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“Decolonization” has become a word that is often cited as a key task for the left. Subsequently, it has been applied to almost every activity imaginable. Countless guides have been written about the need to decolonize your: mind, space, corporate board, bookshelf, lawn, wardrobe, even Thanksgiving. An article has even been titled: “It’s Time to Decolonize the Decolonization Movement”! Depending on the context, it has an effect of making mundane, ordinary tasks sound like radical acts. For example, The Globe and Mail released an article titled “Is it time to decolonize your lawn? where a professor is quoted: “A backyard with a big lawn is like a classroom for colonialism and environmental hostility.” But surely changing the clothes one wears, or how a yard is maintained, is not something which has the power to reverse hundreds of years of colonial oppression. So what does decolonization actually mean? 

Most often, it’s used to describe something abstract or symbolic, like changing how one thinks, your lawn, or your wardrobe. As put it: “Decolonisation is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological and economic freedom.” And further: “Colonisation is more than physical. It is also cultural and psychological in determining whose knowledge is privileged.” This takes all the emphasis away from the political, collective struggle for liberation and places it on an individual, psychological level. Small symbolic actions like buying Indigenous products and modifying the lawn are presented as necessary forms of activism.

In the 1940s decolonization literally meant the evacuation of soldiers and state officials and the end of formal colonial rule of one country over another. The term was used to describe ex-colonies like India that achieved self-governance. That is straightforward enough. After the Second World War, a period of revolution exploded in the colonial world and millions of subjugated people rose up and won their independence by defeating imperialist powers like Britain, France and the United States. But there is a crater-sized gap between a war of national liberation and a “decolonized wardrobe”

A few decades later, revolutionary waves in the 1960s and 1970s took place all around the world, including France in May of 1968, the Italian Hot Autumn, the election of the Socialist Party of Chile under Salvador Allende and many more. Unfortunately, the reformists and Stalinists who led these movements held back the struggle and prevented a full-blown socialist revolution. In time, the working class and oppressed were demobilized, or in the case of Chile, smashed, and the class struggle receded. The defeat of revolutionary movements in the 1970s allowed the pendulum to swing to the right and ushered in the era of Reagan and Thatcher. The left was ideologically in a state of retreat.

In this period, postcolonialism and intellectuals like Edward Said grew more and more influential. Postcolonialism is an offshoot of postmodernism which places an enormous amount of emphasis on subjectivity, arguing that all knowledge is subjective. Postcolonial intellectuals were heavily influenced by the subjectivity of postmodernism and used those methods to write about the culture and psychology of colonized people as a group, often pitted against the colonizers, settlers or simply white people. For example, Said writes: “For any European during the 19th century {in what he could say about the orient} was consequently a racist and imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric.” Painting an entire continent as “ethnocentric” with one brush!

The infiltration of postmodernism into the anti-imperialist struggle detracted from the class struggle, from the disobedience, strikes and revolutions which had won independence and real concessions in the past, and demanded that all effort be placed on a cultural, psychological or even a linguistic struggle against imperialism. Demands for universities to hire more Indigenous professors, or to replace texts studied in schools with ones written by people from the colonized world, became more and more widespread. This is where much of the decolonization movement which exists today comes from. 

On the one hand, there isn’t anything wrong with schools replacing old texts and universities giving different people better jobs, although this certainly stood to benefit the postcolonial academics themselves. But the reality is that diverse hiring practices have absolutely no effect on the real fight against imperialism, and many institutions, corporations and political parties use tokenistic methods like this to give themselves a progressive veneer. Even though Justin Trudeau appointed Mary Simon as the first Indigenous Governor General, he is still presiding over the RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory in service of Coastal GasLink, a pipeline which is part of a $40-billion dollar natural gas project. RBC, the largest bank in Canada, recently boasted about its appointment of an Indigenous woman, Roberta L. Jamieson, to its board of directors. And yet RBC is financially tied up in the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. 

