Colonial logics at play

Colonial logics at play

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Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings. Said, 1993: 7

In Canada, treaties, whether between the French and English or Indigenous peoples and settlers, were the legal means recognized by colonial law through which settlers’ territorially acquired land. Indeed, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, itself an agreement between the British and the French, necessitated the use of treaties for the British Crown to acquire Indigenous territories in what would become Canada; “whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under Our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds” (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada [AANDC], 2013; emphasis added). All parties in what would become Canada, however, did not negotiate treaties. The undertones of possession – of protection – that emerged in the Royal Proclamation foreshadowed the patriarchal relationship that dominated Indigenous-state relations from the 19th century onwards.

Colonists paid little bearing to the patriarchal, protectorate relationship as outlined in the Royal Proclamation being fundamentally different from many Indigenous political systems and forms of governance (Alfred, 2009a; Asch, 2014). With property’s legality bubbling over the pond and the British Empire’s economic thirst for resources to fuel mercantile and later industrial economies, the delicate balance struck between Indigenous and colonial peoples toppled; with it, relations between Indigenous and state bodies shifted to more asymmetrical structures of dominance.

Obligations negotiated in even post-Confederation treaties in Canada (after 1867), such as the numbered treaties’ conditions for disaster relief, were increasingly disregarded by Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. The obligation for treaty negotiations foundationally established by the Royal Proclamation was simply ignored for northern and western territories claimed by Canada. Colonialism, portrayed by the British Empire as superior, universal, even inevitable, undoubtedly contributed to, perhaps even excused, disregard for treaties; after all, as Edward Said attests: “at some very basic level, imperialism means thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others” (1993: 7). Arguments as to why treaty making was disregarded during this era abound (see Tennant, 1990; Unions of BC Indian Chiefs, 2005), imperial desires trumped legal necessity, contributing to the often tumultuous Indigenous-state relations that exist today.

Colonialism, especially within Canada, is no relic of the past: Canada may not be ruled from Britain but colonial processes are embedded within state structures and Canadian mentalities (Barker, 2009). Settlers living on Indigenous territories contribute to the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples, especially in places where no formal agreements for sharing the land have been established or honoured by settler parties. This permanent implantation of settlers is a distinct form of colonialism known as: settler colonialism (Wolfe, 2006). Canada’s dominion from the United Kingdom in 1863 formalized this process of colonialism with Canada asserting, and other nation-states recognizing, jurisdiction and territoriality over Indigenous lands (Pasternak, 2014). Transforming Indigenous lands into exploitable resources, implanting settlers on often untreatied Indigenous territories, and employing the labour of newly arriving immigrants and Indigenous peoples were all tactics foundational to creating and maintaining the Canadian state. Land is, after all, the end goal of settler colonialism, whereby settlers “make Indigenous lands their home and source of capital”1 (Tuck and Yang 2012: 2). From the settlement of immigrants onto Indigenous lands to the exploitations of labour to justify Indigenous dispossession, the inseparability of capitalism and colonialism from Canada’s settler colonial context becomes clear (Walia, 2014). Labour and settlement, however, are only the most obvious, material forms of settler colonialism.

Legal policies, even pre-confederation, contributed to Canada’s settler colonial project by seeking to eradicate Indigenous cultures (see Woolford, Benvenuto, & Hinton, 2013). Forceful and violent assimilation tactics were employed, including: day and residential schools for Indigenous children (1857-1996), enfranchisement (1857-1960s), and distinctly gendered forms of colonialism, such as women’s loss of status if married to a non-Indigenous male (1867-1985); even the transformation of land into property is a tactic of assimilation (see Diabo, 2014). Relationships to and with land inscribe cultural and social meaning: how land should be conceived, how it should be related to, who has the privilege and rights to access it, and what actions are allowed are all necessary building blocks of a colonial logic.2 Land, in settler colonial contexts, is a space to be managed and controlled, legally framed as a possession of the state that can be owned and sold (Proudhon, 1970). Indeed, this perception of land has vastly influenced settler subjectivities. A settler colonial mentality flows from the states’ enacted and constructed sovereignty; it is affirmed by citizenship where rights are granted from the state and a uniquely nationalistic discourse, or an imagined national community – that of ‘being Canadian’ – permeates social spheres. Perhaps the most succinct framing of a settler colonial mentality was expressed by Chief Justice Antonio Lamer in his Delgamuukw v. BC, 1997 ruling, a case that, although affirming the existence of Aboriginal title in BC, revealed the extent to which settlers are invested, both physically and socially, in settler colonialism: “Let us face it, we are all here to stay” (Delgamuukw v. BC, 1997; para. 186).

Consequential to settlers and Indigenous peoples ‘all being here to stay’ are multifaceted and complex geographies of Indigenous-settler relations. Local relations are dually influenced by complexities of a distinctly contemporary nature, such as politics of recognition (Coulthard, 2014), liberal sentiments of rights and equality (Turner, 2006), and general ignorance surrounding Indigenous realities (Schaefli & Godlewska, 2014), all of which flow from the current settler colonial context – from settlers ‘being here to stay’. Colonialism’s shape-shifting tendencies disguise contemporary assimilative tactics within rhetoric, such as economic development or state-centric rights rather than treaty outlined relationships (Alfred & Corntassel, 2005; Corntassel, 2012). These myriad material and discoursed influences further muddy Indigenous-settler geographies, oftentimes skewing colonialism’s effects while exacerbating power relations – both subjectively and objectively (Fanon, 1967).


1. See (Snelgrove, Dhamoon, & Corntassel, 2014); Barker, 2009; Barker, 2012 for a critique of settler colonialism as a process and facet of identity.

2. Indigenous communities have frequently protested this colonial logic, often through the very mechanisms, such as colonial law, that have inscribed such meaning to land. Xeni Gwet’in’s, the First Nation that brought forward Tsilqot’in v. BC [2014], nenduwh jid guzitin declaration, or Nemiah Declaration, is an example of such opposition (see Xeni Gwet’in, 2015). Through this declaration, Xeni Gwet’in is utilizing the Supreme Court’s designation of Aboriginal Title to implement Tsilqot’in law that bans commercial and/or industrial activity on these territories, in addition to limiting access to non-human resources to ensure respectful use of and relations to land.


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Tennant, P. (1990). Aboriginal people and politics: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Tuck, E., & Yang, W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 40.

Unions of BC Indian Chiefs. (2005). Stolen lands, broken promises: Researching the Indian land Question in British Columbia (2nd ed.). Vancouver: Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. Retrieved from,%20Broken%20Promises.pdf

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387–409.

Woolford, A., Benvenuto, J., & Hinton, A. (Eds.). (2013). Colonial genocide and Indigenous North America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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