This is my son, Graydon, pausing to take in his grandma-behind-the-lens between jolly jumps.

It’s an amazing thing being a dad. I’ve never worried more or laughed harder.

Gray has already changed my academic work, and how I approach it. So much of my work, which is about how Anishinaabe constitutionalism structures Anishinaabe law, centres on aadizookaanan. Most Anishinaabemowin speakers I know translate this word into English as “legends”, because aadizookaanan generally take place in time immemorial. Aadizookaanan are a crucial source of Anishinaabe inaakonigewin, or law-as-judgment. They allow listeners to draw out teachings about how and how not to have good relationships. They teach us about different kinds of relationships and the kinds of responsibilities internal to each. But rather than setting out rules for behaviour, aadizookaanan empower those receiving them to reason in a specific analogical way. That is, far more than merely imparting substantive knowledge, their great gift is to teach listeners how to reason towards good judgments. This focus on the ‘howness’ of judgment empowers community members to adapt effectively to novel circumstances, for which there is no obvious story.

Over the last ten years I’ve learned a great deal about aadizookaanan from nokomis and other Boundary Waters elders in Treaty #3, from Anishinaabe elders in other areas, and also from those gete-Anishinaabeg who had the foresight to allow the aadizookaanan they carry to be recorded, so that future generations would still have them (my most prized volumes in our library are our original copies of William Jones and of JPB de Josselin de Jong). I’ve relied heavily on aadizookaanan both times I’ve taught my course on Anishinaabe constitutionalism (following nokomis’ protocols around their use). I organized an aadizookaanan reading group in Victoria that ran for two years. Most important, in partnership with various elders and knowledge-keepers, I’ve supported aadizookewin (the telling of aadizookaanan) in my own community and at Sagkeeng First Nation. As I become a professor and my means expand through grant funding, I’ll do more and more of this work, and I hope to have graduate students engaged in it.

But my greatest excitement regarding aadizookaanan is about ningozis (my son) and my responsibilities to him. My partner, Meg, and I are committed to providing him with ongoing training in this tradition (and I would emphasize, legal tradition, although it’s much more than that) throughout his youth. Of course, we’ll have to see where his interests are, and respect his spirit. But our hope is that we can inspire a passion in him for this kind of story, and that he will choose to build his own relationships with the aadizookaanag (characters) within them, and they with him.

Even under conditions of contemporary colonialism, aadizookewin has remained a family tradition. In one of the few happy statements I recall him sharing with me, my father remembers his mother telling him and one of his siblings aadizookaanan when he was small (he didn’t know why they were the only two in the family to receive this gift). And it was Pierrish Jourdain (in one of my family lines four generations back, though not someone I’m a direct descendant of) who shared so many aadizookaanan with Ernest Oberholtzer, that Oberholtzer became known as “Aadizookaan”.

My hope is that Gray might come to understand aadizookaanan as a way: to see and relate to the world as they disclose it to him, and thus to reason through them, even as he lives within the imposed structure of Canadian liberalism, and all that it presumes about persons, freedom, belonging, law, governance, and earth. My hope is that rather than defeating these impositions, he might see how to simply step around them, that he might see possibilities I can’t even imagine.

And yet I can’t help but try to imagine, if it works, what he might one day be capable of. I’m of course looking through a father’s eyes, but as his grandmother calls and clicks, he seems to have the whole world within those bouncing feet momentarily paused, this moment of surely unreal poise.





The Freedom to Listen

Recent arguments around indigenous cultural appropriation in Canada have presented starkly different ideas about what the controversy is about. Many of the settler-authored arguments suggest that if cultural appropriation is a thing, free speech in Canada is under siege. Some have even portrayed those of us who are indigenous as unreasonable bullies whose insistence on context and the significance of power makes us enemies of free speech.

This scale of misunderstanding and disagreement is hardly surprising. The fact that many indigenous and settler people don’t agree on what this controversy is really about is exactly the point.  Our starting points—and thus our stakes—differ dramatically. What any of us count as centrally important is determined by the world we know. And despite our recently shared histories, many indigenous and settler peoples in Canada live and speak from within different worlds.

Most settlers I know live mostly or entirely within the world of Canadian liberalism. Free speech is one refrain of the liberal song, and its rhythm is individual autonomy. That’s the most sacred and foundational principle for most Canadians I know. That free speech protects the sacred explains why so many Canadians are predisposed to defend it with a radical, religious fervour.

Knowing that free speech is all about protecting individual autonomy, we can begin to bring indigenous worlds into view.  For many indigenous folks, too, a commitment to individual autonomy is foundational.  But for us, autonomy cannot be separated from our daily lived experience of colonialism—an obvious and immediate obstacle to both the existence and the enjoyment of our autonomy, including, too often, our lives.  In other words, our widely misunderstood concern with context and power is all about autonomy, the very thing free speech is supposed to serve.  In diverse ways, indigenous contributors have skilfully articulated this point.

But many of us (myself among them) have a different starting point altogether, living in our own worlds even as we engage with Canadian liberalism. Our indigenous worlds are deeply lawful but centred on interdependence with all of creation, not on individual human autonomy. Our law guides us into relationship with community members, with other human groups, with animals, plants, spirits, and with the Earth itself. We live with and through all our relations.

Our songs, dances, ceremonies and stories sustain these relationships. They are beautiful, yes, but their real function is to express our law. When you take our stories, you’re not merely sampling something beautiful or interesting. You’re interacting with the legal system of an indigenous society.

In our worlds, stories are not part of a universal intellectual commons merely awaiting someone’s imagination to bring them to life. There are different kinds of stories, and some are already alive. We keep and tell them carefully. It’s a relationship.

I want Canadians to learn how indigenous legal systems work, which means learning about the indigenous worlds that sustain them. And that brings us squarely to the crisis within this controversy.

