August 17, 2022

Decolonization is a Dangerous Word

I get triggered by “decolonization”.  It’s a trigger kind of word.

When I ask others what they think it means, most aren’t sure.  But some say this:

It means, they say, that we consciously work to include those whose voices were previously unheard, forgotten or marginalized.  At best, it means adding voices to create a collective narrative of who we are in a post-colonial era.

The key words – Including and adding – are essential to the narrative of reconciliation.

But then, why the “de” in decolonization?  “De” means cut or remove.  It’s not about inclusion, and it doesn’t come with respect.  The “de” in decolonization is a contradiction of reconciliation.

The most dramatic case has been the demolition of exhibitions on the third floor of the Royal BC Museum, notably the Old Town.  That move, so sudden and presumptuous, seemed meant to send a message: ‘Colonial’ history, specifically European settler ­history, can be swept aside and turned into rubble.  We just did it.’

Here’s another example – the Fairmont Building at the Heather Lands near Cambie and 41st .


It’s a Class A heritage building designed by a renowned early architect, Samuel Maclure, and it just reeks of British colonialism in the Tudor revivalist garden cities like Vancouver and Victoria.  First it was a boy’s school, then an RCMP Academy, now owned by MST Development, the indigenous real-estate and development entity, and the federally owned Canada Lands.  It’s an example that could follow wherever MST partners with private-sector capital, where real estate meets reconciliation.

On Heather Lands, MST was insistent on the removal of the Fairmont Building.  It is considered deeply offensive to those who associate it with residential schools because of its use by the RCMP.

The city and the heritage community acceded with little objection to the loss of a heritage building ultimately being turned into photogenic rubble.  Again, the message: colonial history, specifically European settler ­history, can be swept aside, especially the architecture or the physical reminders associated with the trauma of colonialization.  Arguably, the more that is demolished, the more respect is being given to those so traumatized.  When government has to respond to calls for action after all the acknowledgements, reports and apologies are considered insufficient, nothing is as viscerally expressive of action as a bulldozer.

Advocates for decolonization may not have intended this, but they’re giving developers a crude, powerful tool to sweep aside regulatory constraints in the way of their most ambitious projects – so long as they have indigenous partners.  If colonial association is indeed traumatic, so many other buildings are vulnerable.  There is even an argument being made to demolish the 1930s City Hall itself when time comes for renewal.

The City Planning department affirms that any place with an indigenous overlay supersedes the policies that might constrain other developers.  It’s a message reinforced by indigenous leaders themselves – here, for instance, in a public statement by Bernd Christmas, the CEO of the Squamish Nation’s economic development arm, Nch’ḵay:

“… we’ve just learned the secret of making (development projects) go quicker, by about five to 10 years,” Christmas told … some of the biggest names in B.C.’S development industry. “If you have developments that are facing six-year, 10-year delays, come see us. Let’s move.”

What are we to make of “come see us”?  Does it mean there will be a different treatment at City Hall when it comes to cultural erasure by developers with indigenous connections?

That’s what I’m triggered by: the suggestion of insider favouritism, the whiff of corruption, the permission for historic disrespect.


When pursued without restraint, deliberate cultural and physical erasure is a story that does not end well – as the indigenous peoples of Canada can provide witness.

Reconciliation is a vision based based on a commitment to mutual respect. That is not compatible with decolonization.  As a one-way threat, it has a capacity to rip us apart.  That is why it’s so dangerous.

For the sake of a reconciliation, decolonization itself should be rejected as public policy, especially when expressed as the blunt tool of demolition.


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  1. Well said. As for respect, it helps to remember that it is a two-way street. Sitting at a table with people calling you thieves (“stolen land”) is a hurtful beginning. None of us alive today consider ourselves as stealers of the land. We may have badly mismanaged it in our own lifetimes, but we haven’t stolen it, we weren’t born.
    Most of humanity comes from historical traditions dating back millennia of expansion, pillaging, war and conquest —is there a country in the world with original borders or peoples? It is a history of winners and losers, yet fortunately these labels are never used to describe First Nations. However, words like “stolen” suggest victimhood. Instead, terms like “Unceded” or “Non-treaty” leave us open to recognize our mutual unfinished business, neither a criminal heritage nor a legacy of defeat.

  2. These are solid insights that I had not considered, having been mostly
    only mildly annoyed by the historic justice warrior mentality. If given full reign and powers, according to the logic you outline, the entire heritage inventory of the City could come into question . Slippery slope….Destroy destroy erase erase. Sounds like the “cultural revolution” of Maoist-style revisionaries could light a lot of thoughtless fires before anyone knew what happened.

  3. Coincidentally, the BC Association of Heritage Professionals is having this presentation at their forthcoming conference: “Excitingly, we will also have a Keynote Presentation: The Story of the Transformation of St. Eugene Residential School, by Sophie Pierre, OC OBC (Former ʔaq’am Chief, Tribal Chair of the Ktunaxa Nation and Chief Commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission).” St. Eugene is near Cranbrook, the only example of a First Nation using a residential school (note: the Fairmont Building was NOT a residential school) as a cultural interpretation centre, as part of their healing as they regained power and self-respect.

  4. “… we’ve just learned the secret of making (development projects) go quicker, by about five to 10 years,” Christmas told … some of the biggest names in B.C.’S development industry. “If you have developments that are facing six-year, 10-year delays, come see us. Let’s move.”

    A shocking statement. Do you have a link to the original document?


  5. In the author’s view, a colonial building used by the RCMP is meant to have more importance than respecting the decision of First Nations who have horrific experiences at the hands of the RCMP – an institution that was first created to control the ‘savage natives.’ The RCMP history alone is horrible and fraught, and continues to be so to this day.

    Price’s polemic reeks of reactive privilege and a desire to cherish that which is not cherished by many. In a heritage-focused survey we conducted for a smaller BC community, the overarching response of those surveyed was a desire to understand Indigenous experience of colonization, and to redress the absence of this narrative.

    The National Trust of Canada (the national organization for heritage) is, in fact, facing this front and centre as they have noted the wider understanding of our colonial institutions is eroding any value people might have of for these structures (

    As a comparison, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc determinedly kept the residential school on their lands as a reminder of the need to redress the past. This was a decision made many years ago. It may change. But every First Nation has their right as to how they choose to keep or let go of the artifacts from colonization.

    From where I am looking, Gordon Price represents a very stuck and entitled notion of heritage.

  6. European colonizers casually erased 15,000 years of First Nations history simply because it was in the way. We can not remotely fathom the violence and cultural trauma of that 200-year long purge. By comparison, the expedition of demolition permits for some old building does not really qualify as an injustice. If all “decolonialization” means is the removal of a few tainted structures, we should quietly thank our lucky stars we’re getting off so lightly.

    1. You are posing a false dichotomy between acknowledging history and preserving a heritage building. They are not mutually exclusive.

      1. Nope. I’m poking fun at the gall with which we lament – with a straight face – the wanton “destruction” of our precious heritage at the hands of rapacious First Nation interests. Nothing false about that dichotomy.

        You want to keep complaining to some homeless people about the quality of caviar served on your private jet? Go right ahead. I won’t stop you.

        1. You evidently don’t know the meaning of the word “dichotomy.” I am saying that preserving heritage buildings doesn’t necessarily conflict with acknowledging and seeking to redress historical wrongs.
          As for your strange statement about homeless people and caviar on private jets, please try a better straw-man argument next time.

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