On 19 September 2017 CBC’s Ideas ran an episode titled “Decolonization, the Next 150 on Indigenous Lands.” This year is Canada’s 150th anniversary as an independent nation, and, in some circles, this milestone is being marked with increasingly critical evaluations of the country’s historical and contemporary practices of exploiting and oppressing Indigenous peoples. The episode featured three Indigenous Canadian doctoral students discussing their research on various aspects of the Indigenous experience of Canadian colonialism and providing their analyses of what the process of decolonizing Canada might entail. The work of these three researchers, their understandings of Canada as a colonial society, and their insights into what decolonizing Canada might mean have critical implications for Canada’s national self-understanding as settler Canadians begin – and we are only barely beginning – to come to terms with our settler identity and history of exploiting and abusing Indigenous people.
The three scholars represent a broad scope of interests and approaches. Réal Carrière, from the Nehinuw (Cree) nation in Saskatchewan researches Indigenous governance and language, more specifically “Nehinuw governance in Nehinuw terms” at Ryerson University; Keri Cheechoo, a Cree woman from Long Lake #58 First Nation, is at the University of Ottawa, writing about the Canadian state’s policy of forced or coerced sterilization of Indigenous women; Cherry Smiley, a Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) and Diné (Navajo) woman, is at Concordia University, researching prostitution and the colonization of Indigenous women and girls’ bodies.
Carrière writes about governance in a Cree context. His work brings into question the epistemological foundations of the legal regimes that justified, created, and maintain unequal relationships between colonizer and colonized in Canada. Specifically, Carrière discusses how Cree and European models of governance – and with those the bases of the treaty laws defining relationships between between settlers and Indigenous people – are rooted in fundamentally different concepts about people and their relationship to the world. Unlike European models of governance, Carrière notes, Cree models are rooted in the relationship between the people and the Creator. Settler legal models, however, do not acknowledge the same foundational concepts as the Cree with whom these treaties were enacted. This incompatibility is central to understanding Canadian violation of treaties. Indigenous people entered those treaties understanding that the law was grounded in their relationship with the Creator, but those treaties are only understood by settlers in terms of their European conceptions, not in terms of the Indigenous concepts that underpin them.
Both Cheechoo and Smiley’s research examines how Indigenous women’s bodies have been sites for the exercise of settler power. Cheecoo argues that the forced sterilization of Indigenous women is part of larger patterns of removing Indigenous peoples from their land. By forcing Indigenous women to give up their reproductive abilities, settlers ensure that future generations of Indigenous people will not be there to stand in the way of the exploitation of Indigenous land and resources:
If Indigenous women’s bodies are not here, where we are holding on to the land, than resource extraction is something that can easily be enacted; we have to disappear, so that we’re not standing in the way.
Forced sterilization is not only a crime on a personal level, it is also an element of a crime against humanity. Although not mentioned in the podcast, state-sanctioned forced sterilization is part of the legal definition of genocide. Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide includes “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” as an element of the crime of genocide.
Smiley also frames male settler violence against Indigenous women as part of a larger patter of colonialist extraction, one that targets both Indigenous land and Indigenous bodies. Settler men paying Indigenous women and girls for sex is a “parallel process,” which simultaneously “[affirms] settler entitlement to Canada and to women’s bodies.” Smiley’s choice of terminology is informed by, and reveals, the historical and political implications of Unlike those feminist scholars who use terms like “sex work” in order to undo the stigmatization of, and restore a sense of agency to, women who exchange sex for money, Smiley uses “prostitution” because it underlines the extractive nature of the exchange: it’s settler men who benefit from paying Indigenous women for sex. She frames her choice of terminology with a question that, given the history at play, can only be answered in the negative: “Is prostitution of Indigenous women and girls by white settler men a decolonizing activity?”
The question of what counts as a decolonizing activity drives the second half of the episode as each of the three scholars offers insight into what the decolonization of Canada requires. Cheechoo frames decolonization in terms of her own being. Decolonizing institutions like schools is impossible, she argues; we can only decolonize ourselves and the land. Decolonization is thus a never-ending process of self-analysis as a way to undo the effects of generations of settler oppression. “If I’m not breaking down every social construct of who I’m supposed to be … as a Cree woman,” she argues, “then I’m not doing the … hard, necessary work of decolonization.” This process of decolonizing the self unfolds in the context of human relations: Cheechoo introduces herself as a person who defines herself in terms of her relationships with others: she is a mother, a sister, a grandmother, and an aunt. As a colonized subject, Cheechoo sees herself as being at risk of enacting the violence and oppression that she has experienced on the people with whom she shares connections, and thereby replicating settler oppression.
Carrière and Smiley frame the “hard, necessary work” of decolonization in terms of resistance to the settler state and the and the systems of knowledge and ideologies it is informed by and perpetuates. In terms of resisting the colonial state, Carrière draws inspiration from a long history of Indigenous resistance to settler power, be it the Oka Warriors in 1990 or his principal touchstone, the nineteenth-century Cree leader Big Bear, who resisted colonial intrusion onto Indigenous land and attempted to unify Indigenous nations against the expansion of Canadian sovereignty in the west. Carrière, also sees an epistemological element to decolonization. Decolonization requires undoing a lifetime of learning that took place in the context of a colonized society, a necessary step towards “the resurgence, the revitalization of Indigenous knowledge.” The revitalization of that knowledge the basis for living a good life based on Indigenous principles, and a prerequisite for the decolonization of Indigenous people and land.
Smiley sees decolonization as something that comes with ending patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. Decolonization will be painful, she warns, but will create a fundamental shift in societal understanding and priorities. Women and the land should not be treated as “objects to be used,” and colonialist ideologies play a huge role in perpetuating the commodification and exploitation of both peoples’ land and women’s bodies. Questioning and ultimately undoing our foundational ideologies will bring about a world “that will look very different.” Like Cheechoo, Smiley’s understanding of decolonization is framed in terms of relationships. An understanding of life based on relationships to each other and the land, instead of one based on the exploitation of people and land is the key to maintaining a sustainable society.
The question that is left is how settler Canadians can start the process of decolonizing their society. As Smiley notes, we are only at the very beginning of that process: gestures like the increasingly-common territorial acknowledgements are a start, but the hard work lays ahead of us. But that process is one that settlers fear, in part because they have little knowledge about what the idea even means; their preconceptions get in the way of engaging with the question of decolonization. But while decolonization isn’t about giving up features of modern society like running water and electricity, it is a process that will involve necessary pain and sacrifice. But, Cheechoo notes, it’s up to Canadians to do that work themselves. Relying on the colonized to do the hard work of decolonization simply reproduces colonial dynamics. The first step in decolonizing Canada might be found in Cheechoo’s argument that Canadians have to come to terms with the fact that we are settlers and “part of the colonialism project.” As Canada enters its next 150 years, it’s on Canadians to read, listen, think, and ultimately re-think our understanding of our country and its priorities.