From Recognition to Decolonization: An Interview with Glen Coulthard

Karl Gardner and Devin Clancy

Glen Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and an associate professor of political science and Indigenous studies at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. Coulthard’s recent book, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014) is an incisive critique of Canadian settler colonialism that centres Indigenous peoples’ resistance to the state and capital. In May 2016, Coulthard was a visiting scholar at York University in Toronto where he taught a course on Indigenous resurgence, and hosted a public discussion at Beit Zatoun on “Symbolic Violence and Liberal Settler-Colonialism.” Joined by Leanne Simpson and Jarrett Martineau, the panel grappled with the challenges posed by a new Liberal government and its ongoing commitment to settler colonial dispossession and limited recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination. Karl Gardner and Devin Clancy sat down with Coulthard to further explore the themes that emerged in these discussions.

In your book Red Skin, White Masks, you claim that settler colonialism in Canada is marked by a turn to the politics of recognition. Can you briefly explain what the politics of recognition is and how it has emerged in Canada?

The politics of recognition refers to a shift in how the Canadian government deals with Indigenous claims to land and sovereignty. Instead of more overtly exclusionary and violent forms of rule, this politics operates through recognizing and including Aboriginal peoples’ cultural rights within the framework of the Canadian state and its capitalist mode of production.

I think the first traces of the politics of recognition can be found in the amendments to the Indian Act in 1951. Two changes in the discourse concerning Indigenous peoples were occurring around this time. First, Indigenous peoples were recognized as major contributors to the war effort, yet when they arrived home, they were met with repressive policies of assimilation and land dispossession. Second, there was a major shift toward humanitarian, human rights based politics on the Left. So, in the postwar period, Canada’s discriminatory policies with respect to status Indians were seen as a direct violation of this shift in discourse, and this compelled the state to amend some of the more overtly repressive aspects of the Indian Act.

The emergence of rights discourse from Indigenous communities happened in the wake of the 1969 White Paper, which was an assimilationist document prepared by Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the then Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien. The White Paper called for the legal absorption of all Indians into the body politic, thus eliminating any Indigenous claims to land, self-determination, treaty rights, or sovereign nationhood. This was met with fierce opposition by First Nations across Canada, and inaugurated a turn to recognize Aboriginal peoples’ rights, but in a very limited and scripted way that still facilitated the dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ lands and the undermining of our political jurisdiction for the purposes of capitalist development and settlement.

Recently, you described the Harper government’s approach to Indigenous politics as “anomalous” to the politics of recognition, which you associate with a more classically Liberal model. What was anomalous about the Harper regime? And what do these differences—between Liberal and Conservative styles of governance—tell us about how the politics of recognition can coexist alongside more overt forms of colonial and gendered violence?

First, I’ll address why I think that Harper’s approach to the colonial relationship did not adhere to the way in which recognition and accommodation were taken up with, say, Jean Chrétien or Paul Martin. Frankly, I think it has to do with his belligerence. Harper was not interested in the more symbolic politics of recognizing differences and historical injustices. He was explicitly anti-Native, a fact that is well established and evidenced by his political advisors like Tom Flanagan. One of the things that Harper was adamant about was not conceding to Indigenous peoples’ rights in any substantive sense. So he was anti-recognition in that sense. But what I think contributed to his administration’s downfall was the contradiction that was displayed between a neoliberal politics and his social conservatism. Neoliberalism is primarily market-driven and is less socially conservative; as an ideology it is willing to engage in recognition politics if that is what it takes to, for example, gain access to natural resources. But the anti-Native sentiment in Harper’s thought allowed his overt racism to trump the more subtle racism that’s inherent in letting the market figure these things out. So the social conservatism of Harper undermined the neoliberal commitment to the market, which is now played out through gaining access to land through accommodation and a very managed form of recognition.

