Reflections on Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth in Saskatoon



Whether in Canada or the United States, cities are sites of ongoing Indigenous struggle. They are also sites of ongoing settlement and colonization. We often think of state violence against Indigenous peoples as happening “elsewhere” — primarily in the isolated, rural pockets of poverty we call “reserves” or “reservations.” Your recent book, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention, challenges this assumption. You show that, in cities like Saskatoon, in fact, state violence against Indigenous youth intensifies. Can you talk about why you wrote this book?

JASKIRAN DHILLON: I was really interested in mapping the changing face of settler colonialism primarily from the vantage point of how it relates to the lives of urban Indigenous youth. I focused on how various regimes of intervention, often disguised behind domestic humanitarianism or protective care, can also be read as a contemporary instantiations
of colonial violence that target the lives of Indigenous young people in profound ways. I’ll start by saying a little bit more about a broader political landscape of recognition and reconciliation against which the book is set and then I’ll talk a little bit about the backdrop of settler colonialism in the city and why I chose Saskatoon as a site to undertake the ethnographic research for the book.

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“Idle No More” Candlelight March in Toronto on January 11, 2013. / Photograph by Metrix X.

Canada, like many other settler states has a long history of attempting to manage the “Indian problem” — a history of attempting to eliminate the ongoing presence of Indigenous people on Turtle Island. The Canadian state is preoccupied with thinking about political strategies through which Indigenous people can be contained and confined, and their resistance to the dispossession of their homelands and the ongoing violence against them can be mitigated and suppressed as much as possible. Part of the way this happens is through the broader political landscape of recognition and reconciliation politics which furthers the formal and outward acceptance of Indigenous difference through celebrations of Indigenous culture inclusionary politics that attempt to bring Indigenous peoples into colonial structures of governance. And this of course has a great deal to do with how Indigenous young people are taken up by state institutions. Part of the work of Prairie Rising is problematizing how Indigenous people and organizations becoming enlisted in the work of the state through participatory strategies that are rooted in recognition and reconciliation politics.

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“Idle No More” protest. / Photograph by Jaskiran Dhillon (2013).

In Canada and elsewhere, there are widely circulating statistics about Indigenous young people that consistently portrait them as deficient, as failing, as troubled, as dysfunctional as criminal. There are numerous reports in Canada, and academic research studies that support and portrait Indigenous young people in this light. Another important facet of the book was to be able to contribute to a contextual and critical understanding of the interlocking and overlapping social system that produce these widely quoted statistics around Indigenous young people. In other words, this is not a story without an origin or roots and part of what I wanted to do was to really draw attention to the larger political context in which these young people are living to showcase how their lives are actually mediated and constrained by state institutions in really profound ways.

Which brings us to the city. As you mentioned, many people think about Indigenous people as living on reserves and experiencing life primarily on reservations. That is certainly the case in Indigenous North American too, despite the fact that the majority of Indigenous people in Canada and the United States actually live in cities. Prairie Rising works to locate the city as an Indigenous space as a site of ongoing settler colonial violence but also as a site that Indigenous peoples are claiming as part of their territorial homelands. I attempt to demonstrate how Indigenous young people’s lives, in cities like Saskatoon, are actually greatly impacted by settler state violence taking place in an intensified form. Part of the reason that it happens in this way, I would argue, is because their contact with settler state institutions is heightened in the city where white settlers have a stronghold over urban spaces. In the city, Indigenous young people are not invisible, they are not isolated and relegated in the margins. In the city, they are an active presence. And when you’re present, you’re harder to ignore. Consequently, there is a range of tactics that are being deployed to eliminate Indigenous people from the city, to target Indigenous youth in order to remove and/or contain their presence within the city. Indigenous people, in other words, are not considered of the city: they are considered to be people who are problems for the settler state and need to be contained within the spatial arrangement of the reservations.

In the introduction of the book, I attempt to describe how settler colonialism imprints itself in social and political design of Saskatoon. I attempt to remind the reader about why cities matter and why we should consider cities as the spaces where Indigenous futures are actually being forged and political contestations to settler state violence are being actively developed. I walked the readers through the spatial arrangement of the city and demonstrate how Indigenous people have been confined historically to particular parts of the city and how this geographical containment speaks to the materiality of colonial relations of domination. Indigenous youth move around the city through these various neighborhoods and communities, partly to challenge the spatial politics of the city. I try to showcase what happens when they come up against white settler politics and notions of white fragility and safety.

NE: As a non-Native scholar, how do you position yourself in this work?

JD: That’s a great question. I am the daughter of immigrants, raised on the central plains of Treaty 6 Cree Territory in the province now known as Saskatchewan. I was really fortunate to have been raised by parents who had a politicized understanding of the problematics associated with Canadian nationalism, including the violent relationship between the settler state of Canada and Indigenous people. I was raised with this awareness that the land I had come to know as Canada, and call “home,” had been violently apprehended, seized, and occupied. This critical sensibility developed a bit further when I moved to Saskatoon and began studying at the University of Saskatchewan and then many things followed after. I would say that all of those things cumulatively helped me to begin to understand myself as an anti-colonial scholar of color who is committed to working alongside Indigenous communities in their efforts for political self-determination and the return of their territorial homelands.

