Undoing Border Imperialism with Harsha Walia

Activist and author Harsha Walia on Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy and her debut book

Harsha Walia’s voice has been striking a chord across Canada and internationally, with her book selling out to packed audiences. Photo by flickr-user Caelie_Frampton.

Harsha Walia is first-and-foremost an activist. Writing is simply another tool for her movement-building work, which spans over a decade with some of the most marginalised communities in Canada.

While much of the Canadian left is focused on important populist issues like Canada Post, Harsha’s work stands out for its relentless focus on equally important but often neglected organising around migrant solidarity and efforts to end gender violence in some of the poorest communities in Canada.

Harsha does this work as a woman of colour in a political landscape with no shortage of white men, and her voice has been striking a chord across Canada and internationally.

Undoing Border Imperialism, her debut book, has been selling out wherever she goes to packed rooms of activists and interested listeners.

Canada’s New Residential Schools

Harsha has worked with organisers in the Downtown Eastside for over ten years, an area known as the poorest postal code in Canada.

“The community and the neighbourhood has a disproportionate number of indigenous people, and that’s obviously connected to ongoing colonisation in Canada and the deliberate impoverishment of indigenous people,” Harsha said.

Harsha works with indigenous women and communities to keep families together in what amounts to a new form of residential schooling.

“There’s currently more indigenous children in state care than there ever were in residential schools, so we’re having conversations about the legacy of residential schools, but it’s rarely connected to the current reality of the child welfare system, which has the exact same impact,” Harsha said.

Children are taken from their families, losing their culture, connection to the land and language.

All of this organising work stems from her belief that migrants of colour have a responsibility to build alliances with indigenous communities.

From her years of organising work, Harsha was approached by the Institute for Anarchist Studies and AK Press to write a book, Undoing Border Imperialism.

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The Idea of Border Imperialism

Harsha’s new book almost went unwritten. Harsha took six months to decide to write her debut non-fiction work, Undoing Border Imperialism.

“I was actually very tentative about this project,” Harsha said. “[Writing] starts to individualise our movements. People who write, or otherwise become public figures, become seen as somehow the leadership of our movements.”

To get around this valid problem, Harsha aimed to explicitly connect the book to movement building.

Nearly half of the book is about movements, how they work, and self-reflection on how they can improve. The first half of the book explains the idea of border imperialism and why it should be challenged.

“Connected to this piece around undoing border imperialism is, as movements, how to we undo the bordered logic within our own movements,” Harsha said.

Given the recent expansion of prisons and incarceration rates, given the deepening of attacks on indigenous communities and global environmental degradation, this book could not have come at a better time.

Harsha and I discuss her history of activism, how she became an activist and her book in the audio and rush transcript below.

Undoing Border Imperialism: in conversation with Harsha Walia

[RUSH TRANSCRIPT] The following is a rush transcript of an interview with Harsha conducted during the Building a Solidarity City conference in Montreal, a campaign which aims to extend basic health and education services to non-status migrants in the city. This audio and text can be reproduced freely with attribution to the author and Canadian Dimension.

MATT: I’m hoping to talk about your organinsing work and also the book itself. If we could start with some of the campaigns that you’re working on right now – some of the groups that you’re busy with.

HARSHA: In terms of my organising work, it’s really multifaceted in some ways. I organise with No One is Illegal in Vancouver, which is unceded Coast Salish territories.

No One is Illegal is an anti-colonial migrant justice group, so similar to other No One is Illegal groups, we work around issues of migrant justice, detention, deportation, which in this context is of increasing concern because there are increasing rates of detention, deportation and incarceration.

And also how that’s connected to issues around racism, particularly in Vancouver where there is a large migrant community. So it’s not just the immigration system, it’s also connected to things like exploitation in the workplace, racism at the hands of police, racism in schools, and connecting that to issues of why people are being displaced in the first place, so working around anti-war or anti-imperial campaigns.

The Downtown Eastside

I also organise in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, which is known as the poorest postal code in Canada, and that’s a community that deals with a range of issues; obviously poverty, but also how that’s connected to forces of colonialism.

The community and the neighbourhood has a disproportionate number of indigenous people, and that’s obviously connected to ongoing colonisation in Canada and the deliberate impoverishment of indigenous people – being forced off the land, being forced into urban areas, being denied services.

And that also intersects with the reality of gendered violence and gendered colonial violence, with the Downtown Eastside being sort of the epicentre of violence against indigenous women.

So the work that I do is particularly with women. I organise with women in the neighbourhood, women in poverty, a lot of elders.

There’s lots of issues around child apprehensions – there’s currently more indigenous children in state care than there ever were in residential schools, so we’re having conversations about the legacy of residential schools, but it’s rarely connected to the current reality of the child welfare system, which has the exact same impact, which is to take children away from their families, to decimate indigenous families, to make culture, loss of land, loss of language, and also that intergenerational trauma of being dispossessed from one’s family, and breaking the nation by breaking the family.

Women’s Memorial March

I’m also a member of the February 14 Women’s Memorial March Committee which organises every year on February 14 to honour the spirits of women who have passed, and in Vancouver that’s currently in its 23rd year. It’s the longest running march in recent Canadian history, and I’ve been involved in that march for about 10 years.

Indigenous Land Defence Support

Other pieces around organising. I do a lot of support with indigenous communities – front-line land-defence indigenous communities – that are connected to the Indigenous Assembly Against Mining and Pipelines, as well as Defenders of the Land.

That work is done in the deep belief that I have – as well as the commitment, and a commitment that’s being learnt – in terms of the responsibility to act in alliance with indigenous nations, to act in alliance with anti-colonial struggles, and to really concretely try to take actions with the leadership and based on the leadership and consent of indigenous communities, to work towards dismantling settler colonialism in Canada.

And again that’s both land-based along with issues and struggles in the cities, so there’s a number of communities particularly in B.C. fighting resource extraction right now with the expansion of the oil and gas industry, as well as mining industries, so working to support front-line indigenous communities around land defence work.

South Asian community organising

And then also work within my own community, which I identify as the Punjabi community, in the Lower Mainland around different issues in the community, but generally progressive issues amongst the South Asian community, dealing with violence against women, dealing with gender violence, dealing with casteism, and dealing with the ongoing legacy of economic and political imperialism in South Asia.

There’s not a lot of conversation about the impacts of the “war on terror” in South Asia – we talk about it in the context of the Middle East – but Pakistan right now with drone warfare as well as on the ground military warfare as well as parts of northern India is a direct result of western occupation and imperialism, and the number of deaths – the fact that there’s over 1,000 people dying every year just from drone warfare, and it’s not something that we talk about as much as the occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. So trying to lift up the reality of what’s going on in South Asia in terms of the global landscape of geopolitical warfare.

I know it shouldn’t be about autobiographical stuff, but I am interested in hearing about how people come to activism. I always find it really interesting, so perhaps if you could just tell us a little bit about how you came to your political, moral and ethical views, and started getting actively involved.

It’s hard, because it’s hard to pinpoint moments. For me, as for most people, it’s been a process. I have a lot of memories that are based in family, and ancestral stories. So my grandfather on my mother’s side fought the British Raj – he was involved in the struggle for freedom in what’s now known as India – pre-partition India.

And so those are stories that were deeply inspiring in terms of this long, proud legacy of fighting the British Empire. But also bearing witness to the fact that that was a deeply traumatic experience.

It’s kind of, in some ways, easy to romanticise being involved in those kinds of struggles that have led to a degree of independence, but also seeing that there is extreme trauma.

My grandfather talked about it with a lot more sadness than he did with a sense of pride, and that resulted in a lot of sadness in me. One of the things that he did toward the end of his involvement in the freedom struggle was he helped take people back and forth across the border between India and Pakistan.

The partition of India and Pakistan was incredibly violent, and it’s a history not a lot of people know about. It’s estimated that around 2 million people were displaced and/or died as a result of the partition, which is itself a legacy of colonisation.

So he helped transport families across both sides of the border, and while doing that witnessed thousand – literally in his words, thousands of people – killed. And a lot of violence against women, there were really high incidences of rape and violence against women.

So that’s one of the things that’s always affected me – this dual-process of being part of a legacy of struggle, and then also experiencing and bearing witness to that intergenerational trauma.

As activists, we don’t often talk about the latter. We see struggle as beautiful (and it is) and courageous (and it is!), but we also have to deal with the fact that it has a lot of impacts on our communities, and so the drive for me around activism was really both of those things – wanting to be involved for struggles around freedom and liberation wherever they take place, and seeing that as part of a global system, and bearing witness to the impacts of borders and the ways in which they tear apart communities in real and violent ways, and also wanting to be real about the fact that, for a lot of people, there has to be a lot of acknowledgement and work done around collective healing.

You are talking about your grandfather’s history and the legacy of colonial borders, so it’s quite a natural transition to your book, Undoing Border Imperialism. Could you tell us a little about what inspired you to write this project?

(Laughs) I was actually very tentative about this project. I was approached by the Institute for Anarchist Studies and AK Press who really were and are the backbone of this book, and it actually took me about 6 months to agree.