Now, looking at the gendered nature of colonial dispossession demands that we question whether there has even been a shift from a structure of violence to one of symbolic violence managed through recognition. While the latter might be the case with respect to high-level negotiations over Aboriginal rights, this is not the case in the lived reality of Indigenous women, girls, queer, trans, and Two Spirit folks who feel that literal, corporeal violence that structures their experiences on a daily level. So when I’m talking about a shift to a politics of recognition, I’m primarily focusing on these institutional settings and the negotiations between Indigenous communities and the hegemonic institutions of the state and capital. And I’ll admit that in my work I was not as attentive as I could have been to the ways in which bodily violence is constantly an effect of colonialism in the interpersonal and lived reality of Indigenous women, girls, queer, trans, and Two Spirit peoples.

A clear example of the difference between Conservative   and Liberal styles of dealing with the demands of Indigenous communities can be found in the history of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The recent commitment to an inquiry into this national issue can be seen as both a victory of decades of Indigenous organizing, and yet also emblematic of a politics of recognition. Can you speak to the potential and limitations of the inquiry?

I don’t want to be too speculative about its effects before the work really begins. Historically, however, we can assess the role that inquiries have had in spurring major transformations in society; and they’ve been limited. The literature on Royal Commissions and national inquiries has effectively situated them as white settler nationalist projects. Across the board, they have had relatively little success effecting major transformations in policies directed towards the subjects of the inquiry. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) is a good example of this. Lots of time and in-depth research went into RCAP, but it largely remained untouched, sitting on government shelves and in archives having little effect on the lives of people it was supposed to affect. So I think there’s kind of a general trend that we really ought to be attentive to in terms of their potentials and limits.

Another concern voiced by scholars like Leanne Simpson and Sara Hunt is that a national inquiry may redirect resources away from funding grassroots and community level organizers. If you’re going to dump millions of dollars into a research project that comes up with a bunch of recommendations that—at least historically—may very well be ignored, that shouldn’t deflect away from the resources that should otherwise be directed towards the people who are organizing against these issues on the ground.

A third issue has to do with the way in which public inquires can serve this ideological process, again of white settler nation- building, by giving the perception that they’re doing more than they are. A multi-million dollar inquiry can make it seem like a lot is being done to analyze and combat the continued violence against Indigenous women, but in fact end up having very little effect on their lives. So the federal government will be able to say, “we have heard your concerns, we have funded this inquiry, and spent so many millions of dollars on this project,” and appear as though they are committed to real transformation, when they really aren’t.

In a similar vein, the Canadian government has also stated its commitment to implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Does such a commitment have the potential to change the relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous nations, or is it merely another attempt at “reconciling” ongoing colonialism?

As it has been articulated by the Liberal government, the commitment to honour the UNDRIP will not transform the colonial relationship in a significant way. I say this because the endorsement of the UN Declaration has an important caveat: that is, the government will endorse the recommendations only within the existing framework of the Canadian Constitution. This means the UNDRIP will only be understood as an expression of, or an interpretative framework for, understanding Section 35 rights, which recognize the existing treaty rights of Aboriginal and Métis peoples. The problem with this arrangement is that the Supreme Court has consistently emphasized an extremely limited understanding of our Section 35 rights, allowing their infringement for any number of legislative reasons. In other words, what the court offers up is an interpretation of Aboriginal rights as narrowly construed “cultural” rights that can be “infringed” on by the state for reasons ranging from conservation, to settlement, to capitalist non-renewable resource development, and even to protect white interests from the potential economic fallout of constitutionally recognizing Aboriginal rights to land and water-based economic pursuits. Even if such rights are found to be constitutionally protected they can be violated in accordance with the justifiable infringement test laid out in Supreme Court decisions like R. v. Sparrow in 1990 and then later expanded on in Supreme Court decisions like R. v. Gladstone in 1996, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia in 1997 and R. v. Marshall (No. 2) in 1999. Justifiable infringement, in other words, could be invoked to advance virtually every economic activity that is central to capitalist accumulation in Canada and the corresponding settlement needed for those activities. So, the subtle insistence that the UNDRIP will be reconciled with and within the Canadian constitutional framework is a crucial aspect that we must be very critical of, and I think it severely limits the transformative potential of adopting the UN Declaration.

