Category Archives: Writing

Dear Rex: Colonialism exists, and you’re it.

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.

rex-murphy-picI’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.

Sincerely,

Nick Montgomery

Here’s a link to Rex Murphy’s original editorial

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From the Indian Problem to the Settler Problem: reactionaries, multiculturalists and decolonization.

The recent controversy over former BC NDP candidate Dayleen Van Ryswyk’s racism is part of a longstanding pattern in Canada.  The mainstream media tends to frame these controversies as a debate between politically correct multiculturalists (like Adrian Dix) and reactionary racists (like Van Ryswyk).  Both sides present different solutions to the “Indian Problem,” by asking how the Canadian government should deal with indigenous peoples.  Forced out of this mainstream debate is the “Settler Problem:” the ongoing colonial present, and the possibilities of grassroots resistance, solidarity and decolonization.

Dayleen Van Ryswyk was recently forced to resign over comments she made about First Nations (and Quebecois) in an online discussion forum.  Some highlights from her online tirades:

“It’s not the status cards, it’s the fact that we have been paying out of the nose for generations for something that isn’t our doing. If their ancestors sold out too cheap it’s not my fault and i shouldn’t have to be paying for any mistake or whatever you want to call it from MY hard earned money.”

dryswyk“I don’t think anyone is saying that wrongs didn’t happen (incredible wrongs) you could have almost any race, group or ethnic people tell you horrible haunting stories of what happened to them. […] In my opinion, holding an entire group of people liable for something that happened hundreds of years ago, people who weren’t even alive yet for the wrongs of their ancestors is ridiculous.”

“I’m getting so sick of having french stuffed down my throat..this isn’t Quebec,,it’s western Canada…we speak english here…so does the majority of Canada. I’m offended that the french is spoken first. […] Why can’t we celebrate Canada’s diverse cultures..everyone..not just natives!”

Van Ryswyk was quickly forced to resign by BC NDP leader Adrian Dix, and she quickly received a flood of support from her constituents in Kelowna and others across Canada.  Now she’s running as an independent.  Recent polls by Castanet showed 73% of those polled didn’t think Van Ryswyk’s comments were inappropriate, and 49% will vote for her (against the runner-up Liberal candidate with 40%).

In short, Ryswyk’s comments may have made her more popular, and her comments clearly resonate with many Canadians.  Others (including the BC Liberals and NDPers) have insisted her comments were racist, offensive, and inappropriate.  Van Ryswyk and her supporters have insisted that Van Ryswyk was just saying what most politicians won’t, because of political correctness.  So is Van Ryswyk racist, or is she just cutting through the bullshit of Canadian political correctness?

Both.  The debate between Ryswyk and other, more ‘tolerant’ politicians repeats a pattern of debate in the mainstream media between reactionaries and multiculturalists.  Elsewhere, I’ve called them Upsettler zombies and Monarchist demons.  Both camps ultimately reinforce Canada’s colonial present by presenting different solutions to the same problem.

Reactionaries and the exploitation of indigenous lands

On Ryswyck’s side are the Canadian reactionaries: settlers who resent what they see as Canada’s “special treatment” of indigenous peoples.  They tend mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, claiming that indigenous peoples receive undue ‘handouts’ from federal and provincial governments.  Recently disgraced Canadian academic Tom Flanagan publicly held this view for decades (and still does).  His book First Nations, Second Thoughts basically calls for the end to Aboriginal status: indigenous peoples should be stripped of any special rights or entitlements, so that they are the same as other Canadians.  In the BC context, Mel Smith’s best-seller, Our Home Or Native Land famously attacks indigenous land claims:

Tiny communities are given enormous tracts of land while the majority of Canadians is not only ignored but kept in the dark. Incredible sums of money are spent–worse, even larger amounts are committed to be paid by future generations.

The views of Flanagan and Smith dovetail with Van Ryswyk’s and a flood of others who reacted to Idle No More with outrage and hatred, such Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, who likened indigenous communities to tiny, delusional, dysfunctional municipalities, entirely dependent on government subsidies.  A recent editorial in the Nanaimo Daily News by Don Olsen argued that indigenous societies are primitive peoples, devoid of technology and civilization, who now lack the ability to take care of themselves.  Michelle Tittler runs a facebook page entitled “End Race-Based Law,” calling for an end to any laws that distinguish First Nations people from settler Canadians.  Like other reactionaries, these tirades are often couched in the language of equality.  Olsen proclaims that the only solution is to “bring them into society as equals. They should be getting jobs and paying taxes like the rest of us.”