Looking at the demographics of Indigenous people in Canada that also meant thinking about how to support Indigenous youth since they comprise the largest demographic, and are being heavily targeted by the state in cities and on reserves. I think that all of us who materially benefit from Indigenous dispossession and the ongoing and pervasive colonial violence that has made countries like Canada and the United States possible have a responsibility to do think about our relationship to Indigenous struggles for freedom and justice. This also means we have to identify concrete ways to respectfully and responsibly engage in this political work.

I also thought about the kind of stories that I wanted to tell and what my particular history and relationship to Saskatchewan, as a person of color settler, might open up in terms of research and writing. There are some stories or narratives that can be told through the vantage point of a non-Native person some that can’t. I knew that being able to illuminate the way that state violence was being enacted against Indigenous youth under the auspices of domestic humanitarianism and the politics of care, and to reveal the insidious dimensions of this violence, was something I was able to do because of my relationship to youth organizations and because I was actually working on critiquing state violence through my advocacy and community work in other areas. I saw this as a place where I could make a real contribution to a growing body of literature, research, and writing in critical Indigenous studies.

NE: How are Indigenous youth, whether in Standing Rock or on the streets of Saskatoon, challenging the spatial politics of settler colonialism, from the reservation to the city? Why are they central to your research?

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“Idle No More” protest. / Photograph by Jaskiran Dhillon (2013).

JD: I think that part of the way that Indigenous young people challenge the spatial politics of the city is by being present in places that have been constructed and policed as white-only spaces. They are also challenging the terms of their confinement and their experiences with racist education systems, the violence of the criminal justice system, and deeply troubling encounters with the child welfare system. Their refusal to participate in the terms of settler state institutions is as part of the way that they resist being conditioned to become a certain kind of citizen that is apolitical, that has no interests in participating in a movement that questions state authority. It is a refusal to participate in the terms of the game as the state as laid them out.

I have also witnessed significant movement of Indigenous youth between the reserves and the cities in central Canada. This idea that they “only belong on the reserve” or “only belong in the city” is blown apart by these Indigenous young people who actually move back and forth between the city and the reserve with heightened frequency. They have family on reserves, they go to visit, they go back because they have various commitments but they are also living in the city, participating in the city in the ways they feel are meaningful for them, and this again disrupts this notion that Native people only belong on reserves and it also allows them to claim the city as their own.

Indigenous youth are essential to my research because they are the frontline of settler colonial violence, because they are the most clear and present danger to the continuance of a white settler society. They, quite literally, are the physical and political embodiment of resistance to settler state violence and also the clearest reminder to the colonial state that the land that they have built their society on top of does not belong to them. I’m interested in other words in critically understanding how the violence experienced by these young people is a distinct form of racial violence, because they are Indigenous and symbolically and materially, they represent a threat to white settlement.

NE: The brutal slaying of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Anishnaabe girl, galvanized Indigenous communities. Her killing resulted in the Canadian Crown’s national inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. Yet, her accused killer, Raymond Cormier, a white man, was found not guilty of her murder — though two of his assailants received manslaughter charges. Why is Fontaine’s case important for understanding the failure of Canadian and settler justice systems? How do state social services, like in Fontaine’s case, actually make Indigenous youth (especially girls) more vulnerable to violence?

JD: I think Tina Fontaine’s case showcases, in a very clear way, the colonial DNA of the criminal justice system in Canada. By this, I mean the way that institutions of policing and criminal trials and related proceeding have their roots in colonial violence and the deliberate elimination of Indigenous people. The failure in protection of Indigenous women and girls by police institutions in Canada (both local and RCMP) have been well documented by anti-violence organizations in Canada for a long time. Canada has also been investigated on two different occasions by Human Rights Watch for their police brutality and failures in protection of Indigenous women and girls. So clearly, there is a long-standing relationship of colonial violence enacted by the criminal justice system against Indigenous people in Canada. The case of Tina Fontaine is no different. Many of my Indigenous comrades from back home on the prairies in Canada have very little faith that the Canadian criminal justice system would ever be able to deliver justice for Indigenous people because the very simple fact remains that these systems were actually created to aid in the elimination of Indigenous people and to support the ongoing continuance of colonial violence that makes settler states possible. The case of Tina Fontaine is another instantiation of how much that colonial DNA factors into the ways that the criminal justice system (from policing to criminal trials, and everything in between) is actually rooted in the broader goal of Indigenous dispossession, elimination, and the violence that is necessary to keep these settler states intact in the way they currently operate.

To add to this, one of the central threads throughout Prairie Rising was to demonstrate how carcerality and colonial gendered violence work hand in hand, as well as to illuminate how the long history of the egregious and horrific violence enacted against Indigenous women and girls is central to the process of white settlement and nation building in Canada, as well as in the United States and many other places in the world. Violence against Indigenous women and girls is not some unexplained phenomenon, it is absolutely central to how white settler societies went about the business of securing a stronghold over Indigenous homelands in order to build and develop a settler state. Reworking this violence against Indigenous women as a crime problem disguises the fact that colonial gendered violence has been targeting Indigenous women and girls since the point of first contact; since before Canada became Canada.

