You are here

The politics of colonial inquests and inquiries

Jesse McLaren

February 10, 2016

As we shift from a Harper government that denied Canada’s history of colonialism to a Trudeau government that has launched an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, Sherene Razack’s new book is a must-read to navigate the changing tactics of the Canadian state and support ongoing resistance.

Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody examines investigations in BC and Saskatchewan that the state only granted because Indigenous communities demanded them for years, but that were turned into justifications for ongoing colonialism. Writing an academic book in an accessible style, Razack exposes the colonial violence that inquests and inquiries ignore—which doom recommendations to be repeatedly made and ignored until the material basis of colonialism is confronted.

Colonizing land and bodies

Leaving the statistics until the end, Razack highlights the lives of Indigenous people who have died in custody. Paul Alphonse, a residential school survivor, died with broken ribs and a boot print on his chest but his cause of death was listed as pneumonia and alcohol withdrawl. Frank Paul froze to death in an alley way after being dropped off by police, and was dismissed as an alcoholic. Anthany Dawson died white being forcibly restrained by police but his cause of death was medicalized as “excited delirium” and a genetic mutation. Katie Ross, whose family called police and brought her to hospital after being shot, died from the wound after medical personnel failed to properly examine her and instead diagnosed her as anxious. Neil Stonechild and others froze to death after police dumped them outside Saskatoon.

As Razack describes, these deaths are not accidental but are the result of ongoing colonialism. As part of its project to colonize Indigenous land, the Canadian settler state marks Indigenous bodies as a frontier to be policed, bodies that are pathologized as only responding to force and whose deaths are dismissed as symptoms of a dying race. If homeless people in general are subject to constant regulation and police harassment to purge them from public space, there’s a specific colonial drive to police Indigenous bodies in order to continually dispossess them of their land.

The contradiction of inquiries

In all these cases of deaths in custody, the families and broader community fought for years to bring justice, forcing the state to announce an inquiry. Drawing on historical inquiries from India to Canada, Razack exposes their contradictions—which acknowledge violence towards Indigenous peoples but try to blame them rather than the colonial state: “They work hard to suture the ruptures that have given rise to them in the first place. That is to say, inquiries must resolve the contradiction between rescuing Natives and suppressing the evidence of settler and police violence towards people who are assume to be less than human…An inquiry is also a site of anxiety, the stage for a restless and uneven performance of empire. British colonial inquiries into Indian indentureship revealed a constant anxiety around the freedom of colonized populations.”

To resolve this contradiction, inquiries present Indigenous peoples as pathologically weak and vulnerable—as opposed to oppressed and colonized—thereby masking the state’s ongoing violence and presenting it a benevolent: “The inquest or the inquiry is tailor-made to present both the story of the disappearance of a race and the story of white settlers assisting Indigenous people into modernity. They occupy a specific site in colonial law, one devoted to that most quintessential of colonial activities: the improvement of the colonized, or, in an old phrase, the civilizing mission… The disappearance of the Native is often and paradoxically accomplished through a gesture of inclusion, the moment when the settler state announces that it has not forgotten its Indians and means to assist them into modernity…Rescue displaces the fact of colonial violence and pre-empts discourses of land rights, heritage, and culture.””

Razack summaries the typical narrative of inquiries: “First, the violence of colonialism, considered safely in the past, is recognized, although it is often described not as violence but as misjudgment. Second, Indigenous peoples are considered to have been deeply damaged and rendered dependent on colonialism. Third, the police and others respond to the damaged populations they deal with professionally, but also inefficiently and arrogantly. Fourth, Indigenous peoples have to be helped to recover from colonization, and the police have to be more culturally sensitive as they assist them to do so. Under this scenario, colonialism becomes something that happened to Indigenous peoples, in much the same way that small pox decimated the Shuswap, through no direct fault of the colonizers. Colonization is not understood as something that also produces white settlers and their entitlement to the land, and the most settlers can be guilty of is not understanding the historical situation in which they haplessly wandered. What this narrative leaves out, of course, is ongoing settler violence and its source in an ongoing white supremacist colonial project.”

The result of inquests that ignore colonialism is that they simply repeat it, as Razack highlights: “Ross’s death and the subsequent inquest was a wastershed moment that brought the development of a First Nations Health Liaison Program. The inquest identified a serious communications issue between First Nations people and police and hospital personnel, and it recommended the development of the liaison program and cross-cultural training. The latter never got off the ground, and the liaison program took ten years before it was funded in 1999, one year before Paul Alphonse met his death in the same hospital. It was defunded two years later.”

Medicalizing colonial violence

Central to the displacement of blame from the colonial state is the medicalization of Indigenous death. If addiction in general is decontextualized and blamed on individual weakness, in the colonial context this serves to ignore the legacy of residential schools and distract from ongoing poverty and police violence: “Medical knowledge production is key to the end result of attributing death to Indigenous pathological frailty rather than to police brutality…Inquests begin from the premise that police force is necessary, and participate in the naturalization of practices of extreme force through the production of the Indigenous body as a body that only extreme force can control…The inquest transforms the colonial condition into a medial one, legitimizing the violence that is performed at the police station, on the streets, and in the hospital, wherever settlers encounter Indigenous people and demarcate between the human and less than human through acts of violence described as help.”

Paul Alphonse survived residential school only to die with broken ribs and a boot mark on his chest. But through the inquiry into his death the role of colonial violence on Indigenous bodies—including problems with alcohol that are rooted in colonialism—was replaced with the challenges he posed as an alcoholic. As Razack summarizes, “The inquiry legitimizes settler colonialism and produces settlers as caring, civilized, and modern, persons with the moral authority and knowledge to save Indigenous peoples from themselves. Indigenous suffering becomes something non-Indigenous people will ameliorate, and public discourse shifts from land claims to rescue. At the inquiry’s end, a metaphorical genocide is accomplished. There are no ‘Indians’ left, only alcoholics.”

Sensitivity training vs anti-colonial struggle

As Razack highlights, recommendations often reduce a colonial relationship to mere cultural differences, where notions of Indigenous culture are narrowly defined and removed from rights to the land: “There is hardly an inquest or inquiry that does not include a recommendation for cultural sensitivity training for white and non-Indigenous polite officers…The question Why don’t things change?, is a question that requires us to reconsider whether the problem really is simply one of cultural misunderstanding. If constables Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger, the two police officers who drove Neil Stonechild to the outskirts of town where he froze to death, had a better understanding of Indigenous cultures, would they have done what they did?...Colonialism, as an ongoing material project entailing the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, produces, even as it relies upon, the notion of humanity and sub-humanity that circulates throughout the cases discussed in this book.”

Like Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, by Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, Dying From Improvement is essential reading to understand colonialism’s tactical variations and ongoing resistance. The campaign for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women has outlasted the Harper government and pushed the Trudeau government to announce an inquiry, and there are ongoing demands for the inquiry to involve the families themselves and address the systemic factors driving colonial violence. 

As Razack concludes: “If we start with the reality of an ongoing colonialism, we can better reflect on the inhumanity that such a project requires. Then an only then will we be able to reject the fantasy of settler civility and refuse the game of improvement. Instead, we can work for Indigenous sovereignty and towards the relations of respect it necessarily installs. To develop relationships of genuine reciprocity with Indigenous peoples, we non-Indigenous peoples must embark on this anti-colonial journey.”

Join the February 14 Women’s Memorial March in cities across the country

Geo Tags: 

Featured Event



Visit our YouTube Channel for more videos: Our Youtube Channel
Visit our UStream Channel for live videos: Our Ustream Channel