Glen Coulthard
Mark Rendell

Resurgent Indigenous Politics: A Conversation With Glen Coulthard

"Even though Indigenous peoples now have constitutionally recognized rights, those rights are limited in a certain way that still allows corporate and state interests to gain access to our territory, like it’s always don

The weekend before last, Yellowknives Dene political scientist Glen Sean Coulthard was in Yellowknife for the hometown launch of his book ‘’. Originally published in 2014, the book, the title of which is a play on Afro-Caribbean Marxist philosopher Frantz Fanon’s seminal work ‘Black Skin, White Masks,’ deals with the shifting forms of Canadian colonialism and how Indigenous people have and continue to respond to it. Coulthard is an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies program, as well as an instructor at the NWT’s Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning. Coulthard recently helped broaden the relationship between UBC and Dechinta, with a new agreement announced that will see him spending half of his time teaching here in the North, as well as Northern students receiving university credits and southern students attending Dechinta. EDGE sat down with him ahead of his talk at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre to chat about his book.

Your book deals with the shifting face of colonialism in Canada. Can you begin by speaking about how colonialism traditionally functioned?

Prior to roughly 1969 – though we could have seen changes a little bit earlier, with some pretty significant amendments to the Indian Act in 1951 – colonialism was honest about its aims and objectives. It sought to eliminate Indigenous peoples as politically and legally distinct entities in order to gain access to our lands and resources for the purposes of capitalist development and settlement.

In 1969, that started to change in response to the proposed White Paper that Trudeau and Chretien tried to implement to do the long process of assimilation in one legislative swoop; just eliminate the category of Indian constitutionally and bleed us directly into the body politic. That provoked a lot of resistance across Canada by First Nations, and that mobilization forced the federal government to politically shelve that initiative.

Since the 1970s, the negotiation of our rights politically or through litigation in the courts has been the dominant way in which our people have attempted to force change in the relationship between us and Canada

You call this post-1970s politics the “politics of colonial recognition,” and argue that, while being less violent, it’s not much less insidious than traditional colonialism. Could you explain this argument?

The point I make in the book is that even though Indigenous peoples now have constitutionally recognized rights, those rights are limited in a certain way that still allows corporate and state interests to gain access to our territory, like it’s always done. Now it’s mediated through the recognition and granting of rights rather than through their previous rather honest and clear-cut denial.

The problem is, it’s harder to put your finger on, because the dominant society sees indigenous rights as some sort of corrective, if not an unwarranted entitlement that Indigenous peoples claim against the rest of the country. So making this argument can often be quite challenging; people will be like, ‘What are you talking about, we’re giving you land, we’re giving you special rights and so on.’

But if you look at it in this longer history, the same pattern is there. There are profound inequalities materially and in terms of life chances between Native people and non-Native people, and those inequalities exist because of the question of land dispossession and its effects.

In the book, you seem critical of Aboriginal politicians who engage with this ‘politics of colonial recognition’ through entering negotiations towards land claims and self-government agreements. Why is that?

We’d be foolish not to negotiate. We’re always going to be forced into that position, to use all means necessary in order to make our communities a healthier place to live and to protect our land bases. And we have lots of skilled lawyers and politicians. But they’re not able to affect the change we need to see; you see that just simply in our life chances as Indigenous people and the options we have as we move through our life.

I’m worried we’ve spent too much time putting our effort into negotiating with an unjust partner that negotiates with us in order to curtail or contain our rights within a framework that still facilitates economic development on Indian lands, rather than trying to relate to each other in forms of mutual aid and rebuild our nations in a more bottom-up fashion. What I’m more interested in is looking at those acts of resistance and resurgence that aren’t dependent on that negotiation framework and are making healthy communities.

But surely there are examples of successful negotiations or litigation efforts to secure Aboriginal rights and title? Like the recent Tsilhqot’in decision in B.C., for instance.

The Tsilhqot’in decision is historic insofar as it recognizes title still existing for a particular nation. But that legal feat is not going to happen very often because of how much red tape is placed on you as a nation in order to demonstrate title. Litigation is set up in a way that it’s hard to be a winner in a decolonizing sense, and we have to recognize that. It’s costly, both in terms of capital, actual money, but also human capital, drawing us away from the land and community work and into courtrooms and meeting rooms and so on.

What are some examples of the resurgent kind of politics you’re advocating for instead?

An explosive demonstration of that was in 2012 with Idle No More. You saw Indigenous peoples across the country resist entering into political negotiations – that happened explicitly on January 11, when First Nations condemned leadership for going to meet with the Prime Minister against the wishes of a huge number of people.

I like looking at those moments of self-empowerment and self-organization that aren’t asking the state to do something for them, but doing it themselves.

And this kind of self-empowerment and self-organization, you seem to argue in the book, is not only effective tactically, but also produces a more healthy psychology among Indigenous people. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Colonialism doesn’t just operate through imposition or force. Over time it has the nasty ability to shape people’s identities in ways that reconcile themselves with the colonial injustice itself. The idea that there’s a partner in this relationship that we have to ask for our rights kind of produces or helps facilitate that psychological aspect of colonialism: an internalized dependency.

So when you have Indigenous peoples asserting their rights in a more kind of militant form, through direct action, defending their lands, defending their communities, it’s demonstrating a break in this dependency, and the alternative is form of self-assertion of pride, of action rather constantly reacting against what the colonizer does first. And that’s really important for movement building.

What are some examples of this psychological shift playing out?

I live in B.C. now, so I pay particular attention to the way these types of movements play out in British Columbia. In Wet’suwet’en territory, in the Interior Northwest of British Columbia, they have established a land reclamation site called the Unist’ot’en Camp, to defend their land against hostile and aggressive non-renewable resource development on their territory, particularly in the form of proposed pipeline construction.

