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Glen Coulthard Dissertations

My understanding of culture, formed through my relationship to my own community, I see as fitting nicely with a broader ontological application of what Marx referred to as a “mode of production” — not a reductionist understanding, base and superstructure, etc. — but understood, as Marx refers to in several texts, as a “mode” or “form of life” that encompasses not only the forces and relations of production but the modes of thought and behavior that constitute a social totality.

I think of that as what the Dene demand for cultural recognition in the 1970s was encompassing: the political, the spiritual, the economic. The character of those relationships and those spheres were based on an articulation of reciprocity which rendered not only colonial domination but also capitalist domination over the natural world as profoundly harmful and wrong. When that’s the cultural base that you’re making a claim to defend, it’s profoundly anticapitalist and anticolonial, and we see this expressed in our struggles of the 1970s.

What has happened, I argue — and this is where Frantz Fanon is absolutely crucial in his insights on recognition — is that we attempted to negotiate that totality in terms of state recognition. As Fanon demonstrates in Black Skins, White Masks and elsewhere, that recognition, without a physical fight or struggle, will always be determined by and in the interests of the master or in this case the colonizers. There’s a structural limit that is placed on negotiations or exchanges of recognition in colonial contexts.

The second insight that Fanon illuminates is one that’s drawn from his experience as a psychiatrist, and that’s the way in which forms of asymmetrical recognition can shape political subjectivities, so we come to see the forms of colonial recognition that are handed down to us from our masters as a form of justice, or what Fanon refers to as “white liberty” and “white justice,” thus obscuring the colonial relationship. For Fanon, recognition politics of this sort are central to colonialism’s reproduction over time.

The last thirty years of negotiating and attaining forms of recognition — whether it is through the state land claims process, through the state self-government process, or through constitutional recognition — have shaped indigenous identities in ways that have really blunted the sharp edges of colonialism and made it endurable.

Every once and a while the state will do something that really exposes these contradictions, exposes its purpose — that is to violently, if necessary, maintain access to indigenous peoples’ lands and resources — and you’ll see struggle emerge in those moments. Usually it’ll come to a head in some sort of crisis, and the state will be put back in the position where it offers some sort of recognition and gestures toward reconciliation again.

The interesting thing about the Harper administration is that they are both belligerently neoliberal and socially conservative.

Their social conservative disdain for First Nations and anything native overrides their neoliberal commitments to the market, because there are lots of ways to pacify indigenous resistance without upsetting indigenous peoples to the point where they’re willing to put their bodies on the line, in particular by offering forms of recognition where indigenous peoples become participants in their own dispossession through market integration and so on.

Our current government appears to hate natives so much that it is embarking on a real hostile and aggressive relationship with indigenous peoples that I think is going to blow up in the state’s face.


Over the last forty years, the self-determination claims of Indigenous peoples in Canada have increasingly been cast in the language of “recognition”: recognition of Indigenous cultural distinctiveness, recognition of an Indigenous right to land and self-government, recognition of the right to benefit from the development of Indigenous territories and resources, and so on. In addition, the last fifteen years have witnessed a proliferation of scholarship which has sought to flesh-out the ethical, legal and political questions that these claims tend to raise. Subsequently, “recognition” has now come to occupy a central place in our efforts to comprehend what is at stake in contestations over identity and difference in liberal settler-polities more generally. The purpose of this dissertation is twofold. First, I want to challenge the now commonplace assumption that the colonial relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada can be reconciled via such a politics of recognition. Second, I want to explore glimpses of an alternative politics. More specifically, drawing critically from Indigenous and non-Indigenous intellectual and activist traditions, I will explore a politics of self-recognition that is less oriented around attaining an affirmative form of recognition from Indigenous peoples’ master-other (the liberal settler-state and society), and more about critically revaluating, reconstructing and redeploying Indigenous cultural forms in ways that seek to prefigure alternatives to the colonial social relations that continue to facilitate the dispossession of Indigenous lands and self-determining authority.

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