In 2007, Dr. Sherene Razack (Department of Social Justice Education, OISE, University of Toronto) began investigating the deaths of Indigenous men and women in Canadian custody. The result of that work is a new book Dying From Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody from University of Toronto Press (2015) In it, Razack confronts the disturbing numbers, including 116 deaths in custody between 1995 and 2013 – just in Saskatchewan alone – and challenges the tepid response by police, lawmakers and the public. The Global Migration Research Institute spoke to Razack about “settler colonialism” (a process through which Europeans settle on and rule over Indigenous peoples ) the history and contemporary prevalence of these events across Canada, and why inquiries and inquests are not nearly as progressive as they may seem.

 

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO FOCUS ON BRITISH COLUMBIA AND SASKATCHEWAN?

This journey began for me in Saskatchewan when I wrote an article, perhaps my most well known onee, on the murder of an Indigenous woman, Pamela George (“Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George” Canadian Journal of Law and Society/Revue canadienne droit et société, Volume 15 no.2 pp. 91-130). George was working as a prostitute. She was picked up by two white, college-age men and they drove her outside of town, had sex with her and killed her. George was killed in 1996 and the two men were tried for her murder. I published an article on the trial in 2000. We didn’t yet use the phrase “missing and murdered Indigenous women” but that is clearly who Pamela George was. I went to the University of Regina, Saskatchewan to present this paper.

At that talk, women came up to me after – and men –to speak about George’s death. I will always remember one person in particular who said, “Three of my sisters died this way.” And I remember being terrified as a scholar because I thought: Who am I? I’m someone from Toronto, working in an office in the University of Toronto. What do I know about all of this death? And I was quite frankly really terrified about whether I could understand this and in fact I did a not very brave thing, which is to decide to try not to think about it for a few years, and to think about something else. I then started to ask questions around what happens to Indigenous men? What is the police response? (I had been thinking of writing on black men being shot in Toronto, something more local.)

The context in Saskatchewan was immensely violent. Indigenous men and women were losing their lives in really horrible, violent ways and there seemed to be very little accountability in the courts. The research could have been anywhere in Canada, however. Indigenous death in custody is absolutely everywhere. I just came from giving a keynote speech on the book in Nova Scotia. Immediately (people came) up and they (said): Have you heard of Veronica Paul, a Migmaw woman who died in custody? I encounter these responses everywhere.

The challenging aspect of this research is that Canada does not believe in collecting or making known race-based statistics. There’s a chart in Dying From Improvement that took a huge chunk of my research budget and even there it is tentative to determine who’s Indigenous (and] who’s not because it is not listed. So you’re doing detective work.

WHY THE RELUCTANCE TO COLLECT RACE-BASED STATISTICS?

It’s the most bizarre logic that you could ever encounter. Canadians – or at least the Canadian state – appears to believe that it is racist to collect race-based statistics. There’s no logic here but obviously it’s extremely convenient: If you don’t have statistics you cannot analyze the extent of the phenomenon.

CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE TITLE OF THE BOOK? WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY “DYING FROM IMPROVEMENT?”

Inquests and inquiries are places where the state interrogates deaths in custody – other things as well, the death of missing and murdered women, for example – with a view to determining how we can change policies and practices and ensure that such deaths do not happen again. Focusing on prevention, an inquest or an inquiry is not a trial. But partially because of the preventative aspect, they are excellent places for the state to publicly present itself as a state committed to equality, and to “saving” indigenous peoples. The state is able to tell a colonial story of improvement and to announce itself as dedicated to rescue.

My title really means to emphasize that in these kinds of legal fora one finds a state performing itself as benevolent. What we don’t have is accountability for all the deaths, so the deaths keep happening.

WHAT IS THE MAIN MESSAGE THAT YOU WANT TO DELIVER FROM THE BOOK?

The main message is that settler colonialism is ongoing, it’s happening, it’s here, it’s not a thing of the past and it involves a lot of indigenous people dying and being killed, directly or indirectly. Connected to that is the message about, how the state actually is implicated and how Indigenous death is authorized.

WITH THIS MESSAGE IN MIND, WHAT IS THE POLITICAL IMPACT THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEE?

