The Systematic Distortion of Indigenous History: Downgrading the War Canoe from Indigenous History to White Settler Sport

Paper Length: 2,239 Words
Reading Time: 14 Minutes

In Canada only, white people (known as mainstream) race war canoes and First Nations race war canoes (known as Aboriginal Stream). This System is referred to as the "Double Helix" amongst academics in this field, the government sport System and institutions.[1] Unfortunately many may not realize a sport can be colonized, where white government sport institutions a) name themselves after First Nation words, b) wear stereotypical “indian” head logos on their teamwear and c) race war canoes. Even though white people never went to war in a canoe and the First Nations people of Canada did.  We are talking about: a) colonization of sport, b) cultural appropriation in sport, and c) cultural assimilation through sport. [2]

We will take a Microanalysis look at three brothers who are training and competing to attend the North American Indigenous Games in the sport of Canoe and Kayak. At this time in their life the brothers had recently been orphaned after their mother passes, and they find salvage in their own culture - one that is of war canoes.  The brothers were featured in an APTN Water Stories episode[4] talking about their upcoming trip in the annual Tribal Canoe Journeys.[5] This episode was about the boys, with their aunt and uncle (Cathy and Frank Brown) who had started the event as a way to reconnect with their culture post the Canadian Indian Residential School System[6]. The show was focusing on the event’s upcoming 25 year anniversary.

At the same time, their grandmother, who appears in the episode is a survivor of the Canadian Residential School System, was settling her court claims with the government for her time spent growing up institutionalized. The elder was outspoken and had PTSD - like reactions to triggers around topics such as her culture. She would make her grandsons read from her court affidavits and engage the youth in discussion on her treatment, and the need to rise as they were the seventh generation. During one of the dinners I attended we had been discussing the topic of war canoes and specifically,’ how the organization that was governing the youth in the sport of canoe and kayak for the North American Indigenous Games spent a great deal of their time promoting their own version of war canoe racing (mainstream)’. The grandmother was teaching them to speak up, and speak out, about First Nation issues that were perpetuated by the white System also known as mainstream institutions. This discussion led to the viewing of the two television segments and reviewing questions from the past president of CanoeKayak BC after the dinner.

The First Nation youth are watching two TV news clips about mainstream war canoe. In the first clip, it is about a group of white teenagers who will be demonstrating the sport of mainstream war canoe at the 2012 London Olympic Games[7] and the second clip is of the Canada Summer Games War Canoe races[8]. The youth are not coached what to say or even aware of the content they are about to watch. It is an organic and candid response that I am recording. During this time period the group and I tried many different ways to bring the issues of cultural appropriation, assimilation and tokenism to the institutes attention. This in return triggered a past president of CanoeKayak BC to send a message with eight questions/statements that the brothers would read and respond to (view the questions and answer videos[9]) on the topic of mainstream war canoe.

Communicative Action
Habermas believed that Life-World was governed by communicative action (action pointed towards coming to a mutual understanding). One of the main differences between Marx and Habermas was that Marx focused on work while Habermas focused on communications.[10] Specifically Communicative Action, where Habermas states “the actions of the agents involved are coordinated not through egocentric calculations of success but through acts of reaching understanding. Applying Habermas theory to the context of the institutions would come to understand that colonization, cultural appropriation and racism in sport is no longer tolerated.[2] The institution recognizes this because many First Nations people have expressed their discontent with the term War Canoe being used by white settlers as a sport for entertainment. There have been newspaper articles, petitions and videos on the topic over the past two decades. However, the Institution has never addressed the issue.  By ignoring the reality, they are showing intent to make the decision to not participate in Communicative Action.

Habermas believed that in communicative action participants are not primarily oriented to their own successes; they pursue their individual goals under the condition that they can harmonize their plans of action on the basis of common situations definitions. (Habermas, 1984; 286)”. [10] We can see in the video Cheema War Canoe - 2012 Olympic Games that the white youth in the video are primarily oriented with their own successes. In the video The news women anchor says "they are heading to the Olympics that is in London England this summer. They won't be competing though"[7]. The news man anchor says "that's right they are going to be demonstrating the sport that Nova Scotia is well known for. War Canoe Racing!”[7]. Yet there is no mention in the news segment to the First Nations people and their connection to the war canoe. The video continues and at this point a male paddlers from the mainstream war canoe appears on TV and says "I like that it shows you can cooperate with people and share the victory at that"[7]. To which First Nation Brother #2 responds, "you don't know the meaning of war canoe"[7]. The male paddler continues on the news clip "you don't have to compete against each other all the time.”[7].

In addition, when we look at the video Canada Summer Games War Canoe[8] racing we see Olympians and staff of the Institution focusing on their mainstream sport of war canoe racing and rewrite the history of the war canoe such as when the clip segments back to the Olympian Fournel who says "It's like a hockey kind of vibe, you know? so when you are racing all you hear is the paddle hitting. It's a wooden boat and the paddle hitting the wooden boat and splashes everywhere. You hear nine boats at the same time and everybody is screaming and feeling like you are in a war and thats why its called war canoe and it's one of the oldest races that we are still doing in Canada"[8]. To which First Nation Brother #2 responds "no that's not why its called war canoe. It's not even a war canoe."[8] To which First Nation Brother #1 responds "nope".[8]”

Habermas adopts “a baseline in the realm of communicative rather than in that of purposive-rational action. Habermas’s baseline is undistorted communication, communication without compulsion. With this baseline, Habermas is able to critically analyze distorted communication”. [10] It is clear that the communication between the System and the First Nation people is distorted when we consider the Institutions belief in their settler sport of war canoe. The video continues with the news man saying "and clearly one of the most treasured". Throughout the video the First Nations youth were shaking their heads in disbelief at the content being presented[8].

