White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

by Peggy Macintosh

Posted by kasama on March 25, 2012

The following essay first appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School. Other pieces describe the structures and evolution of white supremacy in the U.S. This widely circulated essay is a cataloguing of how white supremacy is experienced — by those who are white.  

Today, we would want to start with the questions:

When you walk to the store, are you worried that a crazed armed neighbor will confront and then shoot you because he thinks  you don’t belong there?

When you kiss your son goodbye at the door, do you worry that he might face sudden deadly attack from racist nuts or police authorities?

Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there is most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.

White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women’s studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would want to live.

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.

10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color, who constitute the worlds’ majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

18. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge” I will be facing a person of my race.

19. If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

21. I can go home from most meetings or organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.

25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

26. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in flesh color that more or less matches my skin.

Elusive and Fugitive

I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; ones’ life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

In unpacking this invisible knapsack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted. Nor did I think of any of these perquisites as bad for the holder. I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive.

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions that were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turn, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.

In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.

For this reason, the word privilege now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.

Earned strength, unearned power

I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systematically. Privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. But not all of the privileges on my list are inevitably damaging. Some, like the expectation that neighbors will be decent to you, or that your race will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society. Others, like the privilege to ignore less powerful people, distort the humanity of the holders as well as the ignored groups.

We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies. For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power that I originally say as attendant on being a human being in the United States consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.

I have met very few men who truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see whiteness as a racial identity. In addition, since race and sex are not the only advantaging systems at work, we need similarly to examine the daily experience of having age advantage, or ethnic advantage, or physical ability, or advantage related to nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.

Difficulties and angers surrounding the task of finding parallels are many. Since racism, sexism, and heterosexism are not the same, the advantages associated with them should not be seen as the same. In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage that rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex, and ethnic identity than on other factors. Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking, as the members of the Combahee River Collective pointed out in their “Black Feminist Statement of 1977″.

One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant groups one is taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

Disapproving of the system won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subject taboo. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden system of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

*note: Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges.

Canada’s Colonial Present

by Zainab Amadahy

First Nations people are the original inhabit­ants/caretakers of the land we refer to as Turtle Island, which includes all of North America. Our languages, cultures and very identity are intimately connected to/rooted in this land. To separate us from the land either ideologically or physically is an act of genocide. The very concepts of Canada, Mexico and the US (not to mention every so-called nation in the Americas) are premised on this geno­cide and the concurrent seizure of land and the resources within the land. The standard of living we enjoy in North America (some of us more than others) is founded on genocide, stolen land, stolen resources and stolen African and indigenous people who were enslaved (stolen labour). These original thefts were committed in the past but their legacy impacts us all in the present.

This does not mean that indigenous people don’t recognize other forms of oppression on which capi­talism depends. We want and need to make alli­ances. But we need allies who recognize and take responsibility for their history as settlers on this land (albeit we do not generalize about the settler experience and settler power in Canadian society; we know that not all settlers enjoy the stolen wealth of this land equally.) We need allies who wrestle with the implications of being a settler on anoth­er’s land while they wrestle with the fact that set­tlers are not equally empowered due, in large part, to Canada’s historic and current role in displacing people globally.

Though the relationship between First Nations and European settlers has a longer history, we can only briefly review some of that here in an effort to demonstrate how the colonial past has shaped our colonial present.

The Indian Act

In 1876 Canada passed the Indian Act which imposed the band council system of government on the indigenous people of Turtle Island (North America). Among other things, this law:

• Deposed already existing leadership to estab­lish band councils and the areas over which they had jurisdiction. The Indian Act was passed without consultation with any indigenous leader, usurped the treaty process (nation to nation agreements) and made First Nations (FN) governments null and void, despite the fact that these governments had served our ancestors for millennia before Europe­ans arrived on Turtle Island. This is akin to the US government passing a law that disbanded the cur­rent Canadian government, determined what type of government Canada must have and designated the limitations of its power.

