Thursday, 31 January 2013

Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada

Fighting over a bottle of Métis Water

Dr Michael Mascarenhas has written a masterly book Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada that demonstrates many of the issues facing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations in Canada. Using water as a backdrop to look at the larger issues of the why Aboriginal peoples see themselves as being in an inferior position and why non-Aboriginals do not see any issues because the system is colour blind and based on common sense. Michael is able to clearly state what neo-liberalism is which unfortunately most Canadians both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal fail to adequately understand. Michael demonstrates the neoliberal economic bias within the Canadian political system and how it affects not only First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples but all Canadians. He has been able to analyze how contemporary neoliberal reforms that came to the fore within Canada and the Western world since the 1980s with de-regulation, austerity measures, common sense policies, privatization and show how they have shaped contemporary racial inequality in Canadian society.

Michael has brought together theories and concepts from four disciplines; sociology, geography, Aboriginal studies, and environmental studies to build critical insights into the race relational aspects of neoliberal reform. “In particular, the book argues that neoliberalism represents a key moment in time for the racial formation in Canada, one that functions not through overt forms of state sanctioned racism, as in the past, but via the morality of the marketplace and the primacy of individual solutions to modern environmental and social problems.” Because many Canadians are no aware of Canadian history and how the economic system in Canada came to formed they are not aware of how most Canadians have benefits from the past policies which still affect a system wide racism in the economic policies. The Economist writes that the greatest challenges are not based on redistributing wealth, but ensuring mobility for large social classes within society and economic systems. The average Canadian is “not aware of this pattern of laissez faire racism, and because racism continues to be associated with intentional and hostile acts, Canadians can dissociate themselves from this form of economic racism, all the while ignoring their compounded investment in white privilege.”

Dr Michael Mascarenhas joined the Science and Technology Studies Department in 2007. Dr. Masarenhas completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia in 2006, and received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Michigan State University in 2005. His current research examines the relationship between recent environmental governance regimes and their impacts on social relationships and structural hierarchies. In over a dozen publications, he has written on water, wolves, seed-saving, standards, supermarkets, family farms, and forests.

Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada by Michael Mascarenhas.


Ouellette, Robert-Falcon. (Director) (2013, Jan 31). At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research. Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada with Michael Mascarenhas [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from  
Ouellette, Robert-Falcon, dir. "Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada with Michael Mascarenhas." At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research.. N.p., 31 2013. web. 31 Jan 2013. < ›


  1. This response is not entirely related to this post, but this post brought to mind the discussion we were having in class a few weeks ago about the ideas of indigenous knowledge. We discussed how people were arguing about the use of indigenous knowledge in surveying endeavours and how some people felt it was necessary because it gave information that science couldn’t and others argued that it lacked scientific backing up to be a credible source of information.
    To put it bluntly, I agree with the second set of people. For results to be accepted, they have to be repeatable. I come from a scientific background and therefore I see this point of view.
    I want to look at it from another standpoint though. If any other culture came forward and said that they felt their cosmological knowledge should be included in these scientific undertakings, the general population would say they were crazy. If Wiccans came forward and tried to impart their knowledge of the natural world, they would be told that this was a scientific endeavour and that they had no place in it. The same goes for any religions or other cultural groups, so why is it that indigenous knowledge is then accepted? What elevates it beyond anybody else’s point of view? I haven’t found the answer to either of these questions, so I can’t take that side of the argument.
    I hear people say things like: “the knowledge has been passed down for generations.” Or “they’re ancient teachings”. This makes me think back to the days of primitive medicine where doctors felt that the body was full of four liquids that affected humans when they were imbalanced, and that leeches were the cure all. Knowledge of our world is ever expanding and our traditional knowledge may not be as accurate as we would like.
    To me, this dispute isn’t a matter of racism. I see this as an argument over what to classify as ‘science’. My definition of science is a set of steps after which can be replicated and/or verified. Unfortunately indigenous or traditional knowledge of any kind doesn’t fit that description for me.

  2. Robert Ouellette discusses the nature of racism in Canada in this blog post from January 2013. Ouellette accurately describes Canada as embodying a “pattern of laissez faire racism” (, meaning that the most detrimental form racism takes in Canada is systemic economic inequity. Aboriginal peoples in Canada are systemically repressed from navigating between economic classes. They are confined to lower economic classes through continual systemic racism such as limited access to education.

    This systemic racism is the result of a general consensus of white privilege in Canada. As Ouellette points out in the posting, this form of racism is extremely difficult to rectify due to its covert nature. Meaning, Canadians do not necessarily acknowledge systemic racism like white privilege in Canada. We are more willing to punish and rectify racism which is a single isolated act, such as a hate crime. Therefore, it is difficult to combat this systemic racism in Canada for the simple fact that Canadians are in a state of denial over its existence.

    The vision of the United States of America as the land of endless opportunities has been imprinted onto Canada. This discourse of Canada as a meritocracy; in which a person is judged only by their merit, is a false truth which enables systemic racism to go unnoticed. Instead, “lack of success is a result of laziness or personal failure. If a woman does not make it, it is because she has not tried hard enough—a thinly disguised version of blaming the victim” (Schick, Carol, St. Denise, Verma, 7). In fact, these people are victims of systemic inequality. Canadians need to become aware of this nation wide white privilege and own up to the ongoing systemic racist attitudes towards Aboriginal peoples for any sort of change to happen and true equality to flourish.

    1. Ouellette, Robert-Falcon, dir. "Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege and Environmental Racism in Canada with Michael Mascarenhas." At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research.. N.p., 31 2013. web. 31 Jan 2013. <›
    2. Schick, Carol, St. Denise, Verma. “What Makes Anti-racist Pedagogy in Teacher Education Difficult? Three Popular Ideological Assumptions.” Alberta Journal of Educational Research. Edmonton: Spring 2003. Vol. 49, Iss. 1

  3. I really enjoyed the interview with Dr. Michael Mascarenhas. I have taken economics courses where we discussed neoliberalism in Chile under the Pinochet regime or the policies of Reagan and Thatcher, yet we never looked at Canadian examples. I found it refreshing to hear from a Canadian perspective, which examined the interesting relationship between neoliberalism and racism. By its very nature, the system favours certain groups of people, particularly those involved with business or in positions of power. Furthermore, the victim, who may possess low levels of cultural, social, or economic capital, is often blamed for their position in life. Mascarenhas suggests that the way in which neoliberalism labels individuals as lazy or incompetent is a subtle form of racism. Simply telling people to work harder or acquire an education overlooks the complex social, historical, and cultural conditions at play in their lives.
    Another idea that emerged was that society is always attempting to reproduce itself. Marxist theorists believe that the education system, through the hidden curriculum, reinforces the mechanisms of our market-driven economy. In school students are taught to submit to authority, with the teacher often behaving like a boss or manager in the workforce. This theory of schools as vehicles of class power is known as the correspondence principle. There is also the idea of credentialism which refers to the need to obtain specific qualifications to gain membership into a particular group. For example, an experienced worker may be denied a promotion because he or she lacks formal credentials. Neoliberalism clearly works against the aspirations of certain social classes or cultural groups and this bias is maintained and reinforced through the public school system. Unfortunately, economic, political, and educational structures are so interconnected and engrained in society, that it will be extremely difficult to change the systems and overcome the hidden racism they perpetuate.

    Gatto, J.T. (September, 2003). Against school: How public education cripples our kids and why. Harper’s Magazine, 319, 32-40.

    Robson, K. (2013). Sociology of education in Canada. Toronto, ON: Pearson.