The Participation Problem

Jaskiran Dhillon’s new book Prairie Rising is an ethnographic exposure of how Canadian services for Indigenous youth perpetuate carceral coloniality.

In Claresholm, the small prairie town I grew up in in southern Alberta, Canada, when we talked about the rez kids, it was like they existed in another dimension. Their daily lives, the institutions they moved through, their aspirations and challenges, all of this was obscured by the segregation of space into the “safe” town and the “dangerous” reservation. “You shouldn’t go there, you’ll get beaten up,” I was warned. The anger directed at Native teenagers seemed to be triggered as they crossed the threshold into “our” safe space, which only happened for hockey games. All my friends knew of Indigenous youth was that they got a free pickup truck when they turned 18 and that they didn’t pay taxes—exaggerated and simplified stories that served to magnify settler resentment. Indigenous youth were at once dangerous and pitiable, dirt-poor and spoiled, original inhabitants and hostile foreigners. Convenient myths.


Jaskiran Dhillon, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention. University of Toronto Press, 2017. 320 pages.
For my part, by high school I had learned enough about my own family history to know that my mother was Tlingit, from the Yukon, but that I was understood to be white by all of my peers. I occasionally leveraged my ancestry to catch friends in the middle of racist tirades: “I’m an Indian, you know.” Unfailingly, this served only to cement me as one of the “good ones.” Here, the exception proved the rule, and the racial imaginaries of my contemporaries remained unchanged, or even reinforced. I was lucky enough to pass as white, I had grown up on the right side of the tracks, I was on the right team. 

It is into this space—the segregated, friendly, hardworking, well-intentioned settler whiteness of the prairies—that Jaskiran Dhillon offers her first book, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention, an ethnographic contextualization of the lives of urban Indigenous youth in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, as they make lives within settler-carceral regimes. It is also an incisive indictment of the settler-colonial state, and the failure of Canada to improve the lives of Indigenous youth through programs of social intervention. To those unfamiliar with the history of Canadian settler colonialism, Dhillon offers a generous and deeply historical primer on the bureaucratic machinations built to solve the “Indian Problem”—the forms of social deprivation that emerge from the failed state project of replacing Indigenous peoples with settler society—that has haunted Canada since Confederation. The book begins by describing the history of state and civic institutions in Canada, showing the shifting terrain of the “Indian Problem” into the current era of “reconciliation,” and concomitant programs to redress Indigenous crises in poverty, unemployment, housing, and precarity. The services offered to Indigenous youth to address these crises—including mentoring, professional development, career services, and reintegration—produce knowledge and practices concerning Indigenous youth that lead to their continued incarceration, impoverishment, and suffering.

Dhillon, like me, grew up on the prairies. Her book is a culmination of decades of work with Indigenous people, people whose displacement made it possible for our families to settle and thrive in the lands now claimed by Canada. As the daughter of immigrant parents from Northern India, Dhillon has a complicated relation to the segregation and settler violence of the prairie provinces. Rejecting the narrative of the “successful” immigrant and model minority that reinforces the settler state’s self-description as a benevolent entity, Dhillon troubles the dominant narratives of prairie life and historicizes the contexts of contemporary inequality. For both of us, growing up on the prairies meant contending with its foundational pioneer myths:

1) white settlers were oppressed elsewhere before they made their way to the prairies
2) early pioneers set up farms under extremely harsh conditions
3) nothing was ever handed to these hardy and hard-working people
4) they made a life for themselves through sweat and blood
5) after generations, they should not be called “settlers”; this land is their home