The political impact that I would very much like to see is first of all that we recognize that it’s happening, that there are a lot of deaths in custody and second, that there is very little accountability.

BY “IT’S HAPPENING” YOU MEAN SETTLER COLONIALISM?

Yes, settler colonialism is ongoing in Canada. We have an understanding of ourselves as not that kind of place. I’m currently working on black deaths in custody and migrant deaths in custody as well, and most Canadians believe that they have a very benevolent state; they think, this could not possibly be like the United States where police shoot Black people all the time. We think that we have no need of a social movement such as Black Lives Matter (a movement in response to police shootings) What I really want to say that we must get over this fantasy of innocence.

WHEN DID YOU START YOUR RESEARCH ON THIS TOPIC?

That’s a very embarrassing question. It’s ten years now that I’ve been writing this, about fifteen since I’ve been thinking of (deaths in custody). Although I am concerned that it took such a long time, I don’t believe that this is solely because academic life is very difficult. I think it’s very hard for me, as a scholar, to theorize racial/colonial violence against Indigenous peoples– actually, to even confront it. I find it leaves me very fearful that I haven’t understood the full import of this violence – that I have underestimated it rather than overestimated it. That’s my fear.

YOU MENTIONED IN THE BOOK THAT THIS PROCESS WAS DIFFICULT. CAN YOU EXPLAIN? WHAT MADE THIS A DIFFICULT PROCESS?

What is the most frightening thing about this kind of research is that when you’re reading all these legal processes, you’re encountering people, you’re encountering judges, lawyers, police officers, people who testify and your work is to actually analyze how what they’re saying contributes to the violence or is the violence. And what you find is a kind of everyday, almost banal devaluing of indigenous life and a performance of white dominance that is terrifying, all the more because it is familiar and banal. So that’s the really terrifying part: understanding that we live in a structure that is absolutely profoundly shaped – premised – on the devaluing of Indigenous life and black life and (communities that are “othered”).

WAS THERE ANY TREPIDATION AROUND COMING INTO THIS RESEARCH OR RESEARCHING THE BOOK AND WRITING IT?

I always have the perennial concern about when you are, yourself, not the target of this kind of violence. How much do you understand about it? That’s my terror all the time. You don’t have a kind of gut experience or everyday experience to fuel your theoretical inquiry. Experience is not enough; you have to critically reflect on it and have critical thinking. What might I not know and also what might I myself want to not see? You might not be alive to the violence if you are at such a distance from it. And maybe you would fall into the very things you’re trying to critique. That’s the fear. Perhaps that’s the fear of any researcher.

BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, IT IS ALWAYS THE DICHOTOMY OF THE INSIDER/OUTSIDER. NOT BEING AN INSIDER PERHAPS ALSO GIVES YOU ANOTHER INSIGHT.

Well, perhaps. I think all scholars have to go with what they have. Perhaps I utilize in my research my understanding of myself as a racialized scholar, or my own experiences of colonialism. But that’s never enough. So it’s really about, can you exercise enough vigilance about how you understand things?

WHAT THROUGH THIS PROCESS HAS BEEN YOUR MOST SURPRISING FINDING?

I don’t know if I was surprised by it but I think it’s the most significant that a considerable amount of violence happens because there is such a deeply, deeply internalized devaluing of Indigenous life. I think I was probably a bit surprised that it was not masked in any way.

WHAT WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE TURNING POINT, AS FAR AS THE CANADIAN CONSCIOUSNESS, AROUND VIOLENCE TOWARDS INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES IF THERE’S ONE?

Have we reached one? I don’t think we’ve reached one at all and in fact, if anything, what you see, what you learn from inquests and inquiries is that the game of improvement is not a straight line.

For example, the Aboriginal Justice (Implementation Commission) Inquiry, which was a couple decades ago, had some of the most brilliant statements acknowledging violence that you can find in those kinds of documents. They write about Helen Betty Osborne who was an Indigenous teenager attending school in The Pas, Manitoba. Osborne was picked up by four white guys, who sexually assaulted and killed her. For twenty years the town knew who the killers were and they were never brought to justice. The two justices, (Alvin) Hamilton and (Murray) Sinclair are strong on this point: Helen Betty Osborne was killed because she was Aboriginal. That’s an explicit naming of the targeting of Indigenous girls and women. You never get anything this explicit in a legal forum.

