Sunday, September 29, 2013

Approaching Native Issues and the Language of Decolonization

For the last several years, Native American activists in Canada have been using the language of "decolonize" or "decolonialism" as a part of their rhetoric in advocating for change.  I do not believe that this is a particularly useful tactic for a lot of reasons, and one which in the long run will serve to inhibit forward progress in resolving the very valid issues that Canada's Native Americans want to change.

As best as I have been able to make out in researching the subject, it fundamentally asserts that anybody who is not Native American should confront the social privilege that results from Canada's history as colonial project of Britain and France and presumably how that privilege oppresses the Native Americans.  (This is my own summarization of things - I have not found any source which coherently sets it out in those terms)

It is fundamentally divisive language though.  It is being used in a manner which is clearly intended to foster a kind of "cultural guilt" among Canadians who are not of Native American descent.  The idea is that somehow those of us whose ancestry is largely western european should feel some kind of meta guilt for the plight of Native Americans.  For example, consider the following quote from an article posted on Rabble recently:
... These are the sins of Canadians today in 2013 who engage in Colonialism denial, and who benefit from the continued  colonial practices of the Canadian state. Canadians have an obligation to learn about their own history so they can stop engaging in Colonialism denial through sheer ignorance. Failure to do so is a modern day sin no Canadian can blame on their fathers.
The problem with this paragraph is fundamentally in the vague, imprecise way in which it uses the language of Decolonization.  What does it mean to "... benefit from the continued colonial practices ..."?  Frankly, that could mean just about anything, depending on how you interpret it, and what your understanding of the situation is.  I live in a house in a suburb of a major city.  Does that constitute "benefitting from colonial practices"?  It's hard to say - I'm sure that there are those who would argue that it does.

This is where the terminology creates its own problem.  Because there is no clear, unified understanding of what such accusations mean, it places anyone who is not descended from Native Americans in a position of wondering what is really meant.  The brush is too broad.  It could mean anything, and as such ends up meaning nothing.  Certainly, if the speaker of such phrase wants me to feel guilty, or even be willing to review something, all they have done is alienate me.  I cannot reasonably address anything when the brush is so broad.  If you can be more specific about the grievances, then perhaps I can look at those and how I play a role in those situations.

The blunt, harsh reality that I am talking about is very similar to the issue that feminism has faced with the notion of "male privilege".  The term itself at the outset is blindingly broad in its swath, and in a way ends up implicitly accusing every male of some kind of wrong simply by being male.  Feminism didn't get any traction in those areas until it started getting specific about matters.  Grievances about employment opportunities, wages, and social role demands placed on women can be inspected and addressed much more coherently than broad brush terms like "male privilege".   Similarly, the notion of racism didn't gain serious traction until things got specific, and language evolved to express how certain acts, structures and behaviours were destructive.  The broad term of "racism" only took on a coherent meaning once there was a comprehensible foundation upon which it could rest.  If your language of complaint is imprecise, the party that it is aimed at will step away from it because it is meaningless to them, and they will question why they should go down that path.

The language of "privilege" can be useful in the analysis of social and political issues of the nature that I suspect that Native American activists are trying to bring attention to.  Unfortunately, outside of the realms of academic review, such language is largely inaccessible.  The idea of "confronting one's own privilege" is, to say the least, tricky for most people to do at the best of times.  We need to be honest with ourselves as to what it means to demand that Canadians "confront their colonial privilege".  Without being specific it is beyond the grasp of most to do so.  Few have the direct knowledge of the issues that are being raised to even begin the process of understanding how their actions play into the picture.

I'm not arguing that Canada's Native Americans have no legitimate grievances - far from it.  What I am arguing for is a clarity of language in the discourse so that all Canadians can participate meaningfully.  The Indian Act is legitimately a source of significant complaint, the laws around the administration of reservations, and various other aspects of the relationship between the Federal Government and Canada's Native Americans are highly problematic.  On the West Coast, many of the Native American groups lack treaties and have long standing, unresolved land claims which have not been adequately addressed.  All of these are legitimate grievances.  Further, the treaties themselves are now very old documents and no doubt deserve to be reviewed and amended (or discarded in some cases?) in light of the context and understandings that exist today.

The Indian Act is a very old piece of legislation, and it enacts in law the structures through which the Canadian government implements the terms of the treaties negotiated during the era in which Europe was establishing colonies in North America.  As such, it implements structures which made sense some two centuries or more in the past.  It seems entirely reasonable that those structures themselves have in fact become a significant part of the problem and need to be changed.

Past wrongs cannot be magically undone.  Whether we are talking about issues in the negotiation of the original treaties, the creation of the residential schools (or how they were operated), none of those are events which we can unwind and erase from either history or the lives of those affected.  Can reparations be made?  To some degree, although in general such reparations are largely symbolic in nature, and have only a limited impact on the social, economic and political effects that resulted from the original events.  This does not mean we should not evaluate and examine such matters with an eye to taking corrective actions - we absolutely should, but within a framework where there is a shared understanding of the limitations of any such act.

The second dimension is one of forming an understanding of what Canada looks like today, and what Canadians - including Native Americans - want it to look like going forward.  This has to be a collaborative discussion involving all Canadians.  There are a lot of things to consider, and what Canada should be in the future cannot be a discussion of rooted solely in the past, nor is it going to be successful if we allow it to be mired in the vague, divisive language of unspecified grievances such as "colonialism" and "privilege".  The question of what Canada should look like going forward, especially with respect to the Native American populations is far beyond the scope of this column.  What I might imagine to be a reasonable path forward is but my own imaginings, and without input from a great many people on all sides of the discussion is unlikely to adequately address many of the issues.

In short, the language of "Decolonization" is wedge language which creates division.  It does not serve to provoke meaningful review and understanding, but rather spawns division.  Just as civil rights movements in the past have had to become specific in the language of their grievances, so must Native Americans.  I think that most Canadians would be much more willing to engage with clear and concise language of grievances.  

In fairness to activists, I can appreciate that the current government sitting in Ottawa has been less than cooperative on these issues.  Unfortunately, I suspect that any meaningful advances on these issues will come after the current government has been deposed.  Use the time between now and then to develop language that enables Canadians to engage and participate meaningfully. 


Anonymous said...

I don't think that you are trying very hard to understand how you benefitted from colonialism. so you live in a city. Where did the land come from? What industry did your city thrive on? Mining? Resource processing? Where did the resources come from? Disputed land? Even agriculture, in fact much of agriculture is born from the profits of colonialism. Lots of government resources for you and hardly any for aboriginals? You benefited from colonialism. Why not take a look at John Ralston Saul's book, A Fair Country. It may help you get past your inability to see how you personally have benefitted from colonialism, and still do.

MgS said...

What you've just done, largely reinforces my point. You've thrown a bunch of topics out which basically claim that anything in Canada today is a result of "colonial privilege". Our economy is (still) largely resource based, and whether or not those resources are from "disputed lands" is somewhat academic. (I couldn't tell you what lands are disputed and which are not)

The problem remains, more or less, that you haven't defined the issues in a manner that I, or anyone else who isn't close to the Native American dialogue can effectively respond to as individuals.

What would you have me, as a supposed recipient of these "privileges", do? Even if I "benefitted" from colonialism (a debatable point in itself), you haven't exactly done anything except make a demand that sounds to me like I'm supposed to feel guilty about it.

Again, I refer you back to the second last paragraph of my essay, and ask you "where to from here?". Things need to change - I think I was pretty clear about it. So ... how about putting forth some suggestions that move beyond where we are today.