Is Reconciliation the New Colonialism?
A Critical Role for the Racialized Medical Practitioner in Land Justice for Indigenous Peoples
In “Care as Colonialism: Immigrant Health Workers at Canada’s Frontiers,” Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay brings us back to the reality stated clearly by Lowman and Barker in Settler, “It’s always all about the land.” The ongoing processes of colonization instituted by the settler state continue to deny land justice and undermine the self-determination of Indigenous peoples, withholding access to the very resource necessary for health and wellbeing. Settler health professionals require examination into the role they play in the ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples through the “helping” profession. In an era of reconciliation, as some Canadians now feel compelled to “help” Indigenous people, this is a much needed and welcome critique.
This compulsion of some settlers to “help” Indigenous people in response to the treachery described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (trc) is ultimately self-serving if the story of helping is one that facilitates settlers’ continued possession of land. A key piece to meaningful reconciliation in the trc’s 94 Calls to Action is often ignored: the fundamental need to repudiate terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery, and the associated land theft. If the goal of colonization is access to resources and ownership of Indigenous territory, then how can reconciliation be achieved without land return for Indigenous peoples? If land theft is not addressed as a core element of “reconciliation,” the endeavour may merely be an evolution of colonialism. Settlers, regardless of when they arrived, have a role to play in holding themselves and their government accountable to achieve land justice for Indigenous peoples.
Adding to Mukhopadhyay’s list of self-serving functions of care provided by settlers to Indigenous peoples, the provision of Western medicine by settlers as reconciliatory benevolence reinforces a presumption of settlers’ “fiduciary responsibility” to care for “their” Indigenous people, reifying a notion of supposed superiority over Indigenous people and thus, entrenching the imagined justification of land theft. This trick, insisting on a role as “helpers” in order to cement a notion of Indigenous inferiority, is central to settler Canadian identity as benevolent, kind people, supporting the “civilization” of this land. This identity, and the logic that supports it, is dutifully taught to new settlers and fiercely defended by settler Canadian society.
Mukhopadhyay’s self-awareness and introspection allows him to depict the violent history and colonial intentions behind the inception of medical systems in Canada, while critically examining his role in it. He asks what it means to hold a transnational identity, born of dispossession and forced displacement, but to continue to perpetuate the same consequences on these Indigenous lands. He analyzes how settler gate keepers measure the worth of immigrant health professionals by their productivity, displaying another racist way settler colonialism creates divides across minority communities through labour theft and geographical marginalization, stunting potential alliances between colonized peoples. Through this, colonial and white supremacist ideologies implicitly enforce a hierarchy suggesting certain minority groups are more “valuable” than others, effectively promoting anti-Indigenous sentiments as immigrants strive to assimilate into a society built on the notion of “helping” and “civilizing” Indigenous peoples. These are powerful forces encouraging non-white settlers to unwittingly engage in colonial medical practice in their pursuit of social and financial advancement, earning them a place on stolen land.
We could all benefit from a movement of cooperation with Indigenous peoples, and racialized and white settlers, but how do we work together? While we support Mukhopadhyay’s sentiment of unity across immigrant and Indigenous populations there is a romanticism to his words that a shared history of colonization automatically begets natural alliances. It is not enough to bring together immigrant and Indigenous communities to form a unified front without truly addressing the deeply entrenched anti-Indigenous racism in immigrant diaspora communities. Nevertheless, Mukhopadhyay’s call to fellow settler professionals to locate themselves within history and to leverage their privilege to yield space to Indigenous resistance and ways of healing does provide a way forward. We would further implore settler professionals to support the dismantling of anti-Indigenous racism and apathy within their communities, integrate the history of medical violence and colonialism into medical education curricula, and act on the issue of land justice as a fundamental determinant of Indigenous peoples’ health. How this work is done is critical: standing in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, taking on the emotional and educational labour demanded of Indigenous professionals, and resisting ongoing medical colonialism by critically examining the origins of “best intentions” of care. Helping is no longer enough; systemic change through collective resistance is necessary to address health inequities. Mukhopadhyay models the elements necessary for all settlers to begin the radical process of humility, self-reflection, and a willingness to relinquish entitlements.
First generation Indian immigrant woman born in Nigeria, raised on Algonquin territory
Fourth generation white Settler man raised on Atikamekw Cree territory, residing on Snuneymuxw Nation territory
Cree/Métis woman residing on the Chippewas of Rama territory