I should clarify that notwithstanding the brilliant moment I refer to in the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the very nature of the game of improvement is that in the exact moment when you think you’ve got a gain, you’ve actually got a loss.

So, for example, today, the government appears to have acknowledged that there are many missing and murdered Indigenous women. But as the Harper government tried to say, the problem can be attributed to Indigenous men alone. In this framework, we cannot find the killers of Helen Betty or Pamela George. So a national inquiry that sounds so promising could end up concluding that it’s really indigenous people who are doing themselves in and that there are really very few situations in which white people target and kill Indigenous girls and women. This outcome would be disastrous.

DO YOU THINK THAT THIS INTEREST OR THIS RENEWED INTEREST IN MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN WILL LEAD TO ANY SIGNIFICANT CHANGE THIS TIME?

I think, as a general rule of thumb, pessimism is not something that people who are being targeted can engage in. If you’re being killed you don’t stand there and say: “Oh nothing will ever change”.

I think there’s a lot to be gained from even naming something, from even saying the words. You know how many times in these legal processes people will not say the word “indigenous?” It’s so incredible; they’ll say anything else. For example, in the murder of Frank Paul, the people who were involved in his care continued to describe him at the inquiry as a homeless, chronic alcoholic from the Downtown Eastside, and they have to be pushed and prodded by the lawyer for the family to say, did you notice he was Indigenous and what do you think is the significance of that?

AS WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THIS INQUIRY – MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN – WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT TO SEE AS A RESULT OF IT? WHAT WOULD A SUCCESSFUL PROCESS LOOK LIKE?

Well you know, indigenous people themselves have been saying quite clearly what they want and which is that they want to have a voice in it, they want accountabulity and they want to find solutions to end the violence. Families want to participate; they want indigenous people to be commissioners; they want the analysis to be driven by an acknowledgement of settler colonialism and its ongoing effects.

Families also want individual cases to be investigated. A successful process calls state officials to account and does not sky away from understanding the context of settler colonialism.

I’m always struck by the way in which people ask, “How do you solve it?” and it sounds like you have to be this super wise person who’s going to solve this really big problem. Personally, I would settle for some really small things. They may not stop the problem but I do want to interrupt the game of improvement and substitute it for the game of accountability. I want it to be publicly named that Indigenous women are the targets of violence by everybody and that Canadian society continues to ignore the problem.

LAST MONTH, THE CANADIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION PUBLISHED A REPORT ON THE LACK OF FUNDING FOR ON-RESERVE CHILD WELFARE COMPARED TO OFF-RESERVE CHILD WELFARE. THIS WAS IN RESPONSE TO A COMPLAINT THAT WAS FILED IN 2007. DO YOU SEE THIS PROCESS – OF AN OFFICIAL LEGAL COMPLAINT COMING FROM INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES – AS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN GOVERNMENT LED INQUIRIES OR INITIATIVES?

That’s a really good question, which process has the greater potential. Maybe it’s a thing that scholars do but I don’t like to get into this game of comparing which is effective and which is not effective because inquiries or any legal processes actually work in complex ways.

I think I had a chapter in my first book about this: what counts as a win? Because sometimes a loss can be a win and a win can be a loss. For example I would count it as a win if we managed to get a statement that Indigenous women are being killed, even if other things are not acknowledged.

DO YOU THINK MORE ACADEMIC WORK NEEDS TO BE DONE IN THIS AREA?

If I could persuade every one of my students to do work on what I call racial violence, I would. This is not, however, research on Indigenous communities. As I like to say, I don’t actually do research on Indigenous people. I research white institutions and people.My goal as a scholar has always been to increase the work that is done on white supremacy, on settler colonialism and to make sure that nothing is ever taught here that doesn’t simultaneously take up those issues. We shouldn’t be teaching as if the world is a place without white supremacy. We need solid anti-colonial and anti-racist scholarship. This requires critical racialized faculty, although it is not only racialized faculty who focus on these issues. Racilaized faculty are simply more likely to do critical research since their own lives, and the lives of their communities depend on it. And when we have the leadership of racialized and Indigenous faculty, we will get brilliant students of all races who will come to do this critical work.