The issue is not that we disagree about the use of indigenous stories; given our different worlds, that’s to be expected. The crisis is the refusal of so many settler journalists to offer even a pretence of listening across worlds. It’s the troubling assumption that their way is the way, and thus they can pass judgment without stepping beyond what they already know.  In fairness, for many of the faithful, the universal spread of liberalism is a tenet of their creed.  But that sure doesn’t set up a good conversation with the unconverted.

All of this raises a darkly ironic question: where indigenous perspectives don’t matter, what reason have we to speak?  To my many settler relations zealously defending free speech, I pose the following question: If on the issue of appropriating our stories, you truly want to speak of nothing but your ability to speak, to whom are you speaking?

I understand indigenous folks who are angry, hurt and no longer engaging with those who want only to speak, never to listen. Personally, I remain open to the possibility of a genuine dialogue. A couple of weeks ago, I invited the people embroiled in this controversy to come and learn from youth and elders, including Harry Bone and Dave Courchene, at Turtle Lodge, Sagkeeng First Nation in Treaty #1, later this summer. To my great delight, some have accepted. As guests, they will step into our world, exercising their freedom to listen.

For many indigenous folks, listening lives at the heart of learning and of lawfulness. You, too, have this freedom with every exchange.


This comment was submitted (sadly without success) to the Globe, the Post, and Maclean’s.    




I rejoice and complain!

Lift my voice! I was made!

She sharpens the letters and severs fear away, cutting right to centre.  Three simple proclamations for Julien Baker to declare both the logic of life itself and its gift coursing through her.  Stunning in its beauty but terrifying in the imminence of its truth: we, in our pitiable smallness, push out the enormity of creation with each utterance.

In my 35 years it’s the hardest teaching to hold, because I’m not called to learn, but to bear it.  It can only live in heart.  For many who’ve known struggle it’s a life’s work to know we are worthy, to allow ourselves the honour of carrying creation in these humble shells.

For me it remains fleeting.  I try to remember in times of absence but it doesn’t always come back easily.  You see it isn’t a matter of will, but of surrender.  Of tobacco for cedar; a prayer for the Wintermaker; a smile for the morning tracks all around my house; a drum song for my sick friend, cast way out over the lake where that wolf watched me the winter before, before rising up to sky.

Baker’s song called it out of me this morning and I’m grateful for the gift of these few moments of more than remembering.

That in my short time here, despite all suffering and self-doubt,  despite occasional meanness and frequent error, despite all frailty and failure, despite the fears I cannot even speak and the weight of all the years stacked like wood maybe waiting to burn down, that despite all of this, I know I am a sacred person.

At 35 years I know it sometimes and let me tell you, sometimes has been hard won.  The blessed gift of sometimes is enough to make me shake.  I rejoice, my relatives; I was made!


Nimiigwechiwendamaa indinawemaaganag.




On Caring for the Other

It is imperative that we learn to care and share again, which was our original way, because the only thing that is going to matter is how we relate to each other, and nobody is going to be able to fake it anymore.  We’ll have to look around at each other and ask who is sister and who is brother?  Who is for real?

            There were nine previous empires before this one, and where are they now?  Gone, that’s where.[1]

—Elder Art Solomon



First, I acknowledge the suffering of so many in America today.  To be told that your life doesn’t matter and to be made unsafe is already to suffer unbearably.

The nature of America’s commitment to violence may still be unclear, but the fact of it is now open and the entire world is witness.

This is an unspeakable loss also for those who truly believed in a version of the American story.  Freedom, by any liberal account, hangs in tatters and the barren standard of white nationalism ripples powerfully across the land.

Rage, fear, sorrow, terror.

The Problem of Uncare

I’m among the millions reading analyses of what happened.  In an op-ed for the Guardian, Naomi Klein helpfully summarizes the multitude of reasons analysts are giving: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/rise-of-the-davos-class-sealed-americas-fate.  She suggests that while these answers may all be correct, in addition to them a critical factor is a middle class revolt against the powerlessness and hopelessness resulting from neoliberalism–for which the Clintons  are an international symbol.

I would suggest that even if she’s right, anti-neoliberalism (as she suggests, in many cases outrage, but in many others perhaps more likely ennui) only points towards a deeper, structural problem in America and indeed throughout liberal political communities: indifference to difference, or “uncare”.

First, Trump hasn’t caused this violence.  Trump is a match disclosing the violence which always already was, hiding under cover of darkness.  He flickers to flies, “come out now”.  But though they hadn’t gathered and declared themselves upon the night, the flies were already there.  Any they already wanted blood.

The real question isn’t how Trump, but rather what makes flies of citizens.

I suggest a politics of uncare is inherently vulnerable to violence and that given sufficient distance between the expectation and the reality of the material conditions of a critical mass of citizens (regardless of whether those conditions constitute actual suffering), a shift from social contract to bald nationalism as the device locating the unity-division boundary is the very thing that should be predicted.  I’m suggesting there’s a fatal and necessary internal failure inherent in political liberalism, always waiting to be triggered.  In America–the most ardently, indeed religiously, political liberal society on the planet–it just was.

While I’m proud to know so many folks who care passionately for others radically dissimilar from themselves, huge numbers of citizens in liberal societies like Canada and the US just don’t care about those they see as different.  First, they don’t understand that the other is part of who they are too.  They really believe in a radical disconnect between self and other; I explain why this may be so below.  Second, for some, only those identified as self have ever mattered, and for many, under sufficiently powerful conditions of dissatisfaction, only those identified as self continue to matter.  The other is readily identified as part of the problem of self’s suffering, and is thus excluded from the ambit of its concern.  When uncare proceeds far enough along, for enough community members, for a long enough time, the contract fails and the exclusionary violence of nationalism, always barely (and only ever formally) contained, arises from below it.

Why Uncare?