• Made First Nations Communities economi­cally dependent on Ottawa. The federal govern­ment controls the only sources of revenue for social programs, economic development projects or job creation in FN communities. Ottawa determines through a variety of legal and financing mecha­nisms what band councils can and cannot do for their communities. Even the process of pursuing a land claim is legislated by Ottawa, funded (or not) by Ottawa and decided ultimately in Canadian courts. Land usage on FN territories is determined by Ottawa. There are many examples in history when the federal government leased or sold First Nations lands or resources and consequently reaped huge profits that did not accrue to the community. Clearly, the poverty that exists in First Nations communities is, and always has been, by Ottawa’s design.

• Blatantly discriminated against women by recognizing Native descent through the male line so that First Nations citizenship rights for women were recognized only through their fathers’ lineage and husbands’ status, and by prohibiting them from voting or running for office in band elections. This was in complete contradiction to traditional First Nations practices, in which descent for many com­munities was reckoned along the female line, and where women had significant authorities in politi­cal, economic and social life. While there were many nations and many practices, it is safe to generalize and say that women held positions of leadership di­rectly and/or appointed male leaders and held them accountable. This was completely overturned by the Indian Act.

Although women now have the right to vote and run for band office, almost a century of being excluded from political, economic and social deci­sion-making has left First Nations women on and off reserve in very vulnerable situations. Women are among the poorest in First Nations commu­nities. They have been targeted through various amendments to the Indian Act and thousands were stripped of their status along with their homes, benefits and any treaty rights they may have had. The hundreds of women who are missing from our communities, dead and murdered, is a direct result of a deliberate and calculated attack on the rights and authorities of First Nations women by the Ca­nadian government.

• Determined who could call themselves an “Indian” and live in First Nations communities. The Indian Act established an Indian registry and with subsequent amendments there has emerged a com­plex set of legal categories (status and non-status Indians, Treaty Indians, Bill C-31 Indians, etc.) designed to divide and disempower First Nations families and communities. Non-status Indians are those who are not recognized by Ottawa as First Nations. They cannot live in their communities, do not enjoy benefits or treaty rights and are not permitted to participate in band council elections. Again, this is akin to the US determining who could be a Canadian and who could not, as well as who could live here and vote in Canadian elec­tions.

Initially through the use of Indian agents with sweeping powers and more recently through purse strings, Ottawa has controlled band councils, band chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations. Whether this current control is perceived of as friendly or hostile is irrelevant and sidesteps the basic assump­tion that First Nations people are children who cannot manage their own affairs. To recognize that some band councils, their chiefs and police are sin­cerely interested in serving their communities while others are corrupt may be true but fails to recognize that the band council system is itself inherently cor­rupt, paternalistic and racist.

Establishmenof Reserves iCanada

To provide more insight into some aspects of Canada’s colonial foundations, the following is excerpted from a presentation I made on the “Es­tablishment of Reserves in Canada” (delivered on February 3, 2006 during Anti-Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto, organized by the Arab Students Collective and edited and updated on January 17, 2007)

It is important to address the establishment of reserves in the context of the overall genocide proj­ect on Turtle Island.

Today we estimate that about half of all status Indians in Canada live off reserve. So “status In­dians” are people who are actually registered and recognized by the federal government as “Indians” under the Indian Act. When you include non sta­tus Indians, you see that the vast majority of indig­enous peoples in Canada live off reserve and have been living off territory for some generations.

Despite the stereotype that Native people live on reserves or come from a reserve, the reserve experi­ence is only one part of the North American in­digenous experience and it’s a minority experience among indigenous peoples. Even so, it is still inte­gral to understanding the larger picture of where we find ourselves today as indigenous people and it’s important to understanding the history and strug­gles of First Nations communities because they are of course linked to all of our other struggles as in­digenous peoples.

By the way, the politically correct way of refer­ring to reserves these days is First Nations commu­nities, which is the term I’m going to be using from here on.

There are so many legal terms and categories of indigenous people in Canada its mind boggling. To name a few we have status, non status, treaty Indi­ans, Bill C31 Indians, and many, many more.

