Decolonizing Community Engagement
By Derek Kornelsen
Recently, terms like decolonization and community engagement have become buzzwords in popular discourses about Indigenous health research. But what does decolonization actually mean? How can we really try to decolonize community engagement? If this is to make any sense, and provide any kind of realistic guide for action, we need to start by gaining some sense of how colonization has impacted — and continues to impact — Indigenous communities and Western academic/research institutions. Only then can we consider why community engagement matters and what a decolonized form of community engagement might look like.
Settler Colonialism in Canada
A good starting point for understanding colonialism in Canada is to recognize that there is a distinct form of colonialism at work here — both past and present. This form is called settler colonialism. Typical understandings of colonialism usually refer to a situation where a colonial entity oppresses and manipulates foreign peoples in order to extract wealth and resources — India and South Africa are key examples. In these cases, there is a point at which we see the colonial power officially leaving, and the colonized peoples achieving some level of independence. On the other hand, in cases of settler colonialism, the colonial entity doesn’t leave, but continues to bring in more and more settlers in order to reproduce itself in the colonized space — Canada, USA, Australia, and New Zealand are the usual suspects here. The particularly horrifying aspect of this practice — as scholars like Patrick Wolfe have discussed in depth — is that, in order to reproduce itself in a given place, the settler colonial entity must ‘destroy to replace’ . In Canada, we’ve seen this through overt genocidal acts that morphed into the kinds of cultural genocide that have occured throughout the residential school era.
However, it is crucial to recognize that the practice of ‘destroying to replace’ is ongoing. It’s easier to understand this when we consider the complete suite of social institutions that colonizers brought with them — political, legal, economic, educational, and health institutions — that many Indigenous people now must access if they are to exist within these imposed colonial systems. It is also important to note that, embedded within these imposed institutions, is a range of Western values and assumptions about how institutions are structured and what kinds of social practices and outcomes ought to be prioritized. This should drive home the key point that settler colonialism continues to function in the present, not only to impose Western institutions on Indigenous peoples in Canada, but also to impose Western world views and values. There is no sugar-coating this — the ‘civilizing mission’ that justified the imposition of residential schools, as the 1878 Nicholas Flood Davin Report concisely stated, was premised on the imperative to “destroy the Indian.” If Indigenous people could not be physically extinguished, the best that settler powers could do was to destroy their societies and cultures.
There is also no sugar-coating the fact that this process is still alive and well although, for the most part, we frame these processes in more politically correct terms like ‘granting access’, ‘enfranchisement’, or ‘closing the gap’ in health, incarceration, or matriculation rates. All too often, these goals are understood simply as bringing Indigenous people ‘up-to-speed’, which demonstrates how these strategies remain firmly entrenched in the kinds of self-congratulatory arrogance regarding the assumed superiority of Western systems and knowledge that justified genocidal acts in the first place.
So, what is the alternative? This is where an understanding of decolonization can help. Any dictionary will tell you that decolonization entails attaining political independence or freeing from the status of a colony. But this is tied to the basic understanding of colonialism introduced here at the outset. If, instead, we understand settler colonialism as including the appropriation of Indigenous lands and the attempted elimination of Indigenous peoples’ societies and knowledge systems (with the imposition of Western ones), then it’s immediately obvious that decolonization entails much more. As Dr. Deborah Barndt of York University explains, decolonization is “a process of acknowledging the history of colonialism; working to undo the effects of colonialism; striving to unlearn habits, attitudes, and behaviours that continue to perpetuate colonialism; and challenging and transforming institutional manifestations of colonialism.” 
If this seems overwhelming, you’re not alone. Invariably, when people are confronted with this, I’ll hear some version of: “well, we can’t go back”. The assumption is that a robust decolonization must mean returning to some pristine, pre-contact social form where settlers either don’t exist or adopt a caricatured version of Indigenous life prior to colonization. The absurdity of this assumption is rooted in the colonial arrogance that assumes that Western systems are the pinnacle of human development and any deviation or ‘return’ is necessarily a step back in the march of civilization. When faced with this in the classroom, I ask students to simply pause, suspend their disbelief, and consider that our colonial systems and cultures have trained us to jump to this conclusion. Unlearning these racist habits is not easy, but it’s imperative that we decolonize our own ways of thinking as well.