The critical defect of liberal societies consists in their praxis of citizenship, in liberalism’s form of belonging.  Recall the foundational belief of all liberal societies, across their considerable diversity, that individual autonomy is paramount: that persons are free only when they choose their own purposes (liberals offer widely varying accounts of what specifically this requires). On this understanding of the nature of individuals and thus of what freedom means, community is simply the formal agreement (an expression of individuals’ autonomy) of persons to live together for the purpose of securing, protecting, and to the extent possible, ensuring the natural autonomy of each from violation by any other.  This “social contract” is thus the device which limits the field of possible action of citizens (expressed most recognizably and formally as law) with respect to one another.

But the contract doesn’t just provisionally remove the violence liberals imagine is inherent to difference.  It also removes from belonging the expectation, and more darkly, the possibility, of any genuine connection between community members as community members.  This ensures a permanent risk of violence always waiting just beneath.  Citizens are of course free to create a genuine connection with select community members of their choosing in their private lives (and do so regularly via faith communities, neighbourhood centres, etc.), but not within the public sphere of the political community itself.  That connection is purely formal and must remain so, less someone complain that the contract has been broken (I offer an indigenous account of why this presumption is false, below).

Liberal citizenship thus manifests a profound imbalance in the life of the community: liberal constitutional orders grant community members radical belonging without asking anything of them, except for the minimal negative requirement that citizens disallow themselves from violating the autonomy of others.  In other words, citizens get all of the benefit of community and bear no responsibility for it.

This makes monsters.  Not for all of course, but for many.

Since community members are given the world for free, they stand with respect to it in expectation.  The culture of entitlement leaves citizens wanting everything and worse, believing they’re owed it.  They can hold this expectation, standing as takers, caring nothing for no one, and the community says only “if that’s what you choose, so be it; nothing in your belonging turns on how you orient yourself towards us.”  Citizenship is coldly about the inviolability of the dignity of the self, not its good heart.  Gordon Waindubence, Grand Council Elder to the Anishinabek Nation[2], recalls one of his mentors saying to him “the Red Road you seek runs between the mind and the heart.  It’s a very short distance, but it might take you a lifetime to see where you belong in the circle of life.”[3]  In public life, liberals never make the journey.  Contract is bloodless.

Here’s the critical bit that so many of us didn’t see coming in the American election: when the radical entitlement that liberal belonging taught citizens comes up short, it’s the entitlement which stays, the contract which goes.  Severe dissatisfaction, in the context of radical entitlement, sets the flies aflutter.  In the US today, it’s white nationalism.  This is the critical failure by which liberalism unwills itself.

Kizhe Otiziwin

I think most of settler society grows despondent at the prospect of liberalism’s failure, because their view of possible alternatives is constrained, unbeknownst to them, by their linear worldview.  Many indigenous peoples, despite the crushing weight of ongoing colonialism, continue to constitute what I call “rooted” political communities on Turtle Island.  You may not be able to see them because they happen inside and across constitutional spaces liberal polities claim to exhaust, because they don’t easily align with the boundaries of First Nations, and because they exist informally.

Rooted constitutionalism moves in a circle.  Instead of progress and permanence, it’s orientation is to growth and renewal.  In rooted political communities, persons are always-already connected to one another and thus experience freedom only ever with and through one another.  And self-other is indeed a widely cast notion: human communities are part-of, not other-than the total set of relations constitutive of earth community: trees, animals, mountains, rivers, spirits.

The world is a unity of gifts.  None enters creation with all it needs to be free; each needs the gifts of others.  It is this, the humility of our own imperfection manifest as need, which connects us all.  We are all related, communities of communities supporting one another under one creation.  We have a genuine and imminent connection through creation.  This is what it means when we say we are the land.

We are all sacred persons–and must each be taken account of in politics and in law for this reason–not because of some abstract notion of dignity that sets us uniquely apart from the rest of creation, but because by virtue of our gifts, each is a co-creator with all.  This is what we were given: to receive what we need with humility and to share our gifts with others.  To know and to care about their needs, as best we can, as well as our own.

Being a co-creator is an immense responsibility.  This world is not free and it is not guaranteed; it ended once before, which the aadizookaan of the flood reveals: takers not welcome.  Creation needs our gifts to continue.  As a vital part of creation, so it is, too, for our own human communities.  If you want belonging–the relationships which allow you to benefit from the gifts of others–you’ll need to offer up your gifts to them.  You’re belonging isn’t assured for all of time and all up front simply because you’re human and were born in the community.  Those are certainly relevant facts about you, but no one is especially fussed about your humanity.  Ote, we care about your heart.  We care about the gift that you are to us.  You’re always, always, responsible to others.  And because of how freedom works, their sufferings and triumphs live in you, too.

We expect nothing from the world, but stand with respect to it arms out, in offering.  Grateful for the gifts it brings us.  Grateful for the continuity of good life.  Grateful to matter enough to be responsible to creation.

Folks wanting to better understand what I’m talking about may be interested in this beautiful teaching from elder Dave Courchene.  I’ve used the word he teaches in this video as the title for this section, to help me frame what I wish to share: http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2682653573.

In direct conflict with the mandatory, callous indifference of contract, rooted political communities have open-heartedness as belonging’s condition of possibility.  As an individual in a rooted community, you must be free, as elder Courchene says in the teaching above, “to be able to live, and act, and express yourself from the heart”.  This doesn’t mean, as liberals and postmoderns fear, that we all think or want the same thing; that we eliminate internal difference.  It means only that no matter the scope of our considerable internal differentiation, we recognize each other as co-creators, we recognize that we are related.  We recognize that despite our genuine difference, we cannot eliminate the other from within ourselves.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the tremendous fortune now and then of learning a little from an amazing group of elders expert on what their indigenous systems of law teach from and of the earth, throughout Manitoba.  In the course of their work together, they’ve gifted something amazing to the rest of us.  In their respective Anishinaabe, Nehetho, and Dakota languages, they call it “The Great Binding Law”: http://www.turtlelodge.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ScrollBanner_TheGreatBindingLaw_24x36-PROOFv03.pdf.  My hope is that this resource might be helpful to those wanting to learn to push beyond the boundaries of linear thought, to take radical interdependence (i.e. not interdependence as gloss or qualification of autonomy)–that is, the earthway–seriously as a starting point for politics, and in the case of my own work, even of constitutionalism.

