What does it mean to decolonize anthropology in Canada?

This entry is part 14 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Zoe Todd

I have an ambivalent relationship to Anthropology. And an even more ambivalent relationship to the idea of decolonizing it.

I work in Canada. I am from Treaty Six Territory in central Alberta, from a city that bears the nehiyawewin (Plains Cree, Y Dialect) name amiskwaciwâskahikan. I am Métis on my dad’s side of my family, with roots that stretch back to Métis communities throughout present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. I offer this introduction so that you can place who I am, who I am related to, and which territories I am bound to through movement, stories and time. I do so in order to ensure that readers and interlocutors can locate my knowledge in its own complex relationality to the places that I and my ancestors come from and moved through. I also provide this information to foreground the focus of my piece, which is a meditation on the visceral decolonization of the academy – and anthropology—here in Canada.

I had planned to write a post about the challenges of bringing Black and Indigenous scholarship into the classroom and into our published work in Canada, a country convinced of its moral standing and human rights excellence, yet which is regularly and wilfully blind to its vexing colonial violence. But a young nehiyaw (Cree) man, twenty-two year old Colten Boushie from the Red Pheasant First Nation, was shot and killed on a prairie farm in Saskatchewan last week after he and his friends sought help for a flat tire. And everything I think about this weekend as I write this post keeps coming back to this horrific death, and the inter-related realities of Black and Indigenous death at the hands of police and settlers, and the erasure of Black and Indigenous scholarship here in the lands within which we teach anthropology across Canada (and across the border in the United States). And I keep thinking about the logics and structures of academia as ‘white public space’ (Brodkin et al 2011) which produce narratives that normalize and even obscure the life and death of racialized peoples in favour of an undeniably white canon that resuscitates and re-animates white bodies into our classrooms ad nauseum (as Sara Ahmed so succinctly describes here).

I keep thinking: Canada isn’t exempt. Canada isn’t innocent. Scholarship being produced here cannot ignore these realities. The academy here, like the academy elsewhere, is entwined with the political and social orders which create and normalize white supremacist and colonial logics here and abroad.

In other words: we have a lot of work to do.

The visceral public response to Colten’s death has unleashed a torrent of racist, settler-colonial rage which seeks to dehumanize Indigenous lives. And this is no different from the responses so-called ‘polite’ Canadians present in response to the work of Black Lives Matter Toronto, and to the efforts of other communities to address white supremacy here. For all of the rhetoric about Canada being a place for Americans to flee in the event of a Trump presidency, the border does not undo the logics of dispossession and white supremacy. If anything, it just shifts how and where the narrative is expressed.

Colten Boushie’s violent death joins a heartbreaking series of settler colonial/institutional violence here in Canada in 2016. Two weeks ago, the Ottawa police beat Abdirahman Abdi so severely that he died from his injuries. In July, when Black Lives Matter Toronto intervened in the intensely white public space of Toronto Pride, ‘nice white Canadians’ voiced their rage towards the protestors, angry at the ‘inconvenience’ of the protest.

So what does this have to do with decolonizing anthropology? Well, I’d argue that it has everything to do with anthropology, and the fervent need to decolonize anthropology in Canada. Canada, despite its global reputation, is every bit as fraught and colonized as its southern neighbour. The logics of white supremacy and settler colonialism which animate American realities are also present here. Here in Canada, we have a deep responsibility to pay attention to and acknowledge the realities through which our American colleagues are working. We must pay attention to the work that Black, Indigenous and other racialized scholars are doing across territories still reeling from colonial realities.

Put bluntly: if we want to decolonize anthropology in Canada, those of us invested in it need to foster the conditions that make Indigenous scholars and other marginalized scholars to want to be affiliated with it.

And this stretches directly from the classroom to our research to our conferences. As my colleague Aaron Mills frequently reminds me, there is no space outside of our reciprocal relationality to the peoples who make up the territories we inhabit here in Canada. There is no divide between being a scholar and being a citizen. So what happens within our classrooms and our conference halls and within our journals is intimately linked to the things happening within the lands and territories we live and work in.

