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Settler Ideology and Attawapiskat

There is a "common sense" settlerist discourse in this country that holds, empirical evidence to the contrary, that the colonized are privileged to be colonized––indeed, sometimes even more privileged than the colonizers.  Perhaps a sublimated articulation of the "civilizing mission" ideology that could be openly proclaimed decades ago, the claim that the colonized "have it good" under colonialism is usually, specifically in Canada and the US, based on spurious claims about supposed tax exemptions, idyllic myths about North American bantustans (Canadian reserves, we need to remember, were the basis for the South African apartheid bantustan system), or some other garbage that passes for wisdom amongst those who want their racism justified as rational fact.  Now with the media furor surrounding Attawapiskat, where once again the Canadian public is being inundated with the reality of colonized life (this happens every once in a while only to be quickly forgotten), the colonized-have-it-better-than-the-colonizer ideology cannot be asserted so easily.  And yet, as anyone who understands that a colonial context necessarily requires colonial ideologies to function as colonialism, with a little bit of tinkering, the ideology persists in a more insulting form regardless of the reality of Attawapiskat.

Now we have the Conservative government claiming that it has provided Attawapiskat with around ninety million dollars in tax money since 2007 and that the reason for the abhorrent conditions (which, we need to point out, are just the conditions produced, to greater and lesser degrees, by colonialism) in this indigenous community are not the fault of the colonial government but the fault of indigenous mis-management.  Here we have the perfect justification for both colonial misery and the ideology that the life of the colonized under colonialism, aside from the odd aberration produced by deviant individuals (i.e. residential schools are the fault of Catholic priests, not the logical result of Canadian colonialism), is a wonderful thing and all criticism is nothing more than ungrateful complaining.  Actually, this ideological unity happens quite often, especially at those moments when the effects of colonialism are revealed or the colonized decide they're going to actively resist; the whole "Attawapiskat brought its misery upon itself" bullshit is actually quite predictable.

Thankfully, I don't have to spend much time demystifying this statement, the concrete meaning of the ninety million that has seized the imagination of every racist who wants to hold on to the colonized-have-it-better myth, because it has already been thoroughly demystified, statistically and historically with the colloquial fine-toothed comb, on Ă˘pihtawikosisân.  [I urge everyone who plans to waste time commenting along the same lines as the ideology I have already heaped scorn upon to read the aforementioned article before replicating the same arguments that have been demonstrated as erroneous.] What I am concerned about in this post, however, is the ur-logic behind the ideology of the supposed "ninety million"––a figure that is being mindlessly repeated by every settlerist drone who wants to justify hir unexamined racism, and that was initially offered by the Harper government in such a way as to make those who had no intention of actually examine the figure believe that ninety million of "our tax dollars" were dolled out, in one generous and altruistic lump sum, to Attawapiskat on some ideal day of the week where the government decided to be kind to one of its internal colonies.  (Indeed, even the fact that this supposed "donation" was provided to Attawapiskat since 2007, despite being part of the Conservative government's actual report, is conveniently dropped from the discourse.)

First of all, as the aforementioned article points out, the amount of money provided to Attawapiskat since 2007 is rather miniscule when compared to the federal tax funds provided to other municipalities.  As a rule, the federal government provides tax money to cities and communities because tax money is meant to be earmarked for infrastructure––this is the point of taxes.  Now a libertarian might make a point of complaining that these taxes are in themselves theft (the typical objectivist garbage), but to argue that communities such as Attawapiskat are benefiting more from "public tax theft" than your average settler communities is utter nonsense.  So the question becomes: if Attawapiskat was even receiving federal taxes at the same level as your average settler community, why was it so badly "mis-managed"?  There are two logical responses to this question: a) the community, unlike those "fiscally responsible" settler communities, is responsible for its own mis-management; b) there were structural reasons for this "mis-management."