The way one got registered initially under the Indian Act was to line up in front of the govern­ment-appointed Indian agent’s table whenever he came to your community and register with him. So if you were off hunting the day he was there or you were sick or injured or had just given birth or you were too elderly to make what might be a long trip or you didn’t give a shit about registering or what­ever, and you didn’t make it to register, you and all of your descendants to this day are not “status In­dians,” regardless of your ancestry or how long your ancestors have lived on Turtle Island.

This is important because it is only status Indi­ans who were originally supposed to live in First Nations communities. There were mechanisms, through amendments to the Indian Act, by which indigenous people who had status – and the benefits that came with it – lost status over the years. (One must understand that the so-called benefits were – and are – only available to the extent the govern­ment lived up to the terms of its own legislation or negotiated treaties and provided benefits.) We can’t talk about that much because it’s not the topic. But the benefits on paper include health care, hous­ing, education and so on. But these commitments weren’t kept in whole or in part – or the services were carried out in such a way that they did more harm than good – and today we still find attempts by the feds to extinguish these benefits completely.

The first thing I want to address is where re­serves come from. They were made possible under legislation enacted in 1850 to set aside tracts of land reserved for indigenous communities. There­after, specific reserve territories were negotiated in treaties. So it’s important to understand that not all First Nations signed treaties with the government, particularly on the west coast or in the far north, which means that not all “status Indians” or First Nations bands recognized by the feds have reserves or territories that the settler government recognizes. Even though they may have lived on, cared for and held ceremonies on that land for millennia before European arrival it doesn’t give them legal right to it. That’s why we have, for example, disputes in BC where a corporation has the support of the police and the courts to bulldoze over people’s homes and sweat lodges so it can expand a ski resort.

In addition, there are examples of people whose leaders signed treaties that allocated land to the community but the community never moved onto those lands and thus their descendants fell from the band rolls and never had status. One example, which I learned about when I was helping someone with research for a publication, is a community of Algonquins in the Ottawa valley who were urged by one of their chiefs not to move off territories their ancestors had lived on for generations in favor of relocating onto Golden Lake Reserve. So to this day we have people who live on these territories, carry Algonquin names, still do the ceremonies, still hunt and fish, still care for the wild rice beds but do not have status and do not want status (as they have said in their interviews) and in recent years have issued their own Algonquin identity documents, hunting licenses, fishing licenses, selected their own leaders, established councils to address their com­munity’s needs and so on. Sometimes local officials try to curtail their inherent rights by challenging them in court over the hunting and fishing licenses, or they’ve tried to sell off the wild rice beds to cor­porations or whatever, but to this day the non-sta­tus Algonquin have prevailed.

Back to reserves. So, treaties created reserves. And keep in mind that indigenous leaders who signed treaties did so under duress of one kind or another. In some cases, they signed treaties in return for protection from the Americans or be­cause settler incursion on their lands had resulted in dwindling food supplies and they were facing starvation or whatever. Nevertheless, no indigenous leader ever surrendered their nation’s sovereignty; never gave up their right to self government. Trea­ties were nation to nation agreements.

Then the Indian Act came along in 1876, which usurped the treaty negotiation processes and made the assumption that the settler government had an inherent right to make laws and govern people who already had fully functioning governments of their own. And those governments, by the way, were far more democratic than anything the Euro-Canadi­ans insisted they adopt.

While the traditional governments of the many hundreds of indigenous nations differed from each other in various ways, we can still generalize about some things. For example, we never voted but had consensus decision making processes that involved everyone in the community. Decision making and leadership didn’t exclude women. In fact, we didn’t even exclude children from decision-making.

Basically it’s the Indian Act that to this day gov­erns every aspect of life on reserves and has certainly impacted as well on off reserve indigenous people. The Indian Act decided who was an “Indian” and who wasn’t – who could live in First Nations com­munities. It laid the basis for the residential school system, it completely undermined indigenous sys­tems of governance and imposed a band council system which was modeled on the parliamentary system, it blatantly discriminated against women by denying them the right to vote or run for band council office, and, because it is still an active law, affects us in many, many other ways.

