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Fighting For a Hand to Hold: An Anti-Colonial Reading List

A recommended reading list by Samir Shaheen-Hussain whose Fighting for A Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada, winner of the The Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction and The Concordia University First Book Prize at the QWF Literary Awards.

Book Cover Fighting for a Hand to Hold

The QWF Literary Awards celebrate the best books and plays by English-language writers, playwrights, and translators in Quebec, as well as those translating English works from Quebec into French. Each award comes with a purse of $3,000.

For more information about the Awards and to see Giller Prize-winning author Sean Michaels announce all the finalists, check out the Gala page on our website.

Fighting for a Hand to Hold won The Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction and The Concordia University First Book Prize at the 2021 Awards Gala.

Learn more about the book at


Fighting for a Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada (foreword by Cindy Blackstock, afterword by Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel) uses the #aHand2Hold campaign as a case study of contemporary medical colonialism in Quebec, and demonstrates that inequalities in health care follow fault lines of societal injustices.

The campaign confronted Évacuations aéromédicales du Québec (ÉVAQ), the provincially run medical evacuation airlift service, and its long-standing practice of separating Indigenous children from their families in northern Quebec. The book also contextualizes this now-defunct practice by exposing the Canadian medical establishment’s role in the displacement, colonization, and genocide of Indigenous Peoples—colonial genocide.

As the saying goes, nadie escribe solx (“no one writes alone”). Fighting for a Hand to Hold relies heavily on the works of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics, activists, artists, researchers, and writers, as well as the testimonies of individuals from Indigenous Nations across the country. As a racialized settler born in Canada to immigrant parents, I hope that I have been able to make use of and build on these contributions in a responsible, significant and meaningful way. Teachers, mentors, and friends in the social justice movements I’ve been a part of—as well as so many others involved in liberation struggles more broadly whom I’ve not met—have shaped my social and political lens over the years.

What follows is an important, albeit non-comprehensive, list of books by some of these people.


Book Cover Spirit Bear and the Children Make History

Spirit Bear and Children Make History, by Cindy Blackstock and Eddy Robinson

Adapted as a stop-motion animation film directed by Amanda Strong, this important children’s book tells the story of the case initially brought forth against the Canadian government by the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) in February 2007 to put an end to the inequitable treatment Indigenous children receive with respect to various public services, including health care and education.

Beautifully illustrated, the book highlights the role that children—Indigenous and not—have played in supporting this case over the years. Despite the CHRT’s ruling in favour of more equitable treatment for Indigenous children, the Canadian government has consistently failed to comply and has even filed appeals about certain CHRT orders.

As I ask in Fighting for A Hand to Hold, if governments can’t treat Indigenous children equitably and with dignity when it comes to health care and social services, how will they ever redress the injustices imposed on Indigenous communities more broadly?


Book Cover All Our Relations

All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, by Tanya Talaga

When I was in medical school, higher suicide rates among Indigenous youth in Canada were often explained by presumed dysfunctions somehow inherent to Indigenous families and communities. This blame-the-victim approach never sat well with me.

In 2002, I chose to take a 30-hour bus ride to northwestern Ontario with a classmate-friend to do my family medicine rotation in Sioux Lookout (today, the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority serves 33 First Nations in the area) and Pikangikum First Nation, a fly-in Ojibwe community considered at the time to have one of the highest suicide rates in the world and where there had recently been several suicides among youth.

For years, I had bathed in the muddied waters of Canadian multiculturalism, but it is only after speaking with and getting to know Indigenous children, families and community workers—for the first time in my life despite being in my twenties!—that I began to understand the underlying cause of these suicides: Canadian colonialism. Indeed, as Talaga highlights in this book published over 15 years after my experience, “the medical system that operates in Canada is not structured to look at the historic systemic racism that affects Indigenous families every day.”

She explains how youth suicides stem from the fact that Indigenous communities are prevented from gaining access to what are considered the basic determinants of health—income, employment, education, food, shelter, social equity—thereby forcing Indigenous children to live “without a sense of their human dignity.”

Ultimately, she warns us about the limitations of legal frameworks to rectify historical wrongs that continue to impact Indigenous youth: “But this is not just about civil rights. This is about freedom.”


Book Cover The Marrow Thieves

The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

This dystopia novel is set in a world devastated by climate catastrophe and ecological collapse caused by humans, where Indigenous people are hunted and killed for their bone marrow because it allows settlers (i.e., the marrow thieves) to regain the lost ability to dream. As one of the protagonists explains, doctors and the healthcare system “found a way to siphon the dreams right out of our bones.”

Dimaline set her novel in the future, but she casts a mirror confronting settlers reading her book with the very real genocide of Indigenous peoples that has occurred in North America. A gripping and inspiring story about Indigenous resistance to settler-colonialism, about building and being in community, and about belonging to the land, The Marrow Thieves underscores the strength Indigenous youth derive from dreaming—from hoping—despite the on-going ravages of colonialism today.