A Rooted Praxis for Those Who Want to Centre Care in Politics

Living and acting in the rooted mode isn’t just for indigenous peoples.  Anyone can do this.  I think the theory of it requires one to centre the earthway in how he or she understands his or her relationship to creation, constitutionalism, legal tradition and ultimately law; those wanting to know more about this can explore a paper I have forthcoming in the McGill Law Journal in about three weeks.  But I think any practice of this will be an improvement over what we have today.  Thus I want instead to focus on immediate practices, even though for most readers, their performance probably won’t generate consistently (or at all) from the earth.

I’m not very prescriptive about this.  All I can really say is that the critical change that acting in the rooted mode imports to political practice is that you always bear in mind that even those who are hateful are your relations.  Of course, acknowledging that there’s no space beyond relationship doesn’t mean you have to like those who are hateful!  White supremacists are white supremacists, even if we’re always-already related to them.  While it’s sometimes necessary, it’s never sufficient just to have understood how power shapes your relationship and to speak this truth aloud.  If you stop with power (for instance, simply berating a white supremacist, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, settler, islamophobe for being what he is), you’ll be treating he who is harmful, he who acts without care, strictly as the other.

While this may, in some instances, overwhelm his violence by suddenly disclosing it to him, you’ll have done so by reproducing yet another instance of the deep structural problem from which his violence generates: uncare.  And beyond his own immediate discursive inadequacy, what will he learn from this?  He might appreciate your broader perspective but in the context of correction, in the absence of connection, I suggest he’s unlikely to accept transformation.  Education is a necessary, but far from sufficient condition for transformative change.  And when our interlocutors believe they’re owed the world and justified in hurting others they believe to have come between them and their entitlement, we’re definitely after transformation.  Beyond getting educated about difference, people need to care about the other, and the only way I know to do this is, whenever possible, to care for the ignorant, fearful, and hurtful.   Without this, in the context of a contractarian society where citizens have an inalienable vote for which they never need be accountable, I’m not sure there’s hope.

As humans we’re frail and there are moments where its beyond us to be kind.  This is only natural.  We all have breaking points and open violence is certainly one of them for many of us.  But in all moments where for me it is possible, I try to be the change.  Where it’s beyond me, I try to acknowledge my shortcomings afterwards.  As much as possible, I model the way of being and the specific forms of relationship I wish to see realized in my communities.  Without claiming success at it, I exercise leadership from below.  I learned this from my grandmother.  I try to live in gratitude, not expectation, and to be conscious of my myriad responsibilities.  I recognize the sacred in others by gifting them and by accepting their gifts.  I try to pull the earth up through me.

Naomi Klein’s suggested focus on redistributive politics might do much that most contemporary liberalisms do not, but in simply reorganizing the social contract, it fails to address the underlying structural problem of uncare.  For this reason, it won’t overcome the existing challenges for humans–and even if it did, it wouldn’t work for Earth.  We would still be treating the earth instrumentally, as a repository of resources (albeit, a much better managed repository), rather than as the other-in-ourselves.  Same goes for the ardent postmoderns who so skilfully, so faithfully, and often so helpfully, attend to power.  For you, I suggest a simple thought experiment.  I appreciate that there’s no space beyond power, but imagine that, by act of god, the world was suddenly such that all our human relations were organized equitably at personal, institutional, and even national levels.  What would come next?

I’ve proposed an approach both to thinking and to action oriented at social change that is relational: in which you speak and act from your position embedded in particular relationships with peoples and places where you live and move.  You bring your full self, not just your mind, into dialogue with the other.  To think that transformative change can come from disembedded, highly abstract theorizing (my worry with some posthumanism) I think is to take a pass on the journey between heart and mind, and thus, on earth.

Closing Thoughts

Without care, the contract doesn’t work; although I’ve hardly begun to make the case for it here, with care, we don’t need it.  Or more particularly, when we live within the earthway we don’t need it.

That said, I want to reiterate once more that I know so many do care!  At present, I think much of that care is exercised ineffectively, channeled through frameworks of uncare.  I’ve tried to offer a simple sketch here of why that’s a problem, and of how those who want to may be able to manifest their care with more direct impact.  I say “direct” quite intentionally, because I can’t say “immediate”.  Transformative change of the enduring sort is, like the earth, slow.  And it will move in seasons.  But I don’t know any other way which doesn’t ultimately pull me into the problem beneath the problems.

To all my indigenous relations, I have a question for us, too, as we do our community work, our anticolonial work, and as we think about how to be good to our relations in white nationalist America.  I understand why we use the discourse of autonomy, sovereignty and nationhood to describe ourselves and our political interests.  But should we still be doing so?  Do we really mean to invoke the hard-edged boundaries of that discourse when we use it?  I appreciate the effectiveness of that sort of language as a push-back at ongoing colonialism because of its immediate translatability to liberal power domestically and internationally, but what does it mean for how we think of ourselves?  Can it be reconciled with our foundational relationalism?  Can it be reconciled with the earth?

There were nine previous empires before this one, and where are they now?


Mii iw.



[1] Art Solomon, “‘We have learned patriarchy so well, and we are all hurting and out of balance because of it.’”, Beedaudjimowin: A Voice for First Nations (1992) 2(2). 21.

[2] That is, of the political territorial organizations representing 39 First Nations in Ontario and affiliated with the Union of Ontario Indians, not the ‘nation of Anishinaabe peoples’ in the ethno-national sense.

[3] Margo Little, “Gordon Waindubence (1955—): Giving His Gifts Away” in Portraits of Spirit Island: The Manitoulin School of Art Comes of Age (HighGrader Magazine, 2009). 112, 114.