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s just a blockade, it’s a negative sort of response or a reactive response. But if you look at the substance of what they’re doing, they’re actually building and enacting indigenous law on that territory in order to stop this development project, but doing so in a way that is actually creating or recreating community and nationhood. So if you go to the site there’s a lot of activity, they’re revitalizing their traditional subsistence economy, and it’s a spiritual site of growth and regrowth.

There’s a lot of generative stuff happening there, that for the outsider just gets passed off as militant angry Natives punching at air, trying to stop something that’s inevitable. Where actually they’re practicing what they preach and they’re not asking for anything except for the state to stop infringing on their nation.

You write extensively about the key role cultural revitalization plays in resurgent politics. Why is this so important from a political perspective?

Culture is inseparable from politics; it’s inseparable from our economic way of life. So to revitalize culture is to revitalize ourselves as sovereign interdependent communities grounded in an ethical relationship to land or place.                                            

Think of the corrosiveness of our position as a state that’s dependent on the destructive extraction of nonrenewable resources. To revitalize Indigenous governance structures and political economies that are equitable between peoples but also take into consideration the land as kin, that seems to be absolutely essential not only to end colonization but to create the conditions for an actual, livable, more sustainable existence for non-Indigenous people as well.

One of the goals of resurgent or decolonizing politics, at least as you argue in your book, is the end of the capitalist economic system. I believe the quote from your book is “for Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it.” Can you expand on this?

Capitalism is based on the exploitation of people’s labour, but also exploitation of the land; its value is only assessed in relation to human needs and desires. So a non-capitalist alternative to what we’re currently experiencing – never-ending cycles of crisis including environmental ones – is to subject economic decision making to the same governance principles that Indigenous peoples say ought to structure their political lives. So you place the economy in the hands of the people.

Put the economy into democratic control led substantively by Indigenous people and you’ll tend to see that we make better more sustainable decisions; we will undertake certain forms of activity that does not assure social and environmental death for us because we’re affected by it.

In the North, that’s what we were suggesting in the 1970s – we wanted to subject economic decision-making to consensus decision-making. This would still be appropriate given the scale of this place and Indigenous people would have a permanent say in that because this is historically our territory. Where non-renewable resources would still operate, like extraction or development, we’re going to take 10 percent of their profits or 10 percent of their revenues and redirect it into an economy based on harvesting of natural resources in the traditional Dene style, so hunting, fishing, trapping and so on.  That seems to me a totally viable option.

What is required to move towards this post-capitalist system?

That’s tougher and I don’t get entirely prescriptive on this, I just show where we see examples of this happening. So I’ve already talked about the Unist’ot’en camp, I think a lot of the grassroots organizing around the question of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, all of these movements, we just need to find a way to better link them together so we’re in a position where we can support each other better and be a more powerful front against state and capital. It’s through trial and error and on-the-ground organizing, so it’s a hard question to answer.

There seems to be a lot of hope that the new federal government will have a more equitable relationship with Indigenous peoples. We’ve already seen things like Kwakwaka’wakw politician Jody Wilson-Raybould being made Minister of Justice and symbolic gestures like Cree drummers and Inuit throat singers performing at Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in ceremony. Are these steps positive? Or do they take the wind out of the sails of the kind of resurgent politics you see as being essential?

It does take wind out of the sails of critique; you can’t really say anything bad about this government right now, without being parodied as a cynic or worse anti-immigrant or anti-native or anti-women. I think this has less to do with the general breakdown in critical thinking among progressive non-native and native people; it’s just the result of a ten-year hangover from the Harper administration. We had a good decade of hostility and now any symbolic gesture, not even doing anything concrete, has already had the effect of, ‘Oh, that’s not so bad.’

So it’s hard to make assertive blanket statements, but what we should do is always remain critical and understand the way in which the symbolic politics create a balm or a smokescreen for the status quo. And in a First Nations and Indigenous context that’s a radical inequality in relation to the dominant society, and one that produces conditions of premature death.

Of course, it would be pretty ridiculous for me to say Trudeau’s call to fast-track an inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls, is worse than not having it. But Indigenous feminist colleagues of mine have also argued: we can’t take that as an end in itself, because commissions of inquiry often end up sitting on the shelf, and commissions of inquiry often take resources away from front-line workers who are helping support women who are in dangerous situations.

When I wrote this book, the recognition politics I was critiquing was the Liberal Party’s. It was Jean Chretien, it was Paul Martin; they had a really sly way of managing conflict with First Nations by granting recognition and participation. It’s a bit too speculative at this point, but definitely there’s a risk and we have to remain vigilant.

Finally, we’re seeing a number of organizations in the territory led by young activists with explicitly decolonial mandates, like Dechinta or Dene Nahjo. How important are groups like this to decolonization and resurgent politics?

From my understanding, they’re crucial because they emphasize the foundation of culture and, importantly, land-based practices. The interventions they’re doing in the mainstream political realm are informed by an alternate world of relating to the land and the practices that sustain it. That’s where the integrity comes from. It’s not coming from courtrooms, it’s not being delegated from legislatures, it’s because these people, these students, these organizers, these activists are being informed by that cultural foundation and relationship to land.

When you’re engaging in these practices on the land and being informed by the kind of knowledge of elders and other land-based practitioners and theorists, the decisions you make are going to be different. It’s hard to justify the kind of political economy that Canada envisions for the North once you’ve embedded yourself in relationships with territory that elders really emphasize as being crucial for our education. So you’re going to see conflict come out of it, if not epistemic, then actual conflict. Because it’s going to produce a different kind of leader whose decision-making and perspective is grounded in a different ethics and politics. That’s what I hope anyway.