Cats on turtle island

S. Harper says with a straight face that Canada has “no history of colonialism” and then heads home to cuddle with foster cats from the Ottawa Humane Society. The OHS “cares for” around 7000 cats a year and kills roughly half of them. If the country has no history of colonialism, how did its capital come to be crawling with cats?

S.H. slouches w/ OHS kitten

Obviously Harper wants to erase the fact that the history of “Canada” is the history of a colony. Less obvious is the role that cats play in this history.

Cats were recruited to take part in the colonization of the continent because they are useful to settler agriculture because they kill (native and “invasive”) rodents. This is important work given that settler agriculture helps propel settler expansion and undermine indigenous food sovereignty. Cats continue to contribute to work on farms and ranches (and distilleries), and as the most popular pet on the continent, they contribute to the demand for the products of farms and ranches, too – they consume well over two million tons of “agricultural inputs” per year – and thus help to propel the expansion of settler agriculture from the comfort of settler homes.

The Harpers have found further uses for cats. Steve’s sweater vest was a joke, his handshake with his son was awkward, his classic rock crooning is existentially embarrassing. But his cats are cute, and in their presence some of the worst parts of the PM’s personality – his recalcitrance, his authoritarianism, his imperiousness, his pride – look like cat-like virtues; in the presence of cats, Steve looks human. Laureen, too, helps “put a more human face on the government,” in part by caring about cats – an ideal pet cause because it’s apolitical: cats might be subjects of charity, but they are not Canadian subjects, the federal government has no obligations to them. In sum: cats are a good look for the authors of the latest chapters of the colony’s history.

S.H., L.H., and Stanley

At the Toronto stop of the Just for Cats video festival this past April, Hailey King resisted the Harpers’ narrative. “Raising awareness about cat welfare is a good look for your husband’s upcoming campaign strategy,” King told special guest Laureen. “Don’t you think supporting government action on missing and murdered indigenous women in this country would be a better look?” The problem of homeless cats has the same provenance as the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women; to raise the problem of homeless cats without ever acknowledging this provenance, without mentioning the fact that five hundred years ago there wasn’t a problem because there wasn’t a cat to be found, is one more way of facilitating the erasure of indigenous land and life.

Craig McFarlane’s critiques of the OHS, at Theoria and at Misanthropology, are very helpful – I draw on (and link to) the latest of them above. McFarlane’s discussion of King’s cat festival intervention is another matter.

McFarlane opens by arguing that Laureen Harper does not deserve the appellation “animal advocate,” and that actual animal advocates can support both cats and indigenous women. These points are practical and uncontroversial.

Then he hits AR autopilot and produces an anti-seal hunt screed that is no help to anyone.

S.H. samples seal meat

S.H. samples seal meat

McFarlane reads the Harper government’s defense of Inuit seal hunting as a side effect of the Conservative commitment to northern development and neglects to call nonsense: northern development is incompatible with seal hunting (and will kill way more nonhuman animals). He claims that “literally no one considers seal meat to be edible,” an erasure as audacious as any of Steve’s. He argues that the Inuit defense of seal hunting is the response of a culture that “feels itself to be under siege,” and implies that this response is pathological and misguided. He suggests that we read “an important book, The Sexual Politics of Meat,” but is oblivious to the role that indigenous women play in the feminist tradition that Carol J. Adams works in.

The reference to Adams is telling. Adams argues that speciesism is the fundamental oppression: “Human society takes from the oppression of animals its structures and treatment of people…all forms of oppression can be traced to the treatment of animals by humans.” This wager has been hugely influential and generative; it is at the foundation of the field of animal studies. I make it when I argue that we are going to continue to hear “Blurred Lines” as long as animality is denigrated.

But Adams’ wager is not without risk: it can facilitate the erasure of indigenous land and life. McFarlane suggests that “animal rights activists and Native rights activists should work together.” What he means is that “Native rights activists” should become animal rights activists, should assimilate to veganism, since speciesism structures the oppression of indigenous people in general and indigenous women in particular: “cultures that rape cows (to get milk) also rape women; cultures that easily dispose of vulnerable animals (such as Laureen Harper’s cats) also dispose of vulnerable women; cultures that murder animals also murder women.” Thus: “A Native man slaughtering a seal is no better than a white man slaughtering a Native woman.”

All this homologizing erases indigenous nations that are irreducible to “human society,” that have been on this Island since the beginning of time (i.e. before the cats and cattle – and pigs and chickens – and settlers washed up), and that do things differently. In McFarlane’s telling, epidemic violence against indigenous women became inevitable when the first Inuk speared a seal. In fact, pre-colonization, indigenous nations were mostly matrilineal and sexual violence was rare (as were domesticated food animals); post-colonization, rape is a tool of patriarchal control and genocide. In this context, all forms of oppression might be traced to the treatment of indigenous nations by settler nations; settler colonialism, one might argue, is the fundamental oppression.

So: cultures that steal land and call it property also consider women and other animals property; cultures that try to disappear the original inhabitants of a continent also try to disappear women and other animals; settler colonialism precipitates heteropatriarchy and speciesism.

“That’s a great cause,” L. Harper told Hailey King, “but that’s another night. Tonight we’re here for homeless cats.” Actual animal advocates who are actually interested in building coalitions with nations that have been defending the land and the animals on it forever cannot follow Laureen’s schedule. We need to work toward the return of stolen land, now. We need to understand how our messaging can reproduce racist justifications for colonization, and then change our messaging. We need to read some books that aren’t in the animal studies canon.

And we need to attend to what is incommensurable between decolonization and animal liberation. That means surrendering the comforts of smug certainty. We need to get ready to get unsettled.


Works consulted:

Anderson, Karen. Chain Her By One Foot: The Subjugation of Women in Seventeenth-Century New France.

Barker, Joanne. “Gender, Sovereignty, Rights: Native Women’s Activism against Social Inequality and Violence in Canada.” American Quarterly, 2008.

Deer, Sarah. “Decolonizing Rape Law: A Native Feminist Synthesis of Safety and Sovereignty.” Wicazo Sa Review, Fall 2009.

Poupart, Lisa M. “The Familiar Face of Genocide: Internalized Oppression among American Indians.” Hypatia, Spring 2003.

Powell, Dylan. “Veganism in the Occupied Territories Pt. II: Decolonization, Land, and ‘Choice’”.

Roque, Sara. Six Miles Deep.

Shupak, Greg. “The Logic of Israeli Violence”.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, December 2006.


2 thoughts on “Cats on turtle island

  1. Pingback: Veganism in the Occupied Territories: What of Pre Occupation Animal Domestication? | Dylan Powell

  2. Pingback: Resistance Ecology | Ferguson & Beyond: Animal Liberation, White Supremacy, and Responsibility

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