In my book, I mention that part of the problem with the current rhetoric of “reconciliation” is that it has so many different meanings depending on the context in which that language is deployed. For Indigenous peoples, reconciliation is often associated with a form of healing­­—healing ourselves from the violence of settler colonialism. We often think about it as a nation-to-nation reconciliation, so reconciling our hostile and violent relationship. But the settler state and its courts understand the term as reconciling the existence of Indigenous peoples’ title, jurisdictions, nationhood, and laws with the sovereignty of the crown. In other words, the state is trying to square a circle; trying to both affirm the principles of the Declaration within the colonial constitution of Canada. In doing so, a fundamental antagonism returns: whose rights are supreme? The way that the chips fall, time and time again, it is Canada’s. And that’s not reconciliation.

You use the concept of grounded normativity throughout your book and articulate its relation to place-based resistance to settler colonialism. How do you define grounded normativity and how does it relate to Indigenous sovereignty?

Grounded normativity is a concept that privileges decolonial practice; it is a practical ethics informed by Indigenous contexts and relationships. It attempts to capture the ethical engagements—with situations, communities, land, and relationships—that inform our understandings of right and wrong, how to go about resolving conflict, and how to best relate to the world and each other in a healthy and sustainable manner. I also think grounded normativity has a prefigurative aspect to it as well, as we’re always trying to put into practice various decolonial worlds in our daily lives. Grounded normativity, then, is related to Indigenous sovereignty in that it is informed by these critical relationships. And within Indigenous contexts specifically, these relationships are informed by our knowledges derived from the places we inhabit. In these ways, grounded normativity and Indigenous sovereignty go hand-in-hand.

You speak and write very explicitly about the politics of recognition in relation to Indigenous politics in Canada. Do the politics of recognition extend to other political struggles? How do you think non-Indigenous struggles can relate to this idea of recognition?

I think a central underlying aspect of recognition politics is the way our agency is responded to by dominant institutions. It’s the way in which dominant white, economic, heteronormative institutions are constantly attempting to co-opt us as a management practice. These institutions and their repressive ideological structures try to manage the primary agency of communities in the struggle: workers, women, queer, bi, gay, lesbian, trans, Two Spirit people struggling for their rights. But this process is never sufficient, which leads to another cycle of recognition and accommodation where limited and curtailed rights are doled out as a management technique. And this occurs across subaltern struggles, not just the colonized. So, a kind of anti-recognition politics has always been the essence of radical feminism, queer struggles, anti-racist struggles, struggles against anti-Blackness. Such a politics recognizes the state as an inherently heteronormative, patriarchal, and racist structure that has the subversive power to shape our subjectivities toward these ends when we appeal to it for recognition and accommodation. In this sense, there’s a lot to say about the way in which these approaches are not just focused on Indigenous-state relationships, but relationships of all sorts and their diversity. That’s why we see apologies doled out to various communities who’ve been subjected to Canada’s colonial and racist legacies. It is a way of containing the transformative potential of our community organizing, and even our presence.

Can you speak to your use of writers like Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon in articulating a theory of Indigenous resistance in Canada? How did you come to these writers, and how have they influenced both your thinking as well as your organizing efforts?

I came to the insights of these theorists from a perspective that was committed to seeking out tools to support the empowerment of my community. I sought out how my community has historically understood the process of colonization and decolonization, and they were already engaging with these theorists of exploitation and domination from around the world. There was a radical reading list in what was then the head office of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories. And on that list of resources were theorists from Karl Marx, through the anti-colonial tradition of Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and so on. At this point, I’m pretty certain those influences came from actual relationships made by longstanding Dene supporter George Manuel with African decolonization struggles, particularly the people of Tanzania. He had relationships with many people within the post-colonial Tanzanian government. So my guess is the kind of classical anti-colonial literature emerged in the north through George Manuel’s relationships, and then our relationship with places like Tanzania.

