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While some Indigenous people rally for Palestinians, others say it’s not a struggle against colonialism

November 29, 2023

‘To Palestinians, the effect of Zionism is settler colonialism and apartheid,’ says Jeffrey Wilkinson

Protesters walking the street, holding signs and Hiawatha Belt wampum.
Kanien’kehá:ka activist Ellen Gabriel (right) at a rally in Montreal in support of Palestinians. (Gabrielle Victoria Fayant)

CBC Indigenous: Many activists and academics are drawing comparisons between the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the experiences of Indigenous people in North America, though others question this.

Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) activist Ellen Gabriel said there are parallels. “We live under an authoritarian rule in our communities because of the Indian Act,” Gabriel said.

First Nations people in Canada were forced onto reserves and required a pass to leave until the 1940s. The Indian Act dictates First Nations status and for years it marginalized women and denied treaty rights to many through forced enfranchisement.

Gabriel was the spokesperson for the community of Kanesatake during the 1990 Oka Crisis. The 78-day standoff between Kanesatake, the Sûréte du Québec provincial police and, later, the Canadian military was over a contested area of land known as the Pines northwest of Montreal. Supplies to the community were cut off; there were reports of police beating community members during interrogations.

“We were denied our food, medicine, free passage for our people,” said Gabriel. “They tortured men. They tortured Mohawk men, the Canadian army and the SQ [Sûreté du Québec] and for what? For a golf course.” 

CBC Indigenous reached out to the SQ via phone and email regarding the allegations of torture but there was no comment by time of publishing.

Gabriel said at that time she, other land defenders and the Mohawk Warrior Society were labelled as terrorists. She has attended demonstrations in Montreal in support of Palestinians. “We need to rise with those who are powerless like those in Palestine,” said Gabriel.

‘Open-air prison’

Raja Khori, who co-authored The Wall Between: What Jews and Palestinians Don’t Want to Know about Each Other with Jewish colleague Jeffrey Wilkinson, was born to Palestinian parents and is a former human rights commissioner with the Province of Ontario.

He said that 2.2 million people living in Gaza have been under siege for 16 years, since Hamas’s takeover, with no freedom to move.

What is Hamas? The story of its origins and rule of Gaza

WATCH | What is Hamas?Duration 5:08

A spotlight was cast on the Islamist militant group Hamas after it unleashed a surprise attack in Israel Oct. 7, killing more than 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages. How did the group come to be designated a terrorist organization and rule Gaza? CBC’s Ashley Fraser explores its origins.

Click on the following link to view the video:

Egypt closed its border crossing with Gaza following the takeover, and Palestinians are banned from exiting Gaza via Israel unless they obtain an Israeli-issued exit permit, which are only issued for certain workers and medical patients.

Khori told CBC Indigenous that if a young woman in Gaza wishes to attend university in another country she must wait two or three years for a permit from the Israelis to allow her to leave, sometimes in vain. He said the food that Israel allows into Gaza is substandard.

“It’s been referred to as an open-air prison often,” said Khori. “A prison has criminals in it. This place has families in it.

Wilkinson, whose work in academia on trauma in Israel/Palestine is focused on repair, said Palestinians’ experience is “almost entirely hidden in our Western narrative” and that expression of their experience is othered as terrorists, treated as anti-Semitism, or a threat to Jewish way of life.

“To Palestinians, the effect of Zionism is settler colonialism and apartheid,” said Wilkinson.

As the current tragedies unfold, he said, “We are unable to see that it is avoidable … and I think that can only happen because we have humanized one group and not the other group,” he said.

‘Appalled by these lazy comparisons’

Not everyone agrees there are parallels.

Chris Sankey, a former elected band councillor and businessman from Lax Kw’alaams Band in British Columbia, recently wrote in a column for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute that he is “appalled by these lazy comparisons to the plight of Palestinians.”

Sankey did not respond to a request for an interview.

“What has troubled me the most has been the frequency with which my peoples’ struggle for reconciliation has been invoked to justify the bloodshed, often by so-called ‘experts’ in the academy,” Sankey wrote in the column.

“Indigenous Canadians and Palestinians stand worlds apart.”

He said Indigenous people have been able to make progress toward reconciliation using non-violent means and said calls to action by Indigenous people in support of Palestinians brought “shame to their respective communities and embarrassed all Indigenous Canadians.”

In his column, Sankey wrote that the State of Israel, though flawed, is a great example of Indigenous reclamation because Jewish people were there long before Arabs and Muslims “The Jewish are not colonizers nor are they occupiers,” he wrote.

History not known

Dr. Gabor Maté is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Canada in 1956. He has worked in Indigenous communities on healing from trauma and addiction. “When our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that Israel and Canada has the same values, I say, yeah, that’s unfortunately true,” he said.

“They’re both countries founded on the extrapolation of Indigenous cultures and the displacement of Indigenous people.”

Dr. Gabor Maté signs book.
Dr. Gabor Maté has worked in Indigenous communities on healing trauma and addiction. Born in Hungary, he is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Canada in 1956. (Tony Hoare)

He said many Israelis are unaware of their country’s history, like the history of residential schools was once left out of the Canadian curriculum. “It’s entirely possible to grow up in this country and not know what actually happened in this country,” he said.

Maté said his people have endured a tragic history of victimization and trauma, “But that had nothing to do with the Indigenous people of Palestine.”

Khori and Wilkinson said both peoples share a pain-victim experience and that it’s important for each side to be able to hear and acknowledge that.

Wilkinson said he views his faith “as a duty to rights and freedoms not just for us, but for everyone … it’s actually my Judaism that propels me to insist on equal rights for Palestinians.”


Candace Maracle, Reporter

Candace Maracle is Wolf Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. She is a laureate of The Hnatyshyn Foundation REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her latest film, a micro short, Lyed Corn with Ash (Wa’kenenhstóhare’) is completely in the Kanien’kéha language.