PROFILE: Glen Coulthard & the three Rs

Glen Coulthard on Blatchford Lake with Dechinta Bush University, Yellowknives Dene territory, Northwest Territories. Photo credit: Glen Coulthard.

Tim Querengesser

The story is set beside a lake north of Yellowknife, at a school called Dechinta that teaches Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people on the land. Standing before Glen Coulthard, a member of the Yellowknives Dene as well as an assistant professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, are Kate Middleton and Prince William. The couple is about a week into their 2011 honeymoon through their family’s former colony. The trip is like an echo of the one William’s father, Prince Charles, and grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, made in 1970. Unsurprisingly, the media are dripping with superlatives to describe it all.

But out here by the lake, Coulthard has tougher emotions. As one of the leading critical thinkers on the politics of Indigenous reconciliation, he’s struggled with the invitation to teach the couple about his community’s history. “I had a lot of mixed feelings about it, which were mostly negative,” Coulthard says. “The Royal family, under the British empire at one point, was in acquisition of over 80 percent of the globe. So these people are representative of the heart of colonial policy on a global scale. I wasn’t convinced that it was a conversation that should be even had.”

A story has changed Coulthard’s mind and allowed him to meet the couple, though. Back in 1970, during the first Royal visit, his grandfather had loaned his boat to the Canadian government. When he got it back, it was ruined. “It was damaged to the point it was no longer operable,” Coulthard says. And yet Ottawa refused to compensate his grandfather for the loss. “Apparently, the story goes, [the community] wrote a letter to the Royal family. It was the Royal family that ultimately compensated him for the damaged boat.”

At one level, the story of Coulthard moving from resentment to interaction with the Royal couple reads like the Canadian state’s ideal for reconciliation. An Aboriginal man is resentful for wrongs committed in the past but decides to forgive and accept his situation, reconciling with an apologetic power. But a different reading of the same is possible. Coulthard welcomed the Royal couple — who are potent symbols of contemporary colonialism — because he was swayed that they had actively reconciled with his family by compensating his grandfather for his damaged boat. Coulthard explained the effects of colonialism to the Royal couple while they were guests in his community and they listened to how colonialism continues to affect the Yellowknives today.

In the context of settler colonialism, to be resentful of something is actually a sign of our critical consciousness. It’s a sign that there’s something in the world that is nagging at us, that is unjust, and if targeted, those forceful emotions can challenge us as individuals to act.

This second version of reconciliation — a twoway interaction — is largely silenced in mainstream political talk in Canada. Instead, aside from the apologies and expressions of regret from the state, Aboriginal people are seen to be solely responsible for reconciliation: they must overcome their past, manifested by their resentment. “Canada has a different understanding and goals for reconciliation than do most Indigenous peoples when they’re speaking about it amongst themselves,” Coulthard says. The differences and the conversation that results form the core of his academic work.

What has emerged through Coulthard’s work is a new way to see discussions about Aboriginal issues in Canada, whether it is land claims in the North, the recent Idle No More protests, or the broader notion of Aboriginal rights. What becomes clear with Coulthard’s perspective is that reconciliation is central to all of it. Canada’s desire, as Coulthard says, is to “solve the modern Indian problem,” and this pushes the country to seek its idea of reconciliation. But Aboriginal people have a desire for their grievances and nations to be reconciled, which can often lead to deep resentment because reconciliation politics do not satisfy this desire. In arguing that Canada needs to overcome reconciliation politics and that resentment might actually help it do that, Coulthard is perhaps the most important emerging Aboriginal politics scholar in Canada.

Coulthard’s first focus was in the realm of another ‘R’ word that dominates discussions of Aboriginal peoples in Canada: recognition. Back in 2007, about a year before Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s official apology for residential schools, Coulthard published the article “Subjects of Empire” in the journal Contemporary Political Theory. Coulthard argues against the belief — widely held in Canada both then and now — that recognition offers the potential to change the political structures that marginalize Aboriginal peoples. But as Coulthard argues, the politics of recognition can’t change a situation where a state is negotiating the rights of Indigenous nations that exist within it. Instead, he writes, the politics of recognition “promises to reproduce the very configurations of colonial power that Indigenous demands for recognition have historically sought to transcend.”

Why does it do this? “Recognition is often demanded by Indigenous people,” Coulthard says, in an interview. “The Dene Nation demanded recognition of our community as a nation, with the right to self-determination, in 1975. But what was countered or offered in the form of recognition from the state was not the right to land and freedom; it was a very narrow right to certain resources, in exchange for the Dene giving up, extinguishing all the rights and title to their traditional territories.” This style of recognition is mirrored by Canada’s version of reconciliation, and even forms the first step towards it.

