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"We also have no history of colonialism..."
—Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
VANCOUVER—On the heels of a massive exercise of US police repression against G20 protestors, including use of a wartime sonic acoustic weapon also being used in Iraq, Stephen Harper made the above declaration. The comment came during a press conference in Pittsburgh where it was announced that Canada would be hosting the next G20 meeting in 2010.
Perhaps Harper and I are not on the same page—is colonialism not defined as the practice and processes of domination, control, and forced subjugation of one people to another? As most bluntly stated by Duncan Campbell Scott, Head of the Department of Indian Affairs in the 1920s: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”
I expect Harper has read the federal government’s own report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which explicitly lays out Canada’s imposition of a colonial relationship (indeed, that is the heading of one of the chapters) on Indigenous people. Measures of this relationship include the Indian Act, residential schools, forcible relocation including onto reservations, the imposed Band Council system, institution of a pass system (which was subsequently borrowed by apartheid South Africa), germ warfare, outlawing of ceremonies such as the potlatch and traditional activities such as fishing, failed treaty processes and other forced assimilation polices including the Act for the Gradual Assimilation of Indian Peoples.
Considering that his government has so ardently voted against it, it would be safe to presume that Harper is aware of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. If Canada has no history of colonialism, then what else would explain that Canada—along with other settler states such as Australia—have yet to sign the Declaration? Other than the glaring and painful reality of colonization, what would make the Declaration “unworkable for Canada,” as stated by the Harper government?
This Declaration, endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the 144 UN member states, recognizes that “Indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession” and therefore affirms that “Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination.” According to the Declaration, this includes: right to autonomy and self government, right to maintain and strengthen political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, collective right to live in freedom without being subjected to acts of genocide, and right to redress and compensation for the lands, territories and resources confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without free, prior and informed consent.
And was it not Harper’s government that finally issued an official apology for residential schools which separated children from their families, communities, and culture in order to "kill the Indian in the child?" It has been extensively documented that children suffered unimaginable abuses—including sexual violence, physical beatings, emotional and psychological torture, and death—in residential schools. The traumas of this colonial legacy continues today with Indigenous people disproportionately experiencing poverty, poor health, incarceration, youth suicides, unprecedented levels of violence against Indigenous women, child apprehension, and substandard levels of access to basic needs including water and homes.
Indigenous people from Akwesasne, Tyendinaga, Six Nations, Athabasca Chipewyan, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, and Secwepemc are forced to throw up blockades to halt environmentally devastating mineral exploration, logging practices, and resource extraction that continue to infringe on their lands. Clearly, Harper has not been blind to these public struggles that his government is complicit in criminalizing as Canada becomes notorious for its Indigenous political prisoners—prisoners of Canada’s colonial democracy.
What Harper meant to say was: “Canada has no history of colonialism, except for the ongoing internal colonization of Indigenous people and the external colonization and occupation of, amongst others, the people of Afghanistan. Not one to break with history, my government too has been making strides in asserting greater dominance over Indigenous peoples' lives, lands, and governance.”
At least we can take some comfort in the fact that Harper is just another hypocritical and self-serving politician and not a history teacher.
Harsha Walia is a South Asian organizer and writer based in Vancouver, on unceded Coast Salish territory.
A version of this article previously appeared in the Vancouver Sun online, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.