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A Twelve-Step Program for a Post-Colonial Future

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

First thing in a twelve-step program for a post-colonial future is to recognise we have a problem. Photo by flickr-user jonathonreed.

TWELVE-STEP PROGRAMS are renowned for their ability to bring communities of sufferers of addictions and compulsive disorders together in a climate of support and respect, and through the steps, to empower sufferers to create personal change for a healthier life. Drawing on this model, we propose that Canadians adopt a twelve-step program for a post-colonial future, marked by the reinvigoration of Indigenous sovereignties, fused with elements of the settler state’s structure and processes.

We cannot speak of Canadian or Québec values or of a social justice agenda that includes Aboriginal (or Indigenous; we use the terms interchangeably) people without addressing the historic and contemporary injustices of imperialism, colonialism and the policies of a racist state with very racist political cultures; and without confronting the reality of Aboriginal suffering.

The Canadian state (including its provinces) has never extended the vaunted Canadian values of justice, peace and democracy to Aboriginal peoples and nations. We also must be mindful of the not identical aspirations of many Aboriginal thinkers and organizations for something quite different than the status quo or inclusion in some white settler state utopia. Thus, our twelve-step program is intended to deal with settler citizenship, privilege, and change, not with policy for Indigenous liberation. That is a different twelve-step program, directed solely by decolonizing Indigenous communities.

Colonialism was and is justified by racism, an ideology that assumes that those who are dominated represent vices or incapacities best remedied by enforced “civilization,” Christianization, education and wardship, or by elimination. Racism is now bureaucratized and normalized: otherwise good people administer it in the service of the state. Politicians, the media, and occasionally Indigenous thinkers use the language of ineffable cultural differences and the need for capitalist development to remedy the intergenerational impoverishment and suffering that plague colonized Aboriginal communities.

The Canadian state is squatted on Indigenous lands and enjoys enviable First World status due to its resources. Most Aboriginal peoples do not significantly share in this bounty. Yet most Canadians are blind to the colonial foundations of the state, and utterly oblivious to the instrumental racism that continues to sustain the political, economic and social order at the expense of Indigenous peoples. This racism has often been explicit in policy and legislation, and is diffused throughout Canadian popular cultures and elite political, economic and intellectual institutions.

This racism relies on a litany of claims justifying the oppression of Aboriginal peoples, at different times insisting that Aboriginals are uncivilized, heathen, primitive, dysfunctional, lazy, child-like, promiscuous, and so on. It tolerates Aboriginal suffering that would be intolerable in other communities. Consider the decades-long toleration by political, justice and civil communities of the now over 600 missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

This racism deploys “cultural differences” to excuse itself. For example, when Aboriginals die in police custody (such as Neil Stonechild in Saskatoon, or Raymond Silverfox in Whitehorse), the cops work on cultural differences; when universities think about Aboriginal students, they think about their cultural differences, not about colonialism and not about racist academic content and context.

Another popular theme laden with racist assumptions is “development.” The proposition is that if we just help those people to get with the program of capitalism and a job in the waged economy, they will stop being so dysfunctional. The development cabal proposes that privatizing reserve lands and trading Aboriginal land claims for a mess of potage in the form of a few jobs with corporations will benefit Aboriginal people by getting them into the market economy. Aboriginal and treaty rights are never part of this calculus. The media, itself generally oblivious to the oppression of Aboriginal people, seldom critiques these claims.

The political economy of the Canadian state is underwritten by Aboriginal dispossession. As the late iconic Indigenous leader Elijah Harper said, “With your democratic state, you oppressed us, democratically.” (No wonder so few Aboriginal people get involved in politics, or vote. Our political parties also practice this everyday Canadian racism.)

Many Aboriginal thinkers and organizations, however, keep raising precisely the original and outstanding matter of sovereignty, of colonial appropriation of land and resources, and of state responsibility for violations of Aboriginal human rights. This reality erupts occasionally in the form of political resistance such as the decades-long struggles of the Lubicon Cree and at Oka, Gustafson Lake, and Caledonia; in Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in 2012-13; in the 2012 emergence of the Idle No More social movement and in uncounted local struggles.

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As in any twelve-step program, the first step is to admit we have a problem. We – and we do mean all of us – can struggle with our implication in and complicity with racism, or we can live as racists, the equivalent of living and dying drunk. Beyond just admitting that we have a problem, both historically and presently, we need to address the unmanageability of the current situation, built, as it is, on a foundation of colonialism and racism and the privilege derived from their structures.

This unmanageability can be seen as an accumulation of acts and consequences of imperialism and colonialism. One result is the injustice of dominance and subordination, a relationship where some of us are privileged precisely because of the subordination of others. Canada is rich, as, relatively speaking, are most individual Canadians, because of our political economy and cultural ethos and the racist framework driving them. Those of us who benefit from the fruits of the settler state, from white privilege, from the self-congratulatory myths of capitalist social mobility, goodness and justice, need to confront the origins of our privilege. It is not merit alone that hands off the goodies to the same old stale pale male contingent that monopolizes power, but institutionalized and culturally framed affirmative action programs framed for the attributes of that demographic.

