City & Politics, Essay

Buying in, stepping out of dominant roles: Experience and relationship in Winnipeg

By Kate Sjoberg

Well, aren’t we enlightened. A bunch of north American white lady yogis using words like ‘decolonisation,’ ‘settler,’ ‘horizontal transcendence’.

Oy vey.

Or, as my well-loved and missed grandmother would have said ‘usha!.’

I was, as I usually am, happy to talk about my own process of figuring out my role on this land as someone whose ancestors came here from somewhere else, and helped to settle lands that were stolen from the people who were already here, with Jodie Layne for her piece Decolonising Yoga in an issue of the Manitoban from a few weeks ago. Many non-indigenous people have been thinking and acting on the injustice of ongoing colonisation in our corner of the world (smack dab in the middle of Turtle Island) for some time; and we need to be public about that. Jodie’s writing is often about having conversations that too often happen behind closed doors; so thanks to her for highlighting this part of our experience.

I want to say more about the ideas Jodie and I talked about. Maybe it’s important to say first that I’m not a part of a group called Decolonising Yoga. I have, though written before about how yoga has been important in my own learning.

What exactly are we talking about? Words like settler, colonisation, decolonisation, anti colonisation are being used, sometimes incorrectly, sometimes in a feverish, activist haze to communicate all kinds of processes, many of which at once complex and complicated.  Emma LaRoque, for example, has said that it is indigenous peoples who settled these lands first, so the contemporary use of the word ‘settler’ in talking about settler colonialism actually doesn’t jive. And, while the term in some activist communities is used to describe people who live on Turtle Island who are not indigenous to north America, many people (including this lady) decry the simplicity of this term, which is unhelpful in describing the multitude of ways that people have come to live here, and diverse range of roles that these people may or may not play in the ongoing oppression of aboriginal peoples. I often use the word settler to describe myself; somewhat ironically, for simplicity’s sake.

Sheelah McLean, (I interviewed her here) one of the original four of the Idle No More Movement says that decolonise is a term that cannot apply to non indigenous people. In her understanding, decolonisation is a process that indigenous people undertake to reclaim and practice their traditional cultures, spiritualities, ways of governance, relationships to the land. In this understanding, when non indigenous people “decolonise,” we are actually co-opting traditions that are not ours.

For her, anti colonisation is a word that describes what non indigenous people do when they oppose processes of colonisation in their own lives, and stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples. Owen Toews describes this process as consciously stepping out of the role of the foot soldier in the colonial project in Canada; which can involve any number of actions.

My ancestors arrived from Sweden in the late 1800s, and from in and around Britain a bit before that. Like everyone else who lives here, colonisation has informed my thinking and attitudes about myself and others in unhelpful and harmful ways. It reinforces ideas of meritocracy; that we all start from an equal ground, and if you just work hard enough, you’ll live a comfortable middle to upper middle class life; and that if you don’t achieve that life, you are the only one to blame. As the colonial process is about domination over the land, rather than relationship and respect, it reinforces material, throw away culture, and the image and look of success over health and wellness and positive relationships. In appearance and history, I fall naturally somewhere on the winning end of these lies, and so it hasn’t been useful or expedient for me to question them. Actually, I have been able to rely on these stories to distance myself from my own negative experiences, and to not really see or understand the problems that we all deal with to some degree.

As recently as last month, (when Anastasia Chipelski responded to something I wrote in the Spectator Tribune) I was reminded of how I have talked around or even denied my own experience of fear of sexual violence; and here I offer evidence of my unintended service to colonial and racist culture. Admitting this fear, pointing out problems in the dominant society, disrupting the idea that those in power have things figured out, and are therefore more morally worthy than those not in power risks my relationships in dominant communities by challenging inherent power structures; and gives me common cause with people who are, as a group, painted as being at risk of sexual and other kinds of violence.

Power is seductive. It feels so much more secure to deny evidence to the contrary that I might be victim to violence, and thereby separate my experience from others, securing my upper hand as a helper to those who experience violence, and not one who experiences it herself. Here, I am reinforcing the lie that the dominant group (which is where I place myself when I do this) has figured things out as opposed to those who “have some catching up to do.” Here, I am ignoring the fact that increased levels of sexual violence in aboriginal communities are a result of theft of children, land, culture, and exacerbated by ongoing denial of treaty rights.

For me, yoga has at times been about blissing out, and escaping reality. Of course, this blissed out experience is what so many practitioners seek out. And it has also supported me to see how my actual experience diverges from dominant stories, or stories that I would like my life to look like, and to risk working with this complexity and uncertainty. The deeper observations that come with a regular meditation and yoga practice help me to notice things (like fear) that I would like to ignore. This supports more honest relationships, and more creative, appropriate responses to what is happening around me. And, as you can see, I have more work to do; much like everyone else.

This is a stab at offering a bit more of how my meditation and yoga practices connect to my ideas of anti-colonial work, and my own experience. I would love to hear how this resonates or diverges with readers’ experiences.


Kate Sjoberg is working as a small town reporter, brushing up against her roots.