Decolonization has also been interpreted as something more concrete or substantial than symbolic gestures or small changes. In 2012, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang published an essay titled “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, in which they argue that decolonization means: “For social justice movements, like Occupy, to truly aspire to decolonization non-metaphorically, they would impoverish, not enrich, the 99%+ settler population of the United States.” This directy pits Indigenous people against “settlers”. The 99 per cent figure the Occupy movement was referring to is the entire population minus the wealthiest top one per cent. This is mostly referring to the working class, although not in a precise way. 

The cynical conclusion in “Decolonization is not a metaphor” is that the fundamental interests of Indigenous people are opposed to the interests of all non-ndigenous people. But in reality this is not the fundamental division in capitalism. In fact, within the Indigenous community there are Indigenous capitalists who benefit from the exploitation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers. In response to the explosion of the Indigenous movement, the Canadian Liberal government has been hard at work fostering an Indigenous ruling class to co-opt Indigenous leaders and give off an appearance of change. As we explained in August: 

“We have seen this recently in Nova Scotia, with the Clearwater deal, which sold the fishing giant to various Mi’kmaq groups in coalition with the BC company Premium Brands. The federal government loaned the capital and facilitated negotiations to make this deal possible. Then there’s the Calgary-based group “Project Reconciliation” which seeks ‘Indigenous ownership’ over the Trans Mountain pipeline. You also have figures like Harold Calla, the executive chair of the First Nations Financial Management Board and member of board of directors of Trans Mountain, and the late millionaire cigarette tycoon Ken Hill, who have both been elevated as models for Indigenous people to aspire to. 

“None of these things have actually done anything to better conditions for working-class and poor Indigenous people. The employees of Clearwater are going to be exploited regardless of whether or not their bosses are Indigenous. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishery workers are going to continue to have their livelihoods threatened by the commercial giant. Trans Mountain pipeline can only be built in complete violation of the rights and consent of dozens of First Nations, and no amount of ‘Indigenous ownership’ is going to change that. And Ken Hill, supposedly ‘an advocate for Indigenous rights and generous philanthropist,’ lived a life of nearly unbelievable excess while his community suffered in poverty. While he enjoyed $25,000-a-night stays at Los Vegas suites and his $5.58 million car collection, most of his reserve still doesn’t even have access to clean running water.”

Even the tokenistic gestures like racial quotas in universities tend to benefit the most well-off layer of Indigenous people. In most cases, the Indigenous students with the highest grades will come from wealthier families who don’t have to deal with problems of addiction, poverty and a lack of clean drinking water that the poorest Indigenous people deal with. There is class stratification in Indigenous communities, and to achieve real Indigenous liberation, conditions of the working class and poor Indigenous people need to be improved. 

But these issues—poverty, addiction, homelessness—cannot be solved on the basis of impoverishment of the non-Indigenous working class. Ending the boil-water crisis, for example, would cost at least $3.2 billion. Dealing with mould problems on reserves, building infrastructure and creating social programs to deal with addiction would cost significantly more. Working class people are now facing the erosion of their already too-low wages, as inflation in Canada reached 4.4 per cent in September. This means a rapidly increasing cost of living and a loss of real purchasing power. The working class does not have the wealth it would take to tackle the concrete problems Indigenous communities face. But the capitalist class does. Since the pandemic began, Canada’s billionaires have increased their wealth by more than $78 billion. If any group should be impoverished, it’s the ruling class. 

If decolonization is something which would further impoverish the “99 per cent” then it sounds like an aspiration for a humanitarian crisis. Impoverishment of the working class is a bad thing and not a good thing. Throughout North America, poverty, evictions and food insecurity are increasing as capitalism enters further into crisis. Wealth should be expropriated to end poverty on Indigenous communities, but it should be taken from the capitalists who have made a killing during the pandemic off the backs of workers who make barely enough to scrape by. 

The meaning of “decolonization” has transformed over the years, but now it is primarily used as provocative language with little political content, or at worst reactionary and divisive content. This can only have an effect of neutering the struggle, and it renders the word “decolonization” meaningless. Indigenous liberation requires serious political and economic transformation, which can be achieved with a mass movement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers alike, overthrowing capitalism and abolishing the profit motive that drives land encroachments, destructive logging practices and pipelines rammed through traditional lands.