Postcolonial impulses and northern BC

👤Rob Budde 🕔Jun 01, 2012

Recently, an author with a national reputation questioned what role “postcolonialism” plays in northern BC politics or culture. The term is one that is difficult to translate in a non-academic environment. This is not necessarily a kind of elitism; it just means I’ve spent hours and hours reading about this specialized knowledge and most people have not. A mechanic might say the same about my knowledge of engines (which is—ahem— nil). Because concepts like “postcolonialism” and “postmodernism” have such complicated foundations, they don’t distill easily into soccer-field chitchat. They do, however, have enormous implications in the lives of all northern BC residents.

Postcolonial thought has its genesis in the stark knowledge that the experience of many of the planet’s people has been profoundly shaped by aggressive military and cultural colonialism, like that of the British Empire which expanded across the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries. To respond to that, a school of thought was needed to ‘read’ that experience (much like feminism ‘reads’ representations with attention to gender power relations).

The influence of colonialism on people’s lives is represented in art and literature and comes in many forms, from an orchestrated adherence to a colonial view of a population, to an active resistance, to an overwhelming colonial mentality. For example, we had European writing that (mis)represented various colonized cultures in ways that made it easier to perpetuate injustices against the colonized populations. We also had, and have, indigenous writers working to resist colonial ways and re-establish traditional beliefs and world-views. Reading these tensions gives insight into a variety of power struggles that exist in the various societies. Why is there a tendency to civil war in Africa? Why are India and Pakistan political adversaries? Why are Canadian First Nation reserves so impoverished? How are different cultures and races misrepresented in art and literature?

Postcolonial study grew out of “Commonwealth literature” and “World literature” and, for a time, referred exclusively to ex-colonies like India, African countries, and Caribbean countries. More recently, Canada and Australia have been included in the discussion. Representations of both indigenous and immigrant populations provided more material to study how dominant cultures control and oppress colonized or subsumed identities. Postcolonial studies in the contemporary classroom now encompass a whole range of historical and antiracist topics and read not only classic literary texts but more recent counter-colonial texts and a variety of media.

Postcolonial issues in Canada track the struggle for control over everything from land rights to an individual’s own identity in the midst of corporate media. Much of Canadian identity, both European-derived and indigenous, must navigate this tension. To paraphrase Lee Maracle, a Sto:lo First Nation writer and thinker, European folks have stolen First Nations land and have done nothing to redress that fact.

In northern BC that fact is further complicated in that most of the region is not treatied and, by any international law or judgement, remains in the hands of First Nations. This makes something like the Northern Gateway Pipeline a distinctly postcolonial issue. First Nations across the region have denounced the project and their struggle against the governments and the corporations replays a colonial contact moment that has been repeated over and over for hundreds of years. Studying those moments seems especially timely in the here and now.