In Lieu of Justice: Thoughts on Oppression, Identity & Earth

I remember once coming across an old white pine that had fallen in the forest.  In its decayed roots a young birch and a young black spruce were growing, healthy and strong.  The pine was returning to the earth, and two totally different species were growing out of the common earth that was forming.  And none was offended in the least by the presence of the others because their own identities were intact.[1]


1. The Limit of Identity Politics

I was recently in a circle of academics gathered to discuss indigenous-settler reconciliation.  Our discussion was prompted by the release of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s multi-volume final report.  We were a mix of indigenous and settler people of all different stages of academic life, from graduate students through to senior professors (I’m an Anishinaabe man and a PhD student).  As is so often the case, participants shared in diverse ways and with widely varying degrees of openness, as befit their comfort, experience and need.

I was delighted to learn from friends and strangers and to see issues, concerns, and even people in new ways.  I was delighted to benefit from the gifts of others and to share mine too.  But as we turned through the circle, I also felt my frustration growing with several of the settler participants (I can speak about it only generally; I was taught that unless specified at the outset, what’s said in a circle is meant only for that space).  It wasn’t for the usual things.  None took up too much space; none spoke much while understanding only little; none offered a proposal instead of a gift.  On the contrary, all were respectful, kind and interested in really listening.  In one word, thoughtful: all seemed to me to have carefully considered their own perspectives.

Yet this attentiveness in some speakers proved the source of my struggle.  To the extent my experience of academic and of activist spaces can be generalized, these folks probably did exactly as they’ve been taught.  They took account of their identities and of the space that held us together and they assigned themselves a voice commensurate with their location within the indigenous-settler power relationship disciplining the circle.  They had done the privilege/oppression accounting and had behaved accordingly as good allies.  Importantly, they also made sure to share genuinely, avoiding the mistake of policing themselves into silence and thus fundamentally misunderstanding the logic of the circle.  They had done all that could reasonably be expected of settler participants within the bounds of this conversation.

And what should come next?  What comes after an accounting of how power is at work between us?  Unless we think that acting in accordance with our accounting of identities resolves the unequal power formation, we had better have some thoughts about this.  But for all of this learned carefulness, none of the settler participants addressed the matter.  In fact a few seemed pointed away from it.  They had turned inward, focused on what seemed the inherent and perhaps inescapable badness of their settler identity.  This negative internal orientation developed from deep discouragement with sustained efforts to make change through anticolonial work.  Within their academic practise they’d worked hard to account and to assist others in accounting for the incompensable benefit of settler privilege.  As I understood it, they pursued this goal by attending to the set of responsibilities they take to flow from their location as beneficiary within the settler-indigenous power formation.

That seems a noble thing insofar as it goes but if the result is a sense of hopeless exhaustion prompting a decidedly negative reconsideration of one’s own identity, it doesn’t seem to go very far.  In the end I couldn’t see how the internally-initiated tear-down that resulted from the careful accounting of identities in this instance was helpful and I couldn’t square it with the teachings of my gete-Anishinaabeg.  While I held great respect for the level of thoughtfulness that led to the result, the result of the question not taken up was disappointing.  Again, these were among the most thoughtful settlers I had sat with to discuss our relationship.  I found myself wondering how often and in which contexts this pattern plays out.

This experience helped to clarify what had long been an unresolved tension in my mind about the efficacy of identity politics, which I experience as powerfully conditioning of both academic and activist practise in our postmodern age.  Identity politics has achieved a tremendous amount in reforming power formations that distribute privilege and oppression in systemic, patterned ways.  I worry however that insofar as it seeks to transform power relationships, it can only fail because it misdiagnoses the structure of oppression.  It takes each unequal identity-based power formation as an oppressive structure unto itself.  If that were correct, it would indeed follow that redistributing social benefits so as to avoid patterned axes of privilege and oppression would be sufficient to undo the offending violence.

Although I’m a longtime supporter of identity politics (and in my undergrad, pursued postmodernism the way some do religion) I’m no longer confident this view of oppression is correct.  I’ve become increasingly convinced that postmoderns are wrong to privilege the self in their analysis of inequality.  Identity is certainly important, but I now doubt whether its the most critical factor to understand in dismantling oppression.  Rather than focusing on distributional axes of privilege and oppression (race, gender, ability, age, etc.), it now makes more sense to me to focus on the social contract that does the distributing.

Let me pause on that word for a moment as I’m hopeful that academics outside of political theory and non-academics might wish to follow.  By “social contract” I mean the idea at the heart of liberal political theory that a just society has its origins in the agreement of its members to be bound by a common sovereign, subject to the rule of law.  The fact of agreement is critical because it manifests the primacy of the individual autonomy of each contractee-become-citizen at the heart of the nascent political organization.  Social contract theory then is a means of accounting for a form of political community in which individual autonomy is taken as the primary political good (the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains many examples of Canada’s liberal/contractarian commitments; the Bill of Rights similarly reveals the animating force of individual autonomy in the United States).  In contractarian societies like Canada and the US, the sovereign’s exercise of authority over a citizen (for instance, after having broken a law) is said to be justified by the fact that even in the exercise of sanction, that citizen’s autonomy is respected: the corrective act of the sovereign (for instance through police, crown prosecutors, judges, etc.) reflects the autonomy of the sanctioned citizen, even though he or she now finds him-/herself on the unintended end of it.

My view today is that although oppression is experienced just about everywhere, it resides (I’m speaking only of Turtle Island here) in the contractarian structure of political community.  Thus unequal power formations aren’t oppressive structures unto themselves, but rather effects of the contractarian structure beneath.  Specifically, I think the source of most contemporary oppression on Turtle Island is liberalism’s great innovation: a categorical divide between private life and an imagined public sphere necessary to safeguard the individual autonomy of each against the conflicting demands and judgments of all.