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The second step is our commitment to collectively work for a post-colonial and just society. That is, we must move from reflection to committed action, which will in fact undermine our privilege. We must “come to believe” that the project of lndigenization can and will lead us on a path of freedom from the bonds of imperialist and colonial injustice. We need to be open to new ways of thinking that have been absent from the current knowledge system. Further, we must “come to believe” that an lndigenization process has the power to actually change the systems of power that continue to perpetuate settler or white privilege.

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The third step concerns our willingness to begin the process of lndigenization. The process will not be easy: it involves recognition of privilege and the many structures that guarantee that privilege. Third-stepping also requires a full accounting for historical and present day injustices committed in the name of the colonial project. Having admitted our powerlessness and unmanageability in step one, and having come to the conclusion that Indigenization can change our situation in step two, we move in step three to surrendering our preconceptions and privileges to the process of lndigenization.

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The fourth step is to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of how our lives and our choices follow from our positioning. Working this step requires acknowledging our relative positioning in a raced, gendered and classed hierarchy, including how our sex, our sexuality, our class position or our skin colour vests us with advantages or social liabilities.

Making this inventory requires that we thoroughly chronicle historical and present-day injustices as well as systems of privilege created by the colonial project, and, most importantly, how we have benefited both from injustice and systems of privilege. It’s not good enough to just list the policies, practices and consequences of oppression for Indigenous communities. Confronting the reasons for oppression, and considering who benefits, is just as important. In a very real sense, step four will be the Truth step of a more robust Truth and Reconciliation process.

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The fifth step is to admit to ourselves and our communities the findings from our step four. In a sense, step five is a continuation of the Truth portion of this exercise. Guilt and shame about historical and present-day injustices and the privileges unearned, yet still bestowed, by the racist structures of settler colonialism are only productive feelings if they help us to change. Admitting the items chronicled in our inventory liberates us from the guilt and shame that we invariably feel when we realize our privilege and the fact that it comes at the continuing expense of others.

The fifth step is also about entering into empathetic conversation with others – a process that is painful in the conditions we now have. Yet no détente can be achieved without empathetic listening. The political class is evidently unable to do this. Citizens, however, can, and there are many small and large ways to do this. The residential school Truth and Reconciliation Commission is attempting to do this. The TRC offers a model for empathetic hearing that we could usefully consider for a wider social reconciliatory process. Notice how few white people attend the hearings, to witness the stories of suffering and appreciate the implication of the democratic state and its citizens in this genocidal atrocity.

Our admissions need to be about changing behaviour, so we must take responsibility to educate others about both injustices and structures of privilege. This is a continuing and necessary process, to avoid the failure of previous “apologies” for past injustices to involve any material change in the assimilationist and racist structure of the colonial regime in Canada.

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The sixth step is to be “entirely ready” to step away from our privileges and step toward systems of merit that will include those who have been historically disenfranchised by racialized and gendered subversions of merit. This step means recognizing that change involves changing the practices that we have benefited from-and that our own expectations will have to be reframed if a measure of non-racialized justice is to be obtained.

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The seventh step is to be humble in our expectations of where we fit in society, in the struggle for justice, and in the esteem of those who have been marginalized. This humility is a painful but necessary position if others are to have the social space and confidence to speak their truths to power. Don’t expect applause, friendship or recognition because you recognize the racist regime in which you are a beneficiary of white privilege; don’t expect to be the centre of attention for your analysis; do make space for others whose voices have been ignored, to speak and act. That is your responsibility and to the degree you can do it, it is a contribution to an emancipatory struggle.

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The eighth step is based on the injustices identified in our fourth-step inventory and is a list of all historical and present-day injustices committed in the name of the colonial project from which we have benefited. In a sense, step eight prepares us for the process of making formal restitution. Step eight is also about becoming willing to make the restitutions required in step nine. We not only have to create a list of all of the wrongs that we have done and the privileges we have received by historical injustice and the structures of colonialism, but we must also become willing to do our part to make restitution and therefore to make meaningful amends.

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Which takes us to the ninth step: restitution. There is little point in hearing stories of dispossession, oppression and consequent intergenerational trauma if nothing is to be done. Empathetic listening leads us to action – to solidarity, to collective restitution, to deliberation on new ways of being together in the context of our contemporary societies.

As one example, the Anglican Diocese of Qu’Appelle sold off many of its church properties to pay restitution for its complicity in the residential school violence against Aboriginal students. Canadian goodness will be tested by the need to hear how not-good the state has been, in our name, at the expense of those who will not be silent now. It will be tested by the requirement to share power, to defer to Aboriginal political formations, to share or vacate land, to share wealth, and to transform political culture. It will be tested as white folks learn to accept political and legal constraints on what has heretofore been unimpeded access to wealth, resources, lands and institutions. One legal precept that impels this step is the need for consultation with Indigenous peoples prior to exploiting their traditional territories; in international law, this is the “free, prior and informed consent” requirement. Logically, consent can also be denied.