These anti-colonial theorists were not understood as less useful because of their identities, but were recognized as naming and analyzing some of the structures and experiences that were similar to our relations with the white settler state and capital. So I’d say I’m not sectarian in my Indigenous nationalism. I’m pretty fluid and open to other influences, but it is born of this understanding that we’re not replacing our perspectives derived from the community, from elders, from activists, but supplementing them.

There has been a rise of anti-racist organizing in Toronto, Black Lives Matter (BLM-TO) being a particularly inspirational example. Recently, there was tangible solidarity between BLM-TO and the Toronto Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) occupation concerning the state of emergency in Attawapiskat. What are the potential grounds for solidarity between Indigenous struggles for sovereignty and other radical, anti-racist movements both historically and today?

I would like to think of ground, literally, as the grounds of solidarity between struggles. We should be thinking about how it’s been used to divide and conquer us, to segregate us, to displace us from our communities, our homes, and in Indigenous peoples’ case their traditional territories. So our analysis of solidarity and resistance ought to be one that highlights how multiple forces interact with one another and how to overcome them through these strategic acts of solidarity. I think this is not just a theoretical question to be debated in the academy; it is being played out beautifully on the ground. The INAC occupation in Toronto and its relationship to BLM-TO and vice versa is a demonstration of how the grounds of solidarity, in fact, require ethical practices of support. In the academy we can often get wrapped up in these divisions of what system of domination is primary—is it white supremacy, anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, heteropatriarchy, etc.—and I think these debates do a disservice to the tangible relationships that are being forged on the ground. So it’s great to see the solidarity in Toronto between Indigenous sovereigntists and others struggling against white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It undermines the petty quarrels academics get caught up with in the academy.

Faced with a new Liberal government that actively responds to calls for Indigenous rights and renewing the nation-to-nation relationship, how should social movements respond? Should political demands be further radicalized in order to resist co-optation? What are the potentials and limits to demand-based politics themselves?

Firstly, I think there are limits to demand-based politics. And I think that contemporary Indigenous struggles have to begin structuring their resistance less on demands on the state and more toward acts of resurgence and regeneration. In a similar vein Richard Day, in his book Gramsci Is Dead, talks about the important distinction between a politics of demand and a politics of the act. Enacting Indigenous alternatives on the ground will bring us into a productive confrontation with the colonial structures of exploitation and domination, which historically has created the most potential for change in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the settler state. The politics of demand, however, has often served to remove community leaders from the land to the negotiation tables, courtrooms, and boardrooms. They actually remove people from their practice of grounded normativity in order to co-opt them through a mediated politics of demand. It goes without saying that this politics is structured in the interests of whiteness, capital, and the state. This leads to the dominant rhetoric that mistakes negotiations with the state with the political victories we have won. This is simply a falsehood; it is when Indigenous nations take to the politics of the act that we achieve real, tangible victories against the settler state.

At Unist’ot’en,[1] for instance, the politics of the act is strengthening opposition to pipelines that are operating through more conventional avenues. A politics of the act often manifests as a rejection of state recognition as its primary goal. This is important because recognition and state-based accommodation have always served the interests of acquiring access to our lands and the resources that are contained within them. As I mentioned earlier, Harper’s uneasiness with the politics of recognition arguably increased the amount of communities turning to the politics of the act, through blockades and the like, which really disrupted the flow of capital accumulation. Trudeau, however, is going to offer things in order to try and pacify our resistance through the language of reconciliation; he’s going to make offerings to Indigenous peoples as a means of dissuading that type of conflictual activity.

So what should we learn from this? Simply put, we should not fall for this strategy. Instead, we should be very critical of it and keep doing the bodies-on-the-land work that has historically been the most effective way to create change in our lives at both the structural level, as well as at the level of identity and culture.

Shifting gears a bit, you’ve mentioned that Red Skin, White Masks is only one aspect of your resistance to settler colonialism in Canada. Can you speak to some of the work you are doing in the Dene nation and how it relates to your academic work?

