Written by Maya Crawford and Uswah Ahsan
MAYA: Uswah and I met on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin, Anishinabek territory. We had connected through a land acknowledgment and affirmation I performed for Ally Squared, Uswah’s new nonprofit, founded to transform allyship into an impact-focused action. In my affirmation, I spoke about my conflicted relationship with culture and my need to advocate against discrimination for my community. Uswah was struck by my words, as she had spent her entire life feeling this same way. This led to months of conversation about the need for allyship between Indigenous, Immigrant, and Refugee communities; thus, Ally Squared’s new project, CommunALLY, was created.
I’m a 19 year old woman from the Snimikobi Algonquin community. I am a sister, daughter, friend and a student. I introduce myself this way because in Anishnaabe culture, identity is how we introduce ourselves. As an urban Indigenous youth, growing up in a suburban town was incredibly confusing. Within my household, my family practices Anishinaabe traditions. At birth, I had my naming ceremony and was given the name in the Ojibwe language of pagakaaban kwe, or New dawn woman. To my family, I felt free to openly ask questions about my culture and identity, and also about the hardships that Indigenous peoples faced outside of their communities. I grew up in a mixed home in which I had the ability to openly practice my culture and belief system, and for this I am always grateful. However, building my Indigenous identity outside of my home is where I faced challenges.
USWAH: I started Ally Squared to connect with others who felt conflicted with their identity because they felt that society wouldn’t understand their culture or beliefs. When I heard Maya’s land affirmation, I knew that I had found another person who cared about her community while also feeling detached from it. I immigrated to Canada from Pakistan when I was nine. Like Maya, I am also a sister, daughter, friend, and a student. My name, Uswah Ahsan, means ‘the example of the best.’ I was given this name by my grandmother, who bestowed it on me with hopes that I would reflect its meaning. Integrating into Canadian society was difficult. I had a thick accent that immediately labelled me as "foreign", and I was told that my curls were "unruly and unpresentable". I was also dressed far more conservatively than the other girls in elementary school. To stop the bullying, I ‘Westernized’ myself, shunned away my culture, and only spoke Urdu at home. I was embarrassed of being an immigrant, of being Pakistani, of being brown.
MAYA and USWAH: We connected because we experienced similar inner conflicts with culture. Both of us are also incredibly passionate about activism for our communities through decolonization and intersectionality. At a young age, we had both experienced microaggressions.
MAYA: My earliest memory of this was in grade three. My father, who has spent most of his life working in a variety of Indigenous programs and communities, had come into my class to talk about Algonquin story-telling. Afterwards, one of my classmates looked to me and said, “He doesn’t look Indian”, referring to his choice of clothing that was not traditional regalia. As an eight year old, I could not grasp the deeper meaning behind this statement, but it has stuck with me ever since.
USWAH: I remember a specific time a few years ago, when I was at the cash register of the grocery store and the cashier asked me if I was originally from Lahore, Pakistan. Surprised that a non-Pakistani, white person knew a city in Pakistan, I asked him how he could recognize my ethnic background so easily. “Oh I did a report on Pakistan in high school and thought you looked like the people in the pictures I saw,” he said. As he continued the transaction of my items, he asked me if I was born in Pakistan and when I said yes, he made an utterly ignorant and derogatory comment: “So why did your parents move to Canada? Because you’re into white guys?” I remember being shocked at the way he integrated flirting into such a remark. I had been asked this question about my birth and why my parents decided to move to Canada many times. In fact, the question of “where are you from” comes out of a person’s mouth before they even ask about my name. While it may seem like an innocent question, it reveals the assumption that people with my skin colour, hair type, or facial features cannot possibly have been born on this land. Even more problematic, it comes with an assumption that, to belong to this land, you have to be white. We all know that it isn’t white people who are native to this land.
Maya and I lacked allies growing up, and this caused us to struggle with being allies for ourselves.
MAYA and USWAH: Both experiences of discrimination come from normalized colonial assumptions about who is entitled to this land, who is important, and whose culture is “normal”. As allies to one another, we often discuss ways in which we can stand up for each other . While our communities have encountered vastly different histories and must not be categorized as the same, we believe that they should stand in solidarity with each other against colonial systems of oppression.
Knowing that our experiences have shaped the way we stand up for our people, we created CommunALLY to bridge the ways in which our communities can advocate for one another. We understand that our lived experiences cannot be the only ones we consider because our communities cannot be summed up into one experience. We’re calling for individuals from Immigrant, Refugee, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities to talk about a time when they experienced discrimination and didn't have an ally, while also suggesting ways for other communities to be allies for them. In this project, we’ll also be learning from Elders, leaders, and experts to find avenues for partnerships. This work is incredibly important to us, having actively fought for respect and recognition our entire lives. Now, we want to extend this fight to other communities who experience discrimination. Although we grew up in the same city, we both found ourselves in a place of isolation. We want to make it possible for young Indigenous and Immigrant girls to find strength in one other.