The idea that indigenous peoples are dependent on subsidies and so need to be “brought in” to Canadian society is one of the most prevalent myths in Canada.  For example, when Idle No More began, the Conservative government leaked documents about Attawapiskat, suggesting fiscal mismanagement and corruption by Chief Theresa Spence.  But as Drew Oja Jay explains,

Right now, DeBeers is constructing a $1 billion mine on the traditional territory of the Āhtawāpiskatowi ininiwak. Anticipated revenues will top $6.7 billion. Currently, the Conservative government is subjecting the budget of the Cree to extensive scrutiny. But the total amount transferred to the First Nation since 2006 — $90 million — is a little more than one per cent of the anticipated mine revenues. As a percentage, that’s a little over half of Harper’s cut to GST.
Royalties from the mine do not go to the First Nation, but straight to the provincial government. The community has received some temporary jobs in the mine, and future generations will have to deal with the consequences of a giant open pit mine in their back yard.
Attawapiskat is subsidizing DeBeers, Canada and Ontario.

Indigenous peoples are not economically dependent on Canada; Canada is economically dependent on the exploitation of indigenous lands (and on the subjugation of indigenous peoples who would protect those lands).  When indigenous peoples refuse to accept resource extraction on their lands, the reactionaries call for the ‘rule of law.’  Since the law allows for resource extraction and environmental destruction and criminalizes resistance, they are calling for the continuation of settler colonialism.  ‘Canada’ is made possible through this ongoing colonization, and it has consistently tried to assimilate and eliminate indigenous people so that land exploitation can continue.

These views aren’t just racist, radical outliers on the fringe of Canadian ideology.  They’re entirely in line with much of Canadian policy and practice.  For example, Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper aimed to wipe away any special relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.  The White Paper sought to eliminate “Indian status” and treat indigenous peoples as citizens with the same rights as settler Canadians.  This was a final solution to the problem indigenous peoples posed to land exploitation and settlement, and the White Paper was only defeated because of a wave of mobilizations and resistance across indigenous communities and the lands claimed by Canada.  When reactionaries mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, they’re in line with past policies like the White Paper, which would assimilate indigenous peoples completely and immediately into settler society, at least under Canadian law.

Multiculturalists, benevolence, and land negotiations

On the opposing side of the mainstream debate are the Canadian multiculturalists. They advocate a more measured approach, supporting some combination of reform and recognition of the special status of First Nations.  BC leader Adrian Dix quickly denounced Ryswyk’s comments as “unacceptable” and forced her to resign.  He is likely to be the next Premier of BC, and the NDP is being billed as a party that is more sensitive to the concerns of environmentalists and indigenous peoples.  Multiculturalists are much more willing to negotiate with First Nations, as long as they don’t get in the way of the Canadian economy and its industries.  Multiculturalists support some version of limited self-government, the resolution of land claims, and special rights for First Nations.

Multiculturalists are experts at appearing benevolent and respectful.  A Dix government in BC will try to kill the Enbridge pipeline plan and invest in ‘green’ initiatives, but it will support other pipelines, logging of old growth forests, and other industries on unceded indigenous territories.  Indigenous communities will continue to be faced with blackmails framed as opportunities: collaborate with ecologically disastrous resource extraction and get a tiny portion of the revenue, or resist, receive nothing, and the project will likely go ahead anyway.  But multiculturalists would never put it in such stark terms.  They are always in favour of negotiations, reasonableness, and compromise.  For federal and provincial governments, this means negotiating with First Nations band councils on special rights, entitlements, forms of self-governance, and revenue-sharing agreements, without radically reshaping Canada or its relationship to indigenous peoples.