A lot of the work I do with my community is in the realm of education. It is also informed by my understanding of grounded normativity. Like I said earlier, grounded normativity is a practice, one that connects re-engaging with the land in decolonial ways with the critical education that comes through these engagements. And so, I would feel a little bit like a hypocrite if I didn’t attempt to educate through the framework of grounded normativity. I made a personal commitment 10 or so years ago to learn through re-establishing relations to the land, and then passing on those teachings to future generations. This is the crucial pedagogical work that several comrades (Leanne Simpson, Erin Freeland, Mandee Macdonald, Melaw Nakehk’o, Yellowknives Dene Elders, etc.) and I are doing at Dechinta. Dechinta is an Indigenous place-based initiative delivering accredited post-secondary education led by northern experts aimed at engaging students and researchers in a transformative decolonized curriculum and research program based on the unique needs of Indigenous northern communities. Dechinta is located in Denendeh/Northwest Territories, on the traditional and unceded territory of my own people, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Dechinta programming centres Dene knowledge, expertise, and place-based learning while bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous professors, literature, and discussion to the learning community using the best practices of critical Indigenous place-based pedagogies and decolonial research methodologies.

Also, if we agree that settler colonialism reproduces itself through a violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples from the land, then any politics of decolonization necessarily requires a regeneration of a respectful relationship with the land. So a lot of my work in my own territory is educational in that sense. It’s working with elders to help us re-establish those relationships to territory and land and their associated practices and forms of knowledge, and then using that knowledge to educate others and as a critical tool to understand where we are now and where we ought to go in the future.

We understand that you have also been politically involved where you teach in Vancouver, BC, specifically in anti-gentrification struggles over the lower eastside neighbourhood. What are the links between historic processes of colonial dispossession and contemporary struggles against gentrification and revitalization?

While I haven’t been working in the Downtown Eastside in housing struggles in a little while now, I can say that historical processes of dispossession and contemporary processes of gentrification are definitely linked. In more than a few ways, the effects have been similar. People are uprooted from their homes and communities, whether it’s a rooming house or customary lands, and they are subject to various structural asymmetries that are designed to ensure their premature death—that’s how serious these issues are and how they play out in people’s lives. And at the ideological level, they are also justified in very similar language: the designation of particular kinds of bodies, particular spaces, as “unproductive” or “undesirable” in their current form, and the need for them to be improved through political, economic, and ideational state-interventions. So in terms of both effects and ideological justification, gentrification and dispossession are very similar.

Now when you add the empirical context that gentrification is occurring on colonized lands, and in the case of Vancouver on Coast Salish lands of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish nations, then the analogy between gentrification and colonial dispossession translates into a literal sameness. As such, we need to start thinking about how we address gentrification in a way that is attentive to its colonial character. For example, if we understand anti-gentrification as a form of transforming private property back to community spaces or commons, how do we ensure that such a project does not simply reinscribe the continued dispossession of the Tsleil-Waututh, the Musqueam, and the Squamish?

It requires a fundamental reorientation of our understanding of commons as not only a framework of common access to land and resources that were previously private goods. Instead, we must begin to think about the commons as a collective effort to re-establish social relationships with each other and the land that has been systematically repressed through centuries of colonization. And I think this must begin with a serious commitment to recognizing Indigenous sovereignty.

You’ve touched here on the question of how movements to “reclaim the commons” are fraught in settler colonial states. Can you expand upon the necessary shift in our understanding of commons as not simply about equal access, but about new relationships?

I don’t think the discourse of “reclaiming the commons” was ever not fraught. We already know that capital and the state can co-opt concepts that are initially understood as emancipatory or decolonial. The idea of reclaiming the commons has partially been co-opted through a discourse of sustainability. A new and radical discourse of sustainability emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but now we see how capitalism has been able to incorporate it and begin “greenwashing” its operations. In a similar way, then, I think we have to approach the discourse of “reclaiming the commons” as equally co-optable, but in this case not only by capitalism, but by settler colonialism as well. Even if they are done in a genuinely emancipatory way, a “reclaiming” of land in settler colonial contexts by settlers can only really be understood as the latest colonial claim to our lands in a 500-year history of dispossession.

