The Colonial Experience

This post is a revised version of an essay I wrote in 1976 to be included in Dene Nation – The Colony Within, edited by Mel Watkins and published by the University of Toronto Press in 1977. The essay is based on evidence I presented to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, now known as the Berger Inquiry, after its Commissioner, Justice Thomas Berger of the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The Inquiry provided an opportunity for the Indigenous Dene Nation to establish the fact that Treaties Eight and Eleven that purported to be land cession agreements were in fact colonial frauds. Instead, they argued before Berger that their interest in their traditional territory was unextinguished and pre-eminent.

The presumption that the largest mega-project in Canadian history at that point (the construction of the Arctic Gas Pipeline, from the Arctic up the Mackenzie Valley, and thence to Southern Canada and beyond) might proceed without the approval of the Dene, whose lands, livelihood and culture were intimately affected, was a brazen example of Canada’s brand of colonialism.

The suggestion that colonialism was not some distant imperial practice, but one active here at home, was received initially as laughable. This essay was intended to encourage Canadians to recognize the pervasiveness of colonial relationships. It used the example of the relationship between the Dene Nation and Canadian settler culture as a case in point, but was also intended to shed light on the nature of relationships of exploitative inequality in late 20th Century capitalism. As such, I believe it remains vitally relevant today as we continue to grapple with those relationships in virtually all spheres of life.

From the foreword:

“A central thesis of this essay is that colonialism infects us all. This is not to suggest an equivalence between the experience of the colonizer and the colonized. To do so would in some cases verge on the obscene. However, it is to suggest that both sides of that relationship stand to benefit from the liberation that challenging it brings. It is that positive potential for growth that should motivate both sides to do the hard work to break out of the bonds that link them in a relationship of exploitation and denial.”

The Colonial Experience

Peter Puxley


Revised from the original chapter of the same name in Dene Nation – the Colony Within, Mel Watkins, editor, University of Toronto Press, 1977


I write this on the fortieth anniversary of the Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, better known to Canadians as the Berger Report (after Justice Thomas Berger who presided over the Inquiry). In an age that seems to prefer to ignore history rather than learn from it, it may seem quixotic to revise a discourse four decades old on the nature of colonialism. However, as I look around me, at the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and, closer to home, at the political incapacity of Canadians to construct governments to address growing inequality and deprivation, despite our ever-increasing wealth and ability to do so, I believe the analysis here to be as relevant as ever.

A central thesis of this essay is that colonialism infects us all. This is not to suggest an equivalence between the experience of the colonizer and the colonized. To do so would in some cases verge on the obscene. However, it is to suggest that both sides of that relationship stand to benefit from the liberation that challenging it brings. It is that positive potential for growth that should motivate both sides to do the hard work to break out of the bonds that link them in a relationship of exploitation and denial.

Also unfashionable today, though that is no reason to regard it as faulty, is an underlying assumption in the essay that our human vocation is to become self-determining individuals, integrated in the sense of aligning our outer selves with our inner essence. The fact that so few of us recognize that purpose, and even fewer strive to achieve it in our lives, does not detract from its truth. Today, we address mental pathologies primarily with drugs. They are effective, increasingly so, insofar as they help us function and live more or less normal lives. But in too many cases, they may pre-empt the search for our authentic selves and breed acquiescence where rebellion might be the truly therapeutic response.

Every relationship presents within it the exciting potential for growth for its members. For example, relationships between men and women have the potential to expose or shed light on the way gendered perceptions distort and blind us to a more accurate and honest grasp of reality. The same can be said, of course, of any relationship of inequality. But it also applies to the very healthiest of relationships among peers. All entail the possibility of raising our consciousness through crediting and embracing the insights of otherness.

Naturally, the potential for growth, for heightened consciousness, must be recognized and valued. But it is not that simple. We resist change because it requires vulnerability and a readiness to give up the old, familiar and comfortable definition of our ego-centred world, and the ego will resist such fundamental change vigourously. Only the benefits of expanding consciousness can fuel a positive attitude to change. Growth is its own reward. We will seek growth in our relationships when we come to recognize and appreciate that being fully human is to accept the challenge of raising our awareness. Growth involves achieving a more accurate grasp on reality. We never “arrive”, but we move one step closer to our authentic self, the person we really are and were meant to be.

What’s more, the failure to take up the challenge of seeking higher consciousness is costly. It involves a flight from responsibility, from adulthood and autonomy, and recourse to neuroses that demonstrate our fear of reality. Consciousness demands that we act differently. If we ignore that demand we simply regress to an earlier less-developed state. Standing still is not an option.

What applies to relationships between individuals extends to relationships between classes of individuals, be they defined by race, culture, nationality, gender, economic class, or whatever. Mass identities become comfortably persistent, even petrified. They can be equally, if not more resistant to challenge and change. Fear of change, when shared by thousands of others, and reinforced by mass media, advertising and capitalist economic propaganda, however benign its intentions, is an enormously powerful adversary.

