Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West

An excerpt from Settler City Limits, edited by Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, Tyler McCreary, Julie Tomiak.

Cities are places where Indigenous peoples have continually resisted and challenged the normalizations of settler colonial violence.

In 2007, members of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, which straddles the border of Manitoba and Ontario, walked 200 kilometres to Winnipeg to protest the imposed isolation of their reserve. For decades, the people of Shoal Lake 40 have been fighting for a “Freedom Road” that would connect their community to the mainland. In 1916, the Greater Winnipeg Water District built an aqueduct to meet the needs of the rapidly growing city by bringing fresh water from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg. The project flooded Shoal Lake 40 and turned it into an island. Today, the aqueduct meets the water needs of the city of Winnipeg, but residents of Shoal Lake 40 do not have access to clean drinking water—for years the community has relied upon bottled water transported by barge. The construction of this critical water infrastructure was not only violent in its origin; it continues to perpetuate violence on Indigenous peoples and lands far beyond the city’s borders.

Politicizing this uneven linkage between city and reserve, members of Shoal Lake 40 have made their resistance a regular feature of Winnipeg political life. In September 2014, Shoal Lake 40 used the launch of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg to bring awareness to their experience of ongoing state violence, announcing tours of their community as a living Museum of Canadian Human Rights Violations. As Roxanne Greene, a former Shoal Lake 40 councillor and one of the museum’s organizers stated: “At the settlers’ end of the water pipe there’s economic prosperity, clean drinking water and a $350-million building that advertises ‘healing’ and brags about what a wonderful country Canada is. At our end of the pipe, we have 17 years of boil-water order, no job opportunities and we are forced to risk our lives for basic necessities. It’s important that the world have the opportunity to see that huge Canadian contradiction.”

This book is about contradictions like this one. It is concerned with understanding how the original and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples is both articulated and challenged through the production of urban space. It is committed, in other words, to showing how settler colonial violence is both reproduced and fiercely contested in the urban present, particularly in “settler cities” like Winnipeg.

Yet as the title of this book suggests, the term “settler city” has profound limits. To use this language is to risk reinforcing the problematic (but widespread) assumption that cities are settler spaces, both in their origin and their contemporary reality. It is also to risk reifying settler colonial entitlement to the city. Against such notions, this book highlights the fact that the sites on which North American cities sit have been parts of Indigenous life worlds for centuries, millennia, and in some cases since time immemorial. Moving beyond the limited language of settler urbanity, we highlight some of the ways that Indigenous peoples are both disrupting settler colonial city-making and producing urban space in their own right. While the concept of the settler city can draw attention to the mutual constitution of colonization, urbanization, and settler capitalism, its deployment also risks overshadowing how Indigenous peoples have actively negotiated, resisted, unsettled, and transcended the limits of settler activity. This book avoids this trap by highlighting the dynamic interplay of resurgent Indigenous world-making with the violence of urban settler colonization.

The concept of the settler city, as the example of Shoal Lake 40 illustrates, is also limited by an imaginary that sees the city as bounded by and disconnected from what (and who) is constructed as outside of it. The mythic separation of the city from its surrounds in settler colonial discourse—which imagines the city and the reserve/reservation as completely disconnected spaces—renders invisible the violence upon which settler city-building relies. Settler colonial violence entails the maintenance of a false distinction between urban and non-urban space, a distinction that in turn serves to obscure linkages between urban and non-urban space through Indigenous geographies. This book explodes that distinction, seeking instead to highlight how Indigenous resistance and resurgence rely on the assertion of Indigenous life within and beyond the urban. Indigenous people remain conspicuously absent from many North American urban genesis stories. In such accounts, the city is often presented as a settler achievement, the product of visionary arrivistes who grasped the potential of a given locale. The implication of such interpretations is that contemporary cities are exempted from the long history of settler-Indigenous spatial relations that is invariably at their root; they are discursively rendered as places that exist outside of the messy negotiation of colonial contestation. Insofar as settler colonial dispossession is acknowledged, it is as something that happened back then and out there. Against this view, we contend that the city is not simply an island of settler becoming but a place embedded in broader Indigenous networks and territorial relations. The city is a place where Indigenous peoples continue to make space for themselves and their relations.

Urban and reserve/reservation geographies have never existed in isolation from one another. Rather, they are relationally entwined outcomes of a particular process of geographical production grounded, fundamentally, in colonial relations. While our focus is on cities, it is evident that Indigenous strategies of resistance have relied upon connections between urban and non-urban spaces. In fact, subverting the racialized division of space by, for instance, remapping urban areas as part of traditional and treaty territories is one of the most powerful ways in which Indigenous people have advanced an anti-colonial understanding of cities and the lands upon which they are built.

Settler City Limits is the product of a multi-year effort to assemble a diverse range of thinkers and activists working at the intersections of Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, urban studies, geography, and sociology. It was born of a shared a desire to contribute a regional comparative study to the growing body of work that is concerned with understanding the relationship between settler colonization and the production of urban space. The orientation of this volume is unabashedly critical in the sense that it is explicitly interested in examining radical inequities that have come to frame relationships within Prairie cities. The editors and authors of this volume come from a range of Indigenous and settler backgrounds, with a variety of kin and community connections to the Prairies, and are united by their commitment to supporting Indigenous resurgence in such spaces.