What does decolonization mean? Our panel debates the buzzword

This week, CBC Indigenous asked a panel of elders and academics what decolonization means to them.

CBC Indigenous asked a panel of elders and academics to weigh in on the term

From left, moderator Lenard Monkman with panellists Chickadee Richard, Dallas Hunt and Niigaan Sinclair. (Stephanie Brown/CBC)

The term decolonization can mean many different things, leaving the term's meaning up to the person using it.

This week, CBC Indigenous asked a panel of elders and academics what decolonization means to them.

For Anishinaabe elder Chickadee Richard, decolonization means "going back to the ceremonies, knowing where you came from, our history and how it has shaped us."

Richard is from Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba. She talked about how the traditional teachings of her people have been handed down over centuries, and how policies like the Indian Act have limited Indigenous Peoples' ability to self-govern.

"I believe that once you awaken and go back to your traditional ways, you become aware of what those systems are all about and how they oppressed us," she said.

What does decolonization mean to you?

5 years ago
Duration 34:38
Decolonization can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you? The CBC's Lenard Monkman put your questions and comments to our panellists.

Did colonization succeed?

Niigaan Sinclair, a professor at the University of Manitoba, defines decolonization as taking a critical look at how colonization has affected Indigenous Peoples in Canada, and reacting to the history of oppression that Indigenous Peoples have been through.

"It's a process in which we are now investing ourselves within those institutions, trying to dismantle those parts of the house," said Sinclair.

"Colonial settler policy in action is very real."

He pointed to Indigenous languages not being officially recognized by the federal government and Indigenous Peoples' loss of land.

Although policies like residential schools sought to wipe out Indigenous knowledge and languages, he said that colonization hasn't been successful because there are still many Indigenous people who maintain traditional knowledge of ceremonies.

"Our incredible resilience makes me think that the colonization project has never defeated us," he said.

He said that decolonization is not about "Indigenous Peoples barring people from the land or any of these things" but it's about "rethinking the sort of relationships that exist on these lands."

Indigenization versus decolonization

Decolonization is also a term which has been used to describe changing institutions like universities to involve more Indigenous people and Indigenous knowledge.

Dallas Hunt is Nehiyaw from Swan River First Nation in Alberta and teaches at the University of Manitoba.

He said the term decolonization has the potential to be co-opted by universities and sometimes it doesn't create actual change inside the institutions.

He highlighted recent work that has emphasized cultural and political resurgence, such as the Dechinta "bush university" in the Northwest Territories.

The land-based program, which can be taken for university credit through the University of Alberta, incorporates a combination of learning traditional skills like hunting and medicines, but also includes theory and literature written by Indigenous scholars.

Sinclair said he would prefer "indigenizing" institutions rather than decolonizing.

"It's the process of building our own institutions with Indigenous voices at the centre," said Sinclair.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.