Newsletter #69: Cars and Colonialism, on Caroline Kanner and Jackson Roach’s “Superhighway!

by Mack Penner

Like most people in North America, I live in a place dominated by the car (or the tank-sized truck). But I get around by bicycle. Even chatting with someone whose politics are opposite mine, it doesn’t take much effort to reach agreement that, over the last century, life and space in North America has been tragically sacrificed to the supposed convenience of the car. It’s also usually simple to convince people that they are not a “good version” of themselves while driving, and that alternative transportation would be preferable if only it were more accessible.

But these exchanges aren’t easy to convert into politics. One reason for this might be the mismatch between the continental scale of the tragedy and the localized experience of its effects. Battles to claw back public space from the car may need to unfold at the local level, which implies certain political limits.

Along these lines, chapter seven of Caroline Kanner and Jackson Roach’s Superhighway! is particularly notable. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s discussion about the blockade tactic and its successful deployment in Indigenous resistance to colonization and settler-capitalist exploitation forces the recognition that the politics of automobility and its infrastructure is a politics of land, property, and settler-colonialism. The continental politicization of local struggles over the automobile and the space devoted to it could unfold under the larger umbrella of Indigenous-led anti-colonization struggles.

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, whose ongoing struggle in opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is discussed in Simpson’s A Short History of the Blockade, the Haudenosaunee occupation at 1492 Land Back Lane, and the Idle No More movement, to name only three key recent examples, are thus key. Because these movements resist fossil fuel extraction, settler-colonial property regimes, and environmental destruction, all of which are related to questions of automobility, they are loaded with political significance and potential that is little acknowledged by socialists and progressives.

No liberation from the grips of automobility without decolonization? Sounds about right to me.

Further Reading and Listening Related to the continental politics of land and settler-colonialism, I recommend Benjamin Hoy’s book, A Line of Blood and Dirt. It traces “more than a hundred years of violence, anxiety, and dispute” as the Canada-US border was being drawn across Indigenous lands.

This newsletter shouldn’t be seen as demeaning the importance of local victories against car culture. I really love this open-access history of cycling advocacy in Montreal, by historian Daniel Ross.

Superhighway! comes with a bibliography and an extended list of texts for further reading. Check it out here.

Finally, The Dig’s vast archive features many episodes on colonialism and Indigenous resistance to mention. Have a look around the topics tabs for settler colonialism and Indigenous struggles.