The violence wrought by the contractarian belief in a public consists in the imagined public’s foundational premise: that it’s a neutral sphere, ensuring that governance is void of any particular conception about what is good.  The practise of governance in a liberal state isn’t like this, never has been and never will be.  The supposed neutral space of the imagined public will always be occupied by whichever identities prove best able to pass themselves off as invisible (including, often, to themselves: the hideous au courant refrain “all lives matter” instantiates this).  I mean ‘invisible’ in that you know that they’re there but you can’t articulate anything about them; they seem to avoid all particularity and thus pass as neutral.  Some identities which enjoy this benefit on Turtle Island today include white, cismale, able, citizen, middle-class, young, settler, human.  This is why in law school (to pick an example I’m keenly familiar with) professors who fit these identities are often thought by students, mistakenly, to be teaching just law, while professors whose identities differ from these are often said to be teaching law through a filter of politics, resulting in student cries of violation of the contract: that the offending professor has allowed his or her private views to cross the great divide into the public space of the classroom, upsetting student expectations of neutrality.  The reality is that just law has never existed.

If this insight about the imagined public is right, it means that with respect to tackling oppression, (1) “what does a just distribution of social benefit look like?” remains a necessary question but is an insufficient one; the more critical question is (2) “what comes after power is distributed equitably?” (we’re back to the talking circle).  I think identity politics stops with the first question.  As for its implied position on the second, in the absence of a gesture towards an alternative, presumably its answer is that we continue with our contractarian form of political community, only now successfully attending to the always-ongoing work of equitable distributions of benefit across diverse, hybrid identities.

My sense is that this seems to be the presumption of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Key concepts on the BLM website include “human rights”, “dignity”, “justice”, and “liberation”, all of which, at least in their ordinary usages in the West today, presume the existence of a liberal state: freedom understood in respect of individual autonomy, social contract and consent of the governed as shared exercises of individual autonomy, the public/private divide that results, rule of law to police public governance, public governance through a sovereign, the sovereign operationalized through the administrative state (in Canada’s case, a version of the Westminster parliamentary system, federalism, the separation of powers, and so on).  In the principles section (http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles/) the BLM website discusses a commitment to a significant shift in the private sphere (“we are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement”) but there seems to be no such challenge to the public sphere.  BLM has been very clear about its commitment against state violence, but it describes a concern with violence the state does to black persons (generally, but in particular through police services), which is quite a different thing from claiming that the state is a structure premised on violence.

If the insight about oppression residing in the public sphere is correct, it would seem to follow that any movement or advocacy which fails to challenge the contractarian structure of the state fails to challenge the structure of oppression.  So long as the imagined publics of the two liberal states dominating Turtle Island are permitted to exist, a structural commitment to neutrality remains, even if many have come to appreciate the distinction between structural promise and governance practise.  Oppressive power formations are structurally empowered to reappear time and again insofar as governance functions through an appeal to an imagined neutrality, as that illusion of neutrality allows for the preferred distribution of privilege and oppression of whomever invisibly occupies the placeholder that is the public at a given point in time (again, “all lives matter”).  The limit of identity politics seems then to be that instead of eliminating the source of oppressive power formations, we attack oppression’s effects.  Unequal power formations are allowed to simply shift through time as equity yet again catches up with injustice, only to find it appearing once more on the new face of invisible.  Or perhaps more likely, the old face renewed.

Recognizing the considerable magnitude of their gift and acknowledging also how emphatically they decry modernity, postmoderns’ preoccupation with identity nonetheless seems to mean that a great many don’t attend as closely as they might to the structure of the liberal state (or perhaps for strategic reasons, they affirm it).  Instead of seeking to replace the state with their own form of political community, they would simply redesign how it distributes social, political and economic goods.  They want the contract, they just want it to distribute equally and their remedy for inequality is a relentless attention to power vis-a-vis identity (today this often manifests in the microcosm of the public that is the academy as an anti-relational culture of “calling out”).  In short – and this is the heart of my concern – postmoderns (I don’t mean all, categorically, but certainly the majority of them I engage in person, in academic writing and through media, including social media) still pursue the liberal project of justice.  So far as I can tell, identity politics is all about correcting injustice.

Liberal theorists like Rawls and Dworkin working in the analytic tradition have helpfully drawn attention to the distinction between concept and conception of justice (loosely: concept as the supposedly intuitive big idea beneath all particular views; conception as a particular account or view of this big idea).  Justice as concept is equitable enforcement of the terms of the social contract.  It’s a vision of fairness centred on the primacy of individual autonomy, supported, defended and enforced by the state.  It seems that identity politics are pointed at the same thing; they just have a different conception of what it looks like.  In particular, they claim that an identification of and an accounting for power is a necessary condition for autonomy.

If this is what justice means, I want to suggest that something much more significant in scope is needed to address oppression.  As the ends of freedom, justice is a bad idea.  The problem isn’t that liberal states pursue a conception of justice inadequate to the needs of oppressed peoples, it’s that justice is violence.  Justice is the wrong concept altogether.  Justice is the goal of a social contract that works by imagining a public sphere which is the site of eternally renewed, shifting oppressions.  Justice is achieved when oppressed peoples are given formal (and in the best cases, substantive) equality, this equality is made effective and enforceable, and the structure of reappearing oppression is guaranteed in perpetuity.  Justice is a mirage: a fleeting vision of salvation in a wasteland of suffering.

Identity politics can and has done an enormous amount to reform unequal relations in Canada and the US, by attending to power’s distribution of privilege and oppression throughout the contract.  But if this is as far as it goes, it seems to me identity politics lacks transformative potential.