Book Cover This is An Honour Song

This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades, edited by Leanne Simpson and Kiera L. Ladner

In the conclusion of Fighting for A Hand to Hold, I mention how Indigenous-led self-determination and resurgence movements played a critical role in the success of the 2018 #aHand2Hold campaign. This is because many land defence actions, campaigns and confrontations shifted the political terrain since the first formal opposition to ÉVAQ’s non-accompaniment rule in the 1990s.

The 1990 siege of Kanehsatà:ke (commonly known as the “Oka crisis” because the municipality of Oka wanted to develop its golf course into the sacred pines in Kanehsatà:ke) was one such landmark event because of how it echoed—and echoes—through time and space.

This book brings together contributions by Indigenous people from different nations (including an epilogue by Ellen Gabriel) as well as anti-colonial settlers across Canada to explain why the resistance led by the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) people of Kanehsatà:ke was—and is—so important.


Book Cover Indigenous Nationhood

Indigenous Nationhood: Empowering Grassroots Citizens, by Pamela Palmater

This collection of blog posts was written during a time when Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada was in power, which meant that the long-standing agenda of assimilating—and eliminating—Indigenous peoples was particularly heightened.

However, as Palmater explains in a disclaimer that appears at the beginning of the book, “simply voting in the Liberals or NDP will not change the colonial laws, policies, and structures that overtly and systematically discriminate against Indigenous peoples.” 

Indeed, many of the same tried-and-tested methods employed by the Conservatives, like the “Defer, Deflect, Deny, Destroy” approach that Palmater highlights, have been used by the Liberals since they came into power. Her anti-colonial analysis provides a critical toolkit to break down Canadian mythologies and recognize the importance of Indigenous sovereignty “to protect the lands, waters, plants and animals for all our future generations.”


Book Cover Tortured People

Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization, by Howard Adams

This landmark book provides a scathing critique of capitalism and colonialism. The late Howard Adams calls out Canada’s hypocrisies and lies by exposing its many inequities, injustices and crimes against Indigenous peoples. Having been involved with the Red Power movement, Adams traces back militant actions in the present-day (the revised edition of the book was published in 1999) to the contributions made in the 1960s and 1970s by “Aboriginals of the under-class” —including Lee Maracle, whose death earlier this month has left many mourning her loss—as part of decolonization movements and the renaissance process of Indigenous cultures and nationalisms.


Book Cover I Am a Damn Savage

I Am a Damn Savage/ Eukuan nin matshi-manitu innushkueu, by An Antane Kapesh, translated by Sarah Henzi

Although originally published in French in 1976 (Je suis une maudite sauvagesse), this book only began to gain recognition in Québec for the monumental work that it is, after being republished by Mémoire d’encrier in 2019 and now translated to English.

The late An Antane Kapesh provides a disarmingly honest and harsh account of the many ways that Québécois colonialism has impacted Indigenous communities through her own experiences as an Innu woman who took great pride in her culture, language, knowledge, and history. With wit, indignation and an incisive analysis, Kapesh exposes the injustice and brutality of the “civilizing mission” of colonialism. In a compelling narrative, she makes clear how Québécois society profits from Innu exploitation through the imposition of various colonial structures and ideologies—private property, wage labour, debt, education system, mining and hydroelectric projects, criminalization through the police and judicial apparatus, and even the healthcare system.

Instead, she argues for full autonomy, sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous peoples. One can only hope that the English translation of Kapesh’s book will get the attention it deserves in the rest of Canada.


Book Cover Wrestling WIth Colonialism on Steroids

Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids: Quebec Inuit Fighting for their Homeland, by Zebedee Nungak

In the early 1970s, the Quebec government unilaterally began to dam and divert rivers in Eeyou Istchee (James Bay Cree territory) and Nunavik to forge ahead with their James Bay hydroelectric “project of the century” in northern Quebec. In this indispensable text, Nungak, who worked as a broadcaster for years, provides a succinct and very accessible overview to understand the historical, economic and political contexts that led to the colonial James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) being signed in 1975 between the Eeyou (Cree) and Inuit on the one hand, and the provincial government on the other. The JBNQA is often touted in Quebec as being an example to follow vis-à-vis modern treaties with Indigenous communities, but, as Nungak makes clear, it was effectively signed under duress and came at a significant price because “nobody else in Quebec ever had to trade the essence of their identity to gain access to public services.” Its impacts continue to be felt to this day.