Habermas believed that by having an interpretive agreement where the Life-World and System can live in harmony. For example in this situation, the Institution could recognize the Truth and Reconciliation Era and the fact that Minister Sinclair’s ‘Calls to Action’ included 5 sport and reconciliation sections. By doing so, it is easy enough to change the name of their sport from war canoe to C-15. Simply drop the name and a Life-world and System may start to live in harmony. Habermas believes the Life-World is open to a) dialogue and b) practical rationality. Whereas the System is more concerned with objective social structures which mediate social relations. This includes a technical rationality as opposed to the practical rationality of the Life-World.  As a result it has its own internal logic that may not be consistent with the Life-World.[11]

“Marx seeks the elimination of (capitalist) barriers to undistorted work and Habermas is interested in the elimination of barriers to free communication.”. [10]

The Colonization of the Life-World
This is where the Systems technical rationality invades the Life-World so that the instrumental logic gains communicative power and penetrates social discourse. This then creates illegitimate social norms, justified by technical rationality of the System, rather than the discursive rationality of the Life-World.

Building on the social theorist Jurgen Habermas’ communication theory. I will analyze the communication between what Habermas would refer to as a) the System (CanoeKayakBC) and b) the lifeword (Three Brothers). “Habermas sees psychoanalysis as a theory of distorted communication and as being preoccupied with allowing individuals to communicate in an undistorted way”. [10]

System and Life-world
Habermas would have seen the boys commentary videos on the topic of war canoe as a “therapeutic critique, a form of argumentation that serves to clarify Systematic self-deception (Habermas, 1984:21). [10] Where as “the psychoanalyst aids the patient in much the same way that the social critic helps those unable to communicate adequately to become undisabled (Habermas, 1994:112).”[10].

Habermas’s focuses on the dual nature of society as both a) a Life-World and b) a System. The Life-World in this story would be the indigenous youth who are competing in the System of Olympic canoe racing. Originally Haberma’s got the concept for the Life-World from Edmund Husserl.[11] The Life-World is the possibilities and hope of meanings that can emerge from the universe given. Where Husserl focused more on conscious, Habermas was more focused on discourse. [11]

Social Discourse
Social Discourse is the manufacturing consent of the Institutions when they are defining the parameters where discourse can take place. In the case of this story, the Institutions took many actions against the boys which included but not limited to a) not being able to participate at the North American Indigenous Games and b) not being able to participate at the BC Summer Games.  As result they muted the brothers so that their radicalization that went to the root of the problem could be silenced. Despite being Provincial Champions leading up to the event, the brothers were never invited again to participate in the sport.


In Habermas theory, he believed we developed our critique of the System from their dissociation from the Life-World and we subject the Systems’ demands to the Life-World. For the Life-World and System to live in “harmony”,  Habermas believed we needed to decolonize the Life-World and restart. Effectively by adding Systems to the Life-World it is one way to do this is to dissolve the hierarchy Systems which creates unequal communication as seen in this example. People cannot have genuine communication with different hierarchical positions because it ceases to be a space of mutual communicative agreements, but rather a power struggle of trying to appease the other person. Democratizing communicative power by way of decolonizing the Life-World of the logic of the System has taken over the communicative power by way of becoming more important than discourse. Habermas believed the System does that by weakening the communicative power of those who are kept out of that discourse through colonization.

Public Sphere
Habermas referred to expand the public sphere which is the transformation of discursive relations, where ideas can be discussed in a mutual agreement. For this to have happened, the System should have appreciated what the brothers said. As a result the System could have served the public sphere which would have ultimately led to the dissolving of a hierarchy while strengthening the Life-World.

However, despite the huge attempts to bring the obvious to the attention of the Institutions. The System continues with such arrogance that they still believe today that they have done nothing wrong.  In conclusion, the brothers who spoke out about their culture were reduced to nothing more than a blimp in a “long history of war canoe racing” in Canada. A moment that can be forgotten in the name of all the good the Institution does for the sport, its people and the mainstream society.


[1] Sport for Life Aboriginal Long-Term Participant Development Pathway 1.1 -
[2] The Assimilation of Indigenous Canoe/Kayak, within the past 150 years, in the maritimes. -
[3] Mary Jane Abbott announces retirement from Canoe Kayak BC -
[4] Samaqan water stories: series 3, Episode 7: Nala Winds -
[5] CanoeKayak Canada mainstream/whitestream war canoe -vs- indigenous war canoe -
[6] Canadian Indian Residential School System -
[7] War Canoe Cheema -
[8] Canada Summer Games War Canoe -
[9] War Canoe Talking Circle -
[10] Modern Sociological Theory, Seventh Edition
[11] System and Life-World by Jonathan Cobb -


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