9. Learning Theories

9.1 Criminology and Colonialism

Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A.

Before moving into our discussion of learning theories, it is important to briefly reiterate the interconnection between criminology, colonialism, and genocide. To begin, we must recognise that Indigenous peoples have their own ways of responding to wrongdoing; however, settler domination imposed colonial systems and oppressed those pre-existing systems. Colonialism and genocide are ongoing and continue to displace, dispossess, oppress, and harm Indigenous peoples (Alfred, 2009; Alfred & Corntassel, 2005; Manuel, 2017).

Criminalisation and over-incarceration perpetuate colonial control and maintain the oppression of the Indigenous other (Chartrand, 2019; Cunneen & Tauri, 2019). Agozino (2004) suggests that criminology is an “inherently colonial enterprise” that has been utilized as a tool in the moral justification of slavery, genocide, and oppression (p. 345). The Canadian state and the Nations that pre-existed its imposed domination have different ways of understanding what crime is, what it means to be a criminal, and what constitutes justice. Moreover, Indigenous peoples’ experiences of colonial oppression have been legitimized by Canadian law, which continues to criminalise, victimise, and incarcerate them without facing much accountability (Monture-Okanee, 1994; Palmater, 2019; Starblanket, 2018). Further, multiple studies have found systemic racism within police, courts, corrections and even juries (Anthony & Longman, 2017; Eby, 2011; Jackson, 2015; Palmater, 2016; Reasons et al., 2016; Rhoad, 2013; Roberts & Reid, 2017; Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC], 2015). These studies suggest that the criminal justice system and the court system are not immune to the grave effects of racism against Indigenous peoples.

Cunneen and Tauri (2019) argue that mainstream criminology actively denies the importance of colonialism as foundational to Indigenous persons’ involvement with state justice systems. Indigenous peoples were dehumanised—by being subject to paternalistic policies, practices, societal erasure and extreme control, which meant that early theoretical perspectives ignored the relationship between the state and explanations for deviance. Western criminological research often portrays Indigenous persons as the sick, dysfunctional, other, whose misfortune is a product of their own behaviour. This portrayal ignores the continuation of colonialism, state violence and systemic racism which are criminogenic acts in themselves (Cunneen & Tauri, 2019; Monchalin, 2016).

Because learning theories are concerned with understanding how an individual’s social environment shapes their experiences and reinforces patterns of behaviour, we must consider the historical (residential schools, day schools, pass system, Indian[1] agents, forced sterilisation, etc.) and ongoing (child apprehension, underfunded education, abuse, structural racism, etc.) horrific abuses to which Indigenous peoples are subject (TRC, 2015). Indigenous peoples have been targets of colonial policies and their over-incarceration is representative of the continuation of state-based genocidal tactics of control through confinement (Woolford & Gaceck, 2016). The main social influences impacting Indigenous peoples’ justice involvement are structural racism, colonialism, and the Canadian state’s complicity in continued suffering. Racism against Indigenous peoples is so deeply embedded that it has become normalised. A decolonial approach requires an understanding of the role of colonialism in criminological theories and the discipline as a whole. We ask that you keep the connection between criminology and colonialism in mind as we turn to our discussion of learning theories.

  1. This word is considered racist terminology and it is only utilized in this chapter in reference to its legislation (the Indian Act) or, historical processes/policies/practices such as the Indian agent.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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