The Colonialism of the Present

Glen Couthard

Scholar and activist Glen Coulthard on the connection between indigenous and anticapitalist struggles.

An indigenous warrior stares down a member of the Canadian military during the 1990 "Oka Crisis."

Interview by
Andrew Bard Epstein

In March 1990, armed warriors from Kanesatake — one of several Mohawk communities in Canada and the United States that constitute the eastern-most nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — erected barricades to prevent the further extension of a private golf course into their land. When a police invasion four months later ended in the death of an officer, nearly three thousand Canadian soldiers descended. Mohawks from Kahnawake blockaded the Mercier Bridge into Montreal in solidarity. A seventy-eight day standoff ensued.

For the Canadian state, this indigenous revolt — known in colonial memory as “Oka Crisis” — was one of the largest and most expensive military operations in the last half century. “From the vantage point of the colonial state,” scholar and activist Glen Coulthard writes, “things were already out of control in Indian Country.” Indeed, the late 1980s witnessed frequent eruptions of indigenous militancy across Canada’s claimed territories in defense of land, culture, and nationhood.

For much of Canadian history — and that of the United States — resistance to settler colonialism was met with swift and brutal violence; “quieter” years brought programs of coercive, genocidal assimilation. But over the past decades, and especially in the aftermath of the confrontation near Oka, the field of battle seemingly softened.

Government committees formed to study the “problem.” Kinder words were spoken. Historical wrongs were acknowledged. Money was spent. And a new paradigm came to govern Canada’s “Aboriginal Affairs”: recognition and reconciliation.

Through commissions, courts, and councils, the Canadian state began acknowledging certain cultural rights, limited forms of political sovereignty, and some claims to land — but only so long as they didn’t interfere with the accumulation of capital or the extraction of resources. In 2008, Stephen Harper even issued an apology of sorts for the treatment of indigenous children in Canadian residential schools — but soon reminded his countrymen they had “no history of colonialism.”

Coulthard rejects such overtures. A member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and a professor at the University of British Columbia, Coulthard’s new book, Red Skins, White Masks, is an incendiary tract of anticolonial theory and a manifesto for renewed land-based action.

Expanding on Frantz Fanon’s inquiry into the damaging effects of colonial “misrecognition,” Coulthard calls for a “disciplined maintenance of resentment,” a “politicized anger” that refuses to demobilize in the face of unceasing colonial expropriation no matter what tone it takes.

Andrew Bard Epstein spoke to Coulthard last month about his book, his critical deployment of Marxist analysis to understand and combat Canadian settler colonialism, and the relationship between indigenous struggle and the non-native left — which remains far more advanced in Canada than in the United States.

Andrew Bard Epstein

How do practices of Canadian colonial containment and dispossession shift in response to often militant indigenous challenges, and to what effect?

Glen Couthard

Up until 1951, the structure of colonial domination in Canada was quite explicit. It didn’t attempt to mask or hide itself, as Fanon might say. Indigenous people had very few rights they could claim in their struggles against the state, particularly over questions of political authority and land.

In 1951, there were significant changes made to the Indian Act, which is the piece of very racist and sexist legislation that governs pretty much all aspects of registered Indians’ lives in Canada. Those changes allowed for indigenous peoples to organize politically. They could seek lawyers in order to establish a claim against the state. Previous to 1951, this was illegal and punishable by imprisonment.

These changes essentially mobilized indigenous peoples legally and politically in terms of establishing organizations to protect their interests in land and governance. So you see in the second half of the century a real spike in public organizing. You also see a spike in land-based direct actions.

This carries on into the 1970s and 1980s. Canada’s response was to contain it, to manage it, to pacify this really destabilizing anticolonial movement because it was attacking Canada where it hurts, in the economy — blocking constitutive flows of capital from leaving indigenous territories. So it was from a more coercive structure of domination to one that is mediated through the granting of very scripted forms of recognition with the aim of reconciling indigenous assertions of nationhood with the colonial sovereignty of the state.