2. From Contract to Mutual Aid

If oppression resides in the imagined public sphere, a transformative politics shall have to require better imaginations.  Letting go of the public means letting go of social contract as the foundation for political community.  Many in the West immediately panic when I say this, wondering whose vision of the good is being invited to dominate them.  But our minds need not run to authoritarian regimes that sacrifice the value of individuals in pursuit of some purported higher good.  Our options are not so few.  For guidance on non-dominating alternatives, we can look to indigenous constitutionalisms, which exist beyond the individual-collective / autonomy-heteronomy binary.  I’ll speak only about Anishinaabe constitutionalism here because although I suspect that all indigenous peoples of Turtle Island constituted themselves as political communities by rooting themselves in creation (i.e. without an appeal to contractarianism), I don’t know this.

I’m now firmly within the purview of my dissertation-in-progress however, so I’ll decline to offer the analytics of what I’m about to suggest, for the moment content simply to assert my claim: Anishinaabe political community was never constituted in respect of a social contract, but rather in respect of mutual aid.  Although we certainly made political account of the importance of individualism, we didn’t conceive of it within the hard edges of autonomy.  Autonomy isn’t sacred and didn’t drive our constitutional orders.  Persons exist interdependently; community is always-already constituted as creation; freedom means the capacity to share and receive gifts.  Ours is neither freedom from (negative liberty), nor freedom to (positive liberty) but freedom with/through (I haven’t yet decided which formulation I like best, but in either case, not a species of liberty at all).

Mutual aid, as a foundation for political community, means constituting ourselves as one more community amongst communities in creation’s order, affirming our participation in a universe comprised of the infinite connections of gift relationships (the Woodlands School represents these connections visually as “communication lines”).  In anishiniaabemowin, this idea is part of the word Miinigowiziwin, probably the most important word I’ve ever learned.  I can’t unpack these thoughts on Anishinaabe constitutionalism and its rootedness in mutual aid; there’s so much to say that I wouldn’t know how to get started without drowning out my purpose for writing here today.  For those dissatisfied, I offer sketches of the argument in three forthcoming papers.  Most important though, I’d encourage you to engage knowledgeable indigenous persons about the interconnectedness of all things and what this means for human communities.  It’s true that many of us today don’t have this knowledge, but in my experience those who dismiss such perspectives as romantic drivel have, unfortunately, often failed to apprehend the understanding shared.

To sum up the previous section, my central contention with identity politics is that the discursive warfare it embraces seems to unfold within the pages of a single story: contract.  I welcome postmodernism’s messages that truth is a function of context and that there’s no space above the fray.  By 2016, many of us have become very good at attending to context, recognizing that for any event there are multiple stories of its transpiring.  But there’s an understory beneath all of the stories that get told, which sets interpretive boundaries around what is imaginable across and within each ideology.  This is my point that for the most part, the postmodern intervention into liberal societies isn’t so radical after all; it just presents a more nuanced contractarianism.

Drawing on Anishinaabe constitutionalisms’ rooting in mutual aid, I want to raise an additional possibility for addressing oppression.  I wonder if we’re better served if we desist constraining ourselves to debate ideology and allow ourselves to consider also which understory to allow to frame the range of possible ideological disagreement, or at least to choose between multiple registers of argumentation.  We have a real choice here.  Mutual aid isn’t yet another ideology contending within the contract story.  It’s an entirely distinct understory within which to have the necessarily ongoing debates about community life and the distribution of benefits.

Mutual aid is no panacea.  Inequality exists within mutual aid societies; mutual aid, like contract, has power formations claiming combatants/speakers/knowledge-holders-producers.  But because different understories start on different pages, the relevant power formations differ.  The anxieties of community members are different.  The dominant axes of privilege and oppression all shift.  Structurally, there’s an enormous difference: individual autonomy is the fulcrum around which privilege/oppression is distributed and experienced within a particular book: contract.  It’s a footnote within mutual aid, which begins instead with interdependence.  This is of real significance because if you understand how interdependence works, you’ll know that I’m not just talking about humans here.  Mutual aid in this sense is deeply, necessarily anti-anthropocentric.  Had the West spent the last 300 years growing within the logic of mutual aid rather than progressing through the logic of contract, we would not now be living in the Anthropocene, facing a climate crisis (see James Tully’s tremendous recent work on this).  This is, perhaps, the critical point of departure between contract and mutual aid understories: in the former, no matter who’s winning the ideological battles the earth will eventually die because at least within public life, it’s valued only instrumentally.  In the latter, earth survives the ideological fray regardless of who happens to be winning, because each and every participant builds its ideology from earth; each knows it exists in and of earth.

Some of you might be wondering what the prospect of entering into debates with mutual aid in mind means for academic and activist practise or just for leaving your front door.  Obviously I don’t have an answer but I can share one thing I’ve learned.  My gete-Anishinaabe teachers are nokomis, Bessie Mainville of my First Nation, Couchiching, and Fred Major of Mitaanjigamiing.  From having now spent nearly a decade learning our traditional law with them, the answer I have for myself is this.

I care but am no longer focused on institutional power.  As a good liberal I would be: I’d pursue existing avenues of free speech and advocacy through the ballot, letters to my MP and through town halls and other public forums.  As a good postmodern I would be, too: I’d ally myself with all who are oppressed, understanding that their oppression is mine, too, and that making a change requires all of us to tear down oppressive power formations together.  As someone trying to be a good Anishinaabe, my approach is much quieter.  I try to live good relationships with my friends and family, the trees around my house, the Thunderers moving furiously over the lake, the cashiers at Safeway.  I practise freedom through the gifts I give and receive from all my relations and I do my best to make acknowledgments.  Anishinaabe inaakonigewinan live within me and I try to behave in ways worthy of that gift.  Again, without getting into the analytics of this, it ordinarily means that oppressed peoples need more from me than others do.  I try to be conscious of this as I think and feel through what I give, what I take and how I go about all of it.  I’ve often told someone in pain that I can see he or she is a sacred person.  I spend considerable time supporting others, often probably unknown to them.

