LUSU Releases Statement in Solidarity with Indigenous Rights Activist and Student Union Leader
By: Jaina Kelly, Staff Writer
During the summer of 2017, Masuma Khan, activist and student at Dalhousie University put forth a motion for the Dal Student’s Union to boycott Canada 150 celebrations. The boycott motion was a statement of DSU’s solidarity with the Indigenous people of Nova Scotia and Canada as a whole. It had no specific consequences for the campus, as the student union is not open on Canada Day. Yet Khan nonetheless faced backlash and harassment for her solidarity move.
Ongoing backlash to Canada 150 criticism shows that Canada’s history has been systematically sugar coated, leaving most of us clueless about the destruction that settler colonialism caused for our First Nations, Metis and Inuit citizens. This sugarcoating of historical facts in the Canadian education system recently went viral: a textbook nonchalantly stating that Indigenous people “happily” made room for settlers. It is no wonder, with our delusion about this country’s history seen through rose coloured glasses, that so many Canadians remain ignorant to the way Canada was founded: on Indigenous land, at the violent expense of Indigenous people. Colonialism is not just responsible for the initial founding of Canada, but acts as a system that continues to marginalize vulnerable citizens. Those invested in current power dynamics will go to great lengths in avoiding discussion of Canada’s violence, abuse, and marginalization. This is how the hierarchies of power remain dominant and avoid being challenged: they dehumanize and invalidate the people who seek justice.
General ignorance to the violent history of Canada is not without consequence. It means that we alienate, judge, and dismiss calls to action from activists like Khan who are speaking truthfully about the conditions still affecting Indigenous people today. Following the outcry due to the DSU’s Canada 150 opposition, Khan posted a Facebook rant using the term ‘white fragility’ in reference to the abusive critics targeting her boycott. This term, coined by Robin DiAngelo, expresses white people’s discomfort and lack of stamina when dealing with racially focused conversations. It makes sense. We do not face daily harassment to remind us we are ‘white’. We are simply the viewed as the average, and proceed with confidence that our identity is accepted and valued by society. This average has been reinforced and protected through 150 years of violence against minority groups. This violence means that racialized groups are still commonly viewed as ‘the other’, and heightened fear of ‘the other’ is propagated through a variety of means. Take for example, the Quebec face-covering ban, which perpetuates racist and Islamophobic ideas of who might be hiding under a hijab or burqa. (Hint: a normal woman trying to live her life.)
It’s not new to see calls for social change being perceived by the status quo as “divisive.” Including the hashtags “#Unlearn150,” “#White fragility can kiss my ass,” and “#Your white tears aren’t sacred, this land is,” it makes sense why Khan’s post about white fragility enraged so many.
Political speech like this is aimed to challenge systemic power and it is our right as Canadians to express our opinions without fearing prosecution. When Dalhousie announced they were investigating Khan’s post as a result of formal complaints, the Dal legal department promptly wrote a letter expressing their dismay at the news. They reiterated that Khan’s words were protected under Canada’s freedom of speech laws, and the pending disciplinary action against Khan was unlawful. They went on to state that “Encouraging speech which challenges us as a community to reflect upon our roles in colonialism, oppression of marginalized communities, and systemic racism is critical to the mandate of this (or any other) university: censoring such speech is antithetical to that mandate.”
In the midst of the pending disciplinary action against Khan, a student on the LUSU board put forth an emergency motion to send a letter of solidarity with Khan directly to Dalhousie. LUSU released the letter publicly, which details the reasons why Khan’s political speech is not only acceptable, but also necessary in the pursuit of justice for marginalized communities. Not long after, the investigation against Khan was halted, but this did not revoke the stream of abuse she received for voicing her opinions on the Internet.
Khan, being an Afghani and Muslim woman of colour in Halifax, faces a hyper awareness of her identity on the daily. The abuse from online critics was not just racially charged, but insulted and demeaned her status as a woman, calling her a “bitch” and wishing for her death. In an article posted in 2016 on The Coast, Halifax website, Khan explains that even though she was born and raised in Nova Scotia, she has always been treated like an outsider. “You’re not from here,” is a phrase Khan recounts hearing so many times, it has lost counting potential. For white Canadians, this would feel absurd: to be born in Canada yet questioned daily, accused of being a foreigner despite being here your whole life. This is one of the elements implied when we talk about “white privilege”: having positive associations made about your character simply for being white.
LUSU Vice President Jessica Kearney spoke to The Argus about the emergency statement of solidarity. She stressed that the union must always be vigilant in supporting student’s rights to criticize their university’s actions. Kearney noted that Dalhousie trying to silence a racialized student (who is addressing Indigenous issues) demonstrates the power dynamics that underline our institutions. Many misconstrue the act of bringing truth to power as an attack on white people specifically, instead of seeing it as a critique of racist systems. “We’re not fighting white people,” Kearney adds, “we’re fighting Whiteness.”
Whiteness is intrinsically connected to Canada’s settler colonialism. Khan’s reference to “Unlearn 150” means we must unlearn our confidence and pride in a country that built its legacy on murdering, discrediting and patronizing Indigenous people. It means recognizing the stereotypes that stigmatize marginalized folks, and seeing the full context of Canada’s history of oppression. It is uncomfortable for Canadians to admit we aren’t accurately knowledgeable about our entire past as a country – but instead of getting our back up, it’s best to be humble and start truly listening to those who are systemically silenced. We won’t just get a more accurate picture of this country’s history, but we will experience new depth to our own identities in the process.
If you’d like to know more about Masuma Khan, check out her features on The Coast.ca.