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  • Ghost Dancing with Colonialism: Decolonization and Indigenous Rights at the Supreme Court of Canada by Grace Li Xiu Woo
  • David Leo Milward
Ghost Dancing with Colonialism: Decolonization and Indigenous Rights at the Supreme Court of Canada. By Grace Li Xiu Woo. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011. xiii + 338 pp. Illustrations, tables, appendixes, notes, bibliography, index. C$85.00 cloth, C$34.95 paper.

Ghost Dancing with Colonialism is Grace Li Xiu Woo’s recent effort to add new insight into the development of Aboriginal rights jurisprudence before the Supreme Court of Canada. Some of what she says parallels arguments made by several Aboriginal scholars in the field. For example, the surface language of Aboriginal rights decisions may display sensitivity toward Aboriginal perspectives and simply apply established precedent, but a harder look reveals a veiled effort to extend judicial deference to legislators and to preserve the status quo. On what basis did Canada ever legally and legitimately claim sovereignty over Aboriginal lands? If this founding moment is revealed to be a fraud, what does that say about the rest of the Canadian legal-political apparatus that continues to colonize Aboriginal peoples?

Woo does add a couple of new twists to the dialogue. She uses Thomas Kuhn’s theories that scientific paradigms exert a powerful grip on how scientists view the world, formulate their hypotheses, and conduct their research. If inconvenient facts or anomalies happen to show up now and again, they can be explained away, assimilated, or used to make small- scale incremental adjustments of the paradigm. Woo explains that just about every facet of our daily living—what we eat, the languages we speak, our modes of economy—shape and evolve the paradigms we rely on for interacting with and understanding the world. Everyone is brought up and raised in the paradigms of one’s society and times. It should not be surprising that engaging with a much different paradigm from one’s own is challenging, to say the least. Woo thoroughly deconstructs the myriad influences and factors that have shaped the paradigm of Britain and Canada as ongoing colonial societies. It should therefore not be surprising that Canadian judges, brought up in the paradigm of the common law world, have themselves been agents of neocolonialism when Aboriginal rights are contested before Canadian courts.

Woo’s other twist is an effort to tabulate with something resembling mathematic precision just how neocolonial the Supreme Court of Canada remains. She looks at almost the entire canon of Aboriginal rights cases, scoring them in her appendixes like spreadsheets based on whether their key excerpts display colonial or postcolonial reasoning. While the conclusions are familiar, the whole new level of sophistication she adds is an admirable contribution in itself.

I do have a few critiques to offer. One is that the book’s content is largely descriptive, laying out in immense detail the dynamics behind the Canadian judiciary operating as a neocolonial institution. Although very well done and a worthy contribution, this lengthy description unfortunately leaves little room for a search for ways to move forward. Such a search is not completely absent, yet it is so minimal in comparison with the descriptive emphasis that it almost amounts to a brief and vague hope that somehow the Supreme Court can become postcolonial. There is no truly sustained effort to explore whether that is tenable, or how Aboriginal communities can convince the court to become postcolonial, or what strategies or legal arguments can be employed in such a pursuit. [End Page 105]

Woo also seems to buy into the same essentialization theme that is often seen in the literature—“Aboriginal peoples are this and they believe in this” while “Canadians are this and they believe in this”—in order to argue for Aboriginal- based alternatives. This is all well and good, but some perspective is now needed in the discourse, like that provided, for example, by the underplayed degree of commonality between Aboriginal and Canadian perspectives, and the role of syncretism in contemporary Aboriginal life and politics. Woo does not explicitly go about trying to play up essentialization, but she does emphasize the differences in perspectives to such a degree, and...


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