Point (a) is the point wherein hegemonic settler ideology operates.  Rather than even examining the possibility of structural inequalities produced by the colonial past and present, it tends to locate the problem at the level of the individual.  That is, individuals in these supposedly privileged communities continue to screw up and, by screwing up, are more responsible for screwing over their people than the colonial government.  Or, to put it in a way that these supposedly "non-racist" ideologues often and callously put it, native communities just take from the government and, since they don't know how to "work" and are just "takers", they can be nothing but fiscally irresponsible.  After all, the odd liberal commentator on the aformentioned article likes to argue, those of us who live in "Canadian" cities and towns don't mis-manage our money!  And yet point (a) pre-supposes biodeterminist racism.  For if we are not going to consider the structural problems of colonialism as the progenitor of these problems, and are going to place the blame on individuals within indigenous community, then what makes these individuals any different from those individuals who live within the average settler community?  The fact that they are "native", other, and thus genetically incapable of "fiscal responsibility."  Thus, despite all the hooplah liberals kick up about how they "are not racist", their arguments really do rest upon an unquestioned and despicable assumption about racial biology––arguments made without liberal dishonesty by nazi fanatics.

Point (b), however, is something your average liberal settler does not want to even consider.  Never mind the fact that every indigenous bantustan possesses, either now or recently or in the future, a similar experience to Attawapiskat––the living conditions and economic statistics of these communities place the average colonized population far below the standard of living of the average settler population––because if we do not consider the structural implications of colonialism then we might as well just derive our explanations from biological destiny.  After all, what fundamental cause outside of political and economic structure can explain the living conditions of a specific group of people?  To be sure, arguments about individual fiscal responsibility and native leaders' mis-management may appear, at first glance, to be structural arguments… But in order to explain why the structural facts of a reserve differ from the structural facts of a settler community, these arguments all rest on a racist logic that supposes an ontological difference between native and non-native peoples.

Returning to the question of the supposed ninety million, the aforementioned article has demonstrated, painstakingly and thoroughly, that the money was poured into colonial structures that predetermined how the money would be used.  The general Canadian public is largely ignorant of the fact that, just as there are federal/provincial/municipal bodies that determine how the tax money for settler communities is to be used, there are also governmental bodies that determine ahead of time how tax money for indigenous communities is to be used.  And the majority of bodies that preside over indigenous communities are intensely colonial: in the case of Attawapiskat the money first went through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) which is an organization devoted primarily to maintaining the reserve system and actively preventing indigenous national self-determination––and from this body the money is doled out, every colonial bureaucrat taking a cut along the way, to various groups and officials that are also interested in maintaining the colonial system––from the "Indian Affairs" security groups to their comprador puppets.  Just as tax money allocated for non-native communities is also used to maintain the class composition of Canadian capitalism (money for the army, the police, etc.), tax money allocated to native communities is used for: a) maintenance of capitalism; b) maintenance of colonialism.

Whereas Canada's overall waning social democracy is able to manifest a somewhat significant portion (at least for now) of tax dollars in beneficial public institutions (i.e. health care, education, welfare, etc.), communities such as Attawapiskat are lucky if they get as much tax money for their hospitals, roads, education, and so many other things we take for granted.  Indeed, these institutions in the settler communities are not generally better because of some superior non-native essence, and the stolid hard work of rugged settler individualists who "take nothing from nobody", but because of the tax funds they receive.  And the decisions of where our taxes go are not decisions based on community consensus; these are always decisions made over our heads according to the logic, with varying degrees of complexity, of the entire system.

At the end of the aforementioned article, however, the author concludes with appeals to educating the Canadian settler public.  Unfortunately, in the context of colonial ideology, these appeals are ultimately meaningless.  If a good argument about oppression solved anything––if appeals to facts and a demystification of lies that justify oppression worked to change minds––then colonialism would have fallen under the weight of systemic logic long ago.  There was a reason that Fanon began his great work on the dialectic of colonialism-anticolonialism with a tragic but necessary appeal to revolutionary violence: well reasoned arguments, he told us, solve nothing, and colonialism only loosens its grip when the knife is held to its throat.  A terrible fact to consider, but a fact that explains why the colonial ideology that attempts to place the sins of colonialism on the shoulders of the colonized continues to thrive despite facts, figures, appeals to history, and the mountains of anticolonial arguments made since the advent of modern settler-colonialism.