A prime example of this is the British Columbia Treaty Commission.  The BCTC is often celebrated as an example of decolonization and multiculturalism.  It is supposed to result in the return of unceded territories to indigenous peoples in BC and usher in a new relationship between settler governments and indigenous peoples.  But the process was designed by Canadian settlers, and indigenous peoples were then invited to negotiate for a tiny portion of their lands (around 5%) through their band councils.  If negotiations ever finish, the land is not returned to indigenous peoples allowing them to manage it and govern it autonomously; all land remains under federal and provincial authority, reclassified under the Land Title Act.  Taiaiake Alfred outlines the extreme limitations of the BCTC process:

  • No recovery of indigenous lands held by private individuals.
  • Municipalities retain present legal authorities in indigenous territories.
  • Non-indigenous people have access to indigenous lands.
  • Non-indigenous people not subject to indigenous laws.
  • No new budgetary allocations for agreements.
  • Federal government pays most of the costs of negotiations and agreements.
  • Non-indigenous companies on indigenous lands will be paid a settlement.
  • Province keeps control resource management and environmental protection.

Federal and provincial governments aren’t negotiating with indigenous peoples with the aim of returning any of their lands.  The intention is to change the way a small portion of these lands are classified under Canadian law, while ensuring complete control over the rest.  The government also loans First Nations the money required for the legal fees in this process, sending them into crippling debt, which forces them to follow through on the process so that they can use their settlements to pay it off.  The BCTC requires indigenous peoples to give up the capacity to advance any future assertions of rights or land claims as part of the agreement.  The federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development explains the economic imperative behind the BCTC:

Uncertainty about the existence and location of Aboriginal rights create uncertainty with respect to ownership, use and management of land and resources. That uncertainty has led to disruptions and delays to economic activity in BC. It has also discouraged investment.

The consequences of not concluding treaties are lost economic activity as well as escalating court costs and continued uncertainty. Key benefits of negotiated settlements are economic and legal certainty as well as harmonized arrangements between the different levels of government.

The overarching aim of the BCTC is to ensure that settler governments can have economic and political certainty over land and resources, so that resource extraction and industrialization can continue.  As Nuu-chah-nulth scholar Johnny Mack writes:

The conclusion seems unavoidable – the provisions [of the BCTC] ensure that we are still subject to a constitutional legal order that we did not create, and within that order, only 5 percent of the lands taken from us will be returned to us.  Rather than providing for a reincorporation of the colonial takings into our own story, this process acquires our consent to lock that plunder into the state structure, where it will be subject to state authority and exposed to the hungry forces of the global market.

This situation has led many indigenous people (and whole communities) to abandon the BCTC and other offers of reconciliation by colonial authorities.  These policies are the legacy of multiculturalism in Canada, which promise reconciliation and respectful relationships.  As an indigenous mentor once explained to me, this is like breaking into someone’s house, killing most of their family, and trying to force them into the closet for years while we ransack the place and make ourselves at home.  Indigenous peoples resisted the whole way along, and most forms of resistance are criminalized.  The reactionaries are angry that they still have to put up with people making noise in the closet, and they are especially outraged when the homeowners disrupt the goings-on in the rest of the house.  The multiculturalists announce that they want to negotiate and maybe indigenous peoples can have one more room in the house, under certain conditions.  Neither party ever considers the fact that they’re uninvited guests, living in a stolen house, and destroying it.

Reactionary and Multicultural solutions to the “Indian Problem”

Multiculturalists and reactionaries are often portrayed as polar opposites by the mainstream media.  The reactionaries like Van Rysywyk go on racist tirades, and the multiculturalists denounce this racism and call for respectful relationships with First Nations.  Each camp resonates with different segments of the Canadian population.  The reactionaries play on liberal notions of individual equality, mixed with the racist underpinnings of Canada and its attempts to eliminate indigenous peoples.  The multiculturalists play on a different version of liberal equality, combined with the fantasy of a Canada where indigenous peoples are a little bit different, and a few policy tweaks makes everyone get along.  To be clear, I’m not saying indigenous peoples shouldn’t negotiate with governments, or that they’re naive for doing so.  I’m talking about the way in which Canadian multiculturalism is framed as respectful negotiation, while continuing to impose colonial structures on indigenous peoples.

The reactionary and the multiculturalist are two different solutions to the “Indian Problem” in Canada.  The Indian Problem is a phrase made famous by Duncan Campbell Scott at the beginning of the 20th century, who sought to eliminate all indigenous peoples, either by outright extermination or forced assimilation:

“Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.”

