueror? In what other country under the sun, will you find the names of the conquered and the conqueror equally honored and occupying the same place in respect of the population? Where is the Canadian who, comparing his country even with the freest countries, would not feel proud of the institutions that protect him?”
Huh…the “conquered as well as the conqueror,” eh? (Yeah, I know, how “Canadian” of me.) The conquered he is referring to are the French after the battle at the Plains of Abraham, while the conqueror are the British – one of the main reasons that Canada’s main language is English. However, Mr. Trudeau, why not discuss the fact that the British and the French were both conquerors of a land that belonged to many nations who were indigenous and that these nations should be given the same honour as the French and English? In the words of Metis scholar, Bonita Lawrence, in Sherene Razack’s book Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society,
“in order to maintain Canadians’ self-image as a fundamentally “decent” people innocent of any wrongdoing, the historical record of how the land was acquired– the forcible and relentless dispossession of Indigenous peoples, the theft of their territories, and the implementation of legislation and policies designed to effect their total disappearance as peoples–must be erased.”
I find it appalling that a well-known politician, especially one who is in an opposing party to the majority-led Conservative government of Stephen Harper, would not begin to change the script – especially at a time where indigenous people across the country, with support from all across the continent, are building a mass grassroots movement, called “Idle No More.” The country of the “true north, strong and free” is witnessing a liquids-only hunger strike by chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat reserve, who has been largely ignored by the Prime Minister until his recent decision to meet with her last Friday January 11th. Her hunger strike is in protest of the deplorable treatment of Indigenous communities in processes that are deploying the colonial project of assimilation and erasure. However, the movement consists of issues that go beyond Chief Spence. Only four days after his talk at RIS, Trudeau, like many other opposing politicians made a visit to Chief Spence on Victoria Island in Ottawa. Trudeau tweeted “It was deeply moving to meet @ChiefTheresa today. She is willing to sacrifice everything for her people. She shouldn’t have to. #IdleNoMore.” However, Trudeau’s failing to make connections to Idle No More in his speech goes hand in hand with his attempt to pacify those present at RIS, emphasizing the importance of being moderate in times of tension.
Our Communities are Connected
As Trudeau kept up his binary conceptions of who this nation was composed of before regulated immigration, it is important to recognize just how politically motivated his speech was. The Muslim community in many Western countries in the post-911 era have been shocked into silence. We have become a community that is afraid to audaciously speak out against injustice. Instead, we have internalized the “don’t bite the hand that feeds” rhetoric that does nothing but make us complicit and docile.
Trudeau says of the story he relayed of Wilfred Laurier:
“This is our inheritance. One that has been renewed by successive generations to this very day.
That two peoples who had been enemies came together to build institutions — and a Constitution — that guaranteed freedom not only for one another, but for all who would come after them.
They were joined in this great project over the years by people of every conceivable culture, religion and ethnicity.”
We need to remember that the call to be moderate in times of great tension is coming from a man who has expressed his support for the apartheid and colonial Israeli state. I am enraged that a politician who has no real interest in seeing immigrant communities demand better was given a platform to speak to the Muslim community that also has witnessed deportations and an uneven proportion of surveillance by Canadian government officials and bodies. By fueling the fear of speaking out, Trudeau’s message implies: “shut up immigrants, don’t complain. Share your food, songs and dance. Shh…kumbaya…everything is going to be OK.” Don’t think about raising hell about the bombing of Gaza. Messages similar to the ones expressed by Trudeau play on the fears of a community of being seen as “foreigners” and dangerous to the wider public. These messages play on the fear of having citizenship-status or permanent residence being revoked or denied. Ultimately, these messages wish to assimilate newcomer populations and subdue any form of resistance.
If you think that it couldn’t have gotten worse — it does:
“For it is not the political class, but the middle class, that unites this country. Open to all, our broad and diverse middle class is Canada’s centre of gravity. Good people. People with common hopes and common challenges, coming together to find common ground.”
Well, he got one thing right. It definitely isn’t the political class that brought any good to this country. Instead, it was the many people on the front lines who protested who obtained gains like voting for Natives, Native-status for women marrying non-Native men, demanded the work week and labour laws that those of us in the non-precarious sector take for granted, and so many other examples.
But what’s this about the middle class being the ones that “unite” this country? Underlying the idea that they are the good citizens is the classist notion that those outside of the middle-class are degenerate leeches of the state. The “middle-class” that Trudeau speaks of does not take into account, for example, the agriculture and migrant workers who leave their homes and families in Mexico to earn a meagre but better wage than in their home country, who cultivate the foods we purchase from grocery stores, the Filipina women who raise some people’s children, to provide for their own left behind, the refugee who has fled civil war, these are all apparently not a part of the Canadian landscape. In fact, the state and capital that is accrued from their labour – and that allows his beloved middle class to exist – depends on their invisibility.
The last paragraph ends with another quote by our “hero” Laurier:
“We do not want or wish that any individual should forget the land of his origin. Let them look to the past, but let them still more look to the future. Let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children. Let them become Canadians and give their heart, their soul, their energy, and all their power to Canada.”
If this means to fail to acknowledge that the land Canada asserts for itself belongs to the various indigenous nations that lived here prior to European contact. and to forget the countries of origin that we originate from because we are “Canadian” now, I say: No, thank you.
The Idle No More movement is central to decolonizing our own diverse experiences. As immigrants, we have been lied to and told that this is a land of opportunity, a land of peace, a land of principle based on human rights and justice. But if we dig a little deeper, we will realize that our Muslim duty to speak out and act against injustice needs to be exercised.
We have been conditioned into thinking that our movements and struggles are separate and disconnected from what our own communities experience. But how about revealing the fact that there are some Muslims who are also indigenous in Canada, and who don’t necessarily have the support of their Muslim community to support and stand in solidarity with them and their ethnic communities? Trudeau’s presence and speech at RIS was an affront to the absolute necessity to reveal the ways that our diverse communities and the nuanced ways we experience oppression are interconnected.