  1. Thanks for covering this topic. It has been covered a few times in the course I'm TAing, and still I just finished grading a paper that talked about this kind of privilege (not in a good way) are and said things like 'native people are considered to be human'. I think that paper had more of my red pen chicken scratch in it than anything I have looked at since I was tutoring someone who wrote a paper entitled "gay marriage: burning hellfire."

    So, this is a 3rd year course in a university with a strong native studies program and a department with profs that begin lecturing by recognizing whose land we are on. I want to be hopeful that education is all we need to dispel these myths, but it appears to be far more complicated than that, as you've mentioned.

  2. Yeah, I've marked more than a few papers like this in the past. My "favourite" was one in which a student--in an Introduction to Ethics course, no less--who actually argued that it was "good" that colonization in the Americas happened because it brought Christianity to the godless natives and thus "civilization." Since I expected more of the typical racism hidden by liberal logic, I was utterly shocked to read a paper in university where someone was replicating arguments that haven't been part of popular discourse since the end of the nineteenth century.

    Obviously since students still write this sort of garbage in an academic setting, they tend to be under the impression I suppose that their idiot opinions have just as much right to enter the "marketplace of ideas" as historical and scientific truth. Which is why we have reactionaries complaining about "bias" in the universities around facts taught in science and those few issues that some universities have been good about. (Before writing this comment, for example, one of the usual suspect raving zionists wrote over the university union listserve her typical "you're all being one-sided" rant regarding her love for Israel.)

  3. Hello I have a question regarding a common right wing response I read about on reserves.

    The usual right wing response I see who are on the against side of reserves say that if they privatized the properties/homes and give them to the individual natives then they will have a reason to maintain the properties and take care of them. And also I hear about getting rid of reserves ('getting rid of the Indian act') will bring the natives out of isolation and into the broader Canadian society. Thoughts?

    I never get exposed much to radical ideas in real life a so I don't see anything particularly wrong with these arguments in first glance. Can I get a Marxist perspective?



  4. Thanks for the questions.

    The first question is a pretty easy one to demystify: the privatization of property does not necessarily mean that homes will be taken care of––if this was the case, then every home owner in non-reserve society would be "fiscally responsible" for their own home when this is clearly not the case. Furthermore, the privatization of property produces other serious class problems: homelessness, slum lords, evictions, a mortgage system that produces foreclosures (as the current crisis demonstrates), and the perpetuation of the capitalist class system. There is a reason, after all, that the most radical anti-poverty groups have focused their work on squatting and housing occupations. Moreover, in those historical moments of attempted socialism where private property has been transformed into collective property we have seen that the people actually take *better* care of each other and their community. That is, when the people are able to determine their own life processes (and the privatization of property prevents this and produces commodity alienation and class division), their life is actually better. The story of the Dazhai Commune is a good example of this, and Qiu Hulai's "Ninth Heaven to Ninth Hell" does a good job of charting this commune's fall (from collective ownership to private ownership) and the resulting ills that happened with this movement.

    Canadian society has tried getting rid of reserves before in the 1960s with the White Paper's attempted integration act. The result of this process is something that amounted to cultural genocide in that it tore families apart, destroyed language and tradition, and was aimed at destroying any attempt at self-determination on the part of indigenous nations: that is, it was aimed at erasing indigenous nations. As a marxist who comes from a Leninist tradition that supports national self-determination, I cannot endorse forced integration on the part of a colonial power: there is a real desire amongst indigenous population, proved historically over and over, for national self-determination. Reserves are lands unceded and supposedly protected by treaties: asking for nations that see themselves as nations to integrate with settler society is as absurd as asking France to integrate with Britain on Britain's terms. If you really think about it, demanding that indigenous people integrate is an act of force: clearly the indigenous nations are not looking to liquidate themselves within Canadian society and so to say that "this would solve the problems" is to impose a solution upon an oppressed population that, because it will be (and has been) resisted, can only lead to serious oppressive consequences.

