Paradoxes of Participation: Reflections on Jaskiran Dhillon’s Prairie Rising

by Matthew Chrisler

How does participation in Canadian Reconciliation further the colonial governance of Indigenous peoples? This is the central question of Jaskiran Dhillon’s new monograph, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention (University of Toronto Press, 2017). Tracing the impact of nonprofit programs focused on intervening in the lives of Indigenous youth trapped in circuits of incarceration and social marginalization, Dhillon provides powerful new evidence for what Indigenous scholars and activists have argued is only a kinder, gentler colonialism.[1]

Prairie Rising connects the recent expansion of nonprofits that provide social services for Indigenous peoples in urban areas to the national process of reconciliation. Dhillon shows through the experiences of Indigenous youth and nonprofit workers how incarceration, education, and sex work have all become sites of intervention to improve the lives of Indigenous youth. The first section reveals how urban Indigenous life is informed by the ongoing management of the so-called “Indian problem” and its reconfiguration by neoliberal governing practices. The second section tracks the work of the nonprofit “Indigenous Alliance” within the project of national reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous nations. The final section draws out the internal and external tensions around the projects of participation, showing how Indigenous youth and nonprofit workers push back and imagine alternatives to the current system. This book comes at a fortuitous time, as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary of Confederation, draped in denim-tuxedo multiculturalism,[2] while Indigenous movements around the world gain momentum in challenging settler colonialism and the capitalist devastation of our planet.[3]

Yet, as Dhillon shows, beneath the surface-level aesthetics lies an ever-present structure of settler colonialism, and its irreducible dynamic of settler theft of land from Indigenous people. The effects are manifest in genocidal attempts to eliminate Indigenous nations’ sovereignty, relations to land, and citizenship through the Canadian Indian Act. They are manifest in Canada’s encroachments onto Treaty or unceded land for large-scale infrastructure projects that are backed by police and military force. They are manifest in the high rates of Indigenous unemployment and underemployment, incarceration, homelessness, and suicide, as well as limited access to traditional lands, quality healthcare, education, and other social services. Perhaps most disturbingly, they are manifest in the high rates of gendered violence against Indigenous women in reservations, border towns, and cities, which are reinforced by the refusal of the state to fully acknowledge or investigate the perpetrators.[4]

Canadian governments, for their part, have largely denied Canada’s colonial structure or deferred the need to change. We see these denials and deferrals in Steven Harper’s statement that Canada has “no history of colonialism”;[5] or Justin Trudeau’s approval of massive oil and water projects crossing Treaty or unceded lands against the express wishes of Indigenous nations;[6] while using the courts to fight against the federal government’s obligation to maintain basic health services for Indigenous people.[7] Instead of addressing its own ongoing colonial relations and the accumulated effects of this history, Dhillon notes that the state has portrayed Indigenous people as traumatized people who should reconcile and heal within the Canadian nation, and has poured money into participatory projects that provide social services for Indigenous youth trapped in the state’s circuits of incarceration and social abandonment. These programs, and the modes of participation that they deploy, are the central topic of Dhillon’s ethnography.

Dhillon traces the impact of participation on Indigenous youth in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Vancouver, British Columbia. The city of Saskatoon, where Dhillon did most her fieldwork, is within Cree Territory on the Saskatchewan River. Along with Calgary and Edmonton, Saskatoon was built on Treaty Six Territory, and boomed following the suppression of the North-West Rebellion led by Metis and Cree and the establishment of the reservation system. In the 1950s Indigenous people began migrating to urban centers in response to the reduction of their Treaty territories by federal policy. Once there, settlers who had established cities as white spaces pathologized urban Indigenous communities as criminal, uneducated, and impoverished, justifying segregation and policing of Indigenous communities. Yet today the city streets and official buildings of Saskatoon are awash in signs of Indigenous cooperation with municipal, provincial, and federal governments.

The central paradox Prairie Rising tracks is how Reconciliation’s shift to solicit Indigenous participation reinforces the colonial structure of Canada. Participation is often framed as a cornerstone of liberal democratic governance. Rights are evenly distributed to all citizens. Citizens vote and form communities. Communities work with each other on local, regional, and national issues. Legislators and bureaucrats solicit input from communities and citizens on policy. Within this apparently apolitical system Dhillon argues that participation is “both a discursive apparatus and a process that plays out in the concrete practices that inform the development of social interventions for urban Indigenous youth” (13). As a discourse, it asserts that Indigenous youth can be saved from bleak futures of crime and poverty through cultural programming in skills training and education, and frames justice as the inclusion of Indigenous peoples into the pluralistic nationalism of Canada. Concretely, participation manifests in the work of nonprofits to provide social services for Indigenous youth in cities. Nonprofits then act as interfaces between the state and Indigenous communities. While claiming to be apolitical, nonprofits enforce limits on the political focus (social services) and goals (inclusion) of participation.

Dhillon shows in meticulous detail how participation defers and excludes anti-racist and anti-colonial politics. Across the chapters, the reader sees how nonprofits and their workers bracket Indigenous “culture” from issues of sovereignty and Treaty rights; blame Indigenous women for the gendered violence directed against them; re-pathologize Indigenous youth as lacking enough culture to be educated and healthy; and emphasize gaining individual skills rather than transforming social structures. Those few nonprofit workers, Indigenous or settler, who stray from this hegemonic common sense are disciplined or excluded. Thus while participation promises collective empowerment, it requires that Indigenous peoples adopt the normative characteristics of settler citizenship and capitalist labor practices that were imposed through colonial conquest of North America.

Dhillon provides new insight into theories of settler colonialism as a biopolitical project[8], a set of claims around sovereignty and citizenship[9], a regime of property and labor relations[10], and an imperial undertaking[11]. The scholars of these theoretical approaches have meticulously detailed the micropolitical, political-economic, and affective dimensions of settler claims to sovereignty that, to use the language of Haudenosaunee anthropologist Audra Simpson, proliferate at the expense of Indigenous political and legal orders.[12] Building on this research, Dhillon provides a new analytic of settler colonialism by showing how its macro-political structure is built from the ground up in the micropolitics of participation. Nonprofits organized around participation monopolize authority by defining who constitutes a community, mobilizing sentiment, and generating forms of expertise centered in nonprofits and state institutions. Participation is never disarticulated from the lived realities of Indigenous youth, because Indigenous youth are transformed into the problem community; the target of sympathy; the object of expertise.

To be rendered an obstacle of inclusion within the nation-state is the material condition of racially colonized peoples everywhere. Du Bois: “How does it feel to be a problem?”[13] Fanon: “I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.”[14] Dhillon artfully takes up the spirit of these anti-racist and anti-colonial analyses as directions for ethnographic research. In so doing, she contributes to a broad literature on the shifting terrain of liberal governance. An emerging field of critical ethnographies of empowerment in racialized and colonial contexts offer complementary insights: Aimee Cox’s Shapeshifters, Lisa Stevenson’s Life Beside Itself, Damien Sojoyner’s First Strike, and Soo Ah Kwon’s Uncivil Youth.[15] In the young Black women’s shelters of Detroit, suicide prevention programs in Inuit communities, Los Angeles school-to-prison enclosures for Black and Latinx students, and Bay Area after school programs for Southeast Asian youth, ethnographers have found that nonprofits and state institutions use “participation” as a technology of governance. Participation is used as an invitation to full citizenship for racially marginalized communities and individuals across geographies and axes of racialization. This liberal fantasy promises the benefits of citizenship based on an individual’s ability to take responsibility for and transform colonial racial pathologies into practices that reflect the normative subjectivities reproduced within the institutions of family, employment, education, and health. Through projects of participation premised on liberal individualist norms, empowerment is rendered technical, the inheritors of colonial violence are pathologized, while calculating expertise is framed as care.

Care then becomes the affective medium of power relations between the state and targeted populations. It both channels normativity and polices the boundaries of its operation. It serves to naturalize participation as well as justify the suppression of dissent. At these moments of naturalization and suppression, participation projects reveal the ways they are invested in the politics of citizenship articulated to the liberal capitalist nation-state. The affect of citizenship organizes the material world.

Yet as Indigenous, Black, and of color feminists have long asserted, white settler institutions work through reproduction, gender, and sexuality to eliminate Indigenous political and social orders particular to Indigenous nations[16]; legally exclude Black people from the category of humanity as the basis of social life[17]; and impose conditions of quasi-citizenship and alienable labor on nonwhite arrivants[18]; and justify imperial expansion.[19] To maintain the order of things, settler states attempt to create a terror and respect for their own political-economic arrangements secured through policing and education. That is why it is always possible to radically re-politicize the flattened identities of normative citizenship attempts, including those formed through the normative politics of care. Dhillon demonstrates this feminist analysis throughout the text by engaging the aspirations of decolonization among Indigenous youth, especially young Indigenous women. It is their home on Cree Territory and their work in urban spaces to transform the conditions of their lives that imagines possibilities of decolonization outside the horizon of normative citizenship, mosaic multiculturalism, and capitalist resource extraction.

About the author: Matthew Chrisler is a graduate student in Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


[1] Coulthard, Glen. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Idle No More Media, “UNSettling Canada 150.” YouTube: June 29, 2017.

[2] Tasker, John Paul. “Justin Trudeau visits ‘reoccupation’ teepee on Parliament Hill. CBC. June 30, 2017.

[3] Noisecat, Julian Brave and Anne Spice. “A History and Future of Resistance.” Jacobin. September 8, 2016.

[4] Dhillon, Jaskiran and Siku Allooloo. “Violence against indigenous women is woven into Canada’s history.” The Guardian. December 14, 2015.

[5] O’Keefe, Derrick. “Harper in denial at G20: Canada has ‘no history of colonialism.’” Rabble. September 28, 2009.

[6] Tasker, John Paul. “Trudeau cabinet approves Trans Mountain, Line 3 pipelines, rejects Northern Gateway.” CBC. November 29, 2016.

Trumpener, Betsy. “Trudeau government signals support for Site C dam, grants two permits.” CBC. July 29, 2016.

[7] Talaga, Tanya and Alex Ballingall. “Ottawa spent $707,000 in legal fees fighting decision that protects Indigenous children.” The Star. June 2, 2017.

[8] Million, Dion. Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8.4 (2006): 387-409.

[9] Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Border of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

[10] Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks.

Robinson, Aileen-Moreton. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

King, Tiffany. 2014. “Labor’s Aphasia: Toward Antiblackness as Constitutive of Settler Colonialism.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, Society, June 10, 2014.

[11] Byrd, Jodi The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Daschuk, James.  Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013.

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[12] Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus.

[13] DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1903) 2008: 1.

[14] Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press, (1952) 2008: 82.

[15] Cox, Aimee Meredith. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Kwon, Soo Ah. Uncivil Youth: Race, Activism, and Affirmative Governmentality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Sojoyner, Damien. First Strike: Educational Enclosures in Black Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Stevenson, Lisa. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

[16] Barker, Joanne, editor. Critically Sovereign: Indigenous Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Goeman, Mishoana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping our Nations. Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press, 2013.

[17] Harris, Cheryl. “Whiteness as Property.” Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Shaped the Movement. New York: The New Press, 1995: 276-291.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64-81.

[18]Day, Iyko. Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Nguyen, Mimi Thi. The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

[19] Byrd, The Transit of Empire, 2011.

Morgensen, Scott Lauria. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism with Queer Modernities.” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 16.1-2 (2010): 105-131.

Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.


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