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Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver on February 14, 2015. / Photograph by Jen Castro.

One of the other things that Tina Fontaine’s case really illuminates however, is that the child welfare education and criminal justice systems actually work in tandem with one another, as co-constitutive institutions engaged in enacting violence against Indigenous youth. This means that there are very specific policies that link the criminal justice system and the education system and the child welfare system together. Tina Fontaine’s experiences within the child welfare system are part of a much larger pattern of apprehension of Indigenous children and youth from their homes, that obviously has its roots in residential schooling and all of the violence associated with that colonial strategy of elimination. This is a kind of contemporary manifestations of the same colonial practices; the violence is being enacted again in group homes, in foster homes, and the process of apprehension itself speaks to this historical roots of child welfare practices that find their footing in the violence of residential schools.

While doing the research for Prairie Rising, it also became clear that these institutions work together. For example, in one of the chapters of the book, I outline a criminal justice program that is centered on “reintegrating” Indigenous youth who are completing their time in youth detention facilities. One of the requirements for this program is that Indigenous youth maintain housing — housing that is often tied to child welfare system. Many of these young people are are wards of the State and they are required by the State to stay in housing that has been deemed safe and appropriate as seen by the State. There also education requirements that become attached to their ability to engage in the process of reintegration back into society. That means that they must attend school, they must stay in school, they must complete x number of assignments, and if they don’t do these things, they are violating the conditions of their probation order which could result in them ending up back in prison. So you see in that example how these institutions cannot be taken up separately, but they actually work together to be able to create conditions of violence on multiple fronts. An Indigenous young person is not just encountering state violence through their engagement with one institution — it’s the same kind of policies and practices that further their marginalization regardless of which institutions they turn to. And again, this is not to say that there are not individual people working within these institutions that are really thinking politically; there are a few people that are really attempting to work those systems from the inside in the best interest of Indigenous youth — I talk about one of these youth workers in the sixth chapter of my book. But my critique here is about these institutions as a whole and to really encourage people to think about them as settler state institutions that are preoccupied with ensuring that Indigenous youth continue to in conditions of violence and marginalization.

NE: If Indigenous youth are the future of the movement, where are they taking us? Whose work should we be following, and why?

JD: This is the most uplifting question! [laughs] In my view, in their actions and their daily-lived reality, Indigenous young people all over the globe are pushing back against the tyranny of global capitalism and the contemporary material forms of colonial violence that continue to fuel dispossession on multiple fronts: environmentally, politically, economically, etc. The political ecology of their movements — something I’m beginning to understand as “anti-colonial entropy” — is taking us outside of the normative forms of political organizing that are taking place through formal political system and more mainstream organizations that are centered on the politics of inclusion and liberal integrationist models.

I’m just going to pause and say something about this anti-colonial entropy because, although it’s an idea I’m still working through, I think really carries a lot of importance when you look across the kinds of social movements that Indigenous young people are spearheading and carrying forwards in various places across the globe. By this idea of anti-colonial entropy, I mean a networked set of ideas, beliefs, and organizing efforts crucial to fostering a political condition of decolonial disorder in our current reality of racial capitalism (intimately bound up with extractive industries), violent state sovereignty, and a persistent avowal of present-future where white settler power reigns supreme. Anti-colonial entropy promotes degradation of the social and political infrastructure necessary to sustain white settler society. It is necessarily unsettling, anti-hegemonic, and anchored to the political goal of Native liberation.

I think what’s clear is that these young people are no longer willing to accept the terms of the game as it has been laid out by colonial rulers for hundreds of years and through the resistance to ongoing environmental degradation is also fueling this kind of organizing; they’re willing to engage in forms of direct action that is informed by clear political goals. I would argue that this is something that makes the kind of organizing efforts that you see by Indigenous youth distinct. It’s not to say that other youth movement are not doing political work, but I think that their relationship to a history of dispossession lends itself to a political critique that seems paramount for the kind of revolutionary radical change we need on the planet.

In my view, we should be following the work of young people who are part of these political movements: youth organizers at Standing Rock, the Native youth that are central in the work of the Red Nation, the Indigenous girls that are spearheading a resistance to carceral state violence in Canada through a small organization call Justice for Girls based in Vancouver; the young people on their reserve that are developing everyday-resistance strategies to the kind of violence that they’re experiencing in their communities outside of state-driven or mandated forms of intervention. It’s also the Indigenous youth in India who are fighting hydroelectric dams, the ones in Cambodia that are challenging the rapid deforestation of their territorial homelands even in the face of an extremely authoritative government that threatens to kill environmental organizers. Many of the young people involved in these movements are writings for blogs, and are participating in alternative media spaces; we should really be channeling our attention to them, listening to what they have to say as they articulate how these movements are unfolding, every day, on the ground.