    Furthermore, I don't think indigenous populations as a whole are "in isolation" ––clearly there are indigenous organizations, academics, activists, artists, etc. who are not isolated and very much part of "broader Canadian society." Also, as marxists, we need to ask ourselves whether or not "Canadian society" is a problem (it is) and whether or not the colonial structures that are intrinsic to Canadian capitalism are the very same structures that are demanding––for very sound colonial reasons––forced integration and privatization (they are).


  5. Canada cannot recognize the self-determination of internal nations and demands for integration and privatization are demands to annihilate these nations. The former because integration quite obviously removes nationhood (as was the point of the White Paper during the Trudeau period), and the latter because once you break up a community by privatizing homes, you have landlords, rentiers, and people to sell these homes to people from the settler culture. And thus individual rentiers who might be colonizers controlling strategic points in a colonized community. This is not fantastic to imagine because this is precisely what was done in other social contexts throughout the period of modern colonization. It is also what is being done in a neo-colonial manner with the forced privatization that accompanies the imperial export of capital to the peripheries.

    And, to conclude with this quotation from Lenin: "We must… demand the liberation of the oppressed nations, not only in general, nebulous phrases, not in empty declamations, not by 'postponing' the question until socialism is established, but in a clearly and precisely formulated political programme which shall particularly take into account the hypocrisy and cowardice of the Socialists [here meaning those socialists who opposed anticolonial struggle] and the oppressing nations. Just as humanity can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so humanity can only achieve the inevitable merging of nations [progressive integration] only by passing through the transition period of the complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede."

  6. Thank you for the detailed thoughtful reply to my questions. the Dazhai Commune sounds interesting and I think I will look more into that. The white paper as well, which I believe I have limited knowledge of but never really got into researching it more deeply.


  7. No problem: glad my answers helped.

  8. JMP, you've made a very interesting argument and I would agree that the discussion, if you want to call it that, around this catastrophy has frequently lapsed into explicit racism. There is a visceral hatred of Indians among most Canadians (especially rural Canadians) and they often don't even bother dressing up their racism with liberal pretensions or technocrat-talk("mismanagement" etc.) The comments on the National Post or other sites about greedy natives have been disgusting and seem to me ridiculous given the obvious and now well documented poverty on reserves. This commentators are acting like there are Scrooge McDuck gold swimming pools beneath each decrepit wood shack.

    However I think the discourse of settler vs. colonized can lead to oversimplifications even if there is a basic truth to it. It's not as if The Man just showed up at Attawapiskat, planted a Canadian flag in the ground and told the residents to go to hell. Dynamic, constantly evolving societies were frozen by colonialism and had an "authentic" governance style understandable to Europeans grafted on to them.I think contemporary leftists tend to give too much credit to this layer of local misleadership. Gov't intervention went beyond residential schools too, for example moving whole communities north to reinforce Canadian militaristic claims to the Arctic or whatever else.

    I think when you talk about the oppressed communities and their structural neglect you can do this without affirming the local leadership, who are basically the gov'ts middle managers in the community and often act as a sort of huckster-political-mafia not unlike what one finds with other "community leaders" given the stamp of approval by the authorities.

    Finally I would point out that most people do not make biological claims about racial difference anymore rather they stress the 'cultural' or 'parenting' aspects etc. Whether or not biological assumptions lie at the heart of the matter (they probably do for Canadian racists!) is a distraction from the larger issue which is that after WWII and decolonization the discourse of biological race was replaced by the discourse of cultural difference. As with the development of biological race as an idea in the 1800s this transition came about as much from the non-Marxist left as from the Right.