Over time, however, indigenous peoples will begin to see that the forms of recognition given to us by the state for what they truly are: colonial distractions. And then you’ll see a cycle of more direct and contentious struggle emerge again. And another offer of recognition will usually follow suit. We’ve seen this four or five times since roughly 1969.

Andrew Bard Epstein

You’re one of the few indigenous scholars/activists in North America who explicitly deploys Marxist categories of analysis to understand settler colonialism.

What accounts for this paucity? And why have you found them useful?

Glen Couthard

The historical relationship between practicing Marxists and indigenous struggles has been quite hostile, for a number of reasons. I’ve always politically been committed to an indigenous nationalism that is profoundly anticapitalist. That’s partially because of what I have learned in relationship to my own community, the Dene people of the Northwest Territories, or Denedeh in what is now Canada.

So basically I went back and started thinking about colonialism as a structure of dispossession that is fundamentally grounded in the theft of land and the usurpation of indigenous peoples’ political authority in relationship to that land and their communities.

It caught me as useful to return to part eight of Capital on primitive accumulation because it is there that Marx links the totalizing power of capital with that of colonialism through the “originary” dispossession, in Marxist language, that results in proletarianization, and which then becomes the critical lens through which the Marxist canon tends to understand capitalism.

What I did was reconstruct primitive accumulation in a way that I think is actually true to its original form, one that sees dispossession as an ongoing constitutive feature of the social relations of capital but also, in our case, of colonialism, particularly in settler-colonial states like Canada. What I do is elevate dispossession not as some backdrop or some historical starting point but as an ongoing feature of the reproduction of colonial and capitalist social relations in our present.

If we base our understanding of originary dispossession from an indigenous standpoint, it’s the theft not only of the material of land itself, but also a destruction of the social relationships that existed prior to capitalism violently sedimenting itself on indigenous territories. And those social relations are often not only based on principles of egalitarianism but also deep reciprocity between people and with the other-than-human world.

If we see the destruction of that mode of production as a form of injustice, then decolonization would mean critically reestablishing in the contemporary period those indigenous social relations that are antithetical to capitalist accumulation and even forms of hierarchical authoritarian power such as the state. I place a lot of emphasis on that which capitalism and colonialism sought to destroy and a critical reconstruction of it as a form of authentic decolonization.

Andrew Bard Epstein

For Marx, primitive accumulation is a violent process — capital comes into the world “dripping with blood and dirt.”

But you see primitive accumulation persisting into the present, even where it’s not characterized by brute force.

Glen Couthard

These different reproductive elements always exist simultaneously. This is one aspect of the book that I wish I would’ve expressed clearer. For instance, with the 1,200-plus murdered and missing women in Canada, the incredibly violent nature of the settler colonial state is an ongoing feature of indigenous women’s lives which isn’t mediated through recognition in the way that I make the claim in relation to land and governance.

Primitive accumulation’s structural drive to dispossess is always violent. But, in general, when we’re talking about issues of economic participation, governance, and land, it’s now usually mediated first through recognition. When that recognition doesn’t serve the interests of colonial capital, then the hammer comes back down and we see an earlier form of primitive accumulation reemerge.

Even in part eight of Capital, you have the violent expropriation of non-capitalist producers, peasants and so on, but then it moves into chapters on what Marx refers to as terroristic and “bloody legislation” which discipline and condition the working class into their slot in life, the ideological function that the law and the state take on in the reproduction of capitalist social relations.

So if we want to think of recognition as one of those ideological tools, then it’s also conditioning indigenous peoples into a self-understanding that reconciles itself with colonial asymmetries and capitalist accumulation on their territories and ultimately against their best interests as indigenous peoples.

Andrew Bard Epstein

You argue for elevating the colonial relation over the capital relation to understand indigenous struggle. What does such a shift suggest for political tactics?

Glen Couthard

It’s a far better lens through which to understand the dynamics that shape the relationship between indigenous peoples and the settler colonial states like Canada. So again we see dispossession as a constitutive feature of not only of capitalism but the ongoing colonization of this place. The results of that are important for a number of reasons.

After the fur trade in Canada, indigenous labor was not central to the accumulation of capital and the national economy that emerged in the wake of a trade-based economy. What was central, and what has remained central, is the state and industry’s access to land and resources that were previously under the care of self-determining nations — the colonial relationship.

That is not to say that proletarianization and disciplining indigenous peoples within the wage relationship isn’t an ongoing concern or issue for capital and the Canadian state. It always has been. But it’s been viewed with a more distant future in mind. What is immediate, though, has been the land base and the resource base that constitutes the territory of the state itself.

This understanding situates land-based direct action in a more revolutionary position than has otherwise been told by the socialist left in Canada. We still have this understanding that the real transformative work and organizing in left politics emerges in the cities or among the working class. I think in settler-colonial political economies like Canada, which is still very much based off the extraction and exploitation of natural resources, indigenous land-based direct action is positioned in a very crucial and important place for radical social change.

Andrew Bard Epstein

How would you characterize the relationship between the socialist/labor left and First Nations in Canada today?

Glen Couthard

It’s getting better because of the headway anticolonial indigenous struggle has made over the last couple years, particularly with Idle No More, and understanding now, more than ever in the past, that Canada has returned to an economic strategy based on devouring everything under our feet, the land base. It really positions indigenous peoples as important revolutionary actors.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that Canada likes to make claims that its resource base and its extractivist impulses are important because it draws our economic dependency away from more hostile places in the world: dirty oil, blood diamonds, all of these sorts of things. In doing so it tries to present the devouring of our land base here as an ethical response to hostile geopolitics.

Second, with the hegemonization of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 80s, we’ve seen a decline in Canada’s manufacturing sector, having been offloaded as it has been elsewhere to the Global South, where there’s cheaper labor and less labor protections.

If you have a decline in the manufacturing base and you have this geopolitical rationale for exploiting domestic resources in a more aggressive way, and that’s what your political economy is based on, then it seems to me that those communities that are willing to put their bodies on the line in order to block or impede that political economic drive are really important to any radical transformation of the state and economy itself.

Now, I’m not saying we disregard the importance of class struggle. I’m just situating class struggle alongside, in a more thorough way, the anticolonial efforts of indigenous peoples that are often grounded in a defense of land and a way of life.

Andrew Bard Epstein

Politics organized around culture or identity are often criticized for distracting from the more urgent task of economic redistribution.

Yet historically, you argue, indigenous demands for cultural autonomy has explicitly questioned capitalist social relations and state power. What happened?

Glen Couthard

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.

Andrew Bard Epstein

It sounds like you don’t accept Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology.

Glen Couthard

I wholeheartedly and unrepentantly do not accept his apology or the vacuous gestures of reconciliation that have come in its wake.

Andrew Bard Epstein

Why was that apology so problematic in your view?

Glen Couthard

The apology and its associated apparatus, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the whole discourse of reconciliation itself, is based on this distinction in history where the crimes of the past are no longer in operation, and what we’re now dealing with is just a bunch of wounded, injured native subjects. We’re hurt, we haven’t gained closure, we’re stuck in the past, we need to be able to reconcile and move on, to forgive.

In such a context, holding onto some of the harms that are identified in the reconciliation discourse, like anger, resentment, fantasies, and desires for revenge, are a cathartic indication of the ongoing and persistent character of settler colonialism and therefore are rational and ought to be embraced as a form of critical consciousness. They also produce results in direct action and a willingness to struggle against colonial injustices that are still very much present in our lives.

Andrew Bard Epstein

Demonstrations against the police murders of Eric Garner and Mike Brown in recent months have adopted tactics that, to me at least, seem reminiscent of some indigenous practices in Canada: the seizing and blocking, if only temporarily, of major public infrastructure, for instance.

Do you see connections in these struggles?