To recognize Aboriginal rights or title, Canada seeks to reconcile them with its own claims to sovereignty. Because it doesn’t question its own power and rights, reconciliation with Canada is a project aimed at settling past wrongs but leaving the present and future comparatively unexamined. Reconciliation with Canada is about “moving on,” Coulthard says. “Reconciliation is willing to confront, to a certain degree, the past. So [the state says] ‘Residential schools were bad, and we recognize that they were unjust, they were immoral, but they are over now. We’re left with this legacy, and we need to move on,’” he says. “Reconciliation [with the state] is about getting over that which is inhibiting a healthier state.” What results is something like an ironic knot, where the concept Aboriginal people desire — reconciliation — is exactly the same word used by the state that seems to prevent it.

Coulthard has worked to untie the knot. In his earlier work, such as the 2007 paper, he concentrates on the potential for Aboriginal peoples to decolonize their minds, focusing on ideas from thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, author of the groundbreaking Black Skin, White Masks, among other works.

But as Coulthard’s work untying the knot has matured, he has honed his critique and has arrived at yet another ‘R’ word: resentment. Because Aboriginal recognition and reconciliation, from a Canadian perspective, are focused only on the wrongs of the past, the situation as it exists today is ignored. “We can’t make a tidy distinction between past injustices we need to move on from and these ones that still inform the core of the relationship between native peoples and the state,” Coulthard says. And here lays the problem:

That there is the problem. Reconciliation doesn’t even properly identify the issue at hand, that we need to collectively put our heads together and work on as Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples on this land that we now share. Reconciliation is structurally ill-equipped to deal with that because it doesn’t recognize that as a problem. That’s why you can have Harper apologize in 2008 for the residential system, and one year later at the G20 meeting in Pennsylvania, say Canada has no history of colonialism. Because they’re entirely conceptually distinct, because reconciliation, as it’s framed by Canadian policy makers, is not about colonialism, it’s about what it would like to think is a misguided humanitarian project that was undertaken in the form of residential schools.

In his forthcoming book, Seeing Red: On Recognition, Reconciliation and Resentment in Indigenous Politics, Coulthard argues that in this situation, “to be resentful of something is actually a sign of our critical consciousness. It’s a sign that there’s something in the world that is nagging at us, that is unjust, and if targeted, those forceful emotions can challenge us as individuals to act.”

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The politics of recognition and reconciliation may have ended in Canada sometime around December 2012, with the outpouring of resentment for ongoing marginalization of Aboriginal peoples called Idle No More. And though many commentators from outside the Aboriginal community saw its forceful, passionate expressions of resentment as yet more proof of that community’s need to get over the past and move on, Coulthard viewed it differently. “I saw an awakening among many Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” Coulthard says in an interview. He continues:

I saw a truth revealed about the destructive and oppressive nature of our current situation, which I think will be hard to package up and ignore from this point on. So now, what I would like to think is that there was a turning point, that there was a break in peoples’ consciousness, in First Nations’ peoples willingness to go along with this, because we thought it would be made better eventually. On the side of non-native society, I think there was a real awakening as well that, yes, there is this relationship that non-native people are also a party to and the federal government, which claims to be representative of their interests and their rights, has historically and is in the present running roughshod over that relationship. And I think there were more Canadians than ever before who started to see that as a problem, which I think will be hard to go back from. It’s going to be much harder for all of us to just put our blinders on to that.

But perhaps a larger question remains: Is the state’s position inevitable? Can a country that sees its own ideas of sovereignty and nationhood as somehow threatened by Indigenous assertions actually change to accept, even embrace, calls for recognition and reconciliation? Coulthard is clear that he feels the leader of the day makes little difference to the logic that marginalizes Aboriginal people in Canada, noting that it’s a structural pattern rather than one created by individuals. But he refuses to see things as fixed or as hopeless.

“To say it’s inevitable and it will always be the same would be too dismissive or too pessimistic,” he says. “What it will require is some genuine will and motivation amongst Canadians, non-native Canadians, who see themselves as being represented by a state or government that is violating that relationship of sharing that they have, through Treaty, with Indigenous peoples.” Ultimately, what Coulthard is speaking about is a two-way reconciliation and about both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians engaging to address what’s really happening, right now, rather than just the past. “I think that’s where change has to really focus itself,” he says. ◉


Tim Querengesser is a writer based in Edmonton, Alberta. He is senior editor with Alberta Venture, and has written for Up Here, the Globe and Mail, and the Huffington Post.



CAMBRIDGE BAY

Shore ice sculpture by Doug Stern, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, October 2013. Photo credit: Northern Public Affairs

Shore ice sculpture by Doug Stern, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, October 2013.
Photo credit: Northern Public Affairs