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Connecting Tzedakah, Tikkun Olam & Indigenous Solidarity

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Please note: This article was first published in May, 2016 on the Shoresh website (shoresh.ca/blog) and is re-posted here, with permission. The article was written by two Ashkenazi Jews, and written to fellow Ashkenazi Jews, to educate & explore the connections between tzedakeh (justice), tikkun olam (healing the world) and Indigenous solidarity work.

As you walk through the city streets of Toronto do you ever think back to the time that your family immigrated here? Did they arrive by ship, train, car, or perhaps by plane? Did they come here as refugees? Did they come here seeking a better, safer home? As you walk these city streets do you ever think back to a time before there were streets, before Lake Ontario was undrinkable, before there were migrants from around the globe living here?

This continent has been inhabited for millennia by Indigenous peoples–a broad term that refers to the original inhabitants of this land and encompasses hundreds of diverse communities who speak at least 60 different languages. Indigenous peoples continue to live here: on their traditional lands, as well as on lands to which they have been forcibly relocated, and in urban centers like Toronto. The story of the forced displacement of Grassy Narrows and neighbouring First Nations communities in the 60s by Indian Affairs Canada is recounted in this piece by Grassy resident Ivy Keewatin.

“Toronto comes from the word tkaronto, which is Mohawk for ‘where the trees are standing in the water.’ The word describes, the narrows, where Anishinabek and Hurons would congregate and create weirs with large wooden stakes to catch fish. Toronto has a rich history of being occupied by several First Nations at various times and in that sense cannot be narrowed down to just one Nation. Today, The Mississaugas of the New Credit is the First Nation acknowledged by local governments, as they had long established settlements–in the territory of what is now known as Toronto–at the time of contact.”
-from MUSKRAT Magazine–an online Indigenous arts & culture magazine

As we work to understand the histories of colonialism on the lands we inhabit, visit, and farm, a crucial first step is to learn and know whose lands we are on. In offering the above history of Toronto, we invite you to learn the history of the place you call home. One resource we have found is the website http://native-land.ca. Although this knowledge does not offer concrete steps in addressing and undoing colonialism, it does actively seek to undo the narrative that the history of North America began when European settlers arrived. 

You may be thinking, “my family wasn’t part of colonization. They came here for refuge, so how could I be responsible for reconciliation?” Colonization is not a relic of the past. It has changed throughout the course of history and continues to the present day. Smallpox blankets are no longer being distributed and the last Residential School closed in 1996, however, there are estimates of up to 4000 missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada; Indigenous peoples are incarcerated in Canada at astoundingly high rates with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit comprising 3.8% of the Canadian population yet comprising 23.2% of the total inmate population; the on-reserve child welfare system receives up to 38% less funding than elsewhere in Canada; meanwhile, coal, oil, shale, water and other natural elements of the Earth continue to be extracted to power unsustainable consumer life and to fill the coffers of large corporations. (Please note, this is not nearly a full list of the ways that colonialism continues to function in today’s society, it is merely a beginning place to offer some perspective).

Today, all of us living here are living on colonized and largely unceded land. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept it might sound surprising, or uncomfortable, but it’s also the underlying truth of the Canadian state’s historic and contemporary structure of power. Our living here, and use of this land, is actively dispossessing others from their traditional and historical land, to this day. As Jewish people, living in Toronto, we are participating in ongoing colonialism. The public purse is lined with the profits made off of the plundered elements of the Earth. This extraction often happens without the consent of the Indigenous communities, and they rarely see any benefits.

In our current solidarity work, our attention is brought to Grassy Narrows First Nations, the Anishinaabe community in Northwestern Ontario where many are fighting against clearcut logging and battling mercury poisoning. In the 1970s, it was revealed that the fish in the Grassy Narrows’ river contained dangerous levels of mercury. It was discovered that a paper mill in Dryden, Ontario dumped 20 thousand pounds of mercury into the river system, causing severe devastation. For context, according to the U.S. National Resource Centre, a one pound spill necessitates a mandatory evacuation. The Grassy Narrows community have been forced to deal with the loss of their traditional economy, unemployment, and a mysterious new ailment that continues to be rampant among members of their community–mercury poisoning.

As Jews working to support Indigenous land defence and self-determination, turning to the Torah for Jewish perspectives can be grounding for our work in environmental justice:

When a person lets their livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or vineyard to be grazed bare, they must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard.” Exodus 22:4 

This line shows us that not only do we, as Jewish people and settlers on this land, have a responsibility to social justice, but to environmental justice and restoration as well. Tikkun olam echoes this thought when it reminds that we all must leave the world better for having been a part of it. Tzedakah, often thought to mean charity in modern times, actually comes from the root word Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning justice or fairness. In Jewish law, tzedakah is a duty, not a choice. We do not have the ability to choose when to pursue justice, Jewish law tells us that it is always our responsibility to confront injustices, for people and the Earth. 

In the spirit of both tikkun olam and Indigenous solidarity, we hope to see you at the 2016 River Run events in Toronto. A biannual event, the River Run brings community members from Grassy Narrows in Northwestern Ontario to Toronto for press releases, speaking events and a large rally and march to raise awareness about the longstanding mercury poisoning and logging of their traditional territory. The River Run events are being organized by a collection of people in Toronto, following directions from community members in Grassy Narrows. For more information about Grassy Narrows and the 2016 River Run, please visit www.freegrass.net.

When we think of working in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, and the Grassy Narrows community, we can understand tzedakah as the duty to show up. It can mean volunteering your time to paint banners for the march, making a financial donation, attending the upcoming speaking event and rally. When we re-conceptualize tzedakah and tikkun olam as a duty, rather than a generosity, tzedakah becomes a daily commitment to action.

We are going to be hosting workshops discussing Judaism, Indigenous Solidarity & the Grassy Narrows River Run on:

Sunday May 22nd, 2016 at 11am
Winchevsky Centre & The United Jewish People’s Order, 585 Cranbrooke Ave.

Sunday May 29th, 2016 at 2pm
The First Narayever Synagogue, 187 Brunswick Ave.

We also invite you to attend the Grassy Narrows River Run!

Grassy Narrows Speaks, with Avi Lewis
A speaking event with Chief Simon Fobister Sr., Judy Da Silva, youth from Grassy Narrows and Avi Lewis.
May 31st, 2016 at 6:30pm, 245 Church St (Ryerson Campus)
Please buy your tickets in advance at http://bit.ly/1TzidNz

Grassy Narrows River Run: Rally & March
June 2nd, 2016 at 12pm, Queens Park

The Authors:

Sterling Stutz is an Ashkenazi Jew from Toronto. She spends a lot of her time working with children and animals and is currently studying health and environmental studies while trying to become bilingual. Sterling is a member of the Movement Defence Committee and helping to organize the 2016 Grassy Narrows River Run in Toronto. For more information about the River Run please visit www.freegrassy.net

Emily Green is a queer Ashkenazi Jewish activist. She bartends, and works in the kitchen of a refugee shelter. She can be seen most Tuesdays at the Narayever helping distribute local, organic vegetables. Emily helps to organize a monthly Shabbat potluck series called Grassroots Shabbat, and helps to coordinate Rosh Chodesh gatherings. Emily visited the Grassy Narrows First Nations community in 2013 when she co-led a delegation with the Christian Peacemaker Team-Indigenous Solidarity Team, and she has been committed to solidarity with this community since; this is her second time organizing with the River Run initiative.


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