By Adam Howe
The Water Protectors in North Dakota have been standing their ground against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline amidst a barrage of water cannons, mace and pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, and threats of forced relocation.
In Canada, large protests, spearheaded by indigenous activists, will begin soon in response to the recent approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. In the coming months, we will all learn how Trudeau’s government will handle Canada’s version of #NODAPL.
Trudeau has chosen to forego any further consultations with First Nations people regarding the pipeline—a common theme with his government and a disappointing one, given that consultations in the past have been either perfunctory and unsatisfactory or absent altogether.
In fact, my research shows that absence from political discourses is nothing new for aboriginal groups and that rhetoric from the state that seems reconciliatory is actually colonial.
I recently analyzed the annual federal speech from the throne—ranging from 1867 to 2015—to investigate how indigenous people have been historically portrayed as members of Canada within official state discourses.
I was surprised to find that First Nations people are almost entirely absent from speeches up to the early 1960s. Before this time, whenever aboriginal peoples were mentioned in speeches they were not referenced as citizens but as problematic “others” that must be dealt with by government.
Indigenous people only began to emerge prominently as citizens in communications beginning in the 1980s, but issues related to First Nations lands and self-determination regarding resource extraction remained absent, and still are.
To be sure, recent speeches have included moves toward recognition and reconciliation. As Trudeau has famously said: “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with indigenous peoples”. Still, the reality of aboriginal life in Canada is out of synch with Trudeau’s sunny words.
Colonial governments cannot acknowledge indigenous resistance or the deeper issues that motivate it because their existence depends on the continued dispossession of aboriginal peoples from their lands and resources. This means that if Trudeau were to seriously engage with First Nations resistance to the Kinder Morgan pipeline in state discourses, he would undermine the legitimacy of the state.
Instead, indigenous people are included on the state’s own terms, usually in discussions about improving their economic position. This is how the government has framed improvements of nation-to-nation relationships.
Others have shown how this seemingly reconciliatory rhetoric is actually colonial because it encourages indigenous people to assimilate into mainstream society as opposed to addressing the social, political, and cultural demands of First Nations groups for decolonization. I call this sort of rhetoric “grammars of colonialism”.
Grammars of colonialism make it seem as though indigenous issues are getting better while obscuring the ongoing processes of colonization that lead to issues like Standing Rock and the eventual Kinder Morgan protests.
To begin moving toward meaningful decolonization, we all need to recognize the grammars of colonialism in the state discourses we are exposed to, as well as the disjuncture between these discourses and the realities of life on the ground.
We can use this knowledge to hold our political elites accountable by challenging them to acknowledge and discuss these contradictions and push them toward meaningful action rather than accepting statements that sound reconciliatory, but are not backed up by substance.
National discourses are the currency used by media and elites to communicate with the public, and these dialogues deeply inform the way we all view the world.
Changing our understanding of, and approach toward, these will not only encourage more genuine and inclusive national discussions about resource extraction and the environment, it also represents a major step toward meaningful decolonization.