I think returning to Marx in these discussions is useful, especially in his understanding of the process of primitive accumulation. For Marx, the commons was not only a resource to be accessed; this partial understanding of land as only a resource was, in fact, a product of primitive accumulation itself. Prior to that, we had entirely different understandings of what land was. The land was understood and negotiated through customary legal traditions that organized our relationships between each other and the land in quite a diverse plurality. And then, over time, we were violently bottlenecked into the property relationship as the primary understanding of the relation between humans and land. So, once again, if we are committed to reclaiming the commons we are going to have to work critically to re-establish non-capitalist and decolonial social relations and legal traditions that have survived through generations of Indigenous communities. It’s not just about land; it’s about the legal and customary relationships that emerge from our connection to the land that are integral to imaging new formations beyond private property.

Would you say then that re-learning and reinscribing these relationships to land is a way to decolonize commons discourse and the practice of reclaiming? Do you see examples of this form of decolonization?

In the urban context the importance of place names, for instance, is a way of reinscribing Indigenous culture onto colonized spaces. It’s an important act of resurgence, and this happens in fairly covert ways, where all of a sudden you’ll slap up stickers over signs that replace English street names with Anishinaabe names for instance.[2] Now, some people might cast these kinds of reclamations as a symbolic act of language revitalization, but those place-names are often associated with deep histories of significance that teach us about legal traditions and relationships. That happens on the land as well, but in urban contexts, which have been paved over in multiple ways, they teach us about a different way of relating to the place and to each other.

I’m from Yellowknife, and that’s where I’m more familiar with how these things play out on our traditional territory. There’s this place where a peace treaty was negotiated in the mid-1800s between Edzo of the Tlicho nation and Akaitcho of the Yellowknives nation, both of whom were at war for many years. The conflict was largely over access to resources because there was a breakdown in the relations of reciprocity between the nations that grounded normativity teaches us to uphold. Eventually, these two great leaders came together with a mutual desire to fix the relationship between the nations. They recognized the need to end the violence and strive towards peaceful coexistence again, so they established a peace treaty, which was celebrated with three days of drum dance. As the story goes, the drum dance was inscribed into the ground in the shape of a circle. So when you go there, you see this rock formation or indent in the ground. It’s an embodied reminder of this story and the moral, legal, and ethical principles that underwrite it. And it’s a form of theory, it’s supposed to guide how we understand our relationships.

These kinds of intersections between geographies and stories happen in the city as well, and are brought back from memory through these decolonial, guerilla tactics of renaming parks, streets, and other places.

What are some of the tensions or connections between resurgence efforts both inside and beyond cities? How do you understand the city in terms of resurgence?

As I said earlier, I really do think it’s a crucial aspect of resurgence by force of circumstance. Most of us live in cities now, and one of the biggest impediments to decolonization is this discord between experiences that are more “on the land” and experiences in urban contexts. In I Am Woman, Lee Maracle says that one of the problems with this distinction is it erases the fact that cities, just like rural areas and everywhere else in settler colonies, are on Indigenous land. Cities must be understood as an important terrain of struggle, and they will inform our struggle in important ways as well. Part of the work I’m doing is to problematize that sharp distinction between land-based and more urban experiences of colonization. I want to articulate that while the experiences are different, there are many similar aspects between them that are linked in foundational ways. So, we can no longer act as if they are isolated struggles; blockades disrupting the construction of pipelines and the reclaiming and renaming of city streets are linked in fundamental ways. They are part of the same struggle that is unfolding through different geographies.


1 Established in 2009, the Unist’ot’en Camp is a blockade community determined to protect sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory in Northwestern British Colombia from several proposed tar sands and fracked gas pipelines. For more on the camp see “Indigenous Sovereignty Fuels Pipeline Resistance: An Interview with Freda Huson and Toghestiy of the Unist’ot’en Camp,” by Amani Khalfan in Issue 17 of Upping the Anti.
2 See the Ogimaa Mikana Project: