Dear Rex Murphy,
When you write that Canadians are offended at the term ‘settler’ and ‘genocide,’ you don’t speak for all of us. I’m a Canadian citizen, my ancestors came to Canada from Europe a few centuries ago, and I understand myself as a settler. It’s not disrespectful for indigenous peoples to remind us of Canada’s legacy of genocide. It’s not rude for indigenous peoples to label as ‘colonial’ the connections between the industries of resource extraction, the RCMP, and the corporate media you write for. What’s insulting is your attempt to paint Canada as benevolent, open, and respectful of indigenous peoples, and your contempt for any understanding of present-day colonialism and oppression in Canada.
I’m not an expert on colonialism, but clearly neither are you. In reading your vitriolic editorial, it struck me that you clearly hate the term ‘settler’ and ‘colonialism’; however, your writing also indicates that you probably don’t actually understand what these terms mean. So I’m writing to you, one white settler to another, to explain to you what settler colonialism means to me, and why I think it’s important for understanding (and living in) present-day Canada. With that said, I’m not convinced you’re really ignorant of these terms; I think you have a sense of their meaning and the implications, and it terrifies you, but that terror turns to anger before you can really feel it. I think you—and many other Canadians—know that something is deeply wrong, even if you can’t admit it to yourself. It’s something in the air, something we feel in our gut: we’re caught up in something horrible, and we can’t go on this way.
I think that’s why the truths spoken by indigenous people provoke so much resentment in people like you: because you know they’re speaking the truth. It’s plain for everyone to see: Elsipogtog and other instances of indigenous resistance aren’t political stunts by over-educated ‘radicals’ as you’d like to portray them; they are principled stands by everyday people—grandmothers, fathers, mothers, and their children—against rampant and unending extraction, exploitation, and destruction. These communities are not motivated by abstract ideologies or university jargon, but by deep responsibilities and commitments to protect land and people.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson puts it clearly:
The story here, the real story, is virtually the same story in every Indigenous nation: Over the past several centuries we have been violently dispossessed of most of our land to make room for settlement and resource development. The very active system of settler colonialism maintains that dispossession and erases us from the consciousness of settler Canadians except in ways that is deemed acceptable and non-threatening to the state. We start out dissenting and registering our dissent through state sanctioned mechanisms like environmental impact assessments. Our dissent is ignored. Some of us explore Canadian legal strategies, even though the courts are stacked against us. Slowly but surely we get backed into a corner where the only thing left to do is to put our bodies on the land. The response is always the same – intimidation, force, violence, media smear campaigns, criminalization, silence, talk, negotiation, “new relationships”, promises, placated resistance and then more broken promises. Then the cycle repeats itself.
This is the structure of settler colonialism. One of the basic assumptions of your editorial—and virtually all other mainstream media coverage of Elsipogtog—is that colonialism happened sometime in the past, and since then Canada has done a lot to “right our historical wrongs.” When do you imagine colonialism stopped happening in Canada? When the last piece of land was mapped, surveyed, and appropriated for the Crown? When government officials first broke their treaties with indigenous nations so that settlement and resource exploitation could continue? When the last residential school was closed? When Stephen Harper issued an official apology five years ago? When he declared that Canada has no history of colonialism a year later? Of course, Canada has changed, and so have settler attitudes. But the structure of settler colonialism is still very much intact.
You will likely dismiss my words as part of the “academically-generated ‘narratives’ of colonialism.” Indeed, I first learned about colonialism in university, and I’m a student of some of the “colonial theory” you denounce. But I only learned about colonialism in university because my public school education taught me that indigenous peoples had been wiped out in Canada, victims of the inevitable and noble march of progress. Why do you suppose our public school system hides the history of residential schools, forced removal of indigenous people, ecological devastation, racist policies, theft of land, and broken treaties? Could it be that we’re trying to cover up the fact that Canadian colonialism never ended—that it’s an ongoing process?
More and more Canadians are beginning to see that an ever-expanding economy based on exploitation of land and people can’t go on forever, and the impacts are also hitting home in more communities. More Canadians are recognizing that voting for someone every four years isn’t real enfranchisement, and that this system is designed to foreclose popular participation, not encourage it. More of us are seeing the need to take a stand to protect our families, the places we love, non-human life, and future generations. More Canadians are beginning to see that this is what indigenous people have been saying (and doing) all along: defending their lands and communities against an ongoing colonial process. With these recognitions comes one of the least comfortable: that we are caught up in this process—deeply enmeshed and complicit in it—as settlers.
Just as we feel the wrongness of colonialism in our gut, we can feel the emptiness of settler ways of life. This isn’t just about “mentalities,” as you suggest, although the way we think is certainly part of it. It’s most concretely about how we relate to each other and the land that sustains us (whether we recognize it or not). Settler colonialism has produced a world where our food is industrialized and grown with chemicals, our political system is rigidly bureaucratic and exclusive, our culture promotes objectification and normalizes rape, our economic system is premised on exploitation and unending growth, our divisions of labour are racist and patriarchal, almost all forests and ecosystems have been pillaged and degraded, and our everyday lives are increasingly mediated through bureaucracies and commodities. This is not to say that indigenous people are somehow outside these ways of life; however, they have consistently resisted our attempts at assimilation and resource exploitation. They have maintained and revitalized their own ways of life, and have refused to be incorporated into the fold of settler colonialism. Elsipogtog is only the latest conflict in a centuries-long struggle.
Our ways of life are predicated upon the continued subjugation of indigenous peoples and the exploitation of their lands. For settlers, this is a terrifying thing to recognize: if our whole lives are based on this system, how could we be otherwise? For many Canadians—and I think you’re part of this group, Rex—this uncertainty is quickly converted into a glib certainty that the problem is them: they’ve failed to integrate, or failed to govern themselves, or failed to obey the (our) law. The settler problem gets converted into the age-old Indian problem. But I think we know, deep down, even when we’re in denial, that it’s us: that we need to take action and change ourselves through the process.
We are living in the midst of indigenous resurgence. All over the lands claimed by Canada, indigenous peoples are revitalizing their traditions and languages, reclaiming their lands and responsibilities, and refusing the colonial status quo. We’re also in the midst of a decline of faith in the ways of life we’ve created, even among those most privileged by this system: the middle-class dream is evaporating, we’re hurtling towards ecological collapse, and the alliances between corporations and politicians are increasingly obvious. Settlers—some of us—are learning to listen to that feeling of wrongness in our gut, unsettling ourselves, building solidarity, and finding new (and old) ways of relating. None of us have figured it out, but more of us are recognizing that things need to change, and the problem is as much ‘in here’ as ‘out there’. There is no neutral territory here, because doing nothing carries us along with the flow of colonialism.
We can’t wait for everyone. Indigenous peoples can never afford to wait for support from settler society, and struggles in the future will continue to involve contention and conflict. Settlers are learning how to take leadership from indigenous communities, and real alliances and solidarities are being forged. As we learn to listen to our gut and shake off our colonial baggage, indigenous people defending their lands seem increasingly reasonable and admirable, and the supporters of colonialism, like you, Rex, seem pitiful and dangerous.