The Indian Act completely contradicted and un­dermined the authorities that indigenous women had in their communities prior to European arrival. While, as I mentioned, practices varied across Tur­tle Island, we can generalize and say that women had significant political roles and responsibilities: in some cases they directly assumed positions of leadership, in other cases they appointed and held leadership accountable. In some cases it was a bit of both of these. But whatever the system, women held significant authorities in government as well as economic, family and community life. This was completely overturned by the Indian act.

Recent scholars like Kim Anderson and Bonita Lawrence have demonstrated that this wasn’t just the result of patriarchal attitudes that coincidental­ly undermined women’s authorities, but that these measures were deliberate, premeditated strategies to disempower indigenous women in order to satisfy the objectives firstly, of causing such disruption to indigenous social organizations that settlers could more easily access the land and the resources within and secondly, satisfied the objective of assimilat­ing indigenous peoples – i.e. cultural genocide. So women were very specifically and deliberately tar­geted in legislation and other repressive measures.

Under the Indian Act, the settler government as­sumed what are called “fiduciary responsibilities” for Indigenous peoples. They could hold land “in trust” for indigenous people and were supposed to make decisions regarding the resources of First Nations communities that were in the best interest of those communities. So we were looked on as children who were incapable of managing our own financial affairs. But of course, we have numerous examples of First Nations lands being sold and leased and so on where the extraordinary profits that resulted did not accrue to the First Nations communities at all but lined the pockets of settlers.

For example, the Whitefish Lake band just re­cently received $37 million in compensation for a deal in 1886 where the band was paid only $399 for their timber rights and a year later the feds sold those rights for $43,000, a huge profit that never accrued to the community. That’s a somewhat hap­py ending but there are many bands still awaiting some form of justice in Canadian courts or haven’t gotten to Canadian courts.

The feds even today control how First Nations lands are developed, which is the main reason why unemployment rates in First Nations communities is and always has been high. Today unemployment rates are between 50 and 80 percent (Assembly of First Nations’ website: hyyp://www.afn.ca/). There are few jobs, many seasonal, because there is no commercial or industrial activity unless the feds make it possible and when they do make it possible there are often conditions or situations that result in jobs going to people outside the community, to non-Natives. There’s a lot of disparity among re­serves but, by and large, we’re certainly not talk­ing about wealthy communities. So the impover­ishment of those communities was created and is maintained by design (as is most poverty).

Early on, life on reserves was very much characterized by the arbitrary abuses of power of Indian agents. Indian agents were appointed by the feds, assigned to each First Nations community and giv­en extraordinary powers to enforce the Indian Act and control every aspect of life. The Indian Agent:

• Could depose traditional leaders and replace them with band council chiefs.

• Was not elected but could overturn elected band council decisions and remove elected chiefs from office.

• Could withhold food rations or use them to coerce people to sign documents or whatever else was wanted. In fact they could force or coerce the signing of land treaties and other agreements with impunity.

• Were the arresting officer, prosecutor and judge in the community.

• Had the power to determine who qualified as a Status Indian. As I mentioned, they did the origi­nal count for the Indian registry that was basically a complete farce. They also interpreted the amend­ments to the Indian Act that further defined status, which I’ll speak to later.

• Upon the death of a band member, the Indian Agent dispersed property and valuables (that often ended up in their own pockets).

• Had the power to determine who could live on reserve and who could visit. So when a woman lost status due to the discriminatory aspects of the Indian Act, the Indian Agent could evict her and deny her the right to return to live or even visit her family and friends. An amendment addressing trespassing allowed for the Indian Agent to arrest anybody visiting a reserve after dark.

• Anyone who wanted to work for wages off re­serve had to obtain the permission of the Indian Agent who, if he approved, would issue a pass stat­ing where one could go and for how long.

• Was complicit in coercing or forcing par­ents to send their children to residential schools. And they weren’t above kidnapping children and handing them over to school officials. (Residential schools, contracted out by the feds to the churches, were places where children as young as four were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse; where they were forced to work in fields, shops and laundries; where some children, because of the treatment they received, ended up dead.) The last federally run school closed in 1988, so we’re not talking about ancient history here.

