The Capitalist Roots of Anti-Indigenous Racism in Canada: Howard Adams’ Prison of Grass

We need to liberate ourselves from the courts, ballot boxes, school system, church, and all other agencies that command us to stay in our “colonized place.”  This oppression of the native people is so deeply rooted in the capitalist system that it cannot be completely eliminated without eliminating capitalism itself.1Howard Adams, Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View (Saskatoon: Fifth House Publishers, 1989), 176-177.

In 1975, the Métis intellectual Howard Adams (1921-2001) published Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View.2Métis refers to peoples of mixed Indigenous and European (usually French) ancestry. The Métis are a unique cultural group within Canada, and they have historically faced considerable oppression at the hands of white settlers and their institutions. While it was reprinted several times in subsequent decades, the book remains largely inaccessible to modern readers, and used copies sell for upwards of US$100 online. This unavailability has meant that the book is largely underappreciated outside academic circles and privileged readerships with access to diverse libraries of Canadian historiography. This is an unfortunate reality, because Prison of Grass is a remarkable book that combines autobiographical reflections with an elaborate and illuminating analysis, rooted in historical materialism, of the origins and perpetuation of anti-Indigenous racism in Canada.

Over the course of 190 pages, Adams applies a framework of Marxist analysis to the processes of capitalist expansionism and extractivism that are commonly obfuscated in state-sanctioned histories of Canadian colonialism. His areas of focus include the Red River Resistance of 1869-1870, the Northwest Resistance of 1885, the co-constitutive ideological networks of Canadian schooling, media, and academia which perpetuate nationalist myths, and episodes from Adams’ own life as a Métis man in the white supremacist society of early twentieth-century Canada. What results is a dynamic, multi-faceted, interdisciplinary polemic against dominant bourgeois histories and the prevailing structures of Canadian racism which expose their authoritarian machinery to this day in ongoing examples such as the Wet’suwet’en resistance, the struggle against old-growth logging at Fairy Creek, and the ongoing political persecution of land defenders such as Skyler Williams.

Background and Reception

Howard Adams was born on September 8, 1921, in St. Louis, Saskatchewan, a village founded by Métis settlers in the late 1800s. His mother was French-Cree and his father English-Cree. His experience of racism in the rural prairie town affected him deeply, although he laments in Prison of Grass that the sense of inferiority hammered into him by encounters with police, religious institutions, and the schooling system forged an intense self-loathing that manifested as hatred of his own family and heritage. After completing high school, he enrolled in the University of California-Berkeley and acquired a doctorate in 1966. He was the first Canadian Métis person to obtain a PhD.

As a student at Berkeley, Adams attended a speech by Malcolm X. After hearing Malcolm speak, he began to make transnational connections between the struggles of the Canadian Indigenous and Métis, the black population of the US, and liberation movements in colonized Africa. Most importantly, he came to recognize capitalism as the common oppressor of these geographically disparate groups. He returned to Canada in the late 1960s and briefly served as the president of the Métis Society of Saskatchewan. Later, he worked as a professor of Native Studies, a position through which he “instructed hundreds of Aboriginal people to be proud of their heritage and history and provided them with the intellectual framework to decolonize themselves.”

In his writing and teaching, Adams espoused a constructive, socially conscious worldview rooted in internationalism and historical materialism. He urged his students and readers to view racism in Canada not as an unalterable fact of nature but as the product of the same historical processes that drove European settlers to colonize the continent in the first place: capitalism. He wrote three books in his lifetime – The Education of Canadians, 1800-1867: The Roots of Separatism (1968), Prison of Grass (1975), and Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization (1999) – but his middle work caused the largest stir upon its release.

Initial reception for Prison of Grass was largely negative within academia.  A 1977 review by Jean Friesen, a history professor at the University of Manitoba, called the book a “weak history” and accused Adams of oversimplifying the attitudes of colonizers, arguing that some colonists “saw in the aborigines of North America the finest examples of human nature.” She also took issue with Adams’ materialist analysis of racism in Canada and asserted that “white society is more complex and ambivalent in its attitudes than Adams suggests.”  Friesen’s views were shared by many critics, including D. Paul Lumsden of York University, who described Adams’ book as “overly rhetorical” and “sweeping in its assertions.”

In spite of these criticisms (which result in both Friesen and Lumsden arguing that settler society was not entirely racist and therefore the colonization of Canada was not entirely immoral), Prison of Grass remains an indelible addition to the woefully meager catalogue of leftist histories of Canada.  Whether or not one believes Adams’ historical conclusions to be overly general, his perspective still provides a necessary disruption of the colonial myths that continue to pervade Canadian society.