Book Cover Secret Path

Secret Path, by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire

In February 1967, Maclean’s magazine published a story, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack”, that drew national attention and one of the first inquests into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools. Yet, it’s a story I was not aware of, until I came across this graphic novel (also a ten-song album) somewhat by chance, sitting on one of the shelves at the municipal library in the neighborhood where I grew up, while I was in the research and early writing phase of the book manuscript. Much like so many other stories, this one has been buried by Canada until recently, which is why I felt that I had to include it in Fighting for A Hand to Hold.

In Secret Path, Downie and Lemire tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year old Anishinaabe boy who walked the railroad tracks to escape from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and return home to the Marten Falls First Nation reserve, which was over 600 kilometres away. He died from exposure and hunger on October 22, 1966, near Redditt, Ontario.

Pearl Achneepineskum, Chanie Wenjack’s sister, collaborated on Secret Path, and has played a key role in honouring her brother’s life and legacy through initiatives like Walk for Wenjack: “I swore that I would do something the day he died. I would not have my brother's death swept under a rug. If Chanie's life can save other children than I've done my work.”


Book Cover The Circle Game

The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada, by Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Young with Michael Maraun

I came across the revised edition of this groundbreaking book through my involvement with the Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement (IPSM) when I was still in pediatric residency training. It is because of books like this that I was not surprised—though I was no less horrified—when the brutal “discovery” of unmarked and mass graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of residential schools was confirmed and made international headlines over the last few months. Indeed, Indigenous people have been raising the alarm about this issue for a long time.

The Circle Game was originally published in 1997, derived from the authors’ report on “Residential Schooling” submitted to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) … almost two decades before the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The authors demonstrate how the residential school system was an act of genocide — not simply “cultural genocide” — as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Along the way, they pull apart the flawed ideas that justify violence and terror in colonial regimes to expose the Canadian settler nation-state for the house of cards that it is. They call for a “radical reformulation of what the ‘helping professions’ think and do.”  As someone from a “helping profession”, I can attest to how much this radical reformulation is still very much needed today.


Book Cover A Violent History of Benevolence

A Violent History of Benevolence: Interlocking Oppression in the Moral Economies of Social Working, by Chris Chapman and A.J. Withers

This book does for social work what my book tries to do for medicine in Canada: it challenges the fundamental assumption that the “helping professions” in healthcare are morally benevolent and politically neutral.

A Violent History of Benevolence is a must-read for anyone thinking about entering social work, because it documents in significant detail histories that are conventionally ignored or erased (e.g., the racialized experiences of Black social workers, the role of early social workers in advancing eugenics and mass confinement, the active involvement of social workers in the genocidal apprehension and placement of Indigenous children through colonial child protective services, etc.).

Chapman and Withers issue a warning that no healthcare provider should take lightly: “Care, whether professional or otherwise, might very well be genuine, heart-felt, and sometimes even appreciated, but this characterization doesn’t disentangle it from the political dream in which it’s rooted. If that political dream is one in which others’ lifeworlds are to be extinguished for the good of all, then the violences of genocide and eugenics live on in even the gentlest and most necessary gestures of care.”


Book Cover Suffer the Little Children

Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State, by Tamara Starblanket

As I was completing my book manuscript, Aziz Choudry, a common friend who has since passed on, pointed me to this indispensable work. Meticulously documented and compellingly argued by delving into both colonial history and international law, Starblanket exposes the residential school system in Canada for what it should be accused of: the crime of genocide. She is highly critical of the language often used to minimize or divert from the extent of harm caused by colonial violence. As she explains in an interview conducted by Choudry for Canadian Dimension about her book, instead of referring to the trauma caused by residential schools as “intergenerational”, it should be named and described for what it is: “an incredible onslaught of dehumanizing colonial terror for the children of Indigenous Peoples”.


Book Cover An Act of Genocide

An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women, by Karen Stote

This pivotal book addresses not “if”, but rather to what extent the coerced and forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls, historically rooted in eugenics, has taken place in Canada. Many have courageously spoken out about this practice since the publication of this book, prompting the launch of a class-action lawsuit. Canadian medical institutions, and doctors in particular, have played the role of carrying out these genocidal acts intended to prevent births among Indigenous peoples. Indeed, Stote contextualizes this misogynist, racist medical violence as part of the colonial project that has always had as its mission to expropriate and exploit Indigenous lands while assimilating and eliminating Indigenous people.


Book Cover Separate Beds

Separate Beds: A History of Indian Hospitals in Canada, 1920s-1980s, by Maureen K. Lux

I thought I had a decent handle of various components of “medical colonialism” when I was beginning to write my book manuscript. This book about “Indian Hospitals” suggested otherwise. Until I came across it while doing research for my manuscript, I had no idea that, at its peak in the early 1960s, this part of the segregated Canadian health care system had a total capacity of over two thousand beds in more than twenty Indian hospital institutions across the country.

Lux, who is a medical historian, demonstrates in this book that that the only thing “Indian” about these hospitals was the patients. Indeed, as she explains in her Canadian Encyclopedia entry about Indian Hospitals, “they did not provide Indigenous medicines, midwives or holistic notions of illness and its treatment”; in fact, “the hospitals were intended to further assimilationist goals and replace traditional healing with biomedicine”.


Book Cover There's Something in the Water

There’s Something In The Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities, by Ingrid R. G. Waldron

This book, adapted as a Netflix documentary by Elliot Page and Ian Daniel, provides an analysis by drawing on tangible examples to understand how environmental racism, operating in a context of settler colonialism, impacts the health and well-being of Black and Indigenous communities in Canada. Waldron also highlights that change has always come when those who are directly impacted by such injustices are forced to resist and fight back against “white supremacy, state-sanctioned racial and gendered violence, neo-liberalism, and racial capitalism in white settler societies.”


Book Cover Policing Black Lives

Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, by Robyn Maynard

Written several years before the brutal police murder of George Floyd that resulted in protests and revolts around the world, Policing Black Lives tells the story of anti-Blackness in Canada by rooting it firmly in “the reality that Canada is a settler colony founded on colonization and genocide.”

Based on the premise that “a history that goes unacknowledged is too often a history that is doomed to be repeated,”  Maynard applies critical race theory, feminist frameworks, and an intersectional approach to expose Canada’s veneer of multiculturalism and tolerance for the state-sanctioned violence and harm it causes, including as it is experienced by Black women, Black people with disabilities, as well as queer, trans, and undocumented Black communities.

Importantly, she highlights the critical role played by Black resistance in Canada to underscore that all Black lives matter as part of a broader vision of imagining a more just society.


Book Cover Border and Rule

Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and The Rise of Racist Nationalism, by Harsha Walia

This book explains how the “migration crisis” is actually a “displacement crisis” because it is manufactured by colonial-capitalist forces through conquest, neoliberal globalization, and ecological collapse that result in mass dispossession worldwide.

Unlike mainstream liberal notions and discourses about migration that dehumanize migrants and erase Indigenous people, Walia’s book gets to the roots of injustice and suffering by starting from the premise that “colonialism, genocide, slavery, and indentureship … are the very conditions of possibility for the West’s preciously guarded imperial sovereignty.”

To break free from this, she calls for nothing less than a no borders politics, which is a “politics of refusal, a politics of revolution, and a politics of repair.”


Book Cover Red Skin, White Masks

Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, by Glen Sean Coulthard

This scholarly work requires some basic grounding in political science, notably the writings of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, but even the uninitiated will derive much knowledge and insights to better understand our present by reading this book. Coulthard masterfully explains how the narrative around reconciliation has historically gone “out of its way to fabricate a sharp divide between Canada’s unscrupulous ‘past’ and the unfortunate ‘legacy’ this past has produced for Indigenous people and communities in the present.” In other words: if there is no colonial present, then there is nothing to meaningfully decolonize from.

Yet, as Coulthard goes on to explain, “settler-colonial formations are territorially acquisitive in perpetuity” (emphasis in original). Ultimately, he calls for an Indigenous resurgence that “is at its core a prefigurative politics.” That is, “a resurgent politics of recognition that seeks to practice decolonial, gender-emancipatory, and economically nonexploitative alternative structures of law and sovereign authority grounded on a critical refashioning of the best of Indigenous legal and political traditions.”


Book Cover Fighting for a Hand to Hold

Learn more about Fighting for a Hand to Hold:

Launched by healthcare providers in January 2018, the #aHand2Hold campaign confronted the Quebec government's practice of separating children from their families during medical evacuation airlifts, which disproportionately affected remote and northern Indigenous communities. Pediatric emergency physician Samir Shaheen-Hussain's captivating narrative of this successful campaign, which garnered unprecedented public attention and media coverage, seeks to answer lingering questions about why such a cruel practice remained in place for so long. In doing so it serves as an indispensable case study of contemporary medical colonialism in Quebec. Fighting for a Hand to Hold exposes the medical establishment's role in the displacement, colonization, and genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Through meticulously gathered government documentation, historical scholarship, media reports, public inquiries, and personal testimonies, Shaheen-Hussain connects the draconian medevac practice with often-disregarded crimes and medical violence inflicted specifically on Indigenous children. This devastating history and ongoing medical colonialism prevent Indigenous communities from attaining internationally recognized measures of health and social well-being because of the pervasive, systemic anti-Indigenous racism that persists in the Canadian public health care system - and in settler society at large. Shaheen-Hussain's unique perspective combines his experience as a frontline pediatrician with his long-standing involvement in anti-authoritarian social justice movements. Sparked by the indifference and callousness of those in power, this book draws on the innovative work of Indigenous scholars and activists to conclude that a broader decolonization struggle calling for reparations, land reclamation, and self-determination for Indigenous peoples is critical to achieve reconciliation in Canada.


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