History often demonstrates that it takes courageous action by individuals, pursuing their own right to consciousness, to expose the truth to others less inclined to rock the boat. The resistance these individuals face comes from not only the community of their oppressors, who ostensibly enjoy the material benefits of the status quo, but also from within their own community of the oppressed. That fact makes  their endeavours all the more courageous and demanding, since it often isolates them from those whose fundamental experience they share. It is a tribute to the generative impact and power of consciousness that they are impelled to persist despite such isolation. Many die in isolation, their contributions to mass awareness recognized posthumously, if ever. Others succeed spectacularly in enlightening not just their own societies, but the world. Nelson Mandela comes to mind.

For Canadians, whose national mythology today justifies a willful continuing mass amnesia concerning the illegitimate claims of our racist origins, the path to growth is through a more accurate perception of reality. And that can only happen by acknowledging the fundamentally inequitable relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, by exploring how it came to be, its deleterious consequences for both sides of the relationship, and acknowledging how its continuation belittles us both.

In what follows, I make no apologies for drawing on our Freudian and Jungian heritage and what it has to suggest about social pathologies, of which colonialism is one manifestation. There is, indeed, something in its eradication for all of us.

There is one other truth, evident to me as a result of my involvement with the Dene struggle for recognition in Canada’s North. It is that Canadians have yet to come to grips with the fact that our country, far from being the product of agreements between two, three, four, or even several nations, is in the end a country based on a racist myth. This year (2017) is also Canada’s 150th anniversary as a confederation. We can be sure that in none of the official literature celebrating the occasion will our racist myth be acknowledged. Instead, the myth continues to justify the theft of this country’s territory from the original peoples of this hemisphere and to ascribe legitimacy to the laws of today that perpetuate that injustice.

Like climate change, though, the fruits of our past will make themselves felt whether we choose to admit the truth or not.

Cherry Hill, NS

August, 2017

The Colonial Experience

True democracies are dynamic entities, evolving but never arriving at some final state. In fact, if a democracy is not evolving, it is regressing. It has been my experience that the struggle for recognition of the Dene, the original people of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and of course, more recently, the struggles of other Indigenous nations in this country, help to clarify the nature of the larger reality all Canadians inhabit and can contribute to the construction of a more authentic democracy for the benefit of all, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

I accept as given that any real change in the situation of the Dene, and by this I mean change that results in a real degree of independence on their part, will demand an accommodation on the other side of the relationship, that is, by those forces now (at the time of writing) exercising almost unlimited authority over Dene life. However, to effect a significant change in this relationship will involve, first of all, understanding it in all its ramifications, both structural and psychological. This is the task facing the Dene and one in which any Canadian has an interest.

If it can be shown that the product of a colonial relationship is dehumanization, then we must assume that the relationship is opposed to the development of not only the colonized but also the colonizer. If human life entails acting out a uniquely human vocation, then the colonial relationship destroys rather than creates life. In this regard, the assumption that so-called “social impact” relates only to the experience of those who are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of colonial projects is incorrect. The social impact can also be detected in the lives of all those who serve this dehumanizing process.

To quote Paulo Freire:

“Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression, is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means. In such a relationship, dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things – the former dehumanized by an excess of power the latter by lack of it. And things cannot love.”

Our unique ability as human beings to develop ourselves is dependent in part on our grasp of reality. It is the conscious action of a person on the world, in Erich Fromm’s words, “as subject and agent of one’s powers”, which is the source of our learning. In this regard, the claim by Arctic Gas (the proponent of a major natural gas pipeline through Dene traditional territory) in its Regional Socio-Economic Impact Statement that the construction of a pipeline would raise the political consciousness of the Dene is ironic to say the least. Consciousness-raising is implicit in true development, a process involving conscious action and reflection. Imposition of the proposed pipeline on the Dene would raise their consciousness in the same sense as a man hit on the head with a hammer by another now knows who his enemy is. The experience is unlikely to be freely chosen despite the benefit!

Colonialism is an experience, and not simply a structural relationship. As such, it conditions both the colonizers and the colonized. A generation or more of Dene has now spent the better part of their lives in colonial institutions, while a colonial system of government is well established down to the community level embracing everything from economic development and education to housing, welfare and settlement councils themselves. This experience has been costly, breeding assumptions of cultural inferiority (or superiority) and eliciting racist analyses by both the white and Dene populations. Only a thorough understanding of the nature of the colonial relationship and its opposition to human development will eliminate this legacy.

