Decolonization has become a hot-button topic in the last year, primarily due to the rise of indigenous activism, political opposition at the grassroots level such as Idle No More and high-profile government legislation such as Bill C-41.
Many argue that this all-encompassing goal is central to affirming Aboriginal sovereignty in a country criticized for unilateral public policies and systemic discrimination. But what is decolonization and what would its political realization mean for Aboriginal groups and Canadian society?
I spoke with Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the Faculty of Native Studies at the U of A, to shed some light on this complex topic.
Q: What does decolonization mean as it’s used in modern Aboriginal discourse?
A: I don’t really know if there is one single definition of decolonization. In my view, decolonization means relearning who we are as indigenous people and relearning our history and our laws. Decolonization for me involves re-appreciating who we are as a people and re-appreciating our past and our history.
Q: And how are indigenous activists and scholars attempting to achieve decolonization?
A: For some people, it’s about trying to look for reforms and aiming at larger changes over time. Others criticize that approach by basically saying that those kinds of slow changes won’t take us anywhere, so we need to take a more active approach. That, for me, involves taking some action, taking the time to relearn our history. I believe that one way of doing that is in the classroom, taking an activist approach within the classroom, trying to convey and trying to educate a different kind of message to non-indigenous Canadians.
Q: Do you think that decolonization is possible in today’s society or is it more of a hypothetical concept?
A: It is possible. It’s not easy if we think about decolonization in today’s society as going back to the past — that doesn’t take us anywhere. But when we talk about decolonization as a way of re-centering indigenous knowledge and histories and laws, then it is possible. I’m not saying that’s going to happen overnight. That involves a more ongoing dialogue, not only involving indigenous people but also non-indigenous Canadians. They need to be part of that dialogue for that to happen.
Q: How does the current political structure interact with decolonization?
A: I don’t think that decolonization can actually happen within the current structure. I don’t think that those relationships are conducive to decolonization. Some kind of recognition is happening and some kind of accommodation is happening, but that doesn’t mean decolonization. That just means that the Canadian government is making some effort to respond to some of these claims in its own terms — but that’s not decolonization. To me, when we talk about that relationship, decolonization is out of the question.
Q: What are some of the major social, political or economic benefits to Aboriginal groups pursuing decolonization?
A: If we understand decolonization as the well-being of indigenous peoples, then there is much that can happen. I’m not just talking about economics, I’m not just talking about health, I’m talking about well-being as something that encompasses the full vision of indigenous peoples and their ability to decide for their own future and in their own terms.
Q: What can the public do to engage in the process of decolonization?
A: I think that decolonization is not only about indigenous people. It’s also about non-indigenous Canadians learning and understanding their own history. Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss colonialism as, ‘Oh that happened in the past, let’s get over it.’ That’s just a way of denying that it happened, that it has a legacy and that it continues to exist. Educating ourselves about that history and educating ourselves in how we perpetrate some kind of colonial mentality is central in this process. I don’t think that allies should expect indigenous peoples to educate them. I think that’s a responsibility we all have to educate ourselves about what this country’s history is and what our role is within this society.
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