Transcript of plenary by Colin Samson at the BSA Annual Conference 2015.
The will to transform non-Europeans has a long lineage in Western thought. It was crucial to the Enlightenment metaphor of progress outlining a definable, singular and desirable unveiling of knowledge in one direction. By the 19th century influential philosophers, scientists and politicians began to extend the metaphor further by prophesizing that history also had a specific direction, one consistent with that of Western Europe. It was no accident that this imagery and the prophecy of a greater world destiny coincided with colonial expansion of Europe and the establishment of the North American settler states. The widespread acceptance of the idea of progress informed policies implemented across the colonial world to induce change among indigenous peoples whose societies were thought to be infused with error and backwardness. In North America, the forced removals, assimilation campaigns, confinement to reservations, and induction into wage labour were the remedies.
Today indigenous groups who were spared these changes are now undergoing a parallel application of the idea of progress through the industrialization of their lands. Peoples outside the main corridors of European colonization are the focus of what Michael Klare calls, ‘the race for what’s left.’ I will illustrate this contemporary process, often termed ‘economic development,’ from my work with the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula in Canada. There and in other places, supposedly positive changes to indigenous peoples’ wellbeing are being associated with acceptance of resource extraction capitalism. The imposition of this agenda is made to be inevitable, not necessarily by abstract principles, but by presenting it as a human rights measure and giving indigenous peoples no meaningful right of refusal. I will suggest that the situation of indigenous peoples in remote areas today starkly illustrates the disastrous consequences of a Eurocentric doctrine; the prophecy that human betterment can only be achieved through a singular path and that other ways of being and knowing are erroneous and backward.
I would like to make this presentation in memory of my teacher at the University of California, Berkeley, Kenneth Bock, who taught me to always be sceptical of ideas purporting to know human nature or be universal.