Removal of colonial structures and their replacement by independent Dene institutions, equipped with the resources to make them effective will not, in itself, result in the elimination of the psychology of colonialism. This will take longer, and can only take place in a population that has experienced true development at an individual level, and has built into its work processes the ability to reflect on and understand the nature of such experience, so as to make it a permanent feature of its social life.

Many Dene have demonstrated in both the community and formal hearings of the Berger Inquiry the relatively recent, but nevertheless substantial, intrusion on their lives of colonialism. The pipeline applicants have come to certain conclusions on the basis of data drawn from this colonial experience. Even if we were to accept the validity of their data (though highly questionable), we have to recognize that any projection of the Dene future they construct on the basis of a colonized past implies a continuation of that colonialism. The Dene, on the other hand, have made it clear that their colonial experience was not of their choosing, nor can they accept its continuation into their future. The Dene propose a decolonized future supported by the recognition of their political and property rights. What they seek to establish is a process of true development in place of colonial dehumanization.

Development is above all a process of shattering illusions, themselves the product of human relationships. Unless all parties to this debate are prepared to recognize the reality of their own conditioning and then to approach the arguments presented with that in mind, the outcome of both the pipeline debate and the debate over aboriginal rights will be an imposed solution in the colonial tradition.

Who is really bound by tradition?

Reason may be applied to two essentially different purposes.

It may be applied in the continuous elaboration and redefinition of reality as we experience it. Used in this way, reason turns its critical eye on everything. Nothing is given or taken for granted. This is reason in the service of human development. Reason at this level deals with such questions as our nature and purpose and what constitutes the good life.

Reason may be used in quite another way, as a designer or mechanic might use it to improve the workings of a machine whose existence he does not question. Within this limited framework, what is good or bad becomes defined in terms of what satisfies the need of the machine to work effectively and efficiently. The question of whether the machine serves a human purpose need never be addressed if one confines one’s role to that of a mechanic, rather than more broadly as a member of the human race.

A society whose ideological and mythological underpinnings are no longer the object of other than “academic” consideration, while its ideology demands reason merely in the service of efficiency, is a society gone awry from any humanist perspective. Such a society is a prisoner of its ideology, defining its members in terms of their fit with the ideological machine. However much it claims to value individual freedom and enterprise, the truth is that it cannot afford non-conformity.

Describing such a society, the Canadian philosopher, George Grant, had this to say:

The old idea that ‘the truth shall make you free’, that is, the view of reason as the way in which we discover the meaning of our lives and make that meaning our own, has almost disappeared. In place of it we have substituted the idea of reason as a subjective tool, helping us in production, in the guidance of the masses, and in the maintenance of our power against rival empires………I simply wish to emphasize that this philosophy, with its view of reason as an instrument, mirrors the actual life of our continent, in which individual freedom is subordinate to conformity.

Such an account of reason goes so deep into the modern consciousness that any other account is very difficult for a modern man (sic) to understand at all. Therefore, only by constant and relentless reflection on this modern idea can we hope to liberate ourselves from the naïve acceptance of it.

Grant was describing Canada of 1959. His description has become all the more accurate with time. As our technology and advanced capitalist organization increasingly march to the tune of their own imperative, it becomes more and more difficult to accept their demands as reasonable. In fact, the use of the higher order of reason, which assesses reality in terms of human nature, potential and purpose, becomes necessary to all our survival, not just the survival of the Dene.

Viewing the problem of colonialism from this perspective, as an ideological machine which has not only the Dene, but our society as a whole, in its grip, has the effect of turning many colonial ideas on their head. The suggestion that Dene culture is “traditional”, a thing of the past, becomes a joke. To one involved in the Dene struggle to assert their right to survive, it is quite clear that Canadian society and the corporations whose imperatives define our choices are the real “traditionalists”. The Dene challenge proclaims a new future, while oil companies and the federal government keep turning to the past. They are the ones to whom the paternalistic phrase “You cannot go back to your traditional ways”, so often applied to Indigenous peoples, is most fitting.

The process of human development

While both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is man’s (sic) vocation.”  (Freire)

On various occasions, the different parties involved in the debate over proposed pipelines along the Mackenzie Valley have all attested to a desire to ensure that the development of the Dene and preservation of their culture would remain high on their list of priorities should a pipeline be approved. Beyond this, both the government and the oil companies have argued that the project would benefit the Dene despite the latter’s opposition to it, and notwithstanding some acknowledged cost in the realm of social disruption.

Although there has been an ill-informed suggestion at times that the Dene “oppose development”, the expressed concern of the applicants and the government regarding development and the preservation of Dene culture differ little from the objectives expressed by the Dene. However, it is clear that the same words are used by the different parties in very different ways. Can we simply dismiss such confusion as being due to the “subjective” nature of the problem? Can we say it is simply a matter of opinion whether a pipeline will result in the development of the Dene and the continuation of Dene culture?

On the contrary, the meaning of development is, on reflection, quite precise and universally applicable. Uncovering the criteria according to which any change may be judged progressive or developmental, or regressive and dehumanizing, is essential if we are to take the discussion out of the realm of subjectivity where political power rather than reason is free to define the issue.

The term “development” has come to be used very loosely. While the purpose of human life is the development of humankind, the term “development” has mostly lost contact with this human purpose and now refers mainly to quantitative or physical change, regardless of its relationship to human needs. The suggestion by pipeline advocates that the Dene oppose development implies that development is something definable without reference to the needs of the Dene, something with a life of its own! The truth is that no healthy person opposes their own development. By nature, all human beings need and seek to develop. When that urge is frustrated, pathologies of various sorts result.

We develop themselves. We are not developed, or subject to development, by others. The word “development” can only describe that process through which a person develops (grows, evolves, matures). For example, a person cannot, as the saying goes, “develop economically”. A corporation can, a mine can, but a person cannot be regarded as an object in the same sense without destroying what makes them uniquely human.  People, rather than “developing economically”, can meet their material needs in a manner that contributes to their development as human beings or, on the other hand, in a manner which dehumanizes them.

What sets us apart? What is the essence of being human? And of what, therefore, does human development consist?

What makes us unique as humans is our capacity for conscious action on our world – our ability to choose between alternative acts. Unlike the beaver, who for thousands of years has acted on his environment in precisely the same fashion,

a man’s (sic) life cannot ‘be lived’ by repeating the pattern of his species; he must live……Man is the only animal who finds his existence a problem which he has to solve and from which he cannot escape”. (Fromm, 1955)

Unlike the beaver, who exists in what Freire calls a “one dimensional today of which he has no consciousness”, we can perceive ourselves in the context of our own history, shaped by our past, but able to transcend it in the effort to create our future.

Our ability to develop, to become more human, in the sense of acting upon our world with greater efficacy, derives from and is based on our critical capacity – our ability to reflect upon and understand our experience, so as to inform our choices. Critical capacity, in turn, depends on and breeds a sense of self-worth. It derives from a recognition that one’s own experience is the source of understanding the world.

To approach the world critically means to approach the world with human beings as the standard. This involves understanding that it is we who create our own world, and that the act of creation is the human act. Conversely, this involves understanding that our creations cannot be permitted to become larger than we, their creators, controlling us, limiting our choices, demanding that we fit their specifications. That would rob us of our uniquely human capacity to develop ourselves, to make our own history.

The process of human development can be seen as a continuous effort to address the contradiction between one’s idea of reality and one’s experience of reality. To the extent that we cling to one idea of reality and fight any threat to that idea, we become prisoners of our own creation and repress that which is most human in ourselves: our ability to transcend the given.

From this it is implicit that development is an internal process, of “development out of” rather than “development by”. Just as development cannot occur where one idea dominates us and stands between us and a better understanding of reality, so development cannot occur when someone else and their idea dominates us.

The process of human development, then, is a process where informed and conscious action leads to experience which, on critical reflection, leads to a new consciousness which once more expresses itself in action. Action – reflection – consciousness – choice, these are the essential ingredients of being human. Human existence is, hence, a “vocation” in Freire’s words. That vocation can also be seen as the creation and re-creation of ourselves, the record of which is history and the expression of which is culture.

The colonial relationship

At the level of the individual, the essence of the colonial relationship may be understood in those situations where one individual is forced to relate to another on terms unilaterally defined by the other. The relationship is not the result of negotiation, where each individual has a say regarding its purpose. Where a contract exists, it merely states the terms under which one party virtually becomes the property of the other. The attitude of the colonialist to the colonized can best be appreciated as the attitude of the property owner to their property.

Colonial assumptions prevent the colonialist from accepting any move toward real autonomy on the part of the colonized. Any such move is ignored, defined as unacceptable, or reprimanded, depending on the degree of institutionalization of the relationship. For example, the pipeline proponents assume that one issue for the Dene is whether they oppose or adapt to “inevitable” change. This assumption completely ignores the possibility that the Dene do indeed favour change, but in this case, a change in the present colonial relationship which entails their facing, constantly, a future determined by others.

The assumption that change is defined and initiated unilaterally is characteristic of the colonial mentality, natural in the context of the colonial relationship. It is, indeed, the pervading quality of any relationship where one party is used to making decisions for another. It affects the federal government’s approach to Indigenous peoples. In this instance, the Dene are arguing for a change in the historical approach to Aboriginal rights, from the destructive colonial interpretation imposed by the invading society to one which recognizes decolonization as its goal. But the assumption exists much more widely in our society. It is equally characteristic of bureaucratic relationships, both within bureaucracies and between bureaucracies and their so-called clients. All such relationships may be viewed as “over-determined” by their colonial conditioning.

The behaviour of colonized people is prescribed behavior – quite the opposite of what we have defined as the ideal of human existence – conscious action. We have defined human development as a process of action – reflection  – consciousness – choice. The colonial relationship, however, is maintained by replacing human consciousness, which is the awareness of the human vocation of an individual as the subject and creator of their world, with a colonial false-consciousness, and its dehumanized concept of the individual as the object, rather than subject of their world. This has natural concomitants at the social level: racism and the cultural superiority of the colonizer.

False consciousness, or “selective inattention” as R.D, Laing calls it,

as it becomes systematized, is ideology: the system of beliefs by which members of a social group….develop a way of seeing, and interpreting what they see, congruent with what they have come to define as their interests: while denying, or providing no validation – perhaps even no language – for sensations that, if allowed to become perceptions and then ideas, would threaten those interests” (Friedenburg). 

It is this irrational, psychological aspect of colonial relationships which so often escapes our consciousness and which is key to understanding the process of decolonization.

Van Ginkle Associates in a report for the pipeline proponents (Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline) make colonialist change wholly determining:

The devaluation of the currency of the nation, a rise or decline in the price of fur, a favourable or unfavourable shift of the balance of payments, a relevant technological breakthrough – the individual has no more capacity to alter those events than he has to halt the forward progress of a cruising space vehicle. As an individual the Mackenzie Valley inhabitant shares with his fellow citizens of the world an inability to control many of the events which may affect his life. And, equally, he shares an inability to halt change.”

The Van Ginkle report quoted approvingly a remark by Benjamin Disraeli (why Disraeli?!!) to the effect that “change is inevitable”. Nothing more. This mindless platitude, devoid of qualitative content, typifies the fatalism of colonial false-consciousness. A truly human consciousness is critical, and implicit in it is the awareness of choice between humanizing and dehumanizing alternatives. Consciousness devoid of its implications for a person’s ability to humanize (change) their circumstances is meaningless.

The Van Ginkle study went on to suggest that the Dene share with their fellow human beings an inability to exercise control over the changes they experience or will experience in future. Choice it would seem is non-existent. Adaptation is their only vocation. No argument could better represent the choice posed by this pipeline than that put forward by these Darwinists-in-reverse, the Van Ginkles. The choice is quite simply between a future which recognizes the uniquely human possibility of development (action – reflection – consciousness – choice) or a future which condemns human beings to the experience of the beaver. The Van Ginkle argument must be seen for what it is – rationalized dehumanization.

The kind of illogical conclusions these assumptions lead one to may be seen from these further remarks in the VanGinkle study:

The extent and the nature of the impact of any event may also depend upon the manner in which the community adjusts or accommodates – on the resilience of the people and the capacity of the community to turn the resultants of an action to their own advantage….. In the final analysis the impact of any event depends in large measure on the determination to maximize new opportunities. The event, of itself, does not dictate whether advantage or disadvantage will accrue to the people and community; this is dictated by the reaction to the event.”

Could there be a more perfect example of colonial thought, of abdication of responsibility, than the ludicrous suggestion that a community is responsible for the outcome of decisions over which it has no control? One person reading this passage wryly referred to it as the “Hiroshima theory”, according to which those we have come to view as victims of the bomb simply reacted inappropriately!

It is only in a colonial world that such a suggestion could be made. Consciousness is bred of experience. It is natural, therefore, that the colonialist consciousness, bred of a dehumanizing relationship, should exhibit dehumanizing assumptions and conclusions.

While the short-term material interest of those who support the pipeline proponents is served by such rationalization, the long-term interests of these same people as human beings can only be met by a change in the colonial relationship. The efforts of the Dene to decolonize themselves will eventually help humanize those who prepared the Van Ginkle report. This will also be true for the consciousness of Canadians in general, hitherto bred of a dehumanizing relationship with Indigenous people in the country as a whole.

Culture, history and colonialism

Who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past.” (Orwell)

The Dene, the federal government, and the pipeline proponents themselves have all argued that the preservation of Dene culture is important to them. If we are to make sense of such claims we must start with the true meaning of “culture”.

Let us say simply that culture lives in people, not in museums. It is what people do together. The preservation of Dene culture implies, necessarily, recognition of the way the Dene define themselves. Only the Dene can define their culture, and Dene culture is alive today to the extent that the Dene announce their own identity. For this reason, the Dene assertion of their rights is as much a cultural act as making a skin boat or performing a drum dance. Dene culture will exist as long as there are people who define themselves as Dene, and Dene culture will be what they do together.

It is the shared experience from conscious, united action which makes Dene culture a living reality. Anyone who thinks culture is represented simply by artifacts and dying rituals is a prisoner of colonial consciousness. It is characteristic of a colonial relationship that it deprives human beings of their sense of themselves as actors today. Instead, it relegates their identity to a thing of the past. Only consciously active people have a culture and a history that defines them.

To quote Amilcar Cabral:

It is not possible to harmonize the economic and political domination of a people, whatever may be the degree of their social development, with the preservation of their cultural personality.”

And Freire:

There is no history without men (sic) and no history for men; there is only history of men, made by men and in turn making them. It is when……majorities are denied their right to participate in history as subjects that they become dominated and alienated….. to supersede their condition as objects by the status of subjects requires that the people act, as well as reflect, upon the reality to be transformed.”

Colonized people do not act autonomously. They must be satisfied with the illusion of acting through the actions of others. They merely perform a role defined for them in someone else’s game plan. In this sense, they are people without history. Since history is the creation of the consciously active, those whose behaviour is prescribed cannot be said to be making their own history.

Colonialism is, thus, the theft of human history, of the capacity to make history. To understand this is to understand that the first act on the part of a colonized person or group to decolonize themselves is itself a return to the human vocation of making history.

A telling example of colonialism as the negation of history can be found in the erasure of Dene place-names and their replacement by those of the colonialists throughout the Mackenzie District. Faced daily with such crude misnomers as that of the Mackenzie River, the Dene suffer a constant implicit denigration of their own past, and a suggestion that the future is not theirs to announce. Perhaps the most serious example is the negation of thousands of years of democratic experience on the part of the Dene implicit in the presumptuous imposition of alien political institutions.

From all of the above, it should go without saying that the development process outlined as the uniquely human possibility cannot exist in a world where the present and future are determined by forces outside the community, or outside the individuals who compose it. Quite simply, political control, granting us the freedom to negotiate our relationships and the work we choose to do together, is implicit in the process of human development. The ability to reflect on our circumstances is useless if the political capacity to redirect the course of development in our community is absent.

The Dene demand for recognition of political rights is nothing more or less than recognition that this is essential to their own development and the continuation of their culture and history.

Colonial Relations in Bureaucracies

The colonial relationship is not limited to relationships between cultures. It is the pattern of relationships within bureaucracies in general. It is the nature of colonialism to reward those who show a readiness to subsume their own true interest, the development of themselves as autonomous creative human beings, to the requirements of an external purpose. Those who serve give up their human potency in exchange for security and vicarious sharing in the power of the bureaucracy itself, whatever purpose it serves.

Here is how Daniel Ellsberg came to understand the readiness of bureaucracies to serve the purposes of others:

There are two parts to the message they hear: one part is, by yourself, you’re powerless. The other side is : if you join up, you can share in their power, you can plug in. The power will flow through you; at least you’ll be part of it. That double notion has a very great coercive effect in itself. It makes people terrified of the idea of being cut off from that machine. It’s a kind of fear, a social control, that does not merely mean, “I’m going to have trouble finding a job if I lose this one,” or, “What will my friends say?,” but an emotional, vague gut fear, horror at the idea of being cut off…..Those men have a self-image of powerlessness except as loyal servants of the constitution, not of their countrymen, not of humanity, but of the man that hired them. (Turkel, 1973)

What Ellsberg is describing is the dynamics of colonial relationships and as such could be applied with little or no alteration to any number of colonial situations.

Colonialism is not simply a Dene problem; it is everyone’s problem.

The stability of bureaucracy, despite its dehumanizing nature, can only be understood in terms of its ability to remove from those who work within it the sense of responsibility for the purpose to which they contribute. Similarly, the absence of critical consciousness could be understood, first, as essential to the maintenance of an authoritarian structure which exploits the energy of many for the purposes of  few, and second, as essential to the sanity and security of those who seek to avoid the truth of their own responsibility, their own humanity.

Albert Speer, the famous Nazi bureaucrat, had many years in prison to reflect on how he was able to evade responsibility for the purposes he served;

The ordinary party member was being taught that grand policy was much too complex for him to judge it. Consequently, one felt one was being represented, never called upon to take personal responsibility. The whole structure of the system was aimed at preventing conflicts of conscience from even arising.

However, Speer also realized that,

If I was isolated, I determined the degree of my own isolation. If I was ignorant, I ensured my own ignorance. If I did not see, it was because I did not want to see.

The dehumanizing effect of the colonial relationship on those who serve the colonial interest brings home the point that the so-called “social impact” of colonial development affects all those involved, not simply those who oppose colonial interests.

The task of decolonization

The idea of consciousness is more complicated yet. If a colonial relationship conditions and determines the consciousness of those involved, how does decolonization come about? It would be relatively easy to answer that since humans  have the capacity to reflect on the fact of their conditioning they are then able to transcend such conditioning towards liberation. This is, of course, true, but does not account for the reality of the continuation and stability of the colonial relationships which permeate our society. Clearly, relationships of dependency, unhealthy and destructive though they may be to the human beings involved, derive their strength from strong irrational and unconscious impulses on both sides.

In a society where such relationships are the general rule, as in a colonial society, the person who accepts the challenge of their own freedom has to face tremendous loneliness, isolation, and the experience of the outsider. Shouldering responsibility for one’s own self in a bureaucratic world, where institutions chiefly function to relieve people of the burden of responsibility in the name of a higher authority, is a challenge few have the courage to accept. In this context, the Dene assertion of nationhood provides the collective support and the mobilizing idea needed to face the challenge of freedom.

Overemphasis on structural change, while ignoring the intractable, irrational and psychological aspects of dependency, serves only the cause of dehumanization. This is so because the process of development is mystified, and the exploitative relationships continue under a new guise. Such is the nature of neo-colonialism. Perhaps the best examples of this are recent land settlements, like the Alaska Settlement, which have ignored the development process and imposed structures on Aboriginal people totally alien to their experience, such as “development corporations.” Such land settlements are colonialism in a different costume.

It is here that the expectation on the part of the federal government that the Dene should be able to respond, as if to a questionnaire, with a detailed description of a “land claim” so thoroughly misses the point. The Dene have stated their intention to decolonize themselves. They have insisted that a land settlement must make real development, Dene development, a possibility. They are much more realistic than the federal government when they recognize that their first task will be to come to terms with their colonial experience in a long-term effort to rebuild their nation on the principles of non-exploitative development. When the nature of colonialism as a relationship and an experience is fully grasped, the unreality of expecting of a colonized people, overnight, a complete blueprint for their decolonization should be evident.

The first task of the Dene, and one that takes a great deal of time and effort, is to identify and discard colonial conditioning, that element of their identity prescribed by the colonial relationship. Then, armed with a more authentic definition of their interests, the Dene will be in a position to plan the course of their own development.

To quote Erich Fromm once more:

Modern man (sic) lives under the illusion that he knows what he wants, while he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own. Modern man is ready to take great risks when he tries to achieve the aims which are supposed to be “his,” but he is deeply afraid of taking the risk and responsibility of giving himself his own aims. (Fromm, 1941)

What the Dene are setting out to accomplish is no mean task and will entail a struggle within their own community long after the struggle with non-Dene society is resolved. Recognition of the necessity for this struggle is difficult for any Canadians who have not come to terms with the colonial problem in their lives, let alone for those whose short-term interest is served by a continuation of colonial relations. Yet understanding the nature of the Dene rights position depends on an understanding of the colonial relationship and the legacy of conditioning. What the Dene are really demanding is not so much an Aboriginal right, but a human right, the right to undertake decolonization – or as it may be understood in a positive sense, the right to develop.

Colonialism and decolonization: the example of language

The nature of colonialism and the key to decolonization can be elucidated by examining the case of language. In the process of human existence, we put our unique stamp on the world around us. Our culture, at any point, embodying all we create, both in the realm of physical change and in the realm of institutions, ideas, language, exhibits our understanding of ourselves and our world. These products of our conscious activity constitute our vocabulary, broadly defined. Our development derives from our consciousness of this vocabulary and from our efforts to transcend or redefine it in the light of our experience. It stands to reason, then, that for development to occur, this vocabulary must be integral to those concerned. It must be ours. Under colonialism such development is impossible since the terms of the vocabulary are prescribed from without.

A lengthy colonial experience not only deprives people of their right to define their experience authentically, but even deprives them of consciousness of such a right. This explains why so much that is vital to the human experience of development is, under colonialism, defined as the realm of the “other.”

In embarking on a course of development and decolonization, the Dene have begun to reject the prescribed colonial language in favour of terms which fit their experience and new consciousness of their relationship to the world. To describe the world is a human function. We can only describe our world through the use of words we create or “own.” Words do not, of themselves, have this ability. For example, the word “progress” does not describe the same kind of change for all inhabitants of a colonial world. What is considered progress by some may be oppression for others. Words are like tools and must serve the purposes of human beings, and not the reverse. In a colonial relationship between oppressor and oppressed, the same word cannot serve the purposes of both colonialist and colonized since their experiences and interests differ. In the ideal democratic and egalitarian society, the imposition of definitions becomes impossible, while under colonialism the majority have lost their right to “name the world” (Freire).

The act of reasserting one’s right to define the world, as exemplified by the Dene Declaration, is naturally upsetting to those whose short-term interest is served by the continuation of colonial prescription and exploitation. Adverse reactions to the efforts of the Dene to describe their experience in a more authentic terminology must be judged in the light of the disintegration of the colonial relationship. The power of those who are used to naming the world for others is being undermined and the reaction is defensive.

