6. 7. 2024

The Student Encampment Movement is Part of a History of Militant Struggle Against Settler Colonialism

John Carlson

Since the mid-to-late nineteenth century, settler colonialism in Canada has been a social project of mobilizing masses of people to consolidate a society grounded on generalized commodity production and exchange: the capitalist system. The dispossession of Indigenous nations from our lands and the reduction of Indigenous people’s political power have been essential to the development and reproduction of a white-supremacist class society, grounded on the colonial divide between Indigenous peoples and settlers. Central to that project is what many Indigenous and settler-colonial studies scholars call the logic of elimination: the colonial acquisition of land through the attempted comprehensive destruction of Indigenous nations as sovereignties that compete with settler sovereignty, and of Indigenous societies as forms of social practice founded on radically egalitarian and democratic norms.

This logic of elimination has been instituted in a variety of ways – from the Canadian state to Palestine. These range from state-sanctioned genocidal violence, such as the deliberate withholding of food on the Prairies in the nineteenth century; to the systematic abandonment of Indigenous communities today, who are forced to drag rivers in search of their missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit (MMIWG2S+) kin; to the settler working-class violence and brutality that has claimed the lives of many, including Helen Betty Osborne and, more recently, Barbara Kentner. In all cases, it expresses the reality of a society created, reproduced, and structured around systematic violence and repression. Although no longer sustained through open war and military campaigns as in Israel, settler colonialism in Canada is a mediated form of domination that permeates all spheres of social life.

However, the historical process through which settler colonialism has evolved cannot be understood simply in terms of domination. It must be grasped equally as a result of Indigenous agency. While the logic of elimination on Turtle Island was virtually unfettered and aimed at the complete destruction of Indigenous nations for a century and a half of settler-colonial rule, over time Indigenous organizing has coerced the state and capital to reform the colonial relation. Above all, this history has been driven by the self-activity of Indigenous grassroots activists and organizations, which have been forced to struggle outside state-sanctioned and legally authorized forms of political activity. From the Kenora March of 1965, to the Occupation of Anicinabe Park and the Native People’s Caravan in the mid-’70s, down to the major resistance against the Canadian army at Kanehstà:ke in 1990 and the Wet’suwet’en Uprising of 2020, Indigenous peoples have organized autonomously in the form of occupations, camps, blockades, and travelling campaigns, among other tactics. In these ways, they have developed a coercive counter-power capable of enforcing their inherent rights as sovereign nations denied to them by the state – meeting colonial and capitalist power head on.

During the Red Power era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, these tactics were anchored in a political strategy of Third Worldism, which conceived Indigenous self-determination and national liberation in North America as intrinsically related to the liberation of all colonized nations around the world, including Palestine. Those nations were explicitly understood as kin in struggle, oppressed by a single, totalizing global imperialism. Although settler colonialism remains a structural reality in Canada, Indigenous peoples’ courageous and defiant militant labour – including but certainly not limited to that of the Red Power period – has made inroads towards partially mitigating the violence of the colonial system, and towards establishing the possibility of more radical, systemic social transformation.  

We see the necessity of this kind of politics also in today’s student-led encampment movement for Palestinian liberation. The students courageously organizing and sustaining the encampments with their labour demonstrate, once again, the need to organize autonomously beyond the narrow, repressive norms of dominant political and institutional processes – to raise the critique of Israeli settler colonialism and the genocide of Palestinians, as well as expose the complicity of Canadian imperialism and the universities with which the students have an immediate relation. In the same way as Indigenous struggle here has restored dignity and transformed individuals and collectives – developing their knowledge and capacities for self-determination, as well as fostering the relations of solidarity among Indigenous peoples and anti-colonial settlers necessary for a new society – the students active in the encampment movement are cultivating a transformative practice: one that develops their knowledge, and builds their capacities and relations for the kind of political struggle we need if we’re to challenge settler colonialism on Turtle Island and in Palestine.   

Crucially, more than a simple analogy between settler colonialism in Canada and in Palestine is at play. Both colonial projects are shaped by many of the same social relations, central among which are imperialist tendencies grounded on capitalist relations of production, with their structural imperative of endless capital accumulation and expansion. These dynamics not only drive settler colonialism on Turtle Island and facilitate the colonization of Palestine, but they also lead to geopolitical competition for domination of the entire Middle East, involving Western powers along with other imperialist powers such as China and Russia.

Due to the structural power of these ruling-class relations, the struggle against settler colonialism in Canada and the struggle for national liberation in Palestine must develop the radical working-class struggle as a whole: creating the leverage to enhance the effective power of our grassroots autonomous activity and organizations, and confronting the long-term challenge of transforming our relations with the earth and each other, beyond the dehumanizing confines of a global society that necessitates settler colonialism to sustain itself. 

Ndinawemaaganag – All My Relations

John Carlson is Kingfisher clan Anishinaabe and a member of the Red Rock Indian Band. He is also an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa in the department of Criminology. 

The analysis and connections elaborated in this brief article were made possible by the brave and committed work of INSAF uOttawa and the Palestinian Students Association, who are leading the student encampment at the University of Ottawa with support from Students for Justice in Palestine and Independent Jewish Voices from Carleton University.