Glen Couthard

The blocking tactic, the impeding of critical infrastructure and flows of capital through that tactic is an important one, but more so, I think the expressions of anger and outrage and resentment towards a state that is profoundly violent, colonial and racist is really where I see the relationship.

In Red Skin, White Masks I tease out the importance of the role of these negative emotions in generating radical politics and movements. That chapter of the book on rage and resentment is the one I get challenged on the most. Anger and resentment is usually seen in a negative light, as being debilitating and pacifying and self-destructive. I’ve always thought that that’s a misrepresentation of the rage and resentment of colonized and oppressed peoples.

Right now we’re seeing a real antidote to that form of representation by the forms of outrage that are based on this deep love of community and love of the self that is being violated through state-sanctioned white supremacist and colonial murder. It’s exploding all over America, as it did in Canada a couple years ago with Idle No More — as it should be now over the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls.

These violences are unmasking that originary violence that Marx referred to as primitive accumulation. It’s showing, through blood and fire, its original tactics in order to reproduce our colonial and deeply racialized present. I do see that there’s a lot of overlap and really interesting points of connection that I think need to be nourished and established, a politics of authentic decolonial solidarity.

Andrew Bard Epstein

The fight to prevent the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline appears to becoming to a head. Your people have been fighting pipelines for decades. Any advice?

Glen Couthard

My one concern and my one insistence is that this not be framed as simply an environmental issue but one of decolonization and framed through the lens of indigenous sovereignty. It’s too easy for environmentalists to play their ally card in a very instrumental way. A decolonial frame of analysis is needed, where you demonstrate how central indigenous peoples’ struggles are to blocking these types of reckless development projects and also the alternative cultural bases that can emerge in their wake.

Reinstating indigenous social relations of authority and power over those territories that are being expropriated and devoured by extractivist industries and in relation to settler communities is crucial. That vision requires a form of solidarity that’s substantive and not instrumental. It requires a solidarity that’s organized around indigenous peoples’ relational understandings of land, autonomy, and sovereignty.

Andrew Bard Epstein

At the conclusion of Red Skin, White Masks, you articulate five theses on indigenous resurgence and decolonization, some of which we’ve touched on.

What we haven’t is your fourth premise, the necessity of gender justice in decolonization and combating what you call the “misogyny of settler-colonial misrecognition.”

Glen Couthard

On this point, I owe many insights that I’ve gained on the hetero-patriarchal nature of settler colonial dispossession to the actual women who have lead the struggle against this. So the “settler colonial misogyny” that you reference, for instance, is an insight I derive from my Anishinaabe feminist colleague Dory Nason.

You can no longer make a case for decolonization that isn’t based on a simultaneous commitment to end sexism and gendered violence in our communities because that’s how colonialism has operated historically and continues to do so today.

Historically, male-dominated struggles have tended to prioritize sovereignty and sideline indigenous “women’s issues” as something that may or may not be dealt with later, or may even be remedied simply by gaining sovereignty. That’s insufficient and reproduces the violence indigenous women and girls face in society today, both at the hands of the state and non-indigenous populations, and now at the hands of indigenous men as well.

Andrew Bard Epstein

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Wretched of the Earth, he reminds European readers, “It often talks about you, but never to you.” Your book speaks about settlers. Does it speak to settlers?

Glen Couthard

It speaks both to indigenous people and to the settler community. I like to think of it as a conversation among indigenous peoples who are fed up with all the false promises that the state has offered us, but also fed up with those people in our communities and within leadership that have bought into that colonial game to the detriment of our health and the land.

It’s also a treatise on how the Left, in particular, needs to take these struggles more seriously, needs to recognize the revolutionary potential and subjectivity of indigenous peoples and find better ways to support that, for us to support each other. A lot of the Left’s position has been structured around a reclamation of commons. All of these framings really occur on a colonial base that is often left uninterrogated.

As Sartre and Fanon were doing, I’m talking to and amongst the colonized, but also trying to convince the Left to take these issues more seriously and therefore end their often unwitting complicity in the ongoing dispossession of indigenous lands and forms of life.