Making Montreal a ‘Solidarity City’

Two-Day Conference Rallies for Migrants’ Rights

Ellen Gabriel admitted during a discussion at Concordia she has seen little real change since starting as an aboriginal rights activist over 20 years ago. Photo Andrew Brennan

Standing in front of a packed conference room on Saturday, Ellen Gabriel admitted that even after over 20 years of advocating for aboriginal rights, she hasn’t seen much change.

“We as indigenous people—with the people who are descendents of the Europeans, people who are coming to find a better life here in Canada—you can equate our relationship in some ways to a building,” said the Turtle clan member of the Kanehsatake Mohawk territory.

“Canadians are in the basement [waiting for an elevator] and indigenous peoples are on the top floor waiting for you to hear us, to see us, to listen to us.

“That relationship we’ve been trying to get with Europeans and their descendents for over 500 years has not gotten any better—why? Because of ignorance, because of racism, because we are the ones to be afraid of.”

Gabriel, former head of the Quebec Native Women’s Association and spokesperson during the 1990 Oka Crisis, was speaking at Concordia as part of a two-day conference titled Building a Solidarity City.

The weekend-long panel discussion and workshop series, put on by migrant justice group Solidarity Across Borders, attracted an estimated 100 people to engage with separate but connected causes and initiatives revolving around the struggle of migrants and other marginalized groups around the world, including indigenous communities.

A Panel for Perspective

Workshops were held on both Saturday and Sunday, with topics ranging from “Education for All” to “Making Shelters Safe Spaces For All.” The conference began with a panel discussion featuring activists from various indigenous communities within Quebec and around the country, as well as a representative of the Nahua peoples in Mexico who is currently seeking asylum in Canada.

The discussion primarily highlighted injustices facing indigenous populations and modern colonialism in Canada.

Bridget Tolley, founder of Sisters in Spirit and its subsequent reformation as Families of Sisters in Spirit, opened the discussion with the story of her mother.

Gladys Tolley was struck and killed by a police vehicle in 2001, and Bridget says the investigation into her mother’s death was mishandled.

Ever since, Tolley has been seeking a public inquiry into her mother’s death, which she says propelled her to create the support network for the families of missing and murdered native women. She also helped begin the annual vigil for missing and murdered native women, held every year in the fall.

Chelsea Vowel and Amanda Lickers turned the conversation to colonialism in Canada and began outlining to the audience of students and other allies the ways aboriginal communities are still affected by intergenerational trauma stemming from past injustices.

Vowel said she believes First Nations should focus less on solely affirming their rights and more on safeguarding their traditional land.

“We need to come up with a different way of talking about [our rights],” she said.

“Of course we don’t want to say, ‘Forget your rights and forget social justice and let’s not try to do anything,’ but we need to instead think about your position here as being one of forming new relationships rather than trying to get rights, because that rights-based dialogue is just people scrambling for little bits of the pie.”

Lickers also spoke of the need for open dialogue between communities.

“If we don’t have relationships with the peoples whose territories we’re occupying, there is no way we can be in solidarity with those people,” she said.

The strife of the indigenous populations was connected to that of migrants to Canada by Carmelo Monge, a displaced Mexican Nahua man, who told the audience what he thinks of large corporations causing the mass displacement of indigenous peoples around the world.

“One of the most important movements of migration is the rural exodus that’s been happening since the 16th century,” he said. “This is the movement of millions of people from the countryside to the city in all the countries in the world […] looking for better conditions of life and better opportunities for employment.”

While he spoke specifically of the mining companies in Mexico, Monge says their incursions onto traditional lands are a common reality for indigenous peoples worldwide.

Fighting Against Double Punishment

Solidarity City was primarily made up of workshops, each discussing different issues facing migrants to Canada.

Vince Tao and Cera Yiu from No One Is Illegal Montreal led one of the Saturday discussions, focused on the problem of double punishment. They say non-citizens who have committed a crime are being put through the criminal justice system, serving their time here in Canada, and are then being deported.

Tao says punishing a person twice just because they are not a Canadian citizen amounts to injustice.

However, because this is an issue dealing with criminals, he said that it’s harder to gain support and understanding from the public.

“This is a very unglamorous issue. [Compared to] some of the other things that have been talked about [during Solidarity City], this is the most stigmatized one,” he said.

“There’s not that humanitarian image of families breaking apart because of immigration […] this is dealing with the idea of criminals.”

The workshop discussed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which states that non-citizens can lose permanent residency based on the seriousness of the crime they’re convicted of.

However, “seriousness” is not legally defined and its declaration is often completely subjective, according to Tao.

Cases in which the Crown has the option to choose whether a crime is to be tried as a summary or indictable offence are common, and the Crown is not required to justify the decision, he continued.

Turning to how a “criminal” is legally constructed, Yiu said she thinks intolerance is deeply seeded in Canadian law.

“The idea of criminal and criminality is constructed by a racist, colonialist, Canadian state,” she said.

“If we look at who actually is facing double punishment, they’re migrants who come from various different backgrounds. The majority of double punishment cases are people coming from countries that are primarily non-white.”

The workshop mediators stressed that they did not support the crimes that were committed, but that the perpetrators should not be treated any different than Canadian citizens.

According to Syed Hussan, an organizer for No One is Illegal Toronto, the conditions migrants face in the legal system are not just viewable in jurisprudence, but also in how they’re treated while incarcerated.

He says there are cases where people were held in jail for up to 10 years past the sentence given for their convicted crime.

“In the United States, there’s a 90-day limit on immigration hold that can be extended up to six months,” he said. “In Canada, there is no limit. There’s no limit on how long you can keep someone on immigration hold.”

But for Gabriel, despite the amount of injustice—whether to migrants to Canada or the people indigenous to it—there’s still hope.

“I have nieces and nephews and family, there needs to be something for them,” she said.

“If I give up now then there’s nothing.”

—With files and photos from Andrew Brennan