WHAT DON’T CANADIANS UNDERSTAND ABOUT COLONIAL AND SETTLER VIOLENCE AND HOW IS IT BEING MISREPRESENTED WHEN IT’S BEING DISCUSSED AT ALL?

Settler colonialism and its white supremacist character is widely denied, even by very well known scholars. Michael Ignatieff, for instance, once said that there was no violent colonialism in Canada, that the land was peacefully settled. Even supposing we acknowledged the deliberate starvation, the hanging of Chiefs, and so on, we are still extremely reluctant to confront the ongoing effects. For example, it’s extremely violent that two-thirds of reserves in Canada have no safe drinking water? Or the situation in today’s news, on the suicide rate in (an Indigenous community) in Manitoba? How can you look at that and think there’s no settler colonialism? Shale gas explorations on Indigenous lands, mining on Indigenous land? How can we think that the matter is not urgent?

What I examine is how we are able to “forget” or deny. We are able to do so when we accept the explanation that Indigenous people are killing themselves because they’re mysteriously unable to live modern life. We are able to believe that we have nothing to do with the situation when we focus on Indigenous dysfunction.

THERE’S AN INTERESTING PARADOX CONCERNING THE LAW AND JUSTICE: ON ONE HAND WHEN IT COMES TO LAND RIGHTS FOR EXAMPLE, YOU MENTION, GOVERNMENTS SEEM TO RECOGNIZE ONLY THE “TRADITIONAL INDIAN” BUT THEN AS FAR AS JUSTICE, THAT SEEMS TO BE INFERIOR TO “MODERN” EUROPEAN COLONIAL LIFE. AND SO THEN IT’S A JUSTIFICATION FOR STATE VIOLENCE. IS THIS ATTITUDE LIMITED TO THE JUSTICE SYSTEM OR DOES IT DEMONSTRATE A LARGER PROBLEM OF CONFUSION AND IGNORANCE?

It’s not confusion or ignorance. That’s the first thing to establish. This is not a problem of prejudice and a problem of misinformation. It is that we have a system that keeps a particular structure in place. Land theft is continuing. The underdevelopment of Indigenous communities is continuing. Why does this community in Winnipeg have no counselors? Why does Attawapiskat have only houses with mould that no other Canadian would live in? Those are not problems of misinformation. Those are very deliberate practices that are part of the way in which we conduct ourselves as Canadians. And so we need to ask these really hard structural questions.

FOR ALL OF THE CASES OF INDIGENOUS DEATH IN CUSTODY THAT GET MEDIA ATTENTION THERE ARE SO MANY OTHERS THAT DON’T. WHAT MAKES SOME STORIES MORE NEWSWORTHY THAN OTHERS?

Well, so very little of it is newsworthy altogether. It just doesn’t hit the front pages so I don’t know that I would even say that it is newsworthy. Does it ever hit our front pages? I don’t know.

People would tell me in Thunder Bay, when I’d go give talks on my work, “do you know that kids are dying?” It has taken so long for this story to hit the front pages.

WHEN YOU’RE GIVING THESE TALKS AND PEOPLE COME UP TO YOU AND ASK YOU ABOUT THESE STORIES, WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP? HOW DO YOU PROCESS HEARING THOSE STORIES?

I am limited by who I am and who I am is an academic who does research. So, I really can only have a research response to that, which is to include that in my research to try to think about that, to try to see where it could be thought about in my scholarship.

I often work with organizations on these issues when I can. However, I can’t do the things that others are better suited for. For instance, although I often see the need to drop everything, cancel my class and write an op-ed., this is not easy to do. I’m the footnotes person, not the person who does the op-ed. Speaking is not my favorite activity and it’s not something I have a lot of time for, but I try to do it not only to get the word out but also because it is an opportunity to learn what’s happening across the country and that’s such a bonus. Research is nothing if it can’t be communicated and used.

