Decolonizing ourselves

By Simon Nattrass, July/August 2013

From dishonouring treaties to fostering inauthentic relationships, colonialism hurts us all.

In late May, a crowd of several hundred people gathered to watch as members of the Tsawout, WSÁNEC, and Songhees people reclaimed the traditional name of PKOLS for what has been called Mount Douglas. The mood was both celebratory and somber. Speakers at the event drew upon the current swell of support for indigenous peoples across Canada, but throughout the day conversation inevitably returned to the forgotten history of the mountain. Over 150 years earlier, Sir James Douglas signed a treaty with indigenous peoples on the site of the day’s celebration. The broken promise of that treaty—that colonists were not to interfere with local clans’ lands or way of life—was to become the theme of a century and a half of colonization on the South Island. 

Many of us are willing to accept that the version of history we heard in grade school is false. Today, historians will confirm that the legend of the Hudson Bay Company’s conquest of the “untamed, unoccupied wilderness” is at best a myth and at worst an outright denial of the violence of colonialism. 

Some of us have taken the next logical step from admitting our history to recognizing that it continues to shape the present. In the logging of the Juan De Fuca trail, in attempts to open coal mines in the Comox Valley, in pipelines and gold mines and fracking in traditional territories, we see relationships play out just as they did 150 years ago. 

While the most dramatic modern examples of colonization are to be found in territorial relations, anthropologist and former UVic professor Marc Pinkoski says colonial mentality goes far deeper than the use of land. “In my view, colonialism is much greater than simply administering other people’s territories. It’s a politic that permits not just the acquisition of other people’s land but the acquisition of other people’s ways of life, to be subsumed and dominated by another force.”

To colonize, in short, is to force someone else to be like you—a process which Pinkoski says is central to understanding indigenous-settler relations. “When we ask why indigenous people don’t want to go to school, don’t want to live in a city, don’t want to give up their traditional way of life, we’re demanding that they behave like us.”

For Taiaiake Alfred, a member of the Mohawk nation and professor of Indigenous Governance and Political Science at UVic, colonialism begins with denial of access to the land. For Alfred, removal from the land severs a connection that is central to indigenous culture. “The other aspect is that you have been redefined, you’ve been forced to take on the identity and the way of life that suits the colonizing people rather than one that means anything or is in any way healthy and productive for you.”

Over time, the unique identities of indigenous peoples dissolve into the broader culture, says Alfred. “Your identity and your being is shaped to the extent that as a colonized subject you have very little sense of yourself.”

In 1969, Pierre Trudeau introduced the quintessential example of this drive toward assimilation. The Statement of the Government on Indian Policy, colloquially known as The White Paper, was created in response to a report describing indigenous peoples as “citizens minus,” and sought to integrate those peoples as Canadian citizens. Among the recommendations—all of which were rejected by several associations of indigenous leaders—were the extinguishment of Indian Status and the termination of all existing treaties. These and other recommendations prompted Cree leader Harold Cardinal to describe the document as “a thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation.” While the goal of the White Paper was ostensibly to address inequality, its implementation would instead have codified the extermination of indigenous cultures.

According to Pinkoski, this contradiction between goal and result is inevitable when working within a colonial frame of mind. For non-indigenous people, “what it means [to operate from a colonial perspective] is that we can’t see this political relation of demanding that other people capitulate to us.” 

These invisible relationships, says Pinkoski, illustrate the extent of colonization’s impact on our own society. “Colonialism is how we live our lives right now, and it’s not just hurting indigenous peoples. It ensures that non-indigenous people can’t act in another way.” 


THIS SPRING, at a “Decolonization Teach-in” at the University of Victoria, participants attempted to answer the question: If we don’t want colonization, what do we want? It became clear that these conversations were treading new ground. While begun in earnest, discussion soon became mired in the inevitable complexity that results from trying to boil any complex social structure down into its component parts. 

For Pinkoski, what’s clear is that there is no predetermined solution. Instead, he says, “what I can try to do is construct my own relationships in ways that I know don’t demand that others be like me or force me to be like them.” 

Anthropologist Michael Asch has spent the past several years studying early Canadian treaties, which he says are a blueprint for what those relationships could be. Early numbered treaties such as Treaty 4 and Treaty 6, says Asch, contain promises to honour Indigenous land and culture which still hold true today. “We have to believe strongly enough that the treaties are our legitimacy, so that if you or I or Harper became prime minister we would be as nervous about dishonouring these treaties as we would about denying freedom of speech.”

While Asch finds promise in the early treaties, neither he nor anyone else interviewed for this article places the responsibility of decolonization in the hands of government, each emphasizing interpersonal rather than institutional relationships. According to WSÁNE? member Kevin Paul, who has spent most of his life learning his people’s language and history, “The government’s tactic toward native people will always be forced assimilation until they see what we have to offer them as equal to what they have to offer us.” 

For Paul, one of the relationships that must be pursued is between indigenous peoples and their traditional land and culture. “Decolonization is redeveloping an understanding, a belief in, a trust in, and seeing the beauty in the old ways.”

Beneath many of the recent events here in Victoria—from the symbolic reclaiming of PKOLS to marches related to Idle No More—lies a yearning for something beyond the solutions offered by generations of Ministers and administrators. During our interview, Kevin Paul said to me, “There’s nothing people want more these days than authenticity”—and perhaps that’s it. Perhaps we already know deep down that what we’re told about ourselves and our history isn’t true, and that what works for you or me or the Canadian Government doesn’t have to work for everyone. Perhaps a non-colonial relationship is simply an authentic one; one where we recognize that neither we nor anyone else is always right or ever perfect, and from there seek out the best in one another. 

Simon Nattrass is a Victoria-based writer who focuses on radical politics in BC.