Leah Gazan: Genocide Takes Many Forms
By Erin Blondeau
Leah Gazan is a storyteller.
In this episode of Matriarch Movement with host Shayla Oulette Stonechild, Gazan takes us through her origin stories, the trauma of her ancestors, and the difficult truth about colonial structures in Canada.
Born in Winnipeg, Gazan is now the Member of Parliament (New Democrat Party) for Winnipeg Centre. She is fighting hard for Indigenous rights and more equitable opportunities for Canadians, bringing a motion to convert CERB to a Universal Basic Income. She is also the NDP Critic for Families, Children, and Social Development.
We do not walk alone
Reflecting on her parents’ lives, Gazan explained that her mom was a sundancer, which has given her a strong connection with Spirit. Through the strength of Spirit and her ancestors, she never has to feel alone because they are always there to guide her.
“I carry them in my heart, and it just gives me strength,” she told Shayla.
As many Indigenous people know all too well, intergenerational trauma can severely impact families. Gazan has not escaped multiple lines of trauma, coming from legacies of genocide on both sides of her family. Her father was a Shoah (Holocaust) survivor and her mom was a Chinese-Lakota woman who grew up in the racist foster care system that continues to this day. Both were forcibly stolen from their families and their culture, disrupting their sacred identities.
But Gazan says that these experiences have shaped who she is. She recognizes that her family has inevitably suffered as a result of these genocides, yet the suffering has created intergenerational resiliency.
“It’s in your blood memory,” Gazan explained.
Along with resiliency, identity is another crucial aspect of Indigenous culture. One’s sense of identity can come from many things and is often tied into the culture in which you are born. As Gazan explained, Indigenous people must be able to practice our traditional languages and our spirituality that existed pre-settler contact. One way to do this is to reconnect with the land.
Indigeneity is interconnected with the land on which we grew up, or the land of our ancestors. Our ancestors survived for millennia based on the gifts that the earth provided; seasons would change and so would the resources available. This would impact our art, our travel, and our diets. Indigenous people pre-colonization generally did not have the same methods of extraction that euro-settlers had, which created a bounty of resources. Instead, many Indigenous societies lived in subsistence.
As Gazan explained, “...our culture is directly rooted in our lands. We need to acknowledge that.” Perhaps in this acknowledgement and reconnection with the land, more Indigenous people can feel the sense of connection (or blood memory) to their ancestors.
It’s genocide: “full stop.”
Another important aspect in a resurgence of Indigeneity is for colonial Canada to recognize the ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples. Many non-Indigenous Canadians are waking up to the truth of colonization, but it also needs to happen at the federal level.
“What happened in residential schools clearly falls under Article II of the United Nations Convention on Genocide. Full stop.”
According to the United Nations, genocide is defined by acts that include killing members of a group; causing harm mentally and physically to members of a group; deliberately creating systems of oppression that would bring “physical destruction”, in whole or in part; restricting birth within the group; and forcibly taking children and transferring them to a different group.
Every one of these actions has been committed against Indigenous peoples across Canada.
“Residential school was one of the strategies to assimilate us, to get us off our land, often resulting in death,” Gazan explained, adding that there is likely not a country out there that wants to accept its own genocide. But, in order for real “reconciliation” to happen, we must talk about and admit what has happened.
According to Gazan, The House of Commons is the most colonial that a place can get. Indigenous changemakers should not be deterred by this, though. Gazan said that the most important thing when entering these types of places is to have reason, and to always remember why action must be taken.
“When you’re in that environment and it's so racist, the only thing you have is your identity. And that becomes your shield in the world.”
Getting out there to take action
Gazan is taking action in countless ways. As she explained to Stonechild, our government spends millions of dollars per year to fight Indigenous people in court. Finding out exactly how much money has been spent is one of the things that Gazan is fighting for right now. Additionally, Gazan is asking the government to immediately implement all of the 231 individual Calls to Justice of the The National Inquiry of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“I think it’s a powerful time,” Gazan said. We are seeing Indigenous people––Elders, youth, leaders, community members, rise up and reclaim their identity and their history. We need to act, in one way or another.
“Just act.” Gazan pleaded.
One way that we have seen Indigenous youth mobilize is through the climate crisis. All around the world, we have seen youth prioritize climate action. But it can be difficult as an Indigenous person in colonial Canada to stand up, inside those oppressive places that created racist systems like the Indian Act and the residential and industrial school system.
Gazan explained that having a clear bottom line is essential in order to stay true to who you are, and continue on the path that aligns with your original intention. Gazan explained that she has set up criteria for herself with her work, and will often check herself to ensure she is following her original intentions.
Learn more about Gazan’s bravery in the face of so many social injustices: