Colonization is the process by which Europeans took over this land (what we now call Canada) from the Indigenous peoples who live here. It began with the racist idea that Indigenous peoples are “uncivilized” or “less than” European people. These unjust and inaccurate ideas were used so that the European settlers and their descendants would not question the abuse and discrimination used on Indigenous peoples while taking resources from their land. Colonization is rooted in the history of contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples but it continues today. The systems of colonization, and the racist ideas that go with it, still exist. However, for every act of colonization there have been acts of resistance.
Decolonization is the reclaiming of Indigenous identity, knowledge, ceremony, traditions, and nationhood. It is about deconstructing (undoing and removing) the systems put in place by colonization. For non-Indigenous people it includes learning about the true shared history of this land, the current ongoing colonial violence of non-Indigenous systems and people, and taking on the work of unlearning Euro-centric biases and assumptions. Decolonization is about addressing the unbalanced power dynamics put in place by colonial violence while valuing and revitalizing Indigeniety.
- Shared History
All people who live on this land share the history and continuing impacts of colonization. It is not just the history of Indigenous peoples or settlers of the past. By living on this land, it is part of your history too.
This history includes the outright murder of many Indigenous peoples and policies designed specifically to erase Indigenous identities, culture, family systems, and ways of life. Sacred ceremonies were criminalized and the movement of Indigenous peoples across the land was strictly controlled by Canadian government Indian Agents.
An example of shared history that is being talked about more openly now is the Indian residential school system. These were schools that Indigenous children and youth were forced to attend, taken away from their home and families, by the Canadian government. The goal was to assimilate or absorb them into white, Christian culture and, in the process, have Indigenous children not be “Indian” anymore. Indigenous children endured emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse at these schools. The last school only closed in 1996. There are many other examples like the residential schools including the 60s Scoop and our current child welfare system.
Other ongoing examples of these systems include the impacts of hydro dams on communities, resource extraction from Indigenous lands, underfunded education and murdered and missing Indigenous women and people. In addition, media reports are only now highlighting water security and protection issues that have been happening for over a century.
For every act of colonization Indigenous peoples found ways of resisting and holding onto their identities, culture, family systems and ways of life.
There are examples of resistance from the very beginning including
- Sharing Indigenous culture and way of life with the first settlers
- Continuing to live off the land and never agreeing to “sell” it to settlers
- Adopting settlers into Indigenous families.
- Families resisted the government taking their children. Communities organized, voicing their opposition. Some families moved out of range, hiding their children and some moved their homes to outside the gates of the schools.
- Indigenous leaders fought for their families, nations and their rights. Many died defying government policies in order to protect their nations.
- Sacred ceremonies although outlawed still happened in secrecy including hiding, protecting and persevering sacred bundles.
- Keeping original languages and songs alive by speaking in secret.
Indigenous resistance continues through community action like
- Raising healthy families with pride in Indigenous identities, cultures, values, and ways of life.
- Learning/speaking original languages.
- Petitions, protests, organized gatherings and vigils.
- Asserting Indigenous rights in the court system.
- Community organizations including Drag the Red, Meet Me at The Bell Tower and AYO.
- Movements like North Dakota Access Pipeline (NODAPL) that call on all people to help challenge the discrimination Indigenous people face and to protect the water and land.
- Sharing Indigenous spiritual practices, celebrations, and ceremonies throughout Canada in the spirit of reconciliation.
These are all acts of decolonization, which means trying to repair the damage caused by our shared history.
Decolonization is the process of trying to repair the damage caused by colonization. All of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, can work towards decolonization, although our paths will look a little different.
What are some ways to decolonize as a non-Indigenous person?
- Decolonizing starts by learning the true history of Canada and sharing what you learn with others.
- Listen and don’t judge Indigenous peoples when they share their experiences and perspectives.
- Never tell someone to “Get over it” when they talk about their or their ancestors’ experience with colonization. These events may include historical or intergenerational trauma and they may still be happening. People can and do heal from trauma but it takes support and time.
- Challenge your own values and beliefs. Sometimes this will feel uncomfortable or difficult. Decolonization isn’t easy, but it is important. Don’t run away from these feelings, instead, examine and question where they are coming from.
What are some ways to decolonize as an Indigenous person?
- Continue the connection to the land, languages, cultures and ceremonies.
- Make time for self-care. Caring for yourself and your community is an act of resistance.
- Connect with organizations and community groups that are resisting colonization, or start one yourself. Some examples include NYSHN, Kanikanichihk, and AYO.
- Seek out your Elders and Medicine people. They have knowledge to share.
- Know that if you’re dealing with discrimination it is not your fault and you deserve support. It can help to talk with someone you trust about your experiences such as a family member, teacher, school guidance counsellor, elder or a phone line like the Klinic Crisis Line, which is 1-888-322-3019 or (204) 786-8686. It’s free to call and open 24/7.
What are some ways we can all decolonize?
- Celebrate and learn Indigenous knowledge, heroes and history.
- Learn the real names for Indigenous nations and for this land. There are hundreds of nations across what we now call Canada. Start by learning the original names of the people in the area you live.
- Organize and march together against colonial practices.
