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Pobody's Nerfect: Challenging the Deficit Discourse

On Tuesday we wrote a post detailing some of the challenges that come with tracking reconciliation. Another such challenge is the idea of the ‘deficit discourse’ that has been tailor made to fit Indigenous people and communities.

Deficit discourse in the context of reconciliation is a shorthand for modes of discussion about reconciliation that paint Indigenous people as being inherently deficient. This paradigm is closely connected to the twisted paternalism that justifies colonialism in the first place. Colonialism and deficit-oriented approaches to reconciliation both incorrectly position Indigenous people as needing to be saved from themselves.

The deficit discourse also infiltrates how progress on reconciliation gets tracked. For instance, Call to Action 50 which calls on the Federal government to fund the development of Indigenous law research institutions to promote the development, use, and understanding of Indigenous laws and access to justice. [1] Indigenous law research institutes are now emerging all over Canada and the University of Victoria has broken ground on a National Centre for Indigenous Laws. [2] In spite of this, a 2022 report card from the Yellowhead Institute cites that no progress has been made on Call to action 50. [3]

Being self-congratulatory on reconciliation when there isn’t progress is harmful. However it can also cause harm to not recognize progress where it is being made. Call to action 50 is far from complete, but the work is underway. Declining to recognize this work contributes to the deficit discourse and slows momentum on reconciliation.

One issue with the deficit discourse is who the deficit adheres to. While there are undeniable social problems in Indigenous communities, is it really fair to conceptualize the Canadian state as a pillar of unblemished expertise? The TRC traces many of the social problems faced by Indigenous people to practices of the Canadian state. It could accurately be said that Canada is deficient in its dealings with Indigenous people and has left Indigenous communities to bear the consequences of its own shortcomings.

Challenging the deficit discourse is essential if we are truly serious about changing the legal system to better include and reflect Indigenous people. According to psychoanalytic theorists, when people feel hopeless, despair or dread, it pokes at a primal need to preserve ourselves. [4] One strategy that people use to satiate this need to self-preserve is by reinforcing their cultural worldview. [5] Given that much of the work of reconciliation lives in how people see the world, each other and themselves, the deficit discourse is not just about tone policing: it is a substantive hurdle that we must clear together.

[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Calls to Action, (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015) [TRC, Calls to Action]; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2015).

[3] Eva Jewell and Ian Mosby, ed, Calls to Action Accountability: A 2022 Status Update on Reconciliation (Toronto: Yellowhead Institute, 2022) at 5.

[4] Clay Routledge & Matthew Vess, Handbook of terror management theory (London: Academic Press, an imprint of

Elsevier, 2019).

[5] Ibid.

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