I don’t think that I have a grand answer to the question of how to, or even whether we can or should, decolonize anthropology in Canada. But, I can offer anecdotes from my efforts to teach anthropology in a decolonial way here in unceded and unsurrendered Algonguin territories in Ottawa, in the hopes that my story may be useful to others working within, alongside and outside the discipline.

The greatest gift in my life right now is the ability and the opportunity to teach. I am thankful to work at a university that places strong emphasis on the role of teaching in our development as scholars and as professors. I am thankful to work with diverse, dynamic, bright and brilliant students. I was nervous about starting my first faculty position last year, precisely because I did not know what to expect in the classroom. Growing up in Alberta, I was used to racist remarks about Indigenous peoples, immigrants and minorities being given a pass in University lectures. I also navigated complex instances of white supremacy and neo-colonial attitudes within British academe. As a white-coded Métis woman, I frequently hear and see what so-called ‘good white people’ really think about Indigenous issues, as I hear the things they say when they think no racialized people are within earshot. So, while I do not experience racism directly, I have witnessed the ways that my racialized family and friends are treated here, and I’ve seen the ugliness that manifests in Canada when white supremacy is challenged. With all of this in mind, I was primed for my courses on Indigenous issues in Canada to be controversial. So, I spent much of the summer before the term began preparing to address racism within the classroom. In order to prepare, I revisited material from my time as a global education assistant at the University of Alberta, and I read the blogs of brilliant colleagues. I prepared to navigate a classroom where white fragility was front and centre.

I was taken by absolute surprise when the students in my first course brought a completely different set of skills and discourses into the classroom. On my very first day of teaching last fall, my first day of teaching as a faculty member, I presented an example of a recent Indigenous issue in Canada. I looked out at the bright eyes of the 30 or so students in the room and I asked them: “what do you think this an example of?”.

I was expecting some tentative, general answers.

To my surprise, a white student raised their hand, and firmly stated: “White supremacy.”

I paused. I turned around, chalk in hand, and wrote their answer on the board, hiding my face from the class because inside, I was in (pleasant) shock. After years of working in the United Kingdom where the gentlest mention of colonialism, or—God forbid—white supremacy, was more likely than not to garner snorts and sighs and stern talkings-to from passive-aggressive white Brits, I was bowled over by my student’s answer. I wasn’t in Britain anymore, that’s for sure.

I was giddy.

This is by no means the norm—I also dealt with anti-Indigenous and anti-Black sentiments in my first year as a prof (sometimes directed at me for ‘ruining anthropology’ by focusing intently on decolonization and Indigenous issues in North America in anthropology courses, as one anonymous student commented). But, the students I taught in that first course were an amazing counterpoint to all of my prior experience. And I am grateful to have worked alongside them in my first year of teaching.

Students bring their stories into the classroom, which shifts and challenges the top-down narrative I was exposed to in pedagogical spaces from my undergrad years. In that first course last fall, students from South Africa and Somalia made brilliant and tangible links between violent colonial realities in Canada and other nations around the globe. Our collective discourse on the logics of colonialism, and the complexity and reach of it, are deeply enriched by the dynamic experiences and scholarship students bring into the classroom. I see the work of decolonizing anthropology in Canada as a collective and communal effort, one which requires us to dismantle the hierarchies which privilege the voices of professors over students, anthropologists over so-called laypersons. It also requires that we tend to the political realities of the places where we are employed.

Anthropology in Canada, therefore, cannot step outside of its entanglement with the colonial logics of the Canadian nation-state. Anthropology departments cannot ignore that they are situated in unceded Indigenous territories. And we, as anthropologists working in Canada, cannot avoid the ongoing struggles of Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities here. Even if our research takes place outside of Canada, we are deeply enmeshed in the relational realities of this place, and the complex and even violent ways that Canada and Canadian society writ large asserts itself. (And Canadian anthropologist Maximillian Forte raises a further provocative point—Canadian anthropology itself can in some ways be considered an outpost of American academic imperialism).

I can discuss provocative and complex topics in my courses because I am surrounded by so many amazing decolonial scholars in Canada who push and challenge and reshape the systems we are embedded within. I am indebted to the work of colleagues and mentors and academic leaders like Eve Tuck, Sarah Hunt, Rinaldo Walcott, Malinda Smith, Jennifer Adese, Vanessa Watts (and so many others!) whose work queries and challenges the epistemic and literal violence of institutions here in Canada. I am also indebted to my colleagues at my current University for being supportive, engaged and encouraging. I know that I am fortunate to do what I do.

But even with the hopefulness I feel as I look out into the classroom and see the bright and brilliant faces of my students, I can’t pretend that we aren’t facing an uphill battle as we try to build an academy that is attentive to, and accountable towards, the very people most deeply impacted by the entangled realities of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and colonialism here.

In the media coverage of Colten’s death (I’m urged by well-meaning white settlers on Twitter to say death, rather than murder, so that I am not sued), in the few positive media portrayals available, journalists note that Colten was planning to head to college. He, like many young people killed by state or colonial violence before him, was on the threshold of his formal engagement with the academy. Colten Boushie’s kokum (grandmother) Verna Denny talked of how smart her grandson was, and his plans to pursue post-secondary education. Often, the lives of these young people are cut short just before they enter the threshold of the institutions we work in, institutions which are scattered across stolen land in Canada and the United States. They are the students we will never have the honour, the gift, of working with. Of learning from. Building stories with. Shifting paradigms with.

In one of the first pieces in this series on Decolonizing Anthropology, Faye Harrison discusses the participatory ethic which she mobilizes in her work. I like to think that bringing this participatory ethic into the classroom is key to efforts to decolonize the discipline (and the academy) here in Canada. Harrison notes:

“I think there is a possibility to ground what we do, to situate the inquiry we do in the real world of people and to decenter ourselves enough so that we can absorb and speak with rather than for whomever– the people, the cultural situation, or whatever. So I think the participatory ethic is how we can find out the most socially responsible way, the most democratizing, decolonial way to enact it; it means people are more than variables on a survey. It’s based on an intensive commitment of time.”

To me, the participatory ethic Harrison describes immediately invokes the stories which we share inside and outside the classroom. And I think of the stories that we will never hear from those killed by state violence. I think of Colten Boushie’s stories. I think of the stories of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and Korryn Gaines and Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Eric Garner and Abdirahman Abdi and Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku and and… I think of the stories of the 1200 Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Canada. So many stories. Their stories, like the countless stories of every person murdered by colonial white supremacist violence, matter. Their stories are cut short. Viscerally. Our job, as anthropologists and as teachers, is to create the conditions such that these young and old and every-age people can join us in the conversations we have. Can teach us in our classrooms. Can change the very landscape of the discipline with the brilliant things they carry in their hearts and minds and souls.

Our job, as I see it, is to tend to the relationships and stories that animate the territories we live in, work in, and dream within. Our job is to birth not only decolonized disciplines, but to lovingly and firmly foster the conditions of a decolonized ethos in all that we do. Our job is to build community. And, from reading the other posts in this series, I am reassured that this community exists. I hope that I can contribute to it in a meaningful way.

Post-script: this project led by Eve Tuck presents what I see as a hopeful example of decolonizing work, and the participatory ethic that Faye Harrison describes, here in Canada. Tuck and her students have created a podcast entitled ‘the Henceforward’, which “considers relationships between Indigenous Peoples and Black Peoples on Turtle Island. We reconsider the past and reimagine the future, in the Henceforward”. You can listen to the podcast and subscribe to future posts here.



Bio: Zoe Todd is a Michif/Red River Métis scholar from Treaty Six territory in Alberta, Canada. She is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Carleton University. Her work examines Indigeneity, art, architecture, decolonization and healing in urban contexts. She also studies human-animal relations, colonialism and environmental change in northern Canada.


Series Navigation<< Epistemologies of Equilibrium Must Fall: Thinking beyond the many turns in AnthropologyDecolonization as Care >>
Decolonizing Anthropology

Decolonizing Anthropology is a series edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. To read the introductory essay to the series and see the list of contributors, please follow this link: /2016/04/19/decolonizing-anthropology/

4 thoughts on “What does it mean to decolonize anthropology in Canada?

  1. Thank you for an excellent post, very helpful on a lot of levels. I’m working hard at decolonizing my anthro classes bit my bit; no small task for a “white-coded” (Latina and other) U.S. American scholar teaching in Puerto Rico…literally teaching in the colony, where the very phrase “post-colonial” is a joke. I’m gradually replacing or supplementing many of the “classics” with more work by women, scholars of color and non-U.S./European scholars. I’ve also been completely honest with my students from the start about my biases and shortcomings, both as an individual scholar and in the discipline as a whole. It’s definitely a different context and hard to compare to the mainland U.S. or Canada – but there is a lot to be gained by having these cross-border conversations about how to out our ideals into practice in the classroom. This is a great start.

  2. A delicate moment. A serious question. As an old, white, male, U.S. citizen, who has spent half of his seventy-two years living comfortably in Japan, I cannot experience the pain whose presence informs the posts in this series. I can only try to imagine it. Without that pain to focus my attention, an unwelcome thought enters my mind. Are these efforts to decolonize anthropology reinforcing the binary opposition in which that pain is rooted? With my mind’s eye, I see two figures, the anthropologist as archetype, an arrogant embodiment of imperialism or its modernist avatars — and the Other, poor, marginal, a victim whose pain must be acknowledged and whose suffering addressed.

    Then, however, I remember what I thought was anthropology’s mission, to understand humanity as a whole, a fabric woven of all sorts of human lives. I think of my neighbors, who live in an affluent neighborhood in one of the planet’s most livable cities, heirs of ancestors who were forced to open their country to unwanted foreigners, learned from them, domesticated what they had learned and built their own empire, were defeated in a global war and the target of atomic bombs, came back and built the world’s second largest economy. I think of my friends in Taiwan and their cousins in China, heirs to a civilization that has collapsed and rebuilt itself multiple times and is now emerging once again as a great power. I think, too, of our Croatian and Slovenian colleagues, who organized this year’s meeting of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Dubrovnik, whose anthropology is largely focused on the complexities of their countries’ Balkan neighborhood. I wonder where all of us fit in that binary opposition in which the pain that drives decolonization is rooted.

  3. Dear Evelyn,

    Thank you for this comment! You are right–we have a responsibility to engage cross-border and inter-regional conversations–and I’m so grateful for spaces like this where we can have these conversations. It’s so empowering to hear about how you are working to centre the work of women, scholars of colour and non-US/European scholars in your teaching! And we have a lot to learn, here in Canada, from places outside of mainland US and Canada. best, Zoe

  4. I too enjoyed this post on many levels. I really appreciate the space to discuss these topics, the sense of community-building towards one another, and acknowledging the context surrounding the issues in Canada. I’m a ‘white’-male (and American to boot) who works in CRM (a place rife with colonialism and power imbalance). I work with a First Nations-owned firm and I also teach a few anthropology courses a year in small uni in Vancouver, BC.

    Like you Zoe, I view teaching as public engagement and an opportunity to discuss these issues of privilege, colonialism, and power – problems I’m working my way through – with my students. The classroom is where I can invest and challenge their ideas about issues in BC. Thinking through how to cause change is important for eager young minds that we get to interact with as well as dispel myths: as I often do in my First Nations of BC course, ironically taught by a honkey (i.e., me), which I address on the first day of class, especially my approach and shortcomings. Coming from a place of honesty and sharing my experiences (mistakes and all) to push ourselves to understand the complexities, relationships, and difficulties that exist is critical. But it’s also important to build relationships with young students (and with Indigenous communities), and discuss examples of accountability towards the communities that allow us to work with them to find solutions.

    I appreciate the thoughts you shared on this post and I also value supporting one another, given our varied backgrounds and experiences, to come together and acknowledge the many voices important in working towards decolonizing anthropology. For me, causing internal structural change within CRM is critical given the overwhelmingly imbalance in power, control, and ownership over Indigenous heritage on Indigenous lands by industry and non-Indigenous archaeologists.

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