• Made decisions concerning the use of reserve lands. For example, he could decide to lease lands out to pulp and paper mills or mining companies. In Kahnawake in 1954, the Indian agent, without consultation, ceded a huge tract of territory for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In the passage below, Dan Ennis of the Tobique First Nation gives a first hand account of life under the Indian Agent’s authority (from Sharing our Wa­banaki Perspective by Dan Ennis, http://www.unb.edu/web/bruns/0001/issue5/oped/wabanaki.html).

“In 1940, when I was a child, I experienced the poison of the racist mindset firsthand. It was a trau­matic experience for a boy of three or four to watch as my dad was taken away from our small family to jail because he tried to keep his family warm. It was cold and we needed wood for heat so my dad went out to the woods to cut firewood for his family. He did it without asking permission from the Indian agent because the Indian agent was away on vaca­tion. As it was winter, my father could not wait to ask for permission. He knew he had to take care of his family and that wouldn’t wait for the return of the Indian agent. My dad did what had to be done.

“When the Indian agent returned from vaca­tion, he was immediately informed about my dad’s wood cutting. My father was summoned to the Indian agent’s office where he confirmed that he had, in fact, cut the wood for his family. The Indian agent tried him and found him guilty of an offence and imposed a sentence of five days in jail to teach him a lesson. Within the span of just a few minutes from leaving his home, my father was in jail for cut­ting wood to keep his family warm.

“In those days, the white Indian agent was god on the reserve. He was accountable to absolutely no one and certainly not in any way to the Indian people. The irony of this particular situation is that the wood cut by my father at that time was located on Indian reserve land and there was no such legis­lation to charge my father with this offense. It was simply the white Indian agent’s way of asserting his power, control and authority over my father and our people. My dad had to be made an example to en­sure no other Indians would get similar ideas about doing anything without the agent’s permission.”

So that gives us some taste of the kind of cor­ruption that was enshrined in the government and justice systems imposed on First Nations commu­nities. It really makes me laugh bitterly when I hear of Canadian officials these days charging First Na­tions bands or band members with being corrupt. The system itself is corrupt and settler authorities and Christian clergy over the years have hardly ever been role models of integrity and honesty.

Through various amendments to the Indian Act, we also saw over time an erosion in the total amount of territory allocated to First Nations communities. In some cases, reserves were dissolved or relocated to allow for the expansion of towns and municipali­ties, like Edmonton, for example. A 1911 amend­ment allowed portions of reserves to be seized by municipalities for roads, railways or other public purposes. A couple of amendments prohibited First Nations from contesting in court decisions where all or parts of their territories were taken. The law for a crucial time very blatantly prohibited Indian people from hiring lawyers, filing court papers and even raising money with the intent of contesting a land claim. In 1936 the Department of Indian Affairs was transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Mines and Re­sources, which made it even clearer what the settler government was really concerned about.

As reserve territories were being stolen, exploit­ed or encroached on by settlers there were also In­dian Act amendments that were designed to strip people of their status (particularly women) and force them off reserves. The rationale for this was, as I mentioned, assimilation – or cultural genocide – another form of genocide.

So women who married non-status men, wheth­er they were white or not, lost their status, benefits and treaty rights and had to leave their communi­ties and families. It was a completely discrimina­tory process, not in the least because, when men did the same thing, they were allowed to keep their status and, in fact, status would be granted to their white or non-status wives and even step children that pre-existed the marriage. So you had white set­tlers with status cards and the right to live in First Nations communities while there were full blooded indigenous women who couldn’t set foot on their territories. This was in complete contradiction to matrilineal indigenous practices where the mother’s nationality and clan membership determined the child’s.

Some men and their families as well lost status and the right to live in First Nations communities when they enlisted in the military or in some cases when they enrolled in secondary educational insti­tutions or, until 1960, when they wanted to vote in federal elections. Sometimes whole communities were declared non status so that their land could be taken, and that affected everyone. Blood quantum became an issue at various times and enabled the eviction of people from reserves because they were deemed to not have enough Indian blood (From “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Na­tive Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood by Bonita Lawrence. University of Nebraska Press. 2004). In 1951 an Indian Act amendment made provincial law applicable in First Nations communities to cov­er gaps in federal legislation and this paved the way for what we now call the “60s scoop” because it gave provincial child welfare agencies the power to seize hundreds of First Nations children and place them in non-indigenous foster homes, again furthering the genocide project.