This was the explicit purpose of Canada’s Indian Act.  Some of its most heinous elements, such as residential schools, have since been abolished over the last half-century, but the Indian Problem continues to inform the way governments (and most Canadians) understand their relationship to indigenous peoples.  When the Indian Act failed to destroy indigenous communities and eliminate all indigenous ways of life, Trudeau and others attempted to use the language of equality to finally assimilate them.  In a different way, as Taiaiake Alfred explains, the BCLT is structured as a final solution to the Indian Problem:

In essence, the BCTC process is designed to solve the perceived problem of indigenous nationhood by extinguishing it and bringing indigenous peoples into Canada’s own domestic political and legal structures with certainty and finality […] the federal and provincial governments are evidently seeking to consolidate the assimilation and control they have gained over indigenous peoples and their lands since the collapse of indigenous social and political strength as a result of the mass dying by epidemic diseases – a tragedy that began to recede only in the early part of the 20th century.

Indigenous peoples are still prevented from accessing the vast amount of their traditional territories, and settler colonialism continues to occupy indigenous lands, extract resources from them, and subjugate indigenous peoples.  When colonialism is discussed at all, it is framed in terms of the Indian Problem: what do we do about them?  What do they want from us?  How can we finally ‘move on’?  The Canadian government still seeks to manage, assimilate, or eliminate indigenous peoples and their ways of life.  That is the endgame of colonialism.

Reactionaries want to solve the Indian Problem by getting rid of any special status and assimilating indigenous peoples as equal citizens under Canadian law.  The multiculturalist wants to allow some room for special rights and entitlements, and limited self-government, while ensuring that resource extraction and industrial development can continue.  Both views lead settlers to understand colonialism as an “Aboriginal issue” that happened in the past, to be resolved by governments, with no implications for the daily lives of settlers.  Settlers keep living in the house, arguing about whether indigenous peoples should be allowed a whole room, just a closet, or nothing at all.

The Settler Problem: complicity and decolonization

The problem is the Indian Problem itself.  It tries to deal with indigenous peoples from within a colonial framework, and leaves that framework intact while framing colonialism as something in the past.  As Adam Barker and others have argued in recent years, Canada actually has a ‘Settler Problem:’

“Settler people who are so immersed in colonial psychology that their political structures make co-existence with Indigenous peoples impossible.”

The Settler Problem invites settlers to focus the problem on ourselves, our institutions, and our inheritance of a colonial system that shapes the way we relate to indigenous peoples, each other, and the land we live on.  The Settler Problem is ongoing; it’s not a past wrong to remedy through reparations.  Settlers came, committed genocide, set up colonial institutions, occupied and pillaged the land, and we’ve inherited this situation.  The recognition of settler involvement in ongoing colonialism often provokes paralyzing guilt or denial.  A common reaction is that ‘we’ didn’t do anything; it was our ancestors (or other peoples’ ancestors).

Settlers are often eager to point out that they or their ancestors didn’t benefit from colonialism.  My great great grandfather was an Irish indentured servant who was forced to come here and work for nothing.  This implies colonialism is about individual blame or guilt, and we’re either guilty or we’re not.  But this individualistic response frames colonialism as part of the past, rather than an ongoing project.  As Lorenzo Veracini and Edward Cavanaugh write, in the definition of settler colonialism:

settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; […] settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labour before they are made to disappear).

The Settler Problem frames colonization as an ongoing phenomenon; it’s happening right now and we’re implicated in it, whether we like it or not.  White, middle-class settlers like me are the ones with enough privilege to ignore it if we choose to: settler colonialism can fade into the background for some of us, as a way of life that seems normal and natural.  Not all settlers have this option, and the settler/indigenous dichotomy can flatten out differences between settlers.  ‘Settlers’ are often implicitly white, European-descended people whose ancestors took part in conquest and slavery.  Depending on how it’s used, the term ‘settler’ can miss the ways that privileged white men like me are positioned differently from people who don’t benefit from the linked systems of capital accumulation, heteropatriarchy, and racism.  But acknowledging these differences, privileges, and positions in the structure of settler colonialism doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t affect the ways we live our everyday lives.  The concept of ‘complicity’ has been advanced as a way to move beyond individualistic discussions of privilege, towards the ways that people are positioned differently in the colonial structure, with implications for collective action.  As Beenash Jafri explains:

Complicity hasn’t been circulated in the same way as privilege. Nor are there many handy pedagogical tools or checklists for thinking about complicity. Complicity is a messy, complicated and entangled concept to think about; it is not as easy to grasp and, because of this, it requires a much deeper investment on our part. This would demand, for example, that we think about settlerhood not as an object that we possess, but as a field of operations into which we become socially positioned and implicated.