Parts of these myths are true. They are also used to erase the violence through which the prairies were settled, including forced starvation, relocation, and elimination of the buffalo. This violence, when acknowledged, is held apart from the context of settlement, as if the plains weren’t cleared for white settler occupation. As James Daschuk shows in his history of health and disease, Clearing the Plains, the starvation and relocation of Indigenous peoples on the prairies at the end of the 19th century was a deliberate strategy employed by government agents in order to secure land for white farmers. When this violence is acknowledged by the descendants of these farmers, it is not given explanatory power. “That was all in the past,” they tell me, “ancient history.” Such a rhetorical move becomes harder to deploy in light of Dhillon’s scholarship. She picks up where Daschuk leaves off, detailing the regimes of governance that have shaped the lives of Indigenous youth on the prairies. The pioneer myth would have us believe that Indigenous youth have every chance to succeed (what with their free trucks and all), and fail because of laziness, inattention, and violent behavior. Dhillon’s work powerfully counteracts this narrative of racial degradation by showing how state and civil society conspire to produce programs aimed at the redemption of Indigenous youth without shifting the underlying structural violence of Indigenous dispossession. In so doing, she turns away from a deficit model of colonized people—one in which the poverty and dispossession experienced by Indigenous youth might be seen as a failure to access the “gifts” of civilization—to a critical takedown of the structures and assumptions underlying programs for Indigenous youth.

Prairie Rising refuses to be a straightforward redemption story, and Dhillon is careful not to romanticize the agency of Indigenous youth in their struggles to overcome the obstacles to thriving. She rightly shows how such stories of individualized self-determination are a cornerstone of neoliberal citizenship. The federal strategy that guides organizations like the “Indigenous Alliance” in the creation of programs for urban Indigenous youth identifies them as an “at risk” population, a designation that targets youth as individuals and then offers solutions based on their personal choices and behavior (for example, attending school programs designed to usher youth toward particular career paths, or “reintegration” programs after juvenile detention). The question behind the strategy of participation driving Dhillon’s work is, “participation in what?” The allure of neoliberal citizenship depoliticizes the lives of Indigenous youth by hiding structural forces within individual choice, and the result is a replication of assimilative settler-colonial structures as old as Canada itself.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has entered an era of recognition and reconciliation. Under this rubric, the main operation necessary to ensure more equitable relations is to recognize Indigenous difference and then offer equal opportunity to Indigenous groups to participate in social, economic, and educational initiatives. The problem with Indigenous-state relations, the recognition paradigm suggests, is that Indigenous peoples have been excluded from the good life guaranteed by Canadian citizenship, and that self-determination of Indigenous people, while good in theory, must be nested within the Canadian state. Similarly, Indigenous youth have simply “fallen through the cracks” of the system, and the organizations described in Prairie Rising aim to pull them back onto a better path. Back into the schools, back into jobs, back into “normal” life.

The irony of a strategy of “inclusion” for Indigenous peoples is that we are chided for not wanting to participate in a system that was built on and for our elimination, and that draws us away from struggles to reclaim our land and sovereignty. As Dene political theorist Glen Coulthard has detailed in Red Skin, White Masks, the strategy of seeking recognition from the Canadian State has delimited the political horizons of Indigenous self-governance, as the terms of negotiation are always set by the more powerful state, leaving the foundations of settler government intact and most of our lands under settler control. Kahnawake Mohawk anthropologist Audra Simpson describes how recognition, especially of cultural forms, works through apprehension, both trapping Indigenous cultures in a distant past and foreclosing possibilities for sovereign Indigenous political orders in the present. Dhillon builds on these critiques of recognition by interrogating participation as the mechanism through which settler-colonial governance aims to garner legitimacy without structural change. At its core, Dhillon finds that the recognition paradigm is centered on the idea of the common good: “The basic idea is this: if we all work together, we can share the riches and benefits of living off of (and I mean this literally, given Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels as a major component of its economic prowess) this vast territory.” Recognition happens by placing the horizon of the good life at the achievement of Canadian citizenship, rendering settler citizenship normative. What’s “good for everyone,” however, has not been good for Indigenous youth, whose lives are increasingly constrained by institutions that pitch participation as the route to social empowerment without considering the role of settler citizenship in erasing Indigenous ways of being.

