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Reframing Conversations: An Introduction to Deficit Discourse

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


This week on the blog we will be introducing the concept of “deficit discourse” and how it relates to Indigenous peoples in Canada. “Deficit discourse refers to disempowering patterns of thought, language, and practice that represent people in terms of deficiencies and failures. It particularly refers to discourse that places responsibility for problems with the affected individuals or communities, overlooking the larger socio-economic structures in which they are embedded.”[1]


Photo Credit: CBC News <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winterfest-dakota-indigenous-youth-1.6729837>.


Put simply, deficit discourse in relation to Indigenous peoples refers to the framing and representation of Indigenous peoples in terms of negativity and failure.[2] Deficit discourse is not simply telling negative stories, but is rather “the lens through which Indigenous peoples and stories are viewed, so even a story focused on success can still engage in a deficit discourse.”[3]


This framing, which is often used in academia, health, and the media, plays a pivotal role in reaffirming stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the experiences of Indigenous peoples in this country. People are conditioned to believe that the disadvantage experienced by many Indigenous peoples is due to a “deficit implicit in Indigenous peoples.”[4] In reality, the disadvantage is rooted in the dark colonial past of this country.


I believe that reframing the way that we talk about Indigenous peoples can play an important role in reconciliation. To move beyond deficit discourse, it is crucial to acknowledge that many of the disadvantages faced by Indigenous peoples today are a direct result of colonization and the persisting racist policies stemming from the colonial project.[5]


The conversation surrounding deficit discourse and the impacts of it on Indigenous people has been taking place quite readily in Australia,[6] but now the conversation is starting to gain traction in Canada.[7] In terms of health, Indigenous nations are pushing for self-determination and control in research projects in their communities, with the belief that “Indigenous-led, collaborative research has the potential to enhance transformative changes in the health status of Indigenous peoples.”[8] This illustrates a move away from deficit discourse in healthcare.


Since contact, Indigenous people have had power stripped away in every sense of the word. By shifting the way that we learn, teach, and research Indigenous issues, and by centering the Indigenous perspective and values in this work, we can move away from the deficit-centered approach. Instead, we can move toward what some have referred to as the “desire-based approach,” in which the “research frameworks are concerned with understanding complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives.[9]


Indigenous scholar, Eve Tuck, states, “It is time for our communities to refuse to be complicit in our further categorization as only damaged, as only broken.”[10]


Did you know that the Women’s Law Forum and Indigenous Law Students’ Association at the University of Alberta are holding a Deficit Discourse Presentation and Workshop on Wednesday, February 8th from 12:00-1:00? Open to University of Alberta Law Students. Sign up here: https://forms.gle/AuosfV1Ass3wAEYM7



Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG


[1] “Deficit Discourse and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Policy” (May 2018) at 1, online (pdf): The Lowitja Institute <www.lowitja.org.au/content/Document/PDF/deficit-discourse-summary-report.pdf>. [2] Kerry McCallum & Lisa Waller, “Un-braiding deficit discourse in Indigenous education news 2008-2018: performance, attendance and mobility” (2022)19:1 Critical Discourse Studies 73 at 73. [3] Luke Pearson, “Addressing deficit reporting is more than just telling positive stories” (21 October 2021), online: IndigenousX <indigenousx.com.au/addressing-deficit-reporting-is-more-than-just-telling-positive-stories/>. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Supra note 1. [7] Sarah Louise Hyett et al, “Deficit-Based Indigenous Health Research and the Stereotyping of Indigenous Peoples” (2019) 2:2 Can J Bioethics 102. [8] Ibid. [9] Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities” (2009) 79:3 Harvard Education Rev 409 at 416. [10] Ibid at 422.

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