Complicity might offer a way out of individualistic, guilt-ridden discussions that often plague settlers’ coming-to-awareness of our roles in this process.  Complicity focuses our attention on relationships and institutions, rather than individual identities.  I don’t think this means that differences are flattened out, or oppression doesn’t matter; I will always have to keep unlearning my own heteropatriarchal, racist, colonial ways of thinking and being as a white guy; that unlearning is crucial for respectful relationships across difference.  As El Machetero explains, complicity helps frame oppression and resistance as a collective project:

It also focuses much less on individuals, and much more on this system and its accompanying parasitical lifestyles, understanding that this is an arrangement which is violent, genocidal and ecocidal (since it increasingly involves the actual destruction of the land itself) and which makes accomplices of us all. What matters more than where such a system would choose to locate us for its own ends is what we choose to do together with one another, the strength and quality of the relationships and communities we build, and our knowledge of the context in which we live and our foresight towards the consequences which emerge from the choices we make within it.

Towards collective decolonization

The solution to the Settler Problem is collective decolonization: moving towards non-dominating relationships between settlers, indigenous peoples, and ecosystems.  I have no idea what these decolonized relationships will look like, but I know it will take more than a multiculturalist yearning for a kinder Canada, or outraged denunciations of Van Ryswyk and other reactionaries, or a guilt-ridden ‘awareness’ of settler colonialism.  What would it mean for settlers to act like uninvited guests?  What are our responsibilities as settlers?  What happens when settlers give up on their certainty and sense of entitlement to indigenous lands?  How can settlers divest themselves from a faith in government and begin to build direct relationships with indigenous communities?  How can settlers build alliances with indigenous peoples and help stop the destruction and exploitation of their lands?  If settler colonialism is a ‘field of operations,’ how do we navigate this field?  How can we disrupt its operations and construct alternatives?  People are already asking and responding to these questions.  There are indigenous peoples and settlers across the territories claimed by Canada who are resisting settler colonialism and working towards decolonization.

Many of these efforts were galvanized by Idle No More, though INM is only the most recent and visible movement of resistance and decolonization amongst indigenous peoples.  From the perspective of the mainstream media, Idle No More seems to have vanished, but this is only because the mainstream media can only see things from the vantage point of the Indian Problem.  If indigenous peoples aren’t publicly protesting and presenting demands to governments, there’s nothing happening.  When Naomi Klein interviewed Nishnaabeg writer and activist Leanne Simpson, she asked Simpson what the next step was for Idle No More.  Simpson replied:

“I think within the movement, we’re in the next phase. There’s a lot of teaching that’s happening right now in our community and with public teach-ins, there’s a lot of that internal work, a lot of educating and planning happening right now. There is a lot of internal nation-building work. It’s difficult to say where the movement will go because it is so beautifully diverse. I see perhaps a second phase that is going to be on the land. It’s going to be local and it’s going to be people standing up and opposing these large-scale industrial development projects that threaten our existence as indigenous peoples—in the Ring of Fire [region in Northern Ontario], tar sands, fracking, mining, deforestation… But where they might have done that through policy or through the Environmental Assessment Act or through legal means in the past, now it may be through direct action. Time will tell.”

Beyond the gaze of the mainstream media, things are happening all the time.  In British Columbia for example, grassroots Wet’suwet’en peoples have erected a permanent camp and blockade on their lands to protect their territory from oil, gas, and bitumen pipelines from the Tar Sands and fracking projects.

