Skip navigation
Ask Dr. Editor

Decolonizing your grant application

To adopt a decolonizing approach, you’ll need to know what Indigenous sovereignty looks like.



Dr. Editor’s response:

As funding agencies increasingly prioritize Indigenous research capacity and reconciliation (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), Indigenous health research (Canadian Institutes of Health Research), and Indigenous students and trainees (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council), Canadian researchers are increasingly integrating an Indigenous focus in their work. In my own work as a grant editor and review committee member, I’ve seen the numbers of Indigenous-focused requests for funding increase steadily since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action were published in 2015.

But working in the wake of genocide isn’t simple or straightforward, and universities are still, in many ways, colonial institutions. Well-intentioned work can end up reinforcing violent colonial systems and structures, if researchers don’t do the work of breaking down the non-Indigenous knowledge frameworks that, for many of us, were fundamental to our development as scholars – that is, if we don’t decolonize our methods and practices.

So, what if you want to advance reconciliation, or construct or mobilize knowledge in Indigenous contexts? How can you ensure that you aren’t bringing culturally inappropriate methods and practices into your research project? For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, these can be hard questions.

To answer the first question – what does a decolonized grant application look like? – I turned to educational consultant and artist Dr. Amie Wolf, who has provided the advice below.

Before I hand over the rest of this column to Dr. Wolf, I want to recommend that readers of this column keep their eyes on the Indigenous Editors’ Association Twitter feed, as that group has plans to develop a database of freelance Indigenous editors, with the support of a number of partners – but note, please, that they don’t provide a referral service.

Dr. Wolf’s answer:

For those of us who are new to the task, decolonizing our proposal writing is not a quick or simple job. Our writing reflects how we think. This means that decolonizing our proposal writing is ultimately an invitation to deconstruct our worldview – the mental picture we have of reality and our place in it.

To achieve this, we must steep ourselves in another way of seeing, until it becomes automatic when we express ourselves in words. This personal process of re-education takes time to practice and patience to evolve. Two books I recommend reading in the re-education process: The Fourth World, by George Manuel, and The Reconciliation Manifesto, by Arthur Manuel.

Understand what decolonization means

As an advisor on the Vancouver Foundation Systems Change grant applications, I read many proposals written by authors who do not understand what decolonization means. Starting with an understanding of the term is the beginning of decolonizing your proposal writing.

One of the best definitions I know is in the compilation, For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Drs. Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird state that “decolonization is the active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation.”

Indigenous peoples were, and still are, politically autonomous nations with the authority to make decisions independently. This autonomy means decolonization is about restructuring in order to restore the Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationship to one of equal power. Decolonization is not a struggle for equal rights, but for the equal right to sovereignty.

A social imaginary for Indigenous sovereignty

In order to write in a way that implicitly acknowledges Indigenous peoples’ right to freedom, we need to be able to imagine it. We must cultivate a mental picture of what our work might look like in a world in which Indigenous sovereignty is a reality.

In a recent article about the October 2019 passing of Bill 41 in British Columbia, Kate Gunn and Jess Donovan, associates at First Peoples Law in Vancouver, explain that the new bill will require provincial laws to uphold the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. “However,” the authors point out, “the declaration can only be fully realized if… non-Indigenous people residing in B.C. are willing to commit to reimagining a new future in which Indigenous peoples’ rights and decision-making authority are fully recognized and respected.”

Ms. Gunn’s and Mr. Donovan’s emphasis on reimaging a new future resonates with Charles Taylor’s book, Modern Social Imaginaries. A social imaginary, Dr. Taylor describes, is a broad understanding of the way a given people imagine their collective social life.

Perhaps the song “Imagine,” by John Lennon, provides one of the best examples of such a social imaginary. Lennon invites the listener to believe something is real by visualizing it, using simple language the listener can picture in their mind. Most of us know the lyric, “imagine all the people, sharing all the world,” because the social imaginary evoked is so effective. This is very powerful because we write our worldview.

When it comes to decolonizing your proposal writing, if you can imagine it, you can achieve it, and if you can dream it, you can become it. Indigenous liberation requires a social imaginary to be fully realized. As Noura Erakat points out in, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine:

“Law can serve the cause of freedom when it is mobilized in support of a political movement.”

Such a political movement starts with a social imaginary in which decolonized proposal writing is rooted.

The two-row wampum belt

Many researchers and grant writers do not go beyond the mental picture of multiculturalism because they can’t picture Indigenous liberation. People default to the paradigm of inclusion and the value of diversity – to what they know – even though decolonization is not about upholding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For example, hiring an Indigenous individual is not in and of itself decolonization work, although such a hire might support that work.

Learning about the meaning of the two-row wampum belt, one of the oldest treaties between First Peoples of North America and European settlers, is also fundamental to cultivating a social imaginary of Indigenous liberation. The belt consists of two rows of purple wampum beads on a white background. Three rows of white beads symbolizing peace, friendship, and respect separate the two purple rows. The two purple rows represent two paths or vessels travelling down the same river. One row symbolizes the Haudenosaunee people with their law and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs. As nations move together side by side on the River of Life, they are to avoid overlapping or interfering with one another.