YOU’VE USED THE LAW BEFORE TO EXAMINE ISSUES OF SOCIAL INJUSTICE. WHY IS THIS A GOOD LENS THROUGH WHICH TO EXAMINE ISSUES LIKE RACISM, CLASSISM AND SETTLER COLONIALISM?

One of my interests in the law is that it’s very pedagogical. That is to say that when something happens in the law, it’s a big deal. It teaches us something about who we are. So I’m interested in that: who does the law imagine us to be as Canadians?

The other thing is that it’s a powerful place. When something happens in law, it has enormous consequences. But the real attraction for me as a scholar who studies racism is that I actually study the official story; you know what people say officially, so that I don’t get into, “what do you really think of Indigenous people or black people?” I’m interested in, “what do you say on the record?” And that’s why I have often come to law. It’s not that it’s any more privileged a site than others, but it’s a very powerful place. You really know your life doesn’t matter when a man gets away with murdering you, as Cindy Gladue’s case illustrates.

YOU MENTION IN THE BOOK THAT RACIALIZED CANADIANS OFTEN HAVE TROUBLE THINKING OF THEMSELVES AS SETTLERS, OR ENGAGING IN SETTLER VIOLENCE. HOW CAN THIS THINKING BE RECONCILED?

It’s been very clumsy to utilize “settlers” and “indigenous peoples.” It is important to complicate the binary because because settler colonialism has different logics. I think many scholars of colour for instance feel very much that if you’re black for example, it’s not very helpful to be put in that category of “settler” because a whole bunch of things have happened to you and I think that’s absolutely right in the sense that we must think about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and its effects for example, as one of the logics of settler colonialism, a logic that continues today in terms of the value of black bodies.

But when I still advocate for thinking of ourselves as settlers, what I’m actually advocating is that we must all ask how we are invited into, or dragged into the settler project in different ways. We are dragged in different ways. We may come here because we’re fleeing violence but that doesn’t dismiss the obligation to think about where you are. If you’re coming into a state where there are completely illegitimate relationships here, if you’re coming into a state that pays less for the education of an indigenous person and a non-indigenous person, you have to ask where you stand. It would be like if you emigrated to South Africa in the days of apartheid and you didn’t want to think about apartheid. You’ve got to think about it regardless of how you got there.

HOW DO YOU SEE THIS PROJECT IN RELATION TO WHAT YOU’VE DONE BEFORE AND WHAT YOU’RE PLANNING? IS THIS A CULMINATION OF LONG-TIME THINKING OR DOES IT REPRESENT A DEPARTURE IN ANY WAY?

It really doesn’t feel like a culmination. It quite terrifies me this book because as I’ve said a few times, I wonder whether I have really described and analyzed settler colonialism and captured the full extent of the violence. I’ve been trying to think about the multiple logics of settler colonialism and also to see how it’s globalized. I have a project going with Australia and with some American scholars looking at Black death, migrant death and indigenous death in custody and exploring how they happen in the same ways and how they unfold in the law in the same ways.

IS THERE ANYTHING AS SCHOLARS OR AS THE GENERAL PUBLIC THAT WE CAN DO TO CONTRIBUTE TO MAKING THINGS BETTER?

Well I think the first thing is to question our legitimacy and I quote in this respect a former student ( Dr. Leslie Thielen-Wilson) whose most brilliant thesis asked this question: “When are we leaving?” By which she doesn’t mean that we should all be prepared to get up and go back to where we came from but that we need to leave the settler colonial project and be committed to rethinking and living here in a more ethical way. So, “When are you leaving?” can translate to: I do not support Indigenous education being funded less than any other education. That is something I do not support, politically, as a citizen. That’s not about attitude change; that’s about putting your money where you mouth is and saying you want to live in a country that’s ethical and that is organized around principles that you support. It’s about more than hope. It’s about what we work for.

It’s a project of delegitimizing ourselves so we don’t get to be a good Canadian who’s innocent, who lives in the nicest place on earth. What we get to do is make this place the nicest place on earth for everybody.

IT’S A CALL FOR ACTION.

Yes.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.