Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody

By Lerner, Anna | Canadian Review of Social Policy, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody


Lerner, Anna, Canadian Review of Social Policy


Dying From Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody by Sherene H. Razack. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2015, 309 pp. ISBN 978-1-4426-2891-5

Dying from Improvement includes several of Sherene Razack's recent journal publications examining Canadian spatial and racial relations inscribed on Indigenous lands and on Indigenous bodies. Demonstrating a chilling pattern of violence, this work extends and deepens previous analyses. Razack investigates how Canadian inquests and inquires into Indigenous deaths in custody legally stage Indigenous peoples as modernity's remnants in the final stages of decline, leaving no one accountable when they die. The work asks and answers the question: Why is Indigenous death nearly always considered by inquests a timely death, a death that no one could prevent nor cause?" (p. 4). The question is well considered and Razack's answers are convincing. Weaving historical into present day colonial rule, and the works of anti-colonial, mostly Indigenous scholars, into Indigenous witness testimonies, Razack expertly demonstrates the historical continuity of colonial violence that repeats the urgent necessity of Indigenous sovereignty.

Razack's work investigates various settler narratives that require and sustain the continuous re-claiming of Indigenous lands. Situated around the myth of an Indigenous race destined for extinction, these narratives feature self-destruction, mental illness, alcoholism, fatty livers, and a general inability to cope with modern life. She demonstrates through detailed and conclusive analyses of inquest testimony that these tales work to deflect attention away from inept, disinterested, and duplicitous state actors who by this narrative process remain unaccountable when Indigenous men die in police custody. Razack argues that today's civilizing mission calls on medical and legal discourse to position Indigenous people as requiring improvement and to be brought into modernity. At the same time, Indigenous peoples are storied as pre-modern waste, entirely beyond improvement and so, logically, beyond care. Myths of disappearing Indians are necessary for continued occupation but also for the creation of settler subjectivity which depends on the continuous control, management, regulation, and disappearance of Indigenous peoples as well as the transformation of violence into improvement. Inquests and inquiries showcase settler benevolence in order that settlers may continue to view themselves as caring pioneers who labour, futilely, to assist Indigenous people into modernity.

The book is comprised of six chapters and an important conclusion, each of which Razack intends to be an iteration of the disappearing Indian story and the many subtle and overt ways that the law sustains this narrative, transforming "killing into saving and murder into redemption" (p. 6).

Chapter one, The body as placeless: memorializing colonial power, examines the official story of bad police judgment and bureaucratic failing told by the inquest investigating the death of Frank Paul, an Indigenous man dropped off by police in a Vancouver alley where he died. Modern, order making, settler subjectivity authorizes the removal of Indigenous peoples from public space to avoid inconvenient reminders that the land is stolen. Yet Indigenous bodies must also remain visible in specific ways that legitimize ongoing theft, necessitating containment. Looking at the testimony of various professionals, Razack maps the specific ways that colonial power imprinted itself on Paul's body as object of routinized professional treatment and police detainment practices. The marking of Paul's body as bestial and riddled with pathologies legitimizes its removal from settler spaces of respectability and its forced movements from jail to shelter to street. Such "rituals of cleansing" (p. 33) reestablish the modernity of the settler and the pre-modern inhumanity of the Indigenous body. …

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