I don’t think of Fred and nokomis as activists, but I think they engage in anti-oppression work just about every time they address someone.  I try to be like them.  I fail often but I’m learning.  The idea is not to worry so much about the choices others make, instead focusing on and taking responsibility for how I live in relationship, for I’m always connected to you and all others.  I believe centering this way of being will allow me to have far more of an impact on oppressive behaviours I encounter than would institutional action or obsessive attention to what my identity means for your freedom.  It’s not a principled position against those things; sometimes they’re important too, they’re just not my focus.  My driving hope is that by treating others as sacred persons, they’ll one day learn to do the same.  That’s how I learned.

After the talking circle on reconciliation had ended, we broke into several small groups, and wouldn’t you know it, the folks I found frustrating were in mine.  Fortunately I was able to see the opportunity as a gift.  I waited and listened for quite awhile.  Then a few heads turned my way and I realized it was my turn to speak.  I took a deep breath.  I began by acknowledging the struggle I heard several folks voice earlier when we were in the circle, and said I’m grateful for their work.  I explained I had something to share and that I didn’t mean to offend anybody in sharing it.  Then I offered my understanding of miinigowiziwin.  I explained that to my heart and mind, the most radical thing anyone can do with respect to decolonization is to allow that he or she is a sacred person, has gifts others need and is worthy of receiving others’ gifts, and is part of creation.  Yes, it truly is important to recognize that one is a settler but that should never be an impediment to the practise of Anishinaabe law on Anishinaabe territory and that means standing within creation, not taking a dejected step back from it.  I encouraged all to live this way, not merely making space for indigenous voices but acting, choosing, thinking, feeling as if what those voices say about this land and how to be on it really matters.  You could have heard a pin drop as I finished.  Fortunately for me, an elder who had until then been silent spoke up, strengthening my message with her words.

One of the attendees who I’d earlier found frustrating approached me afterwards, as I returned from putting out our spirit dish.  He said how much he appreciated what I shared in our small group.

It was a significant gift he gave me that day and I should have said aloud what I heard inside: that if one person can connect with another in the spirit he just did, across the vastness of our difference, all will be well.

Mii iw.


[1] Gary Potts, “Growing Together From the Earth” in Diane Engelstad & John Bird, eds., Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada (House of Anansi Press Limited, 1992) 199.


Note: I wrote an earlier version of much of this two weeks ago in an email dialogue with John Borrows.  I sure appreciate his intellectual engagement, prompting the development of my own thought in new ways….not to mention his willingness to put up with this nonsense.


Reconciliation and the Constitutional Stories We Tell: Thoughts from a Dream Palace

To the extent it was empowered to do so, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has completed its mission. But for what purpose? How did we do with respect to truth? How so for reconciliation? And why should we care?

Voices taking up these questions have differed widely. Most have recognized the horror that Indian Residential Schools institutionalized, but deniers remain. Still others assert we already knew it all, so the Commission created nothing of value. On this view, the Commission was committed to keeping us mired in the past, when we all know what progress looks like.

The ignorance of this last perspective evidences that the truth and reconciliation process has not gone far enough. Colonialism is not a completed, historical process to be acknowledged and then quickly set aside. If it were, those who claim no one living today is responsible for its violence might be right. However colonialism is and has always been a relationship: one premised on ongoing newcomer domination over already existing indigenous societies. As a relationship, colonialism is an ongoing reality.

The Indian Residential Schools programme was merely one practise sustaining it. The central harm crying out for reconciliation is our relationship’s foundation in domination. That relationship—colonialism—is thriving in 2015.

So I am adding another perspective to our national dialogue. We shouldn’t be thinking about tweaking the status quo. We need to re-imagine what it means to be Canadian. We need to demand that domination over indigenous peoples and their territories no longer serves as the foundation for our shared political community.

Let me unpack that. This domination happens in three ways.

The first is individual. The Independent Assessment Process and the Commission were mandated to reveal individual harms residential school survivors experienced and they proved enormously effective. All interested Canadians now know about the rampant individual physical, sexual, and psychological abuse so many survivors experienced, aggregated on a colossal scale.

The second form of domination regards our collective senses of self. The Residential Schools programme deliberately attacked our languages, cultures and spirituality. While the Assessment Process was limited to individual harms, Commission processes allowed survivors to address collective harms they experienced. We heard about the devastating, intergenerational impacts of loss of identity. We heard of hope and brokenness.

The third form of domination is the most important but the hardest to understand. Under Canada’s constitutional order, indigenous peoples now enjoy the liberties other Canadians do. However this is not evidence of our freedom, but of the blunt fact of our domination. We never agreed to settle for liberty under someone else’s constitutional order. We have our own constitutional orders reflecting our own visions of freedom. Where distinct constitutional communities collide, indigenous peoples have a shared constitutional practise of entering into treaty relationships. They allow us to coordinate our distinct constitutional orders, sharing our gifts to meet each another’s needs.

Treaty is a relationship of mutual aid, not a contract through which a bully is empowered to demand exploitive terms up front and for all time. Treaty is not a process in which one constitutional community subsumes another. We never agreed to dissolve our constitutional communities into mere municipalities, making way for Canadian sovereignty over us and our territories.

Reconciliation understood as resignation to the colonial status quo will never be good enough. Reconciliation means truth-telling, deep listening and responding. We have all heard the tough talk in recent days that responding means a commitment to action. But more than this, it means a willingness to be changed by what has been shared. Without that—if we already know best—action is just more colonialism.

Those who redescribe indigenous peoples’ desire for an honest and healthy relationship with Canada as a maximalist demand or as expiation are demanding we reconcile ourselves to colonial power. They have failed to understand the most important, most basic truth about reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t a goal to be achieved and moved past, but a relationship to be lived in perpetuity. It cannot be realized so long as we accept domination as the foundation for who we are together. If you ask me what justifies my Anishinaabe constitutional order, I have a story I am proud to tell you.

What story can you tell?