This article was first published in the Canadian Jewish News on March 29, 2018
As Jews, many of us are aware of the parallels between the histories of Indigenous peoples and the Jewish people. Throughout history, Jews have been subjugated and expelled. We’ve been the target of hate, prejudice, ignorance, and genocide. Assorted regimes have disdained us, enslaved us, expelled us or sought to kill and annihilate us.
Similarly, Indigenous peoples have endured hundreds of years of deliberate, state-sanctioned, and state-orchestrated attempts to annihilate them. In Canada, cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples started pre-Confederation, and accelerated after 1867. The political and social institutions of Indigenous peoples were undermined and destroyed, and their lands were seized. Many nations were forcibly or fraudulently transferred onto land that wasn’t fertile and didn’t provide them with access to their traditional sources of food, which was closely connected to their cultures, spirituality, and health.
Our country’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, began a deliberate attempt to form a Canada free of native culture, language, and traditions. Residential schools were established with the purpose of separating Indigenous children from their families and stripping them of their identity.
The unabashed attempt to rob Indigenous peoples of their languages, traditions, identity, and government nearly resulted in a cultural genocide. It has caused traumatic, long-term, and intergenerational harm. And the pernicious legacy of colonialism continues in the form of both overt and institutional racism in Canada.
But while there are parallels in Jewish and Indigenous experiences, there are also some stark differences. That’s because after 400 years of slavery, the Israelites were spectacularly emancipated from Egypt and given Canaan. And following the worst chapter in Jewish history, the Holocaust, the Jewish people established a very concrete form of deliverance and hope: the State of Israel. The joy and pride of statehood, independence, and sovereignty, and the ability to be masters of our own fate, give Jews a tangible success, and a strong sense of reclamation and renewal.
By contrast, while Indigenous peoples have made tremendous achievements in music, art, politics, and culture in a hostile and racist environment, there hasn’t been a single, defining, and indisputable “reward” that underscores and celebrates their independence, reclamation, or sovereignty. Land disputes are ongoing. Indigenous lives are treated as less worthy than others. Our governments and corporations continue to make decisions (particularly around mining and the oil industry) that have a significant negative impact on lands occupied by First Nations. The devastation caused by wilful, if not criminal, neglect of mercury in Grassy Narrows water and land persists. And many First Nations communities do not have access to clean water. When it comes to sovereignty over land and the benefits of independence, Indigenous and contemporary Jewish experiences have been vastly different.
At a recent event at my synagogue, restaurateur Shawn Adler, owner of the Pow Wow Café, in Toronto’s Kensington Market, and Flying Chestnut Kitchen, in Eugenia, Ont., spoke with humour about growing up Jewish and Indigenous. Adler is both a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and the son of residential school survivors, but his tone that day stood in contrast to his family history of victimization and oppression. He was there to talk about food.
In his talk, Adler spoke about bannock as a staple food of many Indigenous peoples. But bannock is not entirely uncontroversial. It was brought to North America by European colonizers. None of its ingredients – flour, sugar, milk, baking powder, salt, and, often, lard – were indigenous to the land or Native peoples’ diets. In fact, it appears that First Nations adopted bannock because they were denied access to their own food. Forced transfer of people onto uninhabitable and infertile land meant they could no longer hunt, grow, or enjoy their traditional foods.
Centuries later, bannock is now considered comfort food for many Indigenous people. But, like matzah, it’s also a bread of affliction. Like matzah, bannock was first eaten because there was nothing else to eat. And that’s why, just before Passover began, I took my two daughters to eat bannock (made without lard) at Pow Wow Café.