Renowned activist examines impacts of settler-colonialism

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (R) explained the connection between settler-colonialism in America and Canada. - Photo courtesy of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The Institute for the Humanities at SFU hosted one of the most highly anticipated lectures of their fall series on the topic of “Settler-Colonialism and Genocide Policies in North America.”

The Facebook event for the lecture, which took place on Tuesday October 27, had 1,737 positive RSVPs, however the ICBC Concourse at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue was only able to accommodate around 200 people.

“This has got to set something of a record for us,” commented Samir Gandesha, Director of the Institute for the Humanities.

The lecture was delivered by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, retired professor and author from Oklahoma, who spoke to examples of American policies and rhetoric, as the US is her area of expertise. However, she acknowledged that many of her points are transferable to the Canadian context as both countries share similarities in their colonial pasts. 

The title of the lecture series, “State of Emergency,” was drawn from a TED-x talk given by one of their speakers from earlier in the semester, Pam Palmater. Gandesha explained, in light of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, “Professor Palmater drew attention to the fact that, particularly from an Indigenous perspective, Canada was and is in the midst of a ‘State of Emergency.’”

“The most obvious example of this was the previous government’s stubborn refusal to mount an inquiry into Canada’s national disgrace: the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women over the past several decades,” said Gandesha.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s lecture addressed the way settler-colonial policies have and can be portrayed.  “United States government policies and actions related to indigenous peoples, though often termed racist or discriminatory, are rarely depicted as what they are: classic, classic, cases of imperialism and a particular form of colonialism — settler-colonialism.”

She strongly believes the term “genocide” should be used in describing the atrocities inflicted upon North America’s indigenous peoples, discussing the origin, history, and application of the word.

Dunbar-Ortiz explained that all five acts of genocide, as identified in Article II of the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, were committed against the indigenous people.

The acts include “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Explaining the perspective of Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, Dunbar-Ortiz remarked, “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler-colonialism. Land is life, or at least land is necessary for life.”

She argued that the expansionist goals of the settler-colonial forces required violence and the threat of violence to achieve their goal of exterminating the indigenous populations as a people, not just as individuals.

She rebutted a popular argument against the use of the term genocide: “Genocide certainly doesn’t have to be complete to be considered genocide. That’s ridiculous; saying there were ‘too many Indians left,’ 10 per cent of the original population, is ludacris.”

Gandesha explained that “People are [. . .] often confused at why an Institute for the Humanities organizes the kinds of critical events, such as the one this evening, insofar as an Institute that is geared to a Western tradition seems to be deeply complicit in [. . .] the very history of Settler-Colonialism.”

He explained that the Institute aligns itself with a “counter-tradition” within the Western tradition, “that has elaborated a powerful critique of colonization, domination, and exploitation.”