Indigenous children in Canada face a barrage of disadvantages: They suffer from high rates of poverty, suicide, sexual assault, incarceration, disease, addiction and disappearance.

So said Jaskiran Dhillon, an anthropology professor at the New School in New York, who spoke at Yale on Tuesday evening. Dhillon was speaking at an event hosted by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program on indigenous youth and decolonization. “First and foremost, this is an indictment of the settler-colonial state of Canada,” Dhillon said.

After a childhood on the Canadian Plains, on Cree territory, Dhillon explored the politics of the indigenous-settler relationship while studying at the University of Saskatchewan. There, Dhillon, whose parents immigrated to Canada from northern India, began to interrogate her personal political responsibility toward indigenous people as a self-described “settler of color.”

Professor Inderpal Grewal, chair of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, summarized the crux of Dhillon’s work with this question: “What work can we do as immigrants to North America? How do we challenge the settler-colonial state?”

Building on her projects with indigenous youth in the cities of Saskatoon and Vancouver, and her scholarship on the intersecting violence of state, colonialism and empire, Dhillon wrote her book “Prairie Rising” to “reveal the changing face of settler colonialism” in light of the realities of indigenous youth in Canada.

The first goal of the book, Dhillon said, was to “politicize indigenous youth experiences” and contextualize the crisis those youth face by shining a light on how they are tied up in colonial structures.

Often, Dhillon said, oppression of indigenous people is framed as people “falling through the cracks,” as if Canada’s state structures function benevolently toward indigenous people, and individual suffering is just an aberration from the norm. Dhillon said she disagreed with this characterization and linked the current condition of Canadian indigenous people to historical and ongoing colonial violence.

Drawing on her ethnographic analysis of Saskatoon, Dhillon asserted that an “indigenous presence threatens the white power that is the Canadian colonial state.” Saskatoon is a segregated city, Dhillon said. The east side of the city, its downtown, has fossil fuel wealth that has spurred gentrification, a burgeoning art scene and a population boom. The east side is considered the good side of town.

However, the west side of the city, especially the Core neighborhood, is seen as its “bad side,” Dhillon said. During the 1960s, many indigenous people migrated from reserves to Canadian urban centers, and the Core became home to the majority of Saskatoon’s indigenous population.

Today, the Core is impoverished and heavily policed. Police officers stopping indigenous youths and engaging in rough questioning or physical violence is a common sight, according to Dhillon. She emphasized the geographical specificity of Saskatoon’s heavy police surveillance, arguing that it is no coincidence that the Core is regarded as both an indigenous space and a suitable target for state power.

Indigenous youths are also incarcerated at disproportionately high rates in Saskatchewan, the province that includes Saskatoon. The youth comprise 16 percent of Saskatchewan’s population — but 88 percent of the population in youth detention centers.

“I wish more people came to the talk because I think regardless of your personal background, it was a really informative lecture about settler colonialism, which impacts everyone,” Courtney Nunley ’21 said. “It also dismantled the common narrative of Canada being overtly benevolent and peaceful with the harsh realities of indigenous youths’ lives that I think more people should be exposed to.”

The talk concluded with a look forward. Dhillon spoke of the need to change policies in Canadian government agencies, but she cautioned against assuming that a settler-colonial state would correct its own wrongs. And she emphasized the importance of indigenous youth leadership and centering their experiences in discourse of decolonization.

Indigenous youth need an “arsenal of resistance to colonial violence,” she said. “There’s no jetpack that will free them from the settler state’s death grip.”

“Prairie Rising” was published in March.

Daniel Yadin | daniel.yadin@yale.edu