I moved to Canada with my family in the early 2000s as a refugee from Palestine. I was 16 years old, the eldest of my four siblings that had joined me on the journey from our home to the cold, unfamiliar land. At the time, I was not aware of the similarities between the history and experiences of my ancestors, the Indigenous people of Palestine, and the Indigenous people of Canada. Over the past decade, my life in Canada has led me down a path in search of more and more information about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and I am always deeply impacted by the many connections to the stories of my own people in the Middle East. There are, of course, many differences, and it is important to recognize the uniqueness of all stories. It is the ability share stories and draw connections, though, that offers opportunities to empathize with and humanize each other. These stories point to the continued impact of the legacies of colonialism and oppression beyond Canada and the Middle East. A few years ago, I did a research project on the displacement of Indigenous peoples in Manitoba and found that there were many similarities to my own story.
My story starts with my father. My father’s side of the family lived in Palestine for many generations. I was born in 1986 in the West Bank, Palestine, which is where my mother, father, and the paternal side of my family lived. My father was born in 1964 and was the first child out of 10. He was just 3 years old, when the war began in 1967. When my father was born, my grandparents lived on a farm in a rural area not far outside of the city of Nablus, where they raised animals, such as goats and cows, and grew and harvested olives. This is also the place where I was raised and learned the importance of the land to my identity as a Palestinian.
By the time the 1980s came around, Israel had maintained occupation over the Palestinian territories for nearly 20 years, and the level of oppressive and punitive measures had only increased over time. The war in 1967 resulted in the displacement of many people from within the borders of Israel, and, while many Palestinian refugees left to neighbouring countries, many of these refugees moved into the Palestinian territories. As a result of the increase in the population, there were persistently growing tensions among Palestinians. The war and resulting displacement caused by the creation of Israel in 1948 had put a strain on those living in the West Bank prior to the war, as their land and limited resources were to be shared with an influx of refugees. But in 1967, refugee camps were built within the borders of the West Bank and Gaza to house the new wave of Palestinian refugees from within Israeli borders. While the refugees entering the West Bank were being displaced, the refugee camps themselves displaced farmers from their land. Additionally, the camps served to ensure the new refugees did not integrate into the existing communities, leading to resentment with each other rather than the toward the oppressive policies responsible for the loss of land and agency.
In 1987, the Intifada was driven by the pressure from the continuous occupation and the idea that Israel was implementing policies designed to lead to the extinction of the Palestinian people. It was during this time that my grandmother’s farm land was confiscated by the Israeli army, and she could no longer even step onto the land she had cared for most of her adult life. What remained was a small garden plot, no bigger than a typical backyard garden, where she was able to grow enough fruits and vegetables to sustain herself. She could no longer sell the surplus products to her neighbours to make money for the family while my grandfather and father looked for work in neighbouring countries.
In my youth, I personally witnessed the destruction of three homes belonging to different families in the village. A man had been accused of a crime against an Israeli soldier and, because they were unable to find him, Israel ordered the demolition of three homes belonging to people close to him. To this day, I am haunted not only by the visible destruction of the homes, but by the faces of the people that lived in them. Loss of objects, people, land, and privileges are common in the West Bank. In a place full of instability, loss is a constant. Growing up, I was taught to view loss not as something to be feared or mourned, but rather as an opportunity to build strength and determination to stand up for my rights. Every loss was to be used to fuel endurance despite the oppression enforced by the occupation. But, on the day I saw the homes of these three families demolished, I saw helplessness and hopelessness I was not used to seeing in my community. It was as if an inner light inside of them had been extinguished.
My family was displaced once again in the early 2000s, when we left the West Bank for Canada as refugees. Through my post-secondary education in Canada, I came to understand the connection between the experiences of Palestinians and the Indigenous peoples in Canada. I discovered that, in the same way the Israeli Government made decisions and policies that resulted in the confiscation of my grandmother’s ancestral land, the demolition of homes for the development of settlements or as a form of punishment, and the redefinition of borders, the Manitoba Government has made policy decisions with the knowledge of, and at times the intent toward, harmful consequences for Indigenous communities.
In 2011, the people of Lake St. Martin were forced to evacuate their community after a flood, which was caused by a government policy that sacrificed the community to save farmland in the south. As Myrle Ballard and Shirley Thompson note in their article, “Flooding Hope and Livelihoods: Lake St. Martin First Nation” in The Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research, the flood wiped out the land, destroyed homes, and devastated the community while the Manitoba Government referred to the project as a success.
In the 1950s, the Sayisi Dene people were forcefully removed from their land after Manitoba Wildlife blamed their hunting practices for the decrease in caribou population, despite having been a sustainable practice for centuries. In their book, Night Spirits: The Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene, Ila Bussidor andÜstün Bilgen-Reinart note that, without investigating, the Manitoba Government forcefully displaced the Sayisi Dene, resulting in the loss of their traditional way of life.
In the early 20th century, the Manitoba Government claimed that the Keeseekoowenin were responsible for the decreasing elk population in the area and forced their displacement from their land as well. But, as John Sandlos says in his article, “Not Wanted in the Boundary: The Expulsion of the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway Band from Riding Mountain National Park” in The Canadian Historical Review, it is most likely, however, that the Manitoba Government forced the displacement of the Keeseekoowenin in favour of developing Riding Mountain National Park in hopes of increasing tourism in Manitoba. The Keeseekoowenin were told to pack what they could and, as they left, the houses and any remaining belongings, including those of people who were away from their houses at the time, were burned.
The legacy of displacement is not isolated to the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada and Palestine. The processes of colonialism and imperialism are built on a foundation of superiority and privilege. The ways of being and knowing that exist in Indigenous communities around the world are too often diminished, disregarded, discarded, and, like the people, displaced in favour of Western systems, policies, and educational practices. After discovering the connections between the Indigenous people of my homeland and the Indigenous people of Canada, my passion for sharing my story has grown. As an educator, I believe we have the responsibility to challenge what is accepted as knowledge and wisdom and to encourage our young people to do the same.
Izzeddin Hawamda is a high school teacher and is currently working toward a PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba. He is passionate about respecting the agency of locals in the peace-building process and about examining the role of education in the development of conflict transformation strategies.