rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Book review: Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $5 per month!


Part of the history of the last five centuries on these territories is the story of Europeans displacing Indigenous peoples for economic gain. It is this history that Glen Coulthard, in his new book, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, calls the "violent transformation of noncapitalist forms of life into capitalist ones." This form of primitive accumulation, through violent dispossession, has since given way to quieter, less visible, structures of constant displacement. In the pointed words of Patrick Wolfe, cited by Coulthard, "settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event."

According to Coulthard, a professor at UBC's First Nations Studies Program active in local struggles, the structure of invasion continues to dispossess Indigenous peoples through the disingenuous politics of recognition -- which includes the transfer of land, the delegation of self-determination and economic development initiatives from the state to Indigenous communities. Despite appearances, Coulthard argues that these measures do little more than reproduce the systems of power they claim to uproot. "[I]n the Canadian context, colonial relations of power are no longer reproduced primarily through overtly coercive means," Coulthard writes, "but rather through the asymmetrical exchange of mediated forms of state recognition and accommodation."

Taiaiake Alfred, who wrote the forward to Coulthard's book, stated in Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom that "we are negotiating with our oppressor from a position of weakness." Coulthard argues that as long as recognition is something given to oppressed peoples by a dominant body, it will inevitably fail in its stated purpose to liberate those people. This happens in part because it entrenches "the assumption that the flourishing of Indigenous peoples as distinct and self-determining entities is significantly dependent on their being afforded cultural recognition and institutional accommodation by the settler state apparatus."

Furthermore, Canada's practice of recognition and accommodation has typically occurred in ways which leave the underlying economic system unchallenged. In writing about his own people, the Dene Nation, Coulthard details the way governments worked to separate the recognition of cultural practices "from any socioeconomic scheme that might potentially disrupt the further accumulation of capital through the development of the North’s resource base."

Accommodation of cultural differences, and even transfers of land, could be accepted by the state, so long as the power relationship remains intact and the capitalist system animating it remains unquestioned. Consequently, according to Coulthard, accepting these offers of recognition has only meant "the continued dispossession of our homelands."

Alfred, also in Wasáse, likewise laments the way self-government for state-created Indigenous governments within the larger colonial system have nonetheless perpetuated capitalism by integrating them into the resource-exploitation economy. "[S]elf-government and economic development," he writes, "signify the defeat of our peoples' struggles just as surely as, to our grandparents, residential schools, land dispossession, and police beatings signified the supposed supremacy of white power and the subjugation and humiliation of the first and real peoples of this land."

Coulthard also critiques the politics of reconciliation. Vancouver recently completed its Year of Reconciliation, which culminated in the city declaring that we are on unceded Indigenous territories. Though his book does not mention this recent development, Coulthard criticizes such reconciliation efforts for leaving structural conditions intact. According to him, they depend on the false notion that colonialism is an artifact of the regrettable past, and that the only change required is a narrowly symbolic shift. It achieves this by creating a situation where colonized people develop what Fanon called "psycho-affective" attachments to these symbols of reconciliation. Once co-opted through this process of internalization -- believing that symbolic reconciliation amounts to liberation -- "government need not undertake actions required to transform the current institutional and social relationships."

When people recognize these diversions and sleight of hands, and consequently reject the politics of recognition and reconciliation, they are disdainfully described as being unable to "move on." But Coulthard sees it differently. Anger at the persistence of colonialism is understandable, since it is "directed at a structural and symbolic violence that still structures our lives, our relations with others, and our relationships with land." It also symbolizes a critical awareness that is necessary for revolutionary change.

Colonizers understand that this anger represents insight, and, with insight, a potential call to arms. "Peoples subjected to colonization and white supremacy cannot be outraged," writes Andrea Smith, "because outrage would indicate they are no longer willing to accept these conditions." It's for this reason that the anger of oppressed people is so consistently disparaged and policed. Coulthard sees this anger as transformative -- as the animator of an Indigenous resurgence. Not only can this critical awareness help dismantle the colonial structure, it can also be a necessary part of building an alternative. "I am not so concerned with how we dismantle the master's house," writes Leanne Simpson in Dancing on Our Turtle's Back. "[B]ut I am very concerned with how we (re)build our own house, or our own houses."

Coulthard closes his book with a meditation on what an Indigenous resurgence can look like. It's a vision of communities deeply rooted to the land, organized around the ethic of mutual aid, and unencumbered by the urge towards hierarchies. It's also an explicitly anti-capitalist one. "For Indigenous nations to live," Coulthard says conclusively, "capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it."

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.