This is an interior landscape

Decolonized proposal writing is an outcome of a mind that can picture and therefore think about this genuine division of power between Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations, unselfconsciously contextualizing itself in a social imaginary of actualized Indigenous rights.

At its best, decolonized proposal writing does not talk about decolonization or even use the word, because it is decolonization, in and of itself. As the late Leonard Cohen writes in “How to Speak Poetry”:

“The word butterfly is not a real butterfly… This is an interior landscape. It is inside.”

Achieving this level of mastery could be considered a personal, lifelong practice of unlearning in order to continually apprehend and express a truer understanding in our proposal writing. I wish you self-compassion on your journey.

Amie Wolf has doctorate in philosophy from Simon Fraser University and specializes in postsecondary decolonization education. Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at or on Twitter @lertitia.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Associate Professor / December 19, 2019 at 01:30

    The irony is that decolonization is itself a Western and colonial obsession. Additionally, and ironically, the sources Amie Wolf turns to for inspiration in this article — the United Nations, Charles Taylor, John Lennon — are all representatives of white, European agendas and priorities.

    I also find it strange that Wolf encourages decolonizers to look to the two-row wampum belt for inspiration. After all, is the meaning of this belt not one that prioritizes cultural, racial, and ethnic independence as each group travels along the “River of Life”? As Wolf explains: “One row symbolizes the Haudenosaunee people with their law and customs, while the other row symbolizes European laws and customs. As nations move together side by side on the River of Life, they are to avoid overlapping or interfering with one another.”

    In other words, according to the two-row wampum belt it’s better for cultures to remain proudly independent of one another (rather than be diluted by cross-cultural intermingling). If this is the case, why are non-indigenous Westerners (who may have fled their own indigenous lands when faced with war, genocide, oppression, etc.) so intent, as Henville states, on “integrating an Indigenous focus in their work”? Does this note contradict the very principles of “one of the oldest treaties between First Peoples of North America and European settlers”?

    An Associate Professor from Ontario

  2. Cris Goodstone / December 21, 2019 at 12:46

    Another article of no actual substance. This just serves as lazy virtue signalling for the author, nothing more.

  3. Lacey Chen / December 28, 2019 at 04:37

    What exactly are “culturally inappropriate methods and practices” and should research and the pursuit of truth cease because the methods are “culturally inappropriate”? Which culture(s) do you mean – every culture existing in Canada now or in the world? How do we decide what path to take if there are two cultures with a diametrically opposing value? It would be nice to have actual concrete examples and more clarity because what you are suggesting is difficult to imagine putting in place in a STEM field in a multicultural society like Canada. This article seems to say the write words but I have trouble following the context and substance, it doesn’t seem applicable in real life.

  4. Daniel Chu / December 29, 2019 at 15:20

    Associate Professor brought up some provocative and valid points. I was dismayed to see that the author’s Twitter include a reference about her being too angry to reply to his comment on her article. Why are you angry, because he contradicted you opinion and didn’t just toe the line of tokenism championed by white people?

    It’s this type of attitude that is becoming disturbing prevalent in academia: react purely based on your emotions and shutdown when your beliefs/opinions are contradicted or questioned. This is emotionally immature and does not in any way help forward social justice, it simply progresses the growing political false dichotomy.

    If you don’t want to read about people disagreeing with you and find different opinions unsettling, please consider not writing a public article here!

  5. Associate Professor / January 3, 2020 at 16:38

    Hilariously, Letitia Henville’s tweeted response to my questions about her advice column on “decolonization,” including the commentary by former kindergarten teacher Amie Wolf’s, is the following:
    “I can’t bring myself to response to this comment, because it makes me too angry. If anyone else wants to volunteer, I’d appreciate it.”

    In this virtous performance of rage, Letitia not only misspells “respond” and misuses a coma, she also embodies the very behaviours that motivate her reductive, naive, and resentment-filled “advice” column: outrage, blinkered victimhood, and a type of virtue signalling that is so unflinching when offended that she isn’t even capable of mustering a response.

    But I have a few more questions for Henville and Wolf: Who is being implored to “decolonize” their grant applications here? Recent immigrants from Pakistan? Japanese Canadians? Non-Canadians? The Irish? The Welsh? The Afghans (given Canada’s recent neo-colonial exploits there)? Also, aren’t we all, in a sense, still colonizers (including Henville and Wolf)? Of land? Of nature? Of resources? Of other cultures? What level of decolonial purity would suffice to allow us to atone for the sins of our ancestors?

    Also, what is so unassailable about aboriginal Canadians? Both Henville and Wolf are from the Pacific Coast. Are they not aware that even the vaunted “potlatch” ceremonies of aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest were fueled by slavery and other ethical atrocities? SLAVERY! See, for example, these sources:

    As they say, let he who is without guilt cast the first stone. And again, hilariously it turns out that at some level we’re ALL slaves and slave owners, colonizers and colonized, victims and victimizers. Let’s not also be naive, simpleminded, and ignorant in our virtuous efforts to give advice to others.