They’ve been defending this camp for three years.  In the process, they’ve forged alliances with settlers and other indigenous nations across the province, including an upcoming teach-in organized on Lekwungen and WSANEC territories (Victoria) on April 28th, on settler solidarity and decolonization:

This Teach-In will provide settlers with an understanding of how the destruction of land as well as violence experienced by Indigenous peoples, who stand in assertion of their inherent sovereignty, can be located in both a historical and contemporary reality of colonialism. In preparing for resistance to the Pacific Trail Pipelines, this Teach-In will begin to prepare settler people to stand alongside Indigenous peoples in resisting the ongoing processes of colonialism – whether that be at the Unis’tot’en camp in the spring and summer, or elsewhere.

noptpAs the description implies, this isn’t just a one-off event; it’s designed to create the conditions for meaningful and lasting solidarity with indigenous struggles, and it holds open the possibility of decolonized relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples.  This is just one of hundreds of public events that focus on decolonizing the relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples on the lands claimed by Canada.  And these public events are only the most visible forms of decolonization in response to the Settler Problem.  The mainstream media won’t cover these efforts, and when they do, they’ll frame them as terrorism, because there is no place for them in the narrative of the Indian Problem.  Shifting to the Settler Problem asks us all to reflect on the ways we’re caught up in settler colonialism, whether we like it or not.

Monstrous Settlers: Zombies, Demons, and Angels

I am a monster (but I’m working on it).

With the birth and growth of Idle No More, now more than ever, lots of settlers are understanding colonialism as a problem, and trying to think through our relationships and obligations to Indigenous peoples, the history of colonization, and what all that means for us as settlers.  This shifts colonialism from an “Indian problem” to a “Settler problem.”  In spite of the mainstream media, many Canadian settlers are learning that they are implicated in an ongoing colonial relationship.  For me that’s encouraging, because I didn’t grow up in a context where colonialism is actually something discussed and debated, where settlers see colonialism as a problem that involves us.  I move through some spaces like this now, and they continue to challenge me.  This is about how settlers respond to these challenges.

I’m a white, male, educated, cis-gendered, able-bodied, hetero-sexual, middle-class settler, so I basically benefit from every major axis of oppression.  What follows is a reflection of my own experience with the politics of colonialism, decolonization, and settler solidarity efforts with Indigenous peoples, over the past few years.  I’m drawing on some feminist, queer, trans, and anti-racist writers and activists here too.  Even though dynamics are always different and complex, I think there are also some similarities in terms of the way privileged folks (like me) conduct ourselves across these struggles, especially when we’re trying to to prove that we’re good, in spite of our privilege.  When I use “we” and “us” I’m talking about other white settlers who benefit from ongoing white supremacy and settler colonialism in Canada.  I am glossing over lots of complexities and nuances of colonialism and decolonization.  I’m experimenting with monster metaphors in hopes of getting at some of these issues in a different way, but I recognize that this is serious shit.  And I want your feedback, critical or otherwise.

Upsettlers, Monarchists, and Manarchists are monsters that plague settlers in Canada, making it difficult for us to grapple with our colonial privilege, engage with other settlers, and effectively support Indigenous struggles.  I started out as a Monarchist, had stints as an Upsettler, became a Manarchist, and now I’m trying to avoid relapsing into all three monsters.

settlermonsters

Upsettler Zombies, Monarchist Demons, and Manarchist Angels

“Upsettler” is a recently coined term to designate settler attacks, disavowals, and denials provoked by Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  For example, from the Twitterverse:

#Upsettler walks into a bar. Literally acts like they own the place. Upset when informed they are not the original owners.

Most settler Canadians don’t like to be reminded of the legacy of genocide, theft, and enclosure upon which “Canada” was founded and settled.  And we especially don’t like to be reminded that this legacy never ended, and that Canada is an ongoing occupation of indigenous lands, working to assimilate indigenous peoples and destroy their communities, for the benefit of settler society.  These truths provoke the Upsettler zombies to rise up and shriek their fantasies: the Indians are lazy!  The Indians can’t manage their money!  The Indians are criminals!  Colonialism is in the past!  We’re all equals!  This issue has nothing to do with me!  Canada is a benevolent nation founded on peace and love and hockey and maple syrup!

Upsettlers have a strong immunity to understanding settler colonialism, and they subsist on a varied diet of rage, guilt, anxiety, denial, and racism.  Upsettler zombification is infectious, and corporate news media is a major vector for the spread of the Upsettler epidemic.  Upsettlers have denounced blockades as a form of “blackmail” that will “sabotage the national economy.”  Upsettler media pundits are calling for Idle No More protesters and blockaders to be arrested, demanding a return to settler colonial normalcy.  Others have lumped together Idle No More, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street as Lefty bullshit: “a great mass of conflicting emotions united only in their determination to have someone listen to them, dammit.”  When Canadian politicians become Upsettlers, police repression often follows.  Other Upsettlers subsist more on guilt and nationalist fantasies, and they are prone to deny their colonial privilege, insisting that “we’re all Canadian” or that “we’re not responsible for our ancestors.”

Not all settlers are Upsettled.  But those who haven’t caught the Upsettler zombie virus are usually possessed by demons.  Demons are a different kind of monster.  More “civilized” than zombies, they try to be measured, expressing benevolence and sympathy towards Idle No More and Indigenous peoples.  Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan insists that he had “been very much wanting to have a conversation with Chief Theresa Spence,” that he’d offered multiple times, and that he’s concerned about her health.  Before she chose to end it herself, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called on Chief Spence to end her hunger strike: because “the government seems to be moving,” he thinks “the best thing would be to step back from that now.”  Father knows best.

This is the Monarchist response to colonialism: benevolence, paternalism, and sympathy.  Civilized political correctness.  Don’t call them Indians anymore; call them First Nations, aboriginals, or Indigenous peoples.  Feel sorry for Indigenous people, and maybe feel angry at Harper.  Police are often the ultimate Monarchists, framing themselves as impartial arbiters of peace, dispersing Indigenous people and Upsettlers alike, and restoring colonial public order.  Let’s all settle down.

Monarchists are settlers who want to “solve” the “Indian problem” so we can get back to our (settler colonial) lives.  They may advocate reform, as long as it preserves the colonial structure of Canada, and doesn’t actually affect settler privilege and occupation.  Monarchists and Upsettlers actually work together even when they seem to opposed each other: Upsettlers get upset and call for repression and reprisal; Monarchists call for reason and tolerance.  Mainstream news also helps disseminate Monarchist demons, and debates ensue about how much “we” should “tolerate” from Idle No More and Indigenous resistance.  Monarchist cops play the Upsettler zombies off against Indigenous peoples, so that the Monarchists can swoop in like impartial peacemakers when the time is right.

In radical circles, Monarchism is often rejected in favour of bright, shining, righteousness: proper anti-colonialism.  Denounce colonialism, express solidarity, and make sure everyone sees you doing it.  Condescend and correct people who aren’t aware.  This is the Manarchist response to colonialism: carve out a space of moral purity, command others to enter, bash those who don’t, instruct and condescend those who do.  The Manarchist loudly proclaims that he is against colonialism, he is an ally of Indigenous peoples, and he aggressively attacks Monarchists and Upsettlers, usually in an attempt to show Indigenous people that he’s a good guy.  Note: not all settlers expressing solidarity with Indigenous peoples are Manarchists.  Manarchists are the ones that have ascended to heaven through their self-righteousness, looking down on the rest.

The Upsettler, the Monarchist, and Manarchist aren’t people.  They’re positions that people take up, often unconsciously.  We become infected by colonial zombies, possessed by colonial demons and consumed by anti-colonial angels.  The Upsettler attacks Indigenous people head-on and denies colonialism, the Monarchist helps us brush past or “resolve” colonialism in a civilized way, and the Manarchist helps turn anti-colonialism into a badge of honour that raises us above ordinary settlers who don’t recognize the Truth.

As settlers, we all have some Upsettler and Monarchist in us, and the Manarchist is always waiting to take over and proclaim a revelation.  White, European-descended settlers are most prone to all these monsters.  The Manarchist possesses men more often than women.  I find myself possessed by each monster more times than I’d like to admit.

The Monarchist is the official demon of Canada, helping to ensure that we’re all respectful and civilized.  “Back then” we were uncivilized Upsettlers; we killed Indigenous people and put their children in residential schools… but now our Monarchist leader has apologized and we’re a multicultural nation; we just need to iron out a few kinks, the Monarchist assures us.

