SFU hosts talk on North American decolonization

Idle No More organizers Danita Nez and Steven Kakinoosit

Idle No More BC organizer talks about the movement and the push for decolonization

By Rachel Braeuer, Michael McDonell, and Daniel Petrovic
Photos by Stephen Hui

This past week, SFU was host to a talk with Steven Standing Wolfpaw Kakinoosit, one of the founding members of Idle No More BC. Organized by Left Alternative, an action group at SFPIRG, Kakinoosit was part of a “Beyond Ownership: Continuing North American Decolonization” event aimed at raising awareness of decolonization, speaking to its ties with the Idle No More movement.

Kakinoosit is Woodland Cree from the Suckercreek First Nation in Alberta, born and raised in Prince George, BC. As an Indigenous and human rights activist who has been working with Idle No More in BC since its fruition, he has organized, spoken, and taught communities about the movement on the local, national, and international level.

Tracing the beginnings of Idle No More to events in July 2012, fueled by a group of four women in Saskatchewan, the moment that really got the ball rolling for Kakinoosit is when over 150 chiefs were denied their treaty rights to be present at the debates preceding a decision on Bill C-45. The bill, when passed, reduced the number of federally protected waterways in Canada.

For Kakinoosit, a move away from the often ignored treaties is an important step towards decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty; regrettably, with the passing of Bill C-45 and C-38, the treaties are one of the few legal documents remaining that protect traditional Indigenous lands.

Decolonization is, by definition, the dismantling and undoing of colonialism. In Canada, the 11 numbered treaties originally began as agreements between the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the reigning monarch of Canada. The responsibility on Canada’s end has since been transfered to be that of the government acting on the Crown’s behalf, but the existence of the treaties refers specifically to a colonial past.

While the treaty system is intended to provide a system for equitable redistribution of assets, Kakinoosit asserts that this has not been the case. “We signed [the treaties] as one nation to another,” he stated. “And that hasn’t been respected.”

Decolonization is an old idea, with roots that can be traced back to the 13 colonies revolting against the United Kingdon. This movement has gained impetus within the last century; India, Pakistan, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, and Iceland (to name a few) have all fought for and achieved independence from their colonizers. Though sometimes a difficult concept for some to imagine in a Canadian context, there is a historical precedent set, given its own independence from Great Britain.

The biggest problem according to Kakinoosit lies not in decolonization itself, but rather in the process of rebuilding something that would follow. “The real job is when we start applying the lessons that we’ve learned from taking the oppressor out, because there are lessons to be learned from our oppressor: what to do and what not to do,” he said.

Kakinoosit is a self-described traditionalist, and pointed out that decision making methods before colonization were sometimes more democratic than present systems that leave communities stuck in a space somewhere between traditional and colonial. He urged Indigenous people to return to their traditional systems of governance, a right protected by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The chief and council system is not our traditional governing system, regardless of what anyone will say,” he contended. Kakinoosit also argued that the imposition of the system is not only part of the reason why there is a rural urban divide in the Indigenous community generally, but also why the democratic process on reserves is questionable at best.

“When you set up a majority rule on reservations, what you find is that it ends up being a name game . . . it’s nepotism,” he explained. In a traditional clan system, such as was used in Kakinoosit’s Cree nation, Okama, or hereditary leaders — male or female — were selected by clan mothers based on who had the best interests of the community at heart. If they ever lost the respect of the community, they would no longer be considered a leader.

“It’s difficult to imagine,” offered Kakinoosit, who alleged that under this system, there would be no leaders in Canada.

Kakinoosit spoke about how the reservation system itself sets up divides between on-reserve and off-reserve Indigenous communities, creating urban ghettos where a large majority of Indigenous people live. He cites one of the responsibilities of Idle No More as bringing off-reserve Indigenous people back into the conversation in the push for decolonization.

Above all, a respect for and inclusion of a multitude of voices, Indigenous or not, within the movement was articulated, with a stipulation. “We want to make clear that it is paramount that we [Indigenous people] lead this movement,” says Kakinoosit, who referenced other moments in history where Indigenous activism has been written off as communities responding to “outside agitation” from non-Indigenous groups, maintaining that “we need our allies.”

Kakinoosit ended the evening by describing moments where ethnic and cultural differences fall to the wayside in Canada, such as when Sidney Crosby scored the goal in overtime during the Canada vs. America 2010 winter Olympics hockey game. “If we could capture that moment again, that would speed up the whole process of decolonization like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.