The Capitalist Roots of Anti-Indigenous Racism

In Prison of Grass, Adams synthesizes concepts from a variety of revolutionary Global South thinkers, ultimately resolving that Canada’s Indigenous and Métis populations have far more in common with colonized peoples in Africa and Asia than with white society in Canada itself. In analyzing the base of this historical reality, he draws from dependency theory (including the notion of “psychological dependency”) and concepts of underdevelopment, while his analysis of Canada’s ideological state apparatuses borrows heavily from both Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire.

Adams begins Prison of Grass by describing the conditions on his “halfbreed [Métis] ghetto” in St. Louis.  He describes his difficulty finding work from white employers, the demoralizing employment conditions, and the frequent occurrence of being cheated out of his wages with zero recourse, because, in his own words, “I knew how police regard halfbreeds and Indians and how they support white bosses.”3Adams, Prison of Grass, 10. After locating himself in the text, he expands to a broader historical view, writing that “the racism that native people encounter today had its origins in the rise of western imperialism during the 1600s.”4Adams, Prison of Grass, 11.

Adams describes pre-colonial American cultures as largely classless societies with decentralized power structures, lacking the systemic coercions that one might associate with modern capitalist economies. European colonists brought racializing processes which were rooted in the capitalist drive for cheap labour to service the metropole.  Adams writes: “Racial stereotypes and prejudices then developed from the realization that Indians provided potentially cheap labor for trapping furs and for whatever jobs had to be done… So European scholars and clergymen began creating racial theories which showed that the native people… were primitives, innately inferior and subhuman.”5Adams, Prison of Grass, 12. Therefore, in the Canadian context, Adams asserts that anti-Indigenous racism developed out of superstructural justifications for the invasion and exploitation of the American material base, similar to European-led racialization processes which occurred across Africa and Asia during the initial stages of colonization.

Adams recounts how the introduction of a settler fur-trading enterprise resulted in the collapse of traditional economies.  In his account, Indigenous labour was increasingly subjugated to European consumer demands for fur, meaning that these communities needed to spend more time trapping animals in order to receive the short-term benefits of settler trade. This resulted in the imposition of colonial labour specialization. This specialization eroded the traditional administrative structure of Indigenous society by “forc[ing them] into dependency on commercial trapping,” for which the Europeans provided various forms of payment.6Adams, Prison of Grass, 26. The introduction of the profit motive to these communalist society was catastrophic, fostering hostilities between different tribes as they contended with one another in the competitive fur trade.

Alongside the erosion of communalism, Adams examines the common colonial practice of empires selecting proxies from the local population and elevating them to privileged positions in which they are meant to serve the metropole’s interests. Adams describes how, in the Canadian context, colonizers often elevated individual chiefs to positions of great power, isolating them from their communities and creating an authoritarian top-down system of rule that he connects directly to “neo-colonial” management by a more privileged class of chiefs in the 1970s, many of whom receive grants directly from the government.7Adams, Prison of Grass, 161.

Material and Psychological Underdevelopment

Adams laments what he calls the “ossification” of Indigenous societies brought about by colonialist and neo-colonialist capitalism – in other words, a perpetual state of underdevelopment that he explicitly compares to apartheid.  He writes that the “grinding paternalism” of a class of settler businessmen, government bureaucrats, and religious authorities has destroyed formerly equitable and self-sustaining systems of living and created both a material and psychological dependency in many communities, which he used to feel himself.8Adams, Prison of Grass, 37. While writing about the shame that he once harbored for his own family, he bemoans the fact that “[the system] had replaced the beauty and love of my Indianness with disgust and contempt. But at that time I still did not understand how cultural genocide systematically operated to colonize me.”9Adams, Prison of Grass, 125. His eventual awareness of the role of white supremacy in shaping his mindset imbued him with an “obligation to work toward the destruction of such a system.”10Adams, Prison of Grass, 125.

The inculcation of self-loathing and a hatred for Indigenous cultures in Indigenous peoples was a clearly stated policy of the Canadian government. The residential school system was the core of this strategy.  During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tens of thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their parents and placed in “schooling” institutions, often run by churches, whose explicit goal was to destroy Indigenous languages and cultural practices and “assimilate” the children into settler culture. Duncan Campbell Scott, who oversaw the program from 1913 to 1932, stated its goals openly: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” Sexual abuse was rampant in these institutions, and a combination of poor nutritional regimens, a lack of building maintenance, and direly underfunded healthcare infrastructure contributed to the deaths of thousands of children, many of whom were buried in unmarked graves on the school grounds. The system continued for longer than most Canadians are aware: the last residential school closed in 1997.

Adams’ analysis of the ideological state structures (schools, media, academia) that infuse settler society with pride and Indigenous societies with shame is cutting and precise. One of the principal issues he identifies with Canadian historiography is its capitalist nature, which means that it “represent[s] only the forces contending for power and their power relationships,” which in the Canadian context means that history is primarily made by the Hudson’s Bay Company and its benefactors. This model of history-making excises the experiences of common people, and especially racialized communities, because “in capitalism the masses are not a ruling force.”11Adams, Prison of Grass, 18.  His disdain is palpable and affecting. He describes histories that whitewash the racist origins of the RCMP as “sweetheart myths written by ‘WASP’s who have never experienced insults, beatings, and bullets from a Mountie.”12Adams, Prison of Grass, 78.  He describes the CBC, Canada’s foremost public broadcaster, as “the epitome of snobbish middle-class culture [which is] not even remotely connected with native society.”13Adams, Prison of Grass, 158. Ultimately, the fact that the colonizers have total control of communications media and the schooling system means that settlers are continuously indoctrinated into nationalist myths at the expense of a people’s history rooted in the masses, and the Indigenous and Métis masses in particular. Specifically, Adams emphasizes the central role of communications media to the assertion of colonial power while describing the John A. MacDonald government’s response to the Northwest Resistance of 1885.

The Northwest Resistance occurred when a diverse range of Indigenous, Métis, and white settler groups, enduring near-starvation conditions in areas of modern-day Saskatchewan and Alberta, united to push for greater material concessions from the more industrialized eastern provinces, where the Canadian seat of government is located. The resistance embodied a great challenge to the continental expansion of industrial capitalism, as represented by the threat it posed to the completion of the cross-continental Canadian Pacific Railway. Fearful that a revolutionary movement would cause profits to the eastern provinces to dwindle, Prime Minister MacDonald quickly took over the Times newspaper in Prince Albert and used it to spew racist propaganda and sow division amongst the resistors, which Adams says was “partly successful in alienating some white support from the Indians and Métis.”14Adams, Prison of Grass, 82. A short time later, MacDonald sent troops into the Northwest and put a violent end to the resistance movement.

In short, Adams identifies the ideological hand of a racist colonial system in media, schooling, and academia, all of which serve to placate the minds of an impressionable settler society for the continuing benefit of the forces of capitalism. The purpose of this communications network is thus, in his words, to “develop [public] attitudes that harmonize well with apartheidism.”15Adams, Prison of Grass, 43.

Radical Nationalism and Revolution

In thinking of ways to remove prevailing structures of white supremacy, Adams can find no alternative but to strive for a new socialist society. He rejects the legitimacy of government-aligned groups, even those led by Indigenous or Métis people. He rejects electoral politics, writing that the Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats are “equally a part of the capitalist system and therefore unable to bring about any real and basic changes in society.”16Adams, Prison of Grass, 1. Any resistance that does not target capitalist labour relations is ultimately, in his opinion, nothing but “image betterment.”[17] He declares that “native people did not create these [racist] images,” and if they were destroyed, “[capitalist] society would simply create new racist images for us to work at.”[18]

Adams argues that the only way to craft an equitable future is through an organizational strategy he calls “radical nationalism.” Radical nationalism is similar in character to the revolutionary nationalism of independence movements in the Global South which were beginning to enter the postcolonial period at the time of his writing – however, he stops short of calling his strategy “revolutionary” due to the impracticality of such an ambition within Canada. This does not mean that Adams is not a revolutionary thinker; rather, he is simply realistic that, among the Canadian working class, there is no revolutionary potential of the type adopted by the Cuban or Vietnamese people in their struggles against imperialism.

His model of radical nationalism is a bottom-up, community-centred form of Indigenous resistance which seeks to unite with white workers and inaugurate a broader class struggle. This process necessarily involves building local social organizations of the type that the resistors would like to see implemented on a national scale, such as community-run educational institutions. The end-goal of this process is the toppling of the capitalist system, and thereby the removal of the economic system which generates anti-Indigenous racism in Canada.

Adams admits that this constitutes a significant challenge, especially because white workers often align themselves with the state that ostensibly represents them against the demands of Indigenous and Métis class allies. But despite the shortcomings that Adams finds in his own theory of radical nationalism – namely, the tendency of the white lumpenproletariat to sympathize with the settler-colonial state apparatus – Adams nevertheless offers a clear blueprint for anti-colonial struggle. Since racism in Canada was founded by capitalist imperialism, the only way to truly eradicate racism and create social institutions capable of generating new anti-colonial consciousness is the removal of the productive modes that imperialism implanted in Canada and the recreation of society along socialist lines. While the pervasive influence of the state’s ideological apparatuses on Canada’s majority white polity causes Adams to doubt the possibility of such a transformation, it remains necessary for those seeking to enact a more just future to seek out instructive, nourishing texts like Prison of Grass and apply their lessons to one’s own social and political activities.

Owen Schalk is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has written for Monthly Review, Protean Magazine, Alborada, and more.  Additionally, his work regularly appears in Canadian Dimension.