    As an anti-revisionist myself I agree the starting point w/ aboriginals in Canada has to be national self-determination as a right. But i think we need to think more carefully about how we assume certain aspects of native society are "traditional" when in fact they too are colonial hold-overs. Then there is the larger question of how to make this appeal to the settler proletariat. You can talk about "holding a knife to the throat" of the colonizer but this is more practical in Rhodesia than in a country that is 96% non-settler


  9. Looking at my previous comment I am sorry for the numerous typos. One in particular obscures my point i.e. "96% non-settler" obviously I mean 96% settler there. I know there is a vast body of work out there about whether racialized people in Canada or the United States are "settlers". However I am largely ignorant of the specifics of these arguments and would appreciate your insights on this and the larger question (how communists can make the white privledge argument effectively). As I am sure you are aware this argument is usually (wilfully?) misunderstood by members of dominant communities as ethnic cleansing or "go back to Europe" yadda yadda.

  10. Mike: thanks for the comments, but a number of your disagreements result from a misunderstanding of my arguments, and positions I never endorsed in the post. Obviously this is partially due to the fact that I write my blog posts hastily, but some of your arguments feel like they are arguing against something I didn't write. I will try to clear up these misunderstandings with the following 4 points:

    1) the colonizer-colonized division is a way to make sense of a contradiction but, within that contradiction, yes there are clearly complexities (same with the contradiction of bourgeoisie-proletariat), and scientific categories emerge from this sort of abstraction. Nowhere do I argue, however, that all of reality should be reduced to just this contradiction.

    2) At no point do I claim that the "local leadership" is somehow outside of the maintenance of colonialism. In this piece I was looking at a specific settlerist discourse, so I didn't spend time discussing the points you made in the second and third paragraphs (which I generally agree with), but if you read carefully you'll notice that I gave a nod to this position by using the term "comprador" leadership: a concept that means precisely what you said.

    3) Where did I say most people made biological claims about racial difference? What I *actually* argued was that, while nazis make these claims openly, people who make liberal arguments about "what natives are like" are actually endorsing a bio-racist claim without realizing they're endorsing it. That is, a certain racist logic has been sublimated within liberal ideology... That's a very different point then what you assumed I was making.

    4) Nowhere to I make an argument for culturalism. I am well aware that what is often referred to as "traditional" is the product of colonialism: having done my academic work on Fanon, and since this is a point he spends a long time discussing, I actually spent a significant chapter of my thesis arguing precisely this same point... I don't know what it precisely has to do with the argument of this article. Also, the quote from Fanon was merely meant to indicate that opinions about something like colonialism (or capitalism we could also say) are not changed by a well-reasoned argument. I suppose I could have used the more cliched "power concedes nothing without a struggle", but I prefer Fanon's language. To assume that this communicates to a concrete plan of anti-colonial action, when really it was only pointing out that racists won't change their opinion just because of logic, is to ascribe arguments that do not exist to this piece.

  11. Just saw your follow up comment: you must have left in my comments box when I was writing a reply to your initial comment. I still maintain that the differences you outline are actually positions that I generally endorse and that you misread certain parts of my article, but I can see how something that was hastily written, concentrating only on a specific issue, can be misread.

    Dealing with the giant issue of whether or not racialized people are "settlers" is post-worthy and unworthy of pat answers. Clearly when we examine the contradiction of colonizer-colonized we have to examine it in regards to the other contradictions that make-up capitalism, imperialism, etc... These contradictions intersect, and someone can be a settler in a formal sense (they are part of the structure of colonialism) but not in an essential sense (maybe they reject colonialism and support indigenous self-determination), just as people can be formally non-settler (they come from an indigenous community) but essentially settler (they're part of a comprador government), or formally non-settler and essentially non-settler, or formally and essentially settler...

    Of course the issue of other oppressions, and the racism that emerged from modern colonialism, mediates the material division between colonizer and colonized in any colonial state. And in those states where settler-colonialism has lingered for a long time, and where there is no longer the political linkage of colony-motherland, the colonial contradiction has become pushed beneath the surface of post-secession society.

