The indigenous people are coming to the forefront of the minds of many North Americans and as members of the Muslim community in this land, what is our duty to our brothers and sisters in humanity? It is clear from the Qur’an and the Sunnah that it is a Muslim’s job to speak for justice even if it is against ourselves. But our responsibility towards indigenous peoples is compounded by the treaties signed by Canadian and American governments. I will confine myself to writing about the treaty land that I live on, Treaty One territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The treaty lands in Canada stretch from Ontario to the Yukon and all are established as a relationship between the government and indigenous nations. Indigenous scholar Niigaan Sinclair describes the treaties, from an indigenous perspective, as more than the simple signing of a treaty but of a familial relationship between two peoples. Indigenous people saw these newcomers as family members with whom they would share the land. Unfortunately, these treaties were not respected and indigenous peoples were not treated as family members. The history of residential schools, forced removals, starvation tactics and the attempted cultural genocide is thankfully becoming better known. It was even recognized by Justin Trudeau in his Canada 150 statement:
“we also recognize that for many, today is not an occasion for celebration. Indigenous Peoples in this country have faced oppression for centuries.”
While this may seem progressive, underneath is the denial of indigenous issues. Trudeau firmly places indigenous suffering in the past by stating that indigenous peoples have faced oppression and not “are facing oppression.” This is an unfortunate trend amongst Canadian society, holding the delusional idea that oppression has ended and the government is trying to help. Muslim community members state these exact words while castigating myself and others for continuing to “complain” about the oppression that indigenous people face.
This brings us to the role that Muslims have to play on treaty land. Muhammad (peace be upon him) placed a strong emphasis on upholding treaties. At the treaty of Hudaibiyah, when a fellow Muslim escaped, he was turned back because the Prophet had already signed the treaty and it said that no escapee be returned to Medina. The Prophet’s strict adherence to treaties shows that we too must take our treaties very seriously.
In the Holy Qur’an, Allah states that “those who sell their oaths for a paltry sum will have no share in the life to come. Allah will neither speak to them nor look at them on the Day of Judgment [and] agonizing torment awaits them.” [3:77] Here the breaking of a treaty is connected with turning a profit and states that anyone who does this will be punished severely. Similarly, in another verse, Allah (swt) states, “fulfil any pledge you make in Allah’s name and do not break oaths after you have sworn them. Do not use your oaths to deceive each other, just because one party may be more numerous than another. Allah tests you with this.” [16:91-2] Here Allah condemns those who break treaties but shows us an understanding of power dynamics. He knows that those who are more powerful will try to dominate the weak.
Both these verses are applicable to the current situation across North America. The breaking of a treaty has been linked to the acquisition of wealth, like flooding a community for a dam or building a pipeline. Allah (swt) considers wealth that corporations hoard to be worth an insignificant sum compared to His Glory. But these corporations have no limits and are aided by the Canadian government and our police. These forces form an evil trinity; government representing legitimacy, corporations representing money and police representing force. All are complicit in breaking a treaty.
It is clear that Allah (swt) tests powerful nations that do not uphold their treaties with weaker nations. Canada is being tested by Allah and for the past 150 years, it has failed that test. Despite what Trudeau has said, the violence has not ended against indigenous people nor has the government been “making things better.” Neglect of reserves has caused 150 cases of boil water advisories, a national epidemic of child suicides and an extreme inflation of prices for food items. The government, despite its apology, has cut funding for healing institutes for residential school survivors. There is little help for indigenous homeless, where generally the old and mentally ill are left out in the cold, literally and figuratively. Police brutality is a daily occurrence. Wrists broken by police cadets, dogs biting arrested children, arresting a drunken old man making no disturbance; all of these I have seen or heard from others. Our Manitoba prisons are filled with indigenous people, 85 percent in male prisons and as much as 100 percent in the female prison. The treaties were signed as an agreement between two family members. Would we treat any of our family this way?
What does this mean for us as Muslims?
As North American citizens, we have become treaty people. The Qur’an is commanding us to uphold these treaties. Unfortunately, I have seen leaders in the Winnipeg Muslim community ally themselves with treaty breakers; politicians and police. These treaty breakers are invited to the mosques, given the platform to speak in their fluffy platitudes and are not criticized whatsoever. We are building alliances with people whom Allah (swt) will not speak to or look at on the Day of Judgment instead of building alliances with the oppressed like the prophets did. Allah is testing us by placing us in Canada. The test is whether we will ally ourselves with treaty breakers or indigenous people. I understand the inclination to build relationships with politicians and police but we must ask ourselves as a Muslim community, who are we turning towards and who are we truly helping.
But this is no time to lose hope. Indigenous people, all across the continent are fighting back against this tide of oppression. The Muslim and indigenous paths are interlinked. We both suffer from a history of colonization and many of our racialized brothers and sisters suffer the same police brutality. So go to reserves, read books about indigenous history, learn from elders in your community, build real relationships with indigenous people and if politicians do come to the mosque, criticize them for their lack of action on these issues.
We must join with them in their struggle, for if we do not, we do so at their expense and that of our own souls. We must choose wisely.
by Joel Trono-Doerksen