Further, it’s not an ‘either/or’ question about which world view or set of systems should dominate. It is, however, a question of how we can unlearn colonial habits and learn to live together in a way that respects the rights of Indigenous nations to define their own existence — rights that are protected by Canada’s Constitution and reinforced through instruments like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; it is an acknowledgement that settler individuals and societies must be prepared to do some serious critical self-reflection in order to transform from the patterns of arrogance, domination, and oppression that we have espoused for generations; it is also an acknowledgement that significant reparations are in order, in terms of returning appropriated land and relinquishing control of Indigenous lives and shared institutions.
Decolonizing Community Engagement
With this in mind, we can finally begin to consider what a decolonized understanding of community engagement might entail. In a sense a decolonized form of community engagement is about learning humility and recognizing the plain fact that Indigenous people know more about their own health and wellness than ‘expert’ non-Indigenous researchers do. It is about recognizing that Indigenous Elders, Knowledge-Keepers, scholars and community members have much to teach the Western world about what it means to live well. I am not suggesting that researchers engage communities out of a sense of charity or simply as a strategy to achieve better results. The fundamental point here is that community engagement is a process by which Settler institutions and individuals relinquish our colonial privilege and accept that Indigenous communities and nations have the expertise and, indeed, the right to lead research projects in which they choose to participate — to define how research is conducted with their communities and to define the kinds of outcomes that guide research priorities.
A decolonized form of community engagement is about learning humility and recognizing the plain fact that Indigenous people know more about their own health and wellness than ‘expert’ non-Indigenous researchers do.
Finally, given that overt and systemic racism exists, that the assumption of Western intellectual superiority exists, and that non-Indigenous Canadians benefit from the continued colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples, it is not enough to simply list various Indigenous rights and expect that there will be a sudden about-face and wholesale endorsement by government, researchers, industry, or the general public. After observing the plight of ‘stateless’ peoples after World War II, renowned political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, reminded us that ‘rights’ are utterly meaningless unless there is a “community willing and able to guarantee any rights whatsoever.” 
With this in mind, we should also recognize that community engagement, when done in a decolonizing way, is very much about building genuinely respectful relationships that will allow us to understand the nature and significance of Indigenous rights and worldviews in new and meaningful ways. In this sense, decolonizing community engagement means building community — a critical mass of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that will hold governments, institutions, and industry accountable, ensuring that Indigenous rights are understood and upheld.
A radical shift in Canadians’ perspectives needs to happen if we are going to make any real progress in this ‘era of reconciliation’. Given the attention to decolonization and community engagement of late, researchers and research institutions have a unique opportunity to contribute to this shift by moving forward with genuine humility and respect.
About the Author
Dr. Derek Kornelsen is a former Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba. His research focused on examining/contrasting Western and Indigenous philosophies and institutional frameworks, with a particular emphasis on developing a theoretical framework grounded in an understanding of the dynamics and impacts of Settler Colonialism. This theoretical framework enables a sensitivity to 2 key under-researched areas in Indigenous health and wellness research: the impacts of the disruption of Indigenous peoples’ relationships with land and environment; and strategies for decolonizing key institutions that Indigenous peoples must access (health as well as political, legal, educational, economic institutions). Broadly speaking, this theoretical frame contributes to the development of robust Indigenous determinants of health and wellness. He is currently involved in developing a number of local, national, and international research projects and partnerships in areas of environmental health and Indigenous health and wellness.
- Wolfe P. Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. J Genocide Res, 2006;8:4 (387–409).
- Barndt D & Reinsborough L. Decolonizing Art, Education, and Research in the VIVA Project. 2010. In L. Davis (Ed.), Alliances: Re/Envisioning Indigenous-non-Indigenous Relationships (pp. 158), Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
- Arendt H. The origins of totalitarianism. 1958. Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company.