When is History? Where is the Present?

People say "history" is stories about the past, events before our time, considered to be "over and done with." This ignores the continuing effects of past events, the ways history is operative in the present.

French scholar Michel Foucault (1926-1984) brought this into focus when he famously said he was studying the "history of the present." In Foucault's view, history is not an explanation of the past, but an explanation of the present: how we got here and where we are.

Here's a simple analogy: We find ourselves in the mountains. The "history" of how we got here is the story of our hike, each step a moment in the journey. The history of the journey is also the basis for us to know where we are. If we had no knowledge of the steps of the journey, we would also have no knowledge of our actual location. We know we are somewhere, but we only know where that is when we know how we got here.

The recent events of IdleNoMore remind me of Foucault's philosophy of history. That is, the reactions that IdleNoMore is stirring up remind me of how people understand what "history" is.

IdleNoMore challenges the Canadian government's increasingly aggressive neo-colonial program of resource extraction. IdleNoMore thereby ignites Indigenous peoples around the world to challenge other governments that claim superiority over Native lands and peoples.

IdleNoMore is a grassroots movement: it is based on the social realities of ordinary people in ordinary communities in daily life. IdleNoMore challenges state/corporate institutions built on centuries of colonial practice. Those colonial practices are themselves based on a yet deeper foundation: the doctrine of Christian Discovery that supposedly justifies the colonial extraction regime.

For those who think that history is a story about something over and done with, all this attention to colonial history is irrelevant in the present. For example, one commenter on a news article in the Guardian wrote: "they throw up the sins of past people. I'm sorry their land was stolen but the people that did it are long dead and I'm sick and tired of paying for it." For this person, the history of Aboriginal peoples in relation to Canada is "long dead"; it has no meaning in terms of present concerns.

The great majority of commenters on the Guardian article wrote favorably to IdleNoMore. More importantly, they wrote with an understanding that history is relevant to the present. As one person put it: "Canada is a colonial state built on blood and exploitation. It's about time you faced it!" For this person, history is not only relevant, it is alive; it is an explanation of where we are. History is present and the present is history continuing, until we change it and "make history."

If we want to understand present circumstances, we need to know how we got where we are. Indeed, as I indicated above, we need to know how we got here to know where we are! To dismiss "the sins of past people" because those people are dead is to miss the important issue about whether the "sins" themselves are dead. If the "sins" are alive, they define the present and must be confronted as active elements of the current situation.

Another analogy may help U.S. readers see the point: Amid all the talk about the federal government's "deficit," there is almost no attention to the historical foundation of government debt in the origin of the United States. People debate the federal debt as if it were a phenomenon of recent administrations, or due to one or more particular government programs. In fact, the national debt was intentionally built into the structure of the U.S. As Alexander Hamilton put it, in his successful argument in favor of a national debt, "if it is not excessive, [it] will be to us a national blessing." Hamilton is dead, but the debt (and the policy of debt) is not.

A building has a foundation, which, though hidden below ground, supports all the visible structure. It is the same with any social (or governmental) structure. All the debate about whether a government program or policy ought to be changed is just hot air if we ignore the "past" that is still "present" in the foundation.

Clayton Thomas-Muller (Manitoba Cree), of the Indigenous Environmental Network, put it this way: "400 years ago we had Jesuit priests come into our First Nations in black robes promising a better way of life by changing the way we communicated with our creator. Today, CEOs come into our communities in black suits promising a better way of life if we change the way we relate to the sacredness of mother earth."

IdleNoMore shows that Canada is careening toward environmental destruction with its allegiance to oil extraction, the latest episode in the colonial project built on Christian Discovery.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues