This Isn’t About Race: Short Hills, Niagara Action for Animals, Sun Media and the Settler Panic

I originally wrote this back in February but sat on it because many of the people I organize with were burned out from dealing with the backlash from the stances we had already taken on this issue. I happened upon it tonight in a “draft” section on the Live Free Collective site and thought it important and relevant to finally publish as there looks to be another hunt upcoming and the same issues are being brought forward again.

This Isn’t About Race: Short Hills, Niagara Action for Animals, Sun Media and the Settler Panic

“This isn’t about race.” Repeat. “Who will think of the deer?” Repeat.

As individual “animal rights” advocates, Niagara Action for Animals, white rights advocates and non native hunters who opposed the announcement of a Haudenosaunee hunt in Short Hills Provincial Park defended their stance it was frequent to face either one of those statements – or both.

By the time the hunt occurred animal advocates who had originally opposed the hunt had split – with those still opposing the hunt actually finding common ground with non-native hunters who opposed the hunt, sharing food and actually sharing strategies on how they were both going to oppose this hunt together. “This isn’t about race.”

How did a group of advocates who had not demonstrated in the community in years – or opposed non-native hunting in the community for much longer – join together so quickly to oppose this hunt? And how did they end up illustrating the exact thing they denied – that their concern was entirely motivated by race and intentionally obscured by a supposed concern for animals?

Although the stories written by Sun Media paper – the St. Catharines Standard – play an important role, the issue has to be traced back much farther than that.

Niagara Action for Animals is one of the longest running animal advocacy organizations in North America – with roots back to the late 1980’s. The organization has been able to sustain itself as some of the founders of the group were able to secure professional careers in the area – and unlike most in the social justice community in Niagara – they stayed. Throughout the decades the organization has been known for it’s opposition to the Shrine Circus, as well as Marineland – and also known for it’s various cat rescue programs. Veganism was something that came later as an organizational stance – and although the vast majority of the organization’s resources are still directed to its cat rescue programs – they do still do education and outreach. As someone who organized in this space for years and who looked up to certain board members as mentors – it was a welcoming and inter generational space to engage in animal advocacy in Niagara. Without it I would not be the person or organizer that I am today.

The organization would accept radicalism in the name of animal advocacy (to an extent) however, held very conservative views regarding other forms of oppression and were extremely resistant to bringing those issues into the community and into the organization. I organized the Niagara Action for Animals potluck series from Sept 2010 to June 2012 – and during that last year attempted to use the potluck as a community space to bring speakers in from other movements in order to build relationships and solidarity and also open up a very single issue community to the broader social justice community. Resistance to this was high. Board members who I could usually count on to defend me fell silent as others who opposed such things grew louder. By the time word was getting back to me about the potlucks not being “about animals” anymore – I left. If the organization was not going to make an attempt to actively reach out to other movements – namely migrant justice advocacy and Haudenosaunee solidarity – it was not a space I wanted to be in. I later found out that there were actual moves to try and cancel the last potluck I organized – a June 2012 potluck where Haudenosaunee Land Defenders Wes Elliott, Ruby Monture and John Henhawk came to speak about the Two Row Wampum (Guswenta) and also about building solidarity.

They spoke about foundational relationships that need to happen – about a history of genocide in the name of settler colonialism – and also about struggles where we can come together to fight – wilderness defense, resistance to sprawl, Tar Sands opposition and more. All of these struggles include other animal species and not just on the periphery – whether it is fighting sludge facilities in Dundalk, sprawl and wilderness destruction around the Haldimand Tract, Line 9 reversal and more. Around this talk members of the community had arguably the greatest access to these issues and solidarity organizing of any settler or non-native animal advocacy community ever. Buses were organized from St. Catharines to the April 28th Coalition march to Kanonhstaton – the “Protected Place” – a land reclamation site in Caledonia, On – speaking events were organized in the community – demonstrations and events in Ontario around these issues all sent cars from Niagara – outreach material was present at every event, etc. Around this same time another animal advocacy group was launched in Niagara – the Niagara Animal Defense League. The ADL folks got in those cars. The NAFA advocates stayed home.

As organizational values split, that liberal and conservative view of organizing that was not seen as “about animals” wedged the communities. Similar issues of sexism, misogyny, labour rights and accountability surrounded the community at the same time – with the ADL folks demanding accountability and the NAFA advocates claiming it was not the role of an animal advocacy community or organization to take a stance.

The ADL folks continued to organize and managed to have some groundbreaking success throughout the year in developing a grassroots network to the Shrine Circus and also in opposition to Marineland. Hostility continued to grow as many felt that because of issues not “about animals” there was now no space for them in regards to animal advocacy issues in Niagara (with one side never understanding that those who left spaces to create their own had also ceded space).

By the time St. Catharines Standard reporter Dan Dakin unleashed his news article about the hunt the table was already set in the animal advocacy community. The article completely glossed over treaty rights – and as a result immediately a petition went up about the “illegal” hunt and Niagara Action for Animals organized a demonstration, urging the Ministry of Natural Resources to intervene and shut it down. But were these advocates merely ignorant of these issues – had they just not had access to an understanding of treaty rights – or was this move intentional? “Who will speak for the deer?”

Niagara Action for Animals board members had actually attempted to shut such knowledge out of the community, however, advocates all had more access than any other social justice community in Niagara. They had all watched the organizing that was happening at the ADL – they had all known that the Haudenosaunee are not “The Natives,” and they had also known of the Two Row Wampum. The decision to oppose this hunt was based on willed ignorance and spite. It was based on the same settler panic reaction that fuels white rights advocates, reverse racists and the non-native hunting community – the rejection of confronting privilege and the re-assertion of power. It is not that they did not know the issues – they knew them and didn’t like them.

In the animal advocacy community the reaction was strong – and swift – as this examination of privilege had already made many members angry (many who opposed the hunt publicly voiced criticism of the potluck organized previously – for the first time – during dialogue of the hunt and other vocal advocates were folks who had left the ADL already based upon this issue after being called out for making overtly racist statements). Some who first opposed the hunt and have since backed off have been honest about what fueled the settler panic – anger towards the ADL, the organizing it had been doing around the issue and their perceived lack of space in an animal advocacy community that demands accountability and intersectionality.

Those who did back away from their stances also acknowledged that the space created in opposing the hunt was incapable of checking the intentions and motivations of those who were overtly racist. Others were forced off of a narrative constructed off the pained animal rights activists who fights “needless killing” in all forms. Few who opposed the hunt vocally were active in the community on any issue and many were also not vegan themselves. Many of their apologies presented the issue as “complex” and “complicated” – which was ironic as Haudenosaunee Land Defender Wes Elliott stated very strongly at that potluck in June 2012 – “You will only ever hear settlers talk about these issues as “complicated” or “complex.” The Haudenosaunee know that the treaties are neither.” The principles of non-interference, and specifically the Two Row, are fundamentally simple. A relationship of non-interference is not just expected – it is demanded. If it is honoured we can work together – if it is not – we cannot.

Those who stuck with the demonstration increased their racist critiques of the hunt – displaying a complete erasure of genocide, privilege, settler colonialism, environmentalism racism, food deserts, capitalism and more. Some openly joked about racist stereotypes “the natives really run fast!” while others were adamant about assimilation at all costs. Many continued to make the focus about whether or not they were “racist” instead of doing anything about the behaviors and comments that were being called out as such (hint: you have the ability to alter those comments and behaviors!) There is also a soft grouping throughout Southern Ontario of folks who have taken a stance against the hunt on the grounds of being against any cultural or traditional practice that includes animal use – regardless of the context and also regardless of genocide. The “colour blind” advocates can be found in any movement – and they will continue to play a role in the animal advocacy movement.

As the first weekend of the hunt has now finished the actions of those who demonstrated against it had no effect in stopping it – however, that bit of theatre did manage to bring this fundamental split to the forefront of the community and to the public. Many advocates who prioritize animal advocacy above or alone in their organizing came to their defense and then split – and the larger social justice community and the animal liberation community watched in horror. The demonstration will be remembered as a defining moment in organizing around animal advocacy and social justice in the Niagara Region and beyond. Similar questions will be asked of other animal advocacy communities when right wing newspapers such as SunMedia stoke the fires of racism and xenophobia. Although I can point directly to an endless list of organizing with Haudenosaunee and Onkwehonwe communities that will defend other animals as well as their habitat, the principles of the Two Row are simple, foundational agreements that demand to be honoured. Both when it is convenient – and when it is not.

To advocates who know their row.

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The Marineland Animal Defense megaphone at the #idlenomore border rally in Fort Erie on Saturday January 5th – the same day as the Short Hills Deer Hunt Demonstration.

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