- Learn about the ways of life, ceremonies, languages, and cultures of the Indigenous peoples who live in your area.
- Sit in a circle. Do it in class, at meetings or any other time you are in a group. In Western practices, the leader or person with power goes to the front of the group. This creates a power imbalance. When we sit in a circle, we use Indigenous practices to sit as equals.
- Learn about the treaties and what treaty land you are on. Know that we are all treaty people with rights and responsibilities, but also learn about the complicated and unjust history of how the treaties were written and signed.
- Speak out against racism when you see it. Challenge the notions and stereotypes that continue against Indigenous peoples.
- Recommended Readings
The history of colonization and processes of healing and moving forward together is complicated. It starts with education. Here are some resources and books that we think can help. This list is just a starting point of the books, sites and music we enjoy. There are many other resources out there to explore!
For learning teachings and culture
- The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway by Edward Benton Banai
- Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Simpson
- Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
- Take Us to Your Chief: And Other Stories by Drew Hayden Taylor
- Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
- April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier
- Slash by Jeannette Armstrong
- Indian Horse by Richard Maganzies
- The Break by Katherna Vermette
- 7 Generations: A Plains Cree Saga by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Scott Henderson
- I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland
- Secret Path by Gord Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire
- The Outside Circle: A Graphic Novel by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, illustrated by
- Three Feathers by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by
History and Ongoing Issues of Colonization*
- Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
- Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel
*We love these books, but also want to be open about them being a bit next level in their language.
- Buffy St Marie
- A Tribe Called Red
- Secret Path by Gord Downie
- Leonard Sumner
- Tanya Tagaq
- Jeremy Dutcher
- Snotty Noze Rez Kids
- Onaman Collective ~ The Onaman Collective is three Indigenous artists, Christi Belcourt, Isaac Murdoch and Erin Konsmo. The collective is a community based social arts and justice organization, interested in helping Indigenous communities, particularly youth, with reclaiming the richness and vibrancy of their heritage including traditional arts, but with a contemporary spin.
- Kent Monkman ~ Kent Monkman is a two-spirit artist of Cree ancestry who works with a variety of mediums, including painting, film/video, performance, and installation.
- Jackie Traverse ~ Based out of Winnipeg, Jackie Traverse is an Anishinaabe Ikwe artist from Lake St Martin First Nation. Her works incorporate oils, acrylics, mixed media, stop motion and sculpture.
Questions About (de)Colonization
- Why don’t Indigenous people just get over it?
When Indigenous peoples talk about their, or their ancestors, experience with colonization they are talking about events which may include historical or intergenerational trauma such as loss of land and language, and experiences of residential schools or the 60s scoop. People can and do heal from trauma, but this takes time and support.
Indigenous peoples are also talking about experiences that are still happening. Colonization is not only in Canada’s past but is also part of the present. It continues today as part of systems including, but not limited to, land rights, water rights and lower funding for health, education, and housing.
Lastly, as Senator Murray Sinclair points out, we do not ask war veterans to ‘get over’ or forget their experiences with trauma. We do not ask nations such as the United States to ‘get over’ or forget major events such as 9/11. Instead, we honour the loss and pain that happened as part of these events. In this same spirit, we should never ask this of Indigenous peoples and nations. We should support each other, honour the pain, trauma, and resiliency that people carry.
- What is reconciliation?
Reconciliation is developing relationships between Indigenous and settler peoples based on equality and respect. It’s coming together to heal from the injustices done on this land and its original peoples. It’s learning to work together, nation-to-nations, so that all people living on this land can achieve their full potential.
Reconciliation is a pretty big concept. It can happen in big ways through changes in government or with institutions like schools and in small ways through the actions we personally take. A road map of 94 recommendations has been set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was developed as a way to heal and move forward from our shared history of residential schools. This roadmap will take more than one generation to fully realize reconciliation. There is a lot of healing and learning that needs to happen first.
We’ve never done reconciliation before, so sometimes it can be hard to imagine. There will be moments where people stumble or try something that doesn’t work, but the important thing is to stay committed to working together. A good starting place for reconciliation is through education. Check out the list of recommended readings above!
- Why do Indigenous peoples get special treatment?
Indigenous peoples do not get special treatment. This is a colonial myth used to help keep Indigenous peoples and settler people divided. The myth of special treatment usually refers to false notions such as ‘Indigenous people don’t pay taxes’ or ‘Indigenous people don’t have to pay for university.’ Indigenous peoples do pay taxes and don’t automatically get to go to university for free.
There are some specific rights that Indigenous peoples have that are agreed upon in the treaties. These rights include help for education, land use, hunting and more. Non-Indigenous people have rights in the treaties too. In fact, it’s the treaties that allow settlers to live on this land.
Another thing to note is that Canada as a nation has actually not been great at respecting the agreements it made in the treaties. An example is education. Indigenous peoples who signed the treaties negotiated for their decedents to have access to funded education, just like all other Canadians. However, the government consistently underfunds schools on reserve, upwards of 30% less, when compared to off-reserve schools funded by provinces. This is just one of many examples of treaty rights being ignored. If you want to learn more, check out the recommended reading list above. You can also check out the full treaties online.