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The tenth step requires us to take continuous personal inventory and when we act on our race and gender privilege, to recognize it and surrender that power immediately. In other words, this is a set of practices, never over and always changing as we change and as the conditions in which we struggle change.

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And only then will we be able to take the eleventh step: lndigenization. By that we mean a self-conscious process of adoption of Indigenous practices, ideas, values, knowledges, and cultural signifiers in this place, Canada, which is still Indigenous territory. It might mean a council of elders offering advice instead of an unelected Senate. It might mean purposive living under treaty frameworks in different territories.

It might mean that all children would be schooled not to celebrate Columbus Day, but to commemorate it as the beginning of 500 years and counting of genocide for Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. It might mean that Canada as we know it, a federation comprised of two constitutional jurisdictions representing the sovereignty of the Crown, is reconceptualized so that the political institutions represent Indigenous rather than colonial sovereignty, where treaty arrangements are as well known as the settler Canadian constitutional virtues.

Perhaps we could walk into legislatures and courts staffed and conducted in accordance with Aboriginal practices as well as the current ones, and see Aboriginal art and sacred objects, rather than only the symbols of Aboriginal oppression. These are simply some examples. At the core of the change will be the re-constitution of our collective imaginary of the state with the participation of and under the authority of Aboriginal nations, including Metis nations, fused in some creative capacity with the best of the insights, values and frameworks of the settler state. The result will be something mutual and entirely new.

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The twelfth step is to carry our understanding of colonization, decolonization and post-colonial political development to others, in our families, affinity groups, professional associations and citizenship communities. We must be diplomats for change: the lndigenization of Canada means all of us change, and the change is positive for all of us. Canadians, as Anishnabe legal scholar John Borrows (Kegedonce) has argued, can become authentic to this land through the processes of Indigenous citizenship – a status not tied to a state but to territories, and to our historic and perpetual responsibilities to these territories and to all our relations, including animals, plants, waterways and so on. An Indigenized citizenship necessitates a robust holistic conception of Gaia – mother earth – all my relations. Political, social, economic and academic implications flow from this.

Indigenization would almost certainly challenge the current economic order and would confound its neoliberal ideology. But think of the positive implications for us all. Imagine having a form of federalism drawn more precisely from the Haudenosaunee model of peace and righteousness, respectful of members’ autonomy within the broad parameters of the constitution and its principles.

This might include more local governments, often most attentive to local issues. lt might mean an end to prorogation as a strategy against critique. Lt might mean more participation by citizens, the lack of which now constitutes a crisis of democracy in Canada’s plurality electoral system. It would likely imply a collective commitment to ecological integrity. It might not include a patronage senate of disingenuous beneficiaries of political pork-barrelling. It might mean consensus rather than majoritarian politics at the local level. It might mean prioritizing the integrity of sacred lands, rather than the rush to exploit whatever is available regardless of the impact, as in BC’s indecent (and probably unconstitutional) rush to privatize and turn the jumbo Glacier-traditional Ktunaxa territory still under treaty negotiation processes-into a year-round ski resort. The positive possibilities of Indigenization outweigh the liabilities.

At the core of Indigenous political thought-in all its diversity-are the motifs of relationship, and of responsibility to the land, to creation. Relationship and responsibility: two words to live by. Relationship functions as an evaluative mechanism for all political choices: what are one’s obligations? What is the impact of a decision-and on whom? Decisions are taken with a view to their impact not on the next corporate reporting quarter, or the next electoral cycle, but on those humans and non-humans who will follow us seven generations from now. That capacity for other-regarding action, for responsibility for consequences, is lacking in the Canadian system of politics and economics. This is why environmental degradation is off-loaded to the future – if there is one – while the profits accrue privately, now, to some.

Relationship and responsibility. Politics through an inclusive dialogue. Respect for autonomy. Elders’ councils, where elders are respected and consulted, rather than seniors’ warehouse homes and hand-wringing over the cost of elder care. Education that prepares all our children to truly be in empathetic relationship with each other, in our contexts, and for a collective future. A political project which we all shape, rather than one inscribed over and against Indigenous communities.

We are all here to stay. This twelve-step program provides some direction on how we may begin to reframe our collective reality. Indigenization offers a positive future for us all.

Joyce Green is on the Canadian Dimension Editorial Collective; is on faculty in Political Science at the University of Regina; and currently lives in Ktunaxa territory in Cranbrook, B.C. She is of English, Ktunaxa, and Cree-Scots Métis heritage.

Michael Burton is a settler and doctoral student in Political Science at the University of Alberta, on unceded Papaschase Cree territory in Treaty Six territory. He was raised on unceded Coast Salish Territory.


Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

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