Reckonings and Re-imaginings: Confronting the legacy of colonialism and envisioning a more equitable future

June 9, 2023
Eric J. Van Giessen

By Eric J. Van Giessen, PhD Student in Sociology at York University

Throughout history, the currents of societal change have always held the potential for destruction and rebirth. Examining the path to reconciliation, decolonization, and envisioning an equitable society necessitates confronting and reckoning the legacies of colonialism, misogyny, and white supremacy in our academic institutions and beyond. Joyce Green, Gina Starblanket, Rinaldo Walcott, and Christina Sharpe opened the Congress 2023 Big Thinking series with a panel discussion on what their “respective intellectual traditions have to offer in terms of theorizing the conditions of possibility for change” (Starblanket). This panel discussion set the stage for Congress 2023 and profoundly reflected on our collective past and future. 

“The brutal facts of colonization have damaged Indigenous peoples, territories, and cultures — irreparably in some cases. The assumptions, interests, cosmologies, institutional structures, and practices of the settler state have encoded erasures of Indigenous peoples and legitimation of colonization of the state and its privileged population. None of this has changed from first contact to today. So I am not optimistic about those non-hierarchical relationships” – Joyce Green. 

Our capacity to imagine the future does not mean our work reckoning with a violent, brutal colonial history is complete. Any glance toward the future necessitates an honest examination of our past. We must consider how our past continues to structure our present. A re-imagination of what could be cannot begin with self-congratulatory or naïve notions regarding the state of what is.  

Joyce Green’s insightful reflections direct us toward the brutal truths of colonization and expose a narrative of systemic, prolonged exploitation and erasure by settler states. She criticizes the continued legitimation of colonization, noting the continuing existence of unequal power relationships between Indigenous peoples and the settler state. According to Green, this ongoing hierarchy of relations harms Indigenous peoples and endangers our collective future. The climate crisis is a crucial site where this danger is tangible. Green argues that our drive for profit, predicated on unsustainable practices, undermines the ecological balance that sustains us. 

“Thanks to the priorities, the presumptions, and the practices of the settler state and its corporate class, all of our futures are made questionable by anthropogenic environmental and climate collapse…As a species, we are destroying our world while ignoring the implacable calculus of Mother Nature.” - Joyce Green. 

The multifaceted marginalization of Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada continues through the selective representation and invocation of these communities. As per Starblanket, Black and Indigenous communities are often invoked to serve the narrative of a “peaceful, reconciling nation,” reinforcing Canada's claims to multiculturalism and inclusion. However, this superficial celebration of diversity often obscures the deep-seated, systemic racial and gender disparities evident in laws that continue to shape policy like the Indian Act. 

“Discursively Black and Indigenous populations are each situated marginally, albeit differently relative to the white settler nation. Indigenous people are selectively invoked insofar as we contribute to Canada's birth, identity, and evolving claims to constituting a peaceful, reconciling nation. Representations of Black people in politics tend to be deployed to legitimize Canada's identity in different ways. By bolstering its claims to equality, diversity and inclusion in the now” - Gina Starblanket 

Starblanket urges us to confront a fundamental critique of “who we are…what we stand for” and always link these questions with “what we want our communities to be.” This process, she suggests, may reveal contradictions in our political postures and aspirations but is crucial for meaningful change. She emphasizes the need for anti-violence strategies and a return to relational modes of being within communities as part of an Indigenous feminist response to state-induced gender and identity struggles. Both Starblanket and Walcott explored the critical role of academic institutions in this journey. They call attention to the pervasive influence of Euro-American frameworks and the importance of challenging these within the academy.  

“By bolstering its claims to equality, diversity and inclusion in the now and too often efforts to engage diverse subjectivities and Academy continue to be over-determined by Western frames and approaches that lead to highly circumscribed understandings of the full range of complexity that exists among us. Notions of what Indigenous and Black people really want or stand for socially and politically continue to be represented all too often relative to whiteness and the settler state.” - Gina Starblanket. 

“The profound crisis of our moment is a crisis of meaning, and if you leave here, hearing me say one thing today, please let it be this. Even inside the university, the crisis of meaning is most acute…The university remains one of the last few bastions where we can confront this remaking of meaning. But it is not the only one.” - Rinaldo Walcott. 

Our institutions can act as transformative spaces for decolonizing knowledge, challenging dominant narratives, and forging new, inclusive paths beyond Euro-American conceptions of identity that work to restrict the agentive becoming of Black and Indigenous peoples and communities.  

Joyce Green concluded the panel with a powerful assertion, reminding us of the commonality of the human condition even amongst our distinct historical and cultural contexts. Echoing Edward Said’s words, “None of us is only one thing,” Green highlights our inherent inclination towards hybridity. The shared human experience, she insists, should inspire understanding, empathy, and solidarity in our pursuit of decolonization and social justice. Her final words marked a compelling course for Congress 2023 and future work in solidarity:  

“I'm always reminded of the late great Edward Said’s observation that “None of us is only one thing.” In other words, we are fundamentally, as human beings, inclining towards the hybridity of genetics, if not always of culture and politics. And I embrace that. I think it is important for us to remember that we have far more in common as human beings than we'd like to assume. Our political projects may be distinctive, depending on our historical and present cultural contexts.  

Still, we should find a common cause as human beings to understand each other's contexts and support each other. To come together in less essentialist ways than the colonial state has constructed for us, including in its constitutional designation of Indians, Inuit and Metis…We have many reasons to be very cautious about the state, which invites me always to point you toward whom the state represents and whom it is most closely allied with. From the point of colonization, for all of us, onward, that has been about a search for profitability, which is always the most exquisite when it includes the stolen wealth of others.” - Joyce Green.