A large part of my hesitation was – not that I wasn’t inspired by movements – but I am always a little bit weary of the process of writing.

I don’t do a lot of writing. It starts to individualise our movements. People who write who are authors or otherwise become public figures become seen as somehow the leadership of our movements, but then there’s also this reality about needing to share knowledge and share information, because that’s how we learn.

I much prefer conversations, but of course, not everyone can access those conversations depending on proximity. So the challenge in writing this book – but also what ended up being the best part of writing this – was trying to connect this book to movement-based processes.

This book has a number of contributors. There are really beautiful stories in the book, and that’s what inspired me to write actually, was wanting to lift up the stories of people who I believe are doing incredible work, or have incredible personal experiences, that more people need to hear about.

And also, a chunk of the book is actually a roundtable with a number of organisers, who I think have critical insights on organising, which I don’t think often come out other than in insular networks of conversation.

So part of what inspired me to write this book was actually to write a different kind of book that, rather than abstracting ideas onto movements, was to generate theory and knowledge from grassroots communities, particularly communities of colour and indigenous communities, and to lift up movement-based practices to a broader audience. That really ended up being the inspiration for writing this book – hoping that it was in the service of something more collective.

The title of the book is Undoing Border Imperialism. Could you tell us more about the contents of the book, in terms of what some of the central themes are. There’s certainly an anarchist element to it. Could you talk about general themes in the book and what people can expect?

I think there’s really two themes to the book. One is conceptualising border imperialism, and for me that’s important, because we’re increasingly seeing the conversation around migrant rights, refugee rights or even migrant justice as something in a domesticated framework – this idea that it’s a localised issue. For example, that it’s a question of whether or not Canada should accept more or less migrants […]

So conceptualising border imperialism is important because it roots it in a much more expansive and global perspective, and also names those root causes of displacement and migration.

If you look at people being forced off their land as a result of war or occupation or systemic poverty or economic imperialism and all of these different factors that drive people to migrate – these aren’t coincidental.

These are forces of global geopolitical violence that are historic and ongoing, and also exist within the settler colonial context of Canada, in terms of dispossession of indigenous lands.

So for me, one part of the book is providing this conceptual framework for border imperialism, so that we’re not just talking about borders as if they’re zones of exclusion, but that we need to look at borders within a global context of why people are dispossessed, how people are dispossessed, why people are displaced, why people are migrating, and what the struggles are for dignity and self-determination in order to assert those basic abilities to stay, and move, and return to one’s lands.

The Act of Undoing Border Imperialism

The second part of the book is about undoing border imperialism. So it’s movements that are contending with these various forms of border imperialism, and again, when we look at it from an expansive perspective, it’s not just the struggles of migrants or refugees. It includes the struggles of indigenous people, it includes anti-imperialist struggles, and the connections between the two.

Carmen Aguirre wrote a piece in the book – Aguirre is the author of Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, which won the CBC Canada Reads award a year or two ago – and she’s got this incredible piece connecting her life in Chile as the daughter of a revolutionary in Chile to her experiences of racism and displacement in Canada.

So part of the “undoing” piece is making those connections, and seeing those links, and also looking at the ways in which some of the movements have organised themselves. The No One is Illegal movement, but not limited to it, so for example, the campaign to abolish security certificates. The work that’s being done to connect migrant justice struggles to anti-capitalist resistance.

So looking at the trajectory of those movements and how they’ve actually organised, because it’s one thing to theorise imperialism, it’s another thing to actually be inspired by what’s happening.

And for me, one of the most inspiring possibilities is the very real and grounded work – and again it’s not perfect – to build alliances and responsibilities as migrants of colour, and people of colour and racialised communities with indigenous nations.

That’s an incredible part of the book for me – the stories and narratives that are shared about the possibilities of building a much more decolonised relationship between migrants of colour and indigenous peoples.

And connected to this piece around undoing border imperialism is, as movements, how to we undo the bordered logic within our own movements. So a lot of the book is definitely about self-reflection and reflection from other organisers about challenges that our internal to our movements.

These are important to talk about publicly […] Questions around structure, leadership and anti-oppression strategy – all those things that are huge challenges for organisers in any movement, is also taken up in the book as part of the framework of Undoing Border Imperialism, because these borders exist within our movements as well.

Really interesting. We’re at the Solidarity City conference in Montreal right now. People are filtering back into the conference room, so we’ve got a nice taste of the book, and hopefully we can talk again soon and go into greater detail. I’m speaking with Harsha Walia, author of the book Undoing Border Imperialism. Thanks very much, Harsha. We’ll speak again soon.

Matthew Brett is an activist and writer active with Canadian Dimension magazine and the Society for Socialist Studies.

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