ses·qui·cen·ten·ni·al: a one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary.
Canada 150. Canada, the nation-state, the former British colony-turned-dominion, turns one-hundred and fifty years this year. And as the sesquicentennial festivities around the country celebrates the occasion, corporations and institutions are licking their chops with the prospect of cashing in on all of that celebratory, patriotic goodne$$.
Now, if that sounds rather cynical and overly sarcastic, it’s meant to be. But this post isn’t to highlight How Indigenous people are rebranding Canada 150. It isn’t even to harp on what it means for the thousands of indigenous communities who see this occasion as a celebration of 150+ years of colonization. This small post wouldn’t do justice … and nor would I feel inclined to speak for indigenous communities.
It’s uncomfortable thinking about these issues. Countless churches, big and small, visit native reservations as a missions trip. I’ve gone on one and although I will reserve my personal opinions on the subject, I can’t help but self-reflexively think to myself: How am I complicit in the colonization of indigenous communities? In what ways have I been reproducing or legitimizing the Canadian state’s ability to silence indigenous voices and coerce them into the nation-state body politic?
Issues of settler-colonialism are precisely uncomfortable for me because they are so insidiously interwoven through the mundane practices of my life. What I purchase, what I consume, what I value, my priorities and concerns, my very identities, and the stories I tell myself are all ways in which I unwittingly contribute to the colonization of indigenous communities. Canada’s sesquicentennial then allows us to think what it means to be an immigrant, a settler-colonialist, “Korean”, “Canadian”, “Korean-Canadian”. It allows us to consider how our immigration stories are set apart from settler colonialism when the two are mutually reinforcing.
I am reminded of a powerful passage I encountered while researching settler colonial practices and policies several years ago. In a chapter titled, “Unmaking Native Space,” Paige Raibmon puts it concisely: “under settler colonialism the displacement of original inhabitants and the arrival of new ones are mutually reinforcing projects. Yet historians have long treated colonization and immigration – the twin histories of indigenous lands and settler lands – as separate topics.”
What I am proposing is wrestling with what that might mean for Korean-Canadian immigrant communities more broadly, and Korean-Canadian immigrant churches specifically. I wish to tentatively argue that working out our identity does not happen in a vacuum (nor should it); it must take into consideration the kind of discursive violence produced in moments when we consider issues of “Korean-ness”. In pursuing a certain ethical way of articulating a Korean-Canadian identity, I am suggesting that considering the settler-colonialist aspect of our immigrant status may allow us to discover deeply submerged kinds of brokenness specific to the Korean-Canadian immigrant context while allowing us to look outwards so that we might stand in solidarity with indigenous communities facing various insidious forms of structural violence. As a Christian, I feel that with the full reconciliatory power of the Gospel, issues of identities can be worked out in ways that simultaneously address social injustices.
Settler-colonialists in the Canadian context have typically been represented as either the fur traders or the white homesteading family hailing from the Old World. While enduring Canada’s harsh winters and humid summers, families would scratch out a living in the Canadian wilderness. In doing so, they would settle on what they considered “virgin” land, when in reality they would be settling on land inhabited by indigenous communities. With a deed and title, they would “possess” the land and have legal ownership over it. That in itself is problematic but what was even more insidious about this kind of appropriation was what happened at the ideological level. Essentially, in “settling” the land and having legal title to it, settlers were engaging in processes that legitimize the colonizing power and its claim to the land. In other words, settlers are calling on the colonizing power to recognize them as settlers, as citizens. And in the moment sellers call on the colonizing power for recognition, the state is reified or brought into being. This settlers carve out an identity within the growing population gaining both political representation and affluence. This would happen under the assumption that settlers were superior (racially, ethnically, etc.) to those they had replaced, indigenous communities.
I understand that this may not be new to many people. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission has highlighted the kind of genocide that was happening in Canada over the past few centuries. You might have come across certain aspects of this in highschool while covering Canadian residential schools and the violent and coerced assimilation of entire indigenous communities.
Therefore, pardon my over simplification. However, I point this out to ask whether any of this resonates with any of us as immigrants, as “Korean-Canadian” immigrants. For me at least, the struggle to articulate my identity (or identities) has been an ongoing conflict-ridden struggle. At times, it’s been a depressing experience to continually face the kind of racism that slaps me across the face. At other times, it feels revelatory and cathartic when one of our own has “made” it big while pursuing (and achieving) their career aspirations or entrepreneurial activities.
In carving out our unique place within the framework of “Canada” we unwittingly contribute towards the ongoing systematic and violent erasure of indigenous communities. And for many of us, we could care less because we’re consumed by our own (ethnic, racial, economic) issues to begin with.
And for some or many, that would be fine. “Let them deal with it through the proper channels” we would silently remind ourselves. “What do indigenous claims to sovereignty have anything to do with us?” we would ask.
Indigenous claims to sovereignty starts and some scholars would argue, end with land claims. Although land was never conceived as one in which possession was defined strictly by legal title, indigenous communities and those who stand in solidarity with them, have had to work within these legal parameters and fight tooth and nail for every legal victory. This is difficult for a community that never conceived of land as private property to be owned, sold, and purchased.
Thus their legal victories should be seen as a victory for all of us. Resisting what geographer, David Harvey refers to as processes of accumulation by dispossession are important in understanding the ways in which lands considered sacred to indigenous communities for generations have rapidly been appropriated or seized by multinational corporations intent on either stripping it of all resources or facilitating gentrification efforts that would create consumerist spaces. We see this most evidently in Western Canada but this is actually happening across the world. In our growing appetite for consumer goods and land, the demand is considerable to say the least. More often than not, these resource extraction processes and legal battles over land possession are being fought on indigenous land and resisted by indigenous communities.
So … I just went from talking about Canada’s sequiscentennial to settler-colonialism, only to pivot towards indigenous land claims and resource extraction. Where does that leave us? As I’m prone to asking, ‘so what?’
Before I (tentatively) begin to speak on what we should do or at least pay attention to, I’ll begin with what we shouldn’t.
What we shouldn’t do is disregard our ethnicity. I’m not suggesting we ignore our very complicated ethnic history as Korean immigrants. To the contrary, I am suggesting we take an even closer look at what it means for us to articulate a Korean identity and the messiness that brings. To subscribe to this notion that we are a group of immigrants happily living in a multicultural country is a sad window-dressing way of looking past our own complicated history as immigrants. And to not engage with issues of the past would serve as an immense disservice to our parents while completely ignoring the persisting issues of implicit and explicit forms of racism we are faced with today. We don’t live in a “post-racial” or “colour-blind” society. We shouldn’t entertain a strictly “let’s move on” way of looking at our situation. There are certain Korean immigrant issues that simmer underneath the surface. Issues that have real, eternal, kingdom implications for those in the immigrant churches. I don’t even know where to begin to be honest with you, but there’s a lot of brokenness there – a lot of missed opportunities – in engaging with first generation Koreans. And a lot of lost brothers and sisters, relatives, cousins, aunts and uncles, moms and dads.
What we shouldn’t do is ignore the bigger picture. For the sake of my argument, I’ve attempted to link Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy to not only our own consumerist consumption but the ways in which our attempted articulations of our immigrant status completely shrouds our ability to think clearly on these important issues. I mean, we’re struggling with what it means to be a Korean minority; to know how that identity is intertwined with our status as settler-colonialists should unsettle us and make us uncomfortable at the least.
Having said all that, I do wish to propose some questions.
- What would it look like to truly dive deep into our ethnic history as Korean-Canadians? How might our parents’ experience after the Korean War have an impact on how we look at the world today? Do we take that for granted? How might that change the way we engage with broader issues of inequality and injustice.
- Have we been so caught up with the success narrative that we turn a blind eye to what it means to live ethically?
- If we were too dig deep into the abyss of our brokenness or be made aware of them, how vibrant would our prayers look like? What would we pray for?
- Where might we discard these old notions of “helping” people and choose to pursue Kingdom ideas of partnering with those on the frontiers battling tooth and nail against those who gamble our future away for present gains?
I’m still working this out in my own head-space; I don’t pretend to know everything that is going on. I would welcome any thoughts.