There are many stories of the experiences of what happened to people after they were stripped of their status. The traumatic implications of having to leave your home and family for often urban set­tings where you may not have spoken the language, where there was no community, family, financial or emotional support of any kind are huge. Increas­ingly non-status communities have been organiz­ing. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of time to discuss that now but Bonita Lawrence’s book, Real Indians and Others, speaks to the history of non-status, mixed race indigenous communities and some of the struggles people have faced over the generations.

According to some analyses, amendments to the Indian Act since 1951 are considered friendlier to indigenous peoples because they were made in consultation with indigenous organizations or were made in response indigenous activists who lobbied for the changes. Bill C31, another amendment to the Indian Act passed in 1985, falls into this cat­egory of being a “friendly amendment.” C31 ad­dressed the concerns of women who had lost their status, housing, benefits and access to their com­munities through marrying non-status men. C31 allowed them to apply for status and something like 120,000 women have had their status reinstat­ed. What is often not mentioned however is that 107,000 women did not have their status reinstated after applying. The federal government of course determined all the criteria and conditions regard­ing who could have their status reinstated.

The C31 amendment has been criticized about, among other things, the “second generation cut-off,” which prohibits reinstated women from pass­ing status on to their children. So it doesn’t address the genocide issue at all. Basically if we accept the definitions of status offered by the Indian Act, it’s been predicted that First Nations people will cease to exist in a few generations. Not because the actual people have ceased to exist but because the legally defined category of “Indians” (i.e., First Nations people) won’t exist and everybody will be unregis­tered, non status and assimilated. We’ll all be Cana­dians with no land rights and no recognition of our inherent rights as Aboriginal peoples generally.

Of course sovereigntists question the right of the Canadian parliament now or at any other time in history to make laws that govern our nations, in­cluding laws that define who is and is not a member of our nations, where our territorial boundaries lie and so on.

So, that’s a very brief synopsis of how reserves were established and it should give the reader in­sight into the history of some of the struggles be­ing waged today by First Nations people on Turtle Island. It should also help people question the myth commonly referred to as the “Canadian history.” The simple truth is that the land and resources of First Nations people have been subsidizing the Canadian economy for generations. The basis of the wealth and standard of living that we enjoy on Turtle Is­land is premised on the theft of land and resources from the First Peoples, a process that continues to this day.

While First Nations children were being abused in residential schools and foster care, the colonizers were reaping huge profits exploiting the resources of First Nations territories. While First Nations people were being jailed for hunting and fishing without a license or for working off their reserves without a pass from the Indian agent, the settlers passed laws that said, for example, that “Indians” could not sell their produce in Toronto’s St. Law­rence market (because white farmers didn’t want the competition).

Nevertheless our communities across Turtle Island continue to struggle with great courage for their very survival as well as the inherent rights of future generations. While most media like to focus on dramatic events like the Oka Crisis, the murder of activist Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park or the current Six Nations land reclamation (all important struggles), anti-genocidal activities are practiced in all communities and include things as basic as cultural and language programs.

In this struggle, our Elders, cultural leaders and warriors talk about a paradigm shift that recognizes our relationship to the land on which we depend for life; recognizes our roles and responsibilities to each other in a community that includes other spe­cies besides human beings as well as those yet to be born. They speak of spiritual development, dig­nity and peace. In their wisdom we find a system of values that challenges political, economic and social institutions of Canada. In the wisdom of Elders we find encouragement to share, trade, learn, grow and create something new and wondrous.

Zainab Amadahy is a writer, activist, community worker and an active member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Her achievements include contributing to the anthology, Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, co-edited by Bonita Lawrence and Kim Anderson (2004, Sumach Press) as well as author­ing Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press). Zainab is a founding member of the Coalition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty, is a Board member of the Association of Native Development in the Performing & Visual arts and is the Executive Director of Community Arts Ontario.