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Yellowknives Dene scholar on the ‘critical history’ of community’s self-determination

May 21, 2024

Dene self-determination is part of a global decolonization movement, says Glen Coulthard 

Greg Coulthard
In his Jackman Humanities Institute lecture, Yellowknives Dene Nation activist and scholar Greg Coulthard explores the international cultural, political, and economic context for the Dene struggle over land and self-determination. (Courtesy of Jackman Humanities, U of T)

Ideas, 53:59 – How global liberation efforts helped shape the Dene fight for self-determination

Click on the following link to listen to Ideas:

CBC News: CBC Radio – In the mid-20th century, a powerful exchange of ideas took place — between the Dene in Canada and communities of colour throughout the developing world.

“Like many radicalized communities of colour during this period, the Dene moulded and adopted the insights they gleaned from these struggles, articulated them with their own traditions of travel and exchange, and in doing so, formed their own unique critiques of capitalism and internal colonialism at home,” said Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard.

“This is a critical history to retell, given the demands of solidarity that unravelling our colonial present requires,” Coulthard told the audience as he delivered this year’s Jackman Humanities Institute annual lecture entitled, For the Land: Dene Self-Determination Struggles in an International Context.  

IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed joined Coulthard onstage after his lecture at Innis Town Hall in Toronto to talk about situating the Indigenous self-determination movement in an international context.

Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

Could you expand a little bit more about how you think viewing the Indigenous struggle for self-determination through a global lens might change the conversation with the state here in Canada? 

Well, part of the operating logic of colonial power has been to render Indigenous peoples’ [problems as] domestic problems instead of international ones. We’ve been excluded from the realm of decolonization efforts that expanded across the Third World from the 1960s onwards. And we’ve been excluded because we were represented in a colonial imaginary as non-political, non-land-owning. So to show that that domestication was a colonial strategy is a very important effort in a process of epistemic, at least, — decolonization — resulting in a more material sort of form. This is still the case, although done in a more tricky language.

So you see the movement, for instance, in the reconciliation discourse of the Canadian state. In B.C., reconciliation has been domesticated to inform, or supposedly inform, the policies of the B.C. government. Even my university has looked at domesticating the concept of reconciliation. 

Now, all of this is a means of taking our claims legitimately out of the realm of international actors, and to say: ‘Don’t worry, these institutions, these levels of government, will effectively take over responsibility — through constitutional recognition, through courts — for interests that pertain to Indigenous peoples. So it’s a form of domestication that has been central to the establishment of the state itself, since as long as Indigenous peoples have had to contend with its power. 

Can you speak to how important engagement is with other struggles for self-determination? How important was it back in the 60s and 70s compared to what it is today?    

The pessimist in me would say that it more informed the politics and ethics of Indigenous struggles back then. Whether or not that’s actually the case, I don’t know. But I would say that the commodification of Indigenous peoples’ lands through state policies like the Comprehensive Land Claims policy, create Indigenous peoples in an idiom of private property as owners to the exclusion of others. 

This has had a long-term effect on our communities in terms of articulating our claims as ‘this is ours’ versus ‘we’re kind of struggling in this together.’ 

The whole apparatus of land claims makes you draw a sharp distinction between what is now yours as a possession, to the exclusion of others. So I think that there are reasons to believe that the ethic of reciprocity that stems from — and for — the land has taken a hit through our colonial engagements with the state. 

But this is also not a total situation.

I was going to talk about this in the talk, but time kind of prohibited me. In the late 1990s, George Blondin, who was a very, very influential and important elder from the Sahtu and Tlicho regions, wanted to organize a trip to Japan for the commemoration of the bombing of Nagasaki in Hiroshima. This is because unbeknownst to the people of Deline, they were central in extracting minerals from the Port Radium mine that were secretly being transported down the Mackenzie River to construct the bombs that eventually decimated those two cities. And there are prophecies about this in the Deline community.

George Blondin
George Blondin was a highly-respected Dene Elder, who was born in the Northwest Territories. His many accomplishments include working as a wilderness guide, writer, miner, and trapper, as well as serving as vice president of the Dene Nation. His 1997 book Yamoria the Law Maker is a collection of stories focusing on Yamoria, the great medicine man. (NeWest Press)

But the people that went on this delegation found that it was important to show up and apologize for this act of extreme violence because it was their land that contributed to it, and for that matter, their labour that contributed to it – unbeknownst to them. 

And then following this delegation, which was very successful, the powers that be — again, from the state or even maybe the Deline Land Corp, I’m not sure — made that gesture of solidarity stop because of the exploration of certain minerals and, again, uranium on their territory. So it wasn’t the proper PR. This is to show how these longstanding traditions of travel, this relational concept of land, created ethical obligations — or political obligations — that extend well beyond the territory in question.

In your talk, you referenced the minister at the time  talking about the Dene Declaration and saying that any Grade 10 student could have written it in 15 minutes. I wonder if you could draw a line between that kind of thinking and whether that kind of thinking still exists in a different form (now). 

Yeah. Canadian society is steeped in white supremacy and racism of that sort. I was asked to comment on a policy analysis that is filled with that sort of analysis where we’re apolitical people; we’re just reactionary; we’re drawing on the inspiration of eco-terrorists’ vernacular; to discredit our claims.

They saw us as politically undeveloped, as nonpolitical beings that just roamed the earth, and struggled to survive and that we couldn’t have such left-wing inclinations unless we were under the sway of our white saviour, sort of thing. 

We did use experts in order to articulate certain aspects of our claim, particularly in the legal field, but what sort of right-thinking person who’s trying to get something done wouldn’t hire experts outside of one’s expertise?  

Do you think you’ve lived up to the message or the information you wanted to impart both to Indigenous people, but also to Canadians about the importance  not just then but now  of solidarity with the Indigenous struggle for self-determination?

I think [with] this project — both as an academic but also an activist — I’m less concerned with what a non-native or more particularly white Canadian has to say about this stuff.  I want to get at the relationships that I think are profoundly transformative and generative, which has been with other peoples of struggle, fighting against institutions and structural injustices. So that’s what I want to show.

Listen to the full conversation and Glen Coulthard’s lecture by downloading the IDEAS podcast.

*Q&A was edited for clarity and length.This episode was produced by Annie Bender.