Look at the words, “land claims.” Anyone familiar with the way the Dene (and other Indigenous peoples) view their land would understand that this term in no way characterizes what they conceive of as the struggle for their rights. The term suggests that the federal government in fact holds all the land by right and the Dene wish to claim some of it. Not only does this misrepresent the Dene concept of land, but it totally ignores the element of political rights so vital to the decolonization of the Dene.

Insistence on a colonial definition of the Dene rights struggle precludes the possibility of decolonization through negotiation. Unless the nature of the colonial relationship is grasped at this fundamental level, the Dene will be left with the colonial non-choice of “negotiating the extinguishment of their rights.” “Negotiating the extinguishment of rights” is a phrase which is ludicrous outside the context of a colonial relationship. The Dene at the community level have long struggled with trying to comprehend why, if they have these rights, “negotiation” is even required.

Alexis Arrowmaker, former Chief of the Dogribs, made this quite clear when he said the Dene,

“have their own society in which their relationship to land is crucial. The meaning of ownership is very important to this Indian idea. Cabinet ministers do not understand this Indian concept or the way we see ourselves in relation to this land. They are stuck inside their own society and concept, and they try to impose their view on us. We cannot compromise because it means giving up our concept and accepting theirs. We are not talking only about land, but also about Dene people and how we see ourselves as a group.”

A leadership seeking to decolonize the Dene must define the struggle in only one way – a struggle for recognition. A leadership prepared to accept a neocolonial solution can entertain the concept of “extinguishing rights,” but if they do so they cannot involve their own people in any conscious way in such an exercise. This is so because no one, through negotiation, freely entered, will consciously extinguish their right to be. The colonialist tends to view as unrepresentative any leadership which questions the colonial relationship. However, the only representative leadership, in the sense of representing the interests of the Dene as free human beings, must view decolonization as the issue.

The experience of colonialism is an experience of alienation. The fact that the term “land claims” does not define the Dene conception of their situation (which they conceive as a situation where their rights as a people are being ignored) has more practical implications. As long as the term continues to be used by the Dene themselves they are left in the paradoxical situation of having someone versed in non-Dene concepts define its meaning!

It is not unusual for some Dene to demand of their own leaders that they explain “what land claims is.” The people who ask such advice are not unable to define their own position, but are unable to understand and “own” someone else’s definition. What could be more natural? This is, in a nutshell, the essence of colonialism – a relationship which leaves one side dependent on the other to define the world. An unscrupulous leadership could exploit the situation if it were prepared to accept the colonial definition of the problem. This could be the outcome, of course, if the federal government remains unyielding in its demands that the Dene present a “land claims position” on its terms and refuses to consider seriously what the Dene are really saying.


The Dene cannot afford to take colonialism for granted, nor can anyone. To do so will be to add impetus to an ideological and institutional machine which oppresses and dehumanizes us all.

The connection between the Dene struggle and the problem of development which confronts us all is obvious when we see our development as a problem of overcoming the false-consciousness of alienation. The alienated state is characterized by an acceptance of situations where what is merely a human construction, be it a machine, idea, word, or institution, acquires a power if its own which is exercised against us and the authority of which we accept. The implication of such a situation is that we have lost sight of our power to create and change our world, and that exercising this uniquely human trait is the source of our development.

The kind of land settlement the Dene are talking about not only involves structural recognition of the political right to decide what takes place on Dene land, but also involves a process of decolonization, which is the more arduous and difficult to institute the longer the Dene experience colonialism (and the larger the colonial establishment becomes). The construction of the proposed pipeline, before recognition of the rights of the Dene, is a prime example of colonialism since it will certainly prejudice both the political rights they demand and the process of decolonization, the only process that merits the term “development.”

Perhaps most important of all, the value of examining the nature of the colonial relationship is evident from the light it sheds on the Dene rights or, as some call it, the “land claims” issue. Unless both the colonized and the colonialist take the time to examine how each of their views are conditioned by the colonial relationship they will continue to carry on what has been called “un dialogue de sourds” – a dialogue of the deaf. This so because it is inherent in colonial relations that one side does the talking and the other side is to all intents and purposes presumed to be speechless.


Cabral, Amilcar, Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral (New York, 1973)

Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Ltd., Regional Socio-Economic Impact Statement (1974); Communities of the Mackenzie: Effects of the Hydrocarbon Industry (a study prepared for Arctic Gas by Van Ginkle Associates Ltd., 1975)

Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York, 1972)

Friedenberg, E.Z., Laing (London, 1973)

Fromm, Erich, Escape From Freedom (New York, 1941);  The Sane Society (New York, 1955)

Grant, George, Philosophy in the Mass Age (Toronto, 1959)

Orwell, George, 1984 (London, 1949)

Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich (New York, 1971)

Terkel, Studs, :Servants of the State” (a conversation with Daniel Ellsberg) Harpers (1973)

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

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