A Native and a Zionist
By Ryan Bellerose
I am a Métis from Northern Alberta. My father, Mervin Bellerose, co-authored the Métis Settlements Act of 1989, which was passed by the Alberta legislature in 1990 and cemented our land rights. I founded Canadians For Accountability, a native rights advocacy group, and I am an organizer and participant in the Idle No More movement in Calgary. And I am a Zionist.
Let me tell you why.
I grew up on a Métis colony in what many would say are rough conditions: we had no electricity, running water or telephone. When it rained, the dirt roads that linked us to the highways flooded and we were stranded. I lived in a bunkhouse with my two stepbrothers, while my father and stepmother lived in a small cabin nearby. We raised a garden, hunted and fished, picked berries and made the odd trip to town to buy supplies. My father worked construction and lived in camps for long stretches and I would often stay at relatives’ to escape my stepmother’s abuse. Still, I considered my childhood normal.
My interest in Israel started at a young age. My father gave me a set of Encyclopedia Britannica for my 5th birthday and, from there, a passion for history was born. I would sit and read whenever the weather was bad. In fact, it was a family joke that taking away my books for a few hours was a better way to discipline me than a spanking. One entry that caught my eye was that of Israel’s birth in 1948. It struck me as the ultimate David and Goliath story: Israel, a tiny country that had fought for independence from the British Empire, was forced from its first moments to defend its existence against the combined armies of the Arab world. Israel survived against all odds, and did so in a truly epic story of will and heroism. This story inspired me.
Growing up, I was a very small child. (I am called "Tiny Ryney" to this day, though I play defensive tackle for the Calgary Wolfpack). I was called a "half-breed" and other slurs by white kids while the children in my colony made fun of my paler skin. I didn’t belong anywhere. And I had to be resourceful to protect myself, since I was weaker than the others. Being the victim of bullying shaped who I am and my sense of right and wrong. It is one reason that I support Israel, a country that has faced bullying and manipulation since its birth. Israel too has had to be resourceful to defend itself against enemies that dwarf it. And, like me, it overcame.
Noticing my curiosity about Israel, my father bought me as a birthday gift a book about the 1976 Raid on Entebbe, a brilliant rescue by Israeli commandos of hostages taken by Palestinian terrorists to Uganda. Again, this impressed me. Israel was willing to do the impossible to rescue its people, regardless of the political fallout. This pushed me to read more about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In so doing, I learned about the ’72 Munich Olympic Games, where Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 Israeli athletes during an event meant to be a celebration of brotherhood and peace. I wondered why more people weren’t as upset as I was.
It was during this time, while visiting relatives working oil rigs, that I learned while watching a hotel TV of the horrific 1972 Lod Airport massacre where terrorists shot dead 26 civilians waiting for their flights, including 17 Christian pilgrims. I also remember the 1985 attack by Yasser Arafat’s forces on the Achille Lauro cruise ship, where an old disabled man was thrown overboard in his wheelchair for the crime of being a Jew. The more I saw, the more I needed to understand why such things were happening. The more I learned, the more I grew to appreciate Israel’s moral integrity in the face of brutal hatred. And I came to believe that the Jewish people and Israel should serve as an example to indigenous people everywhere. It is with the Jews – and their stubborn survival after being decimated and dispersed by powerful empires -- that we have the most in common.
My people, the Métis, came to Alberta after the American Revolution, at the government’s request, to prevent the settling of the Americans in western Canada. We settled the land and followed the white man’s rules. But we were eventually evicted, our homes given to white pioneers. No one wanted us. We were forced to live in hiding, on road allowances, in the bush. We had no rights, and we were killed out of hand, as "nuisances". Exile fractured our nation. Our people wandered with no hope and no home. Then, in the mid 1900's, our leaders managed to secure land for us, not the land we had wanted but land that would nonetheless allow us to build a better future. We took it, built our settlements and formed a government to improve the lives of our people. We still have many problems to solve, of course, but we also have more educated people than ever and are slowly becoming self-sufficient, as our leaders envisioned. In this, the Jewish people and the Métis have walked the same road.
The Jews also suffered genocide and were expelled from their homeland. They were also rejected by everyone and forced to wander. Like us, they rebelled against imperial injustice when necessary and, despite their grievances, strived for peace whenever possible. Like us they were given a tiny sliver of their land back after centuries of suffering and persecution, land that nobody else had wanted to call home until then. Like us, they took that land despite their misgivings and forged a nation from a fractured and wounded people. And like us, they consistently show a willingness to compromise for the good of their people.
I hope the Metis keep walking the same road as the Jewish people. Through their efforts, the Jews were able to preserve their identity despite terrible persecution and to revive their culture and language once back in their homeland. They never lost their sense of who they were, but neither did they lose sight of the importance of looking forward. Given their history, it would have been natural for them to become insular and reactionary. But instead, they work hard to be productive and are friendly even to countries that have caused them tremendous suffering. I want us to similarly make education and the preservation of our ancient culture a priority. I want us to continue to strive for peace and productivity.
Many claim that we Natives have more in common with the Palestinians, that their struggle is our struggle. Beyond superficial similarities, nothing could be farther from the truth. Beyond the facile co-opting of our cause, the comparison with the Palestinians is absolutely untenable. It trivializes our suffering.
Co-opting today’s native struggle to the Palestinian propaganda war is a fallacy. Though the Palestinians have undeniable ties to the land, first hand accounts by Mark Twain and countless other travelers to the Holy Land through the ages suggest that a large percentage of the Palestinian people immigrated to Palestine in recent decades. And for 65 years, the Palestinians have convinced the world that they are worse off than many other stateless nations, despite all evidence to the contrary. The Palestinians claim to have been colonized but it was their own leaders who refused to negotiate and who lost the land that they want by waging a needless war on Israel. They claim to have faced genocide but they suffered no such thing: their population has exploded from a few hundred thousand in 1948 to over 4 million today. They claim deprivation but their elites live in luxury while their people live in ramshackle poverty.
What’s more, the Palestinian leaders have never been interested in a peaceful solution for their people. They were given several opportunities to have their own state – for the first time in history -- and refused each time, choosing war over peace because the offers were never deemed sufficient. They have persistently used terrorism to bring attention to their cause and their leaders have celebrated the killing of civilians by naming parks and schools after murderers. And any Palestinian that questions the maximalist rhetoric or who suggests real compromise is immediately ostracized, branded a traitor, or killed.
The Palestinians are not like us. Their fight is not our fight. We natives believe in bringing about change peacefully, and we refuse to be affiliated with anyone who engages in violence targeting civilians. I cannot remain silent and allow the Palestinians to gain credibility at our expense by claiming commonality with us. I cannot stand by while they trivialize our plight by tying it to theirs, which is largely self-inflicted. Our population of over 65 million was violently reduced to a mere 10 million, a slaughter unprecedented in human history. To compare that in whatever way to the Palestinians’ story is deeply offensive to me. The Palestinians did lose the land they claim is theirs, but they were repeatedly given the opportunity to build their state on it and to partner with the Jews -- and they persistently refused peace overtures and chose war. We were never given that chance. We never made that choice.