    As for the larger question about how communists can speak about white privilege, I wrote a couple posts on this in the past, and posted one from a friend based on an event our group held, so if you're interested you can check them out. Really, talking about social privilege is something marxists should be doing considering that we believe peoples' consciousness emerges from their concrete circumstances.

  12. Correction: "formal" and "essential" was a hasty use of terminology. The terms "objective" and "subjective" are more accurate.

  13. Really liked this post, but after reading the discussion I have a few questions and comments.

    Regarding the comparison to Southern Rhodesia, it is in fact a striking parallel that must be elaborated on. The divide between the neo-liberal western-backed MDC and the ZANU-PF is a historical conflict that goes back to the Rhodesian regime. The Rhodesians subsidized a fake opposition and essentially groomed leaders by sending them to top level colonial education and ensured their loyalty. Thus the making of a comprador elite; this becomes more evident in the land occupations movements both before and after independence. The new allies of these compradors were the Civil Society and donor agencies, strictly a middle class agenda, and is not representing the popular interest.

    How well does this compare to Canada though? I find the parallel more important in light of the increasing number of First Nations students attending top level private institutions in Canada, many of these students are being readied for leadership positions in their community and to become opposition figures to the government on its own terms. They exist within the confines of their educational framework, not to say that they cannot represent their own people, certainly if that had been the case we would not have the likes of Robert Mugabe, Kwame Nkrumah and so on... leaders with colonial educations, it does not preclude them from leading a successful revolutionary movement. However in Canada we do see a number of instances where these comprador elites are more interested in collaborating with the government and their interests diverge from those of the public.

  14. (cont) Remembering the Lancaster Agreement and Britain's paltry contribution of 34 million of the 1 to 2 billion needed for land reform, we are again confronted with neo-liberal ideology of fiscal responsibility. The language is strikingly similar; as is the hypocrisy. But what is the divide between the leaders in Attawapiskat and the general public? I am not inclined to take the mainstream media seriously in any event, but there has been evidence of the community holding protests against DeBeers and I am uncertain of how much backing this received from the Chief. I have watched a number of statements from the chief and there has not been a great deal of attention paid to DeBeers specifically, which is strange as I would assume if the community protested before, and I believe there have been other cases of the company upsetting the community not resulting in protests, why is it not being talked about? I can not speculate on the current Chief of the community too much, as we also have to contend with the fact that she was elected, and she also has the backing of the rest o the chiefs in the country. Very hard to come to a conclusion here...

    In judging Attawapiskat I feel the largest problem here is as you laid out colonial oppression and all that it entails; the community is deliberately denied the opportunities that should exist there for no reason other than the gains of the Canadian state and its corporate allies. But what I want to investigate is how much this issue is about a deficit in funding. While Chisasibi and the James Bay Cree in Quebec is not ideal ultimately, it is much improved from Attawapiskat for the negotiation of more beneficial agreements and more funding. I think there is perhaps not enough control of local resources, surely, however it is a level up from Attwapiskat, so I feel there is certainly grounds to suggest that no matter who the leadership was, this community would not have been very successful due to the immense shortage of funding relative to communities that are doing OK in the nearby region. Clearly the inability to accrue the proper compensation from the DeBeers mine is a point of contention for everyone in the community, and I am curios why the chief is not discussing that, as it might be a much greater concern to the residents?

    In sum, what I'm asking here is how much can the local leadership be implicated for what is going on? I've been following this for a few years now and find it difficult to condemn or support the government as I'm not entirely sure where they stand. The fact that the rest of the chiefs have backed her speaks volumes as far as I'm concerned, but there is still a certain truth to the inequality between leadership and other residents in the community that cannot be easily ignored, even if the disparity is less than that of what is here in urban Canada, still not good.

    After having discovered the existence of sun news network, was very pleased to read your post, thanks.


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