Colonialism and Racism
The film excerpts in this theme show the devastating effects of European colonialist policies on Aboriginal peoples. They also show acts of racism in which Aboriginal peoples have been victimized in their relations with whites.
Colonization and Racism
by Emma LaRocque, PhD
The history of Canada, in large part, is the history of the colonization of Aboriginal peoples. This colonization, as an historical event, or series of events, has been amply documented by historians and many other academics; it is certainly being documented by Aboriginal scholars, writers and artists. "Aboriginal" here refers only to First Nation and Métis Nation peoples.
Colonization can be defined as some form of invasion, dispossession and subjugation of a peoples. The invasion need not be military; it can begin—or continue—as geographical intrusion in the form of agricultural, urban or industrial encroachments. The result of such incursion is the dispossession of vast amounts of lands from the original inhabitants. This is often legalized after the fact. Historically, First Nation peoples (defined as Status Indians by the Indian Act) lost some 98% of their original lands through various legal means such as treaties and the Indian Act. Métis Nation peoples lost some 83% of their Red River lots through the Scrip program. The long-term result of such massive dispossession is institutionalized inequality. The colonizer/colonized relationship is by nature an unequal one that benefits the colonizer at the expense of the colonized.
Colonizers have always turned to racism to rationalize oppression. Racism is prejudice or discrimination based on the belief that one or one's group is innately or genetically superior to another. Racists believe that “race” determines qualities such as intelligence, innovation, creativity and even morality. Colonization has been maintained through racial stereotypes, among other means.
Racism may be expressed individually or structurally. It may be expressed person to person, for example, by name calling, by refusal of service in any public place, or even by personal attacks. Aboriginal peoples continue to encounter such forms of personal discrimination or other indignities every day of their lives. Such racism is intolerable but racial prejudice by proverbial “rednecks” is not the only sort of racism that exists in our country. It is especially important to understand that racism against Aboriginal peoples is embedded and entrenched in Canadian institutions. Examples are the British North America Act, the courts, the police, churches, banks, employers, social services, the medical system and education. Racism in the school system can be traced back to the Euro-Canadian (or Western) interpretation of history, a biased interpretation which has been transmitted through the uncritical use of archival and historical records and textbooks. As an inherent part of the colonial project, Europeans categorized themselves as the “civilized” and Indigenous peoples as the “savages,” the underlying assumption being that as savages, “Indians” were at the bottom of human development. From this institutionalized bias a complex set of images, terminology, policies and legislation has set Aboriginal peoples apart, both geographically (on reserves and residential schools), and as inferior peoples. In the larger society such assumptions are perpetuated through the media and the marketplace, through Hollywood, comics, ads and tourist sites. Such racism is deeply institutionalized to the point that it is the norm in White North American society.
It is in this sense that racism is not necessarily personal, conscious or intentional, but for these very reasons institutionalized racism is extremely powerful and should be deeply disturbing to Canadians. Society is conditioning non-Aboriginal peoples, particularly youth, to acquire racist views towards Aboriginal histories, cultures and persons. Consequently, non-Aboriginal children may develop fear, disrespect and even racial hatred toward First Nation or Métis peoples. The effect on Aboriginal peoples is equally distressing as racism can lead to racial shame and self-rejection. The net effect is the stereotyping, mistrust and mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples and the resulting strain and conflict.
Slavi-Loucheux Indian and Eskimo Children Attending St. Peter’s Mission Residential School, Hay River, Northwest Territories, 1921
Glenbow Archives, PD-341-122b
But there is yet more to colonization/racism. Racism is a particular prejudice that legitimizes an unequal relationship. In other words racism is political: it facilitates and justifies socio-economic mobility for one group while it puts others at a disadvantage. Aboriginal peoples do not enjoy equal access to jobs, adequate training or fair hiring. They also continue to lose their lands and resources which form the basis of their economic growth and self-determination.
The legacy of colonization is not only about false history, distorted images or racist attitudes. It is fundamentally about loss of lands and resources. Early encroachments, dispossessions and settlements of Native lands were cloaked in old colonial terms about “civilization inevitably conquering savage or primitive peoples.” Today, there remains fairly constant and relentless industrial and corporate encroachment on First Nation and Métis lands. These practices are now defended in neo-colonial terms like “progress” and “development” for “the national interest,” but they have of course left Aboriginal peoples in Third World circumstances.
It has also forced them to take action. Land Claims not only speak to historical injustices, but also to on-going pressures and losses. Blockades and other forms of protests do not happen overnight or for no reason. Contemporary conflicts in Caledonia, Burnt Church, Gustafson Lake, Ipperwash and Oka are indications that Aboriginal peoples are trying to salvage what is left of their lands and resources so that they can have some self-determination with respect to their identities for present and future generations. Justice demands confronting towns, governments and corporations.
Colonization and racism continue to have a disastrous impact on the First Nations and the Métis. Aboriginal peoples have suffered lost lands, alienation, poverty and industrial pollution. Racism is also deadly. Not only are Aboriginal youth committing suicide six times the national average, but individuals such as Betty Helen Osborne, Pamela George, Neil Stonechild, Dudley George and countless more have died from racially motivated killings.
Racism affects all Canadians because it hurts people, impairs relationships and produces social conflict. Generally, racism affects the quality of life in our society. Yet it is distressing how many Canadians remain unaware or apathetic about the history and nature of colonization and racism. Canadians have not dealt with racism effectively or always compassionately. Many continue to deny that racism even exists, blaming Aboriginal peoples for their socio-economic marginalization. We must all be vigilant to ensure that the ideals of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are put into practice, both in everyday life and in our social and institutional arrangements. This means taking our society towards anti-colonial and anti-racist directions.
Dr. Emma LaRocque
Dr. Emma LaRocque, a Plains-Cree Métis originally from northeastern Alberta, is a scholar, author, poet, social and literary critic and human rights advocate. She has been a professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba since 1977. She has a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies, an M.A. in History, an M.A. in Peace Studies and a B.A. in English/Communications. For more than three decades she has lectured both nationally and internationally on Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations, focusing on the colonial experience in academia and society. She is the author of Defeathering the Indian (1975), a study of stereotypes about “Indians” in public schools, and has also written over 60 scholarly and popular articles on mis/representation of “Indians” in the media and marketplace, Canadian historiography, racism, Métis identity, gender roles, contemporary Aboriginal literatures and post-colonial criticism. Her poetry has appeared in national and international journals and anthologies. In 2005, Dr. LaRocque received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (education category) in recognition of her work.