Dhillon unflinchingly details how institutions often understood as basic “social goods” are shot through with settler-colonial history. Law enforcement was born to quash Indigenous resistance to land theft. Education was used as a tool of elimination in the residential school system, and still functions as an assimilatory rubric. Dhillon notes that “contemporary appeals to the miraculous, almost magical, power of education are nestled within a history of state preoccupation with the potential utility of education as an avenue to (re)invent the social location of Indigenous peoples in Canada and ultimately socially engineer them out of existence.” The ruse of “participation” and “choice,” Dhillon reminds us, throws up the smokescreen of “inclusion” to hide the underlying logic of elimination at work, that Canada still wants our land and refuses to recognize our sovereignty as peoples. Like the hockey games in Claresholm, the rules of the game and the terms of engagement are already set. The rez team never wins; instead they are harassed and beaten up, and then their failure is taken as an indication of their racial character. The white hockey moms make Indian “war whoops” when their sons score, send a volley of racial slurs at the ice, and then berate the young Indigenous players for not bringing their best effort. But the rules of the game never change, and so neither does the outcome. It’s not their rink, anyway. Even in “our home and native land,” the Natives never get to play on home ice.

Underneath the veneer of good intentions, the truth festers: This segregated, friendly, hard-working, well-intentioned settler space was made possible through the theft of Indigenous land, the starvation of Indigenous people, and the containment of Indigenous life to reservations. As soon as one starts to understand the price paid by Indigenous peoples for this hardscrabble farming life, the pioneer myth starts to crumble. The intentions of programs for Indigenous youth, however “good,” never include dismantling the system that continues to dispossess them, or seriously accounting for the historical violence with which this system was built. The “Indian problem” in Canada is intractable because the state has never been able to separate the problem from the Indians. Eliminating one means eliminating the other.

And so, the youth whose lives weave in and out of Dhillon’s book have no faith in participation. As the “involuntary recipients of state-sponsored ‘care’ and redemption,” they fully realize that the game is rigged. They find ways to resist the intervention of state-sponsored “inclusion” into their lives, as they try to find resources within a system built on their dispossession. Prairie Rising shows how organizations try to make Indigenous youth believe in the good faith of their settler saviors, while casting failure to do so as a fatal flaw. In the end, however, the state continues to feed on Indigenous crisis stories to obscure its own illegitimacy—it is this “necrophilic settler benevolence” that Dhillon joins Indigenous youth in refusing. The Canadian state’s focus on “improvement” enacts a form of colonial care that paints Indigenous failure to thrive as an inability to cope with a settler modernity understood as inevitable and permanent. By framing interventions into Indigenous life as “care,” the state reproduces the image of Indigenous life as dysfunctional and maladaptive—it feeds on Indigenous death as a way to project its own benevolence. Indigenous youth are forcibly cast as tragic characters in a story about the redemption of the liberal state, and Dhillon traces the ways in which they navigate these roles while continuing to fight for decolonization and freedom.

With Prairie Rising, Jaskiran Dhillon has produced a too rare intervention into scholarship on and with Indigenous peoples. Writing on decolonization often fails to engage Indigenous youth, and writing that does attend to the lives of Indigenous youth tends to dwell on their social suffering. Dhillon manages to avoid the pornography of suffering, instead revealing the ways that Indigenous youth create new opportunities for decolonization in their lives and dreams. She refuses to pathologize Indigenous expressions of disbelief in the system, theorizing these expressions as creative acts of refusal, leadership, and transformation. While she takes down “participation” as a mode of social liberation, she never faults Indigenous youth for their entanglement in this system. She realizes that Indigenous participation in settler-colonial structures is often coerced, and the resources offered through the regime make it difficult to fully refuse.

She has also written a book that analyzes the settler-colonial structures of participation through intervention in order to dismantle them: what we might call bad-faith scholarship. In doing so, she offers us a model of politically engaged anthropology, a handbook for critical analysis that refuses to take the institutions of “social good” at face value if they continue to dispossess.

We can take up her call to analyze and dismantle the technologies of settler colonialism, as scholars and advocates, by practicing our own bad faith. If we stop believing in the settler-colonial state, while continuing to interrogate its projections and myths, perhaps we can wrench each other loose from its strangulating web. From our respective positions, we leverage institutional resources even though we know the institutions will not liberate us. We refuse the benevolence of systems built on dispossession. We pay reparations, we make amends, we commit ourselves to each other. We stop playing the game, even if it’s rigged so we win.