Dr. Emma LaRocque on Resistance, Reconciliation, Decolonization, and living a Feminist Métis life in Academia

On October 5, 2017 Dr. Emma LaRocque presented a keynote lecture for the Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies programme at York University. Her lecture, titled “From Resistance to Reconciliation: Ruminations on Decolonization from a Feminist Métis Academic,” was met with much anticipation. Prolific writer, poet, and academic, Dr. LaRocque’s contribution to scholarship on Indigeneity, Native/Indigenous Studies, colonialism, feminism, decolonization, and resistance is widely read and internationally celebrated. The wide and international resonance of LaRocque’s work was evident in the crowd she drew, with scholars and activists from all over the world commenting on the ways her work has been taken up in places such as India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Her work and experience as a Métis woman surviving in the Canadian Prairies resonates for many, especially for other racialized and colonized women.

Dr. LaRocque’s has been in the trenches, resisting colonialism and its effects for decades. She’s done so within academia and was integral to the formation of a Native Studies departments at the University of Manitoba. However, her activism has never been bound to academia. Her first works were published before she began to develop a career as a scholar and she has maintained a strong presence within Native resistance movements. She’s paid a price for her work, frequently being targeted by powerful individuals and organizations who demanded she be fired from her posting at University of Manitoba on more than one occasion.  Her introduction at the lecture told how accomplished she is and the authority with which she speaks.

It is from her position as a seasoned Métis feminist activist that LaRocque delivered her lecture, critiquing Canada’s current obsession with reconciliation following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which wrapped up in December 2015 (to read a summary of the report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, click here).

In particular, LaRocque is concerned with the ways reconciliation is currently being taken up in Canadian discourse. She wonders what reconciliation’s relationship is to decolonization and warns that reconciliation’s is only valuable if it produces and honours justice for Indigenous people, the freedom of Indigenous people, and the Human Rights of Indigenous people. Within the discourse of reconciliation, it is important to foster and protect the legacy and present reality of Indigenous resistance across Turtle Island.

Much of LaRocque’s legacy has been to disrupt “official” historical narratives of Canada and their misrepresentation of Indigenous people. And while she knows that telling the truth about colonialism is integral to Indigenous people’s survival, she is suspicious of the call to “reconcile”—as if there are two equally culpable parties who merely need to “kiss and makeup.” First, such a representation relies on an equality that has never existed. And second, the wrongs committed against Indigenous people in Canada have been direct and specific. It is the government who named and categorized Indigenous people as one monolithic group. However, in reality Indigenous communities are diverse as are their experiences of violence and dispossession in relation to colonialism. Performing heart surgery on a human who has a healthy heart but has a collapsed lung is not only unhelpful, but dangerous. A one-size-fits-all approach to addressing colonialism serves settlers and governments much more than it does Indigenous people. And yet, as LaRocque argues, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report calls for Indigenous people to neatly “put the past behind them.” How easy it would be if, rather than meeting specific wrongs with particular rights, the past could be forgotten. Such an approach to history, as LaRocque said, distorts Canadian experience as well as Indigenous experience. Not only that, it distorts current realities as Indigenous people continue to experience horrific violence all over the country, such as Thunder Bay, Ontario and North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Not to mention the cases in which Indigenous women and girls are disappeared, missing, or murdered—a problem so rampant that an inquiry is underway to study why it keeps happening and almost always with impunity.

LaRocque argued that Indigenous people and settlers do not need to forget the past to move forward. But everything has to change. There will be no reconciliation without justice and the political liberation of Indigenous people. And perhaps reconciliation itself is colonialist, as she pointed out. It rings as a Christian practice in which Indigenous people are mandated to forgive.

While Canada has attempted to name and categorize Indigenous people as a monolithic group, the Truth and Reconciliation Commision individualized and “psychologized” Indigenous people focusing on their hurt and pain as it has been recognized in relation to certain experiences such as residential schools. But as LaRocque shared, public school was a hellish experience for her growing up in northern Alberta. And it continues to be a harrowing and dangerous experience for Indigenous youth who are often forced to leave their communities to live in a settler-dominated place where they can attend school. Why did public school teachers force their Indigenous students to stop speaking Cree, as LaRocque experienced. Why do Indigenous youth encounter racism in the classroom today? Why is violence against Indigenous people rampant in settler communities? “Really, who is the iller of the two, settlers or Indigenous people?,” LaRocque challenged. “Who really needs to be phsychologised?”

In concluding her lecture, Dr. LaRocque asked how resistance can continue under the pressure of reconciliation. While reconciliation feels safe and comforting to some, decolonization is revolutionary and frightening. And whatever decolonization looks like, it can never be determined by colonizers. In response to a question from the audience about what to do with the anger one feels over colonialism, LaRocque said “If you do not find constructive channels for your anger, you will die” and added that being angry is not wrong but necessary and “means you’re paying attention.” For LaRocque, her work has functioned as a life-saving channel. “I would have died,” she said, “had I not had poetry and other ways to express that anger.”

LaRocque’s anger has created lifelines for many. The channels she’s expertly harnessed have brought her to unsuspecting places (if you ever get the chance to hear her tell the story about how she got tenure, do not pass that up). Her resistance and writing will continue to light the way as her work becomes more known. While she has an international audience of scholars and activists around the globe she hopes that her work will gain more attention here at home. “I’m waiting for the historians to find me,” she said. So there you go, historians. It’s time to read some Emma LaRocque.

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