In contrast, the Manarchist proclaims that he’s been cured and exorcized: now he sees things clearly and he will force-feed you some Truth.  But if you’ve seen a Manarchist in action, you know he’s just as predictable as Monarchists and Upsettlers: a pious angel come to reveal our sins and show us The Way.  Usually a white man, always sure of himself.

These metaphors of angels, demons and zombies are a way of naming three, interconnected ways of relating to colonialism among settlers.  They seem opposed or antagonistic, but they actually reinforce each other.  They’ve become deeply ingrained habits, and they make it difficult to have meaningful and transformative conversations about colonialism, let alone take meaningful action.

Call-outs, Sledgehammers, and Toolkits

Monarchists and Upsettlers are pretty immune to Manarchists: they become ever-more convinced that colonialism is inevitable and people resisting it are ridiculous.  If the Upsettler thrives on the call for repression, and Monarchist thrives on the call for peace, then the Manarchist thrives on the “call-out.”  The call-out is: “a method for either revealing privileged, bigoted or problematic behaviors to others publicly or to attempt to reveal to an individual their own mistakes and hopefully trigger some accountability.”  It has roots in mass-movement-based, anti-racist, anti-oppressive contexts as a tactic to challenge Upsettlers and Monarchists who are being oppressive.  I am not saying that calling someone out makes you a Manarchist.  I’ve been called out, and it has been scary, unsettling, transformative, and effective.  But as Kinsey Hope explains:

Now, and let’s not forget this, calling out is a tool. Like any tool it can be abused. It can be overused. And it can become broken. And as the culture of activism becomes more and more dependent upon the call out, the anatomy of [the call out] has begun to evolve.

Manarchists don’t have a toolkit for engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists: they only have the call-out, and the call-out is a sledgehammer.  Sometimes it can be effective, but if it’s the only tool in the arsenal, pretty soon people will get tired of being bashed, and they’ll probably get Upsettled.  It’s like throwing rocks at zombies: it may feel good, but it just riles them up, and remember: the Upsettler zombie disease is extremely contagious.

I’m doing my best to ward off the Manarchism as I write this, so I don’t have any solutions to this problem.  But I’ve been inspired by a few folks I’ve met who seem to have found different ways of relating to colonialism, who seem to have escaped the monsters, expanded their anti-colonial toolkit, and I think there are some common traits:

Vulnerability and accountability: these folks have cultivated a way of having conversations about colonialism where they don’t set themselves up as the ones with the Truth.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t challenge colonial attitudes; it means they try to do it in a way that opens conversation and questions, rather than shutting them down.  They make it clear that they’re questioning, they’re doing their own learning, and they haven’t figured it out.  They’re also open to being challenged, by Indigenous people and settlers, and they learn more because folks feel like it’s safe to challenge them.  This also makes them more effective allies of Indigenous peoples.  Anti-racist activist Michelle O’Brien encapsulates this pretty brilliantly:

People have to change in a much deeper way — change in the soul, in the, unconscious, in the Real, there are many names for this piece, this piece that is just outside of whatever we say about it. We have to find ways of being genuinely respectful, open, and loving to people, to actually let go of the bullshit that keeps us from doing that…

Actually figuring out how people really change — not just model that change, not just talk about it or properly perform it — is really hard. In some ways, it calls on the simplest things in the world – just listening to people, being open to what people actually have to say, looking honestly at whatever is going on, acting from a space of compassion and respect. But how do you get there, if talking about it (or writing about it in an essay) isn’t enough?

I don’t know.

Individual and collective education: they’ve dedicated time to learning about colonialism by themselves and with others.  They’ve tried to understand the history of colonialism, how it works, and what that means for us today.  But they don’t hold this knowledge over other people, and they’ve found ways of sharing it that are humble and unsettling, making colonialism into a massive open-ended problem rather than an issue of guilt and sledgehammers.

Patience and courage: they actively seek out conversations about colonialism in unlikely places, with their families, friends, workplaces, and other spaces where those conversations don’t normally happen.  And they approach new conversations with compassion, even if they’ve heard the same colonial responses  (“we can’t go back” – “it’s not my fault” – “it’s human nature”) a hundred times before.  The burden of engaging with Upsettlers and Monarchists shouldn’t fall to Indigenous peoples.  This means it’s up to us as settlers to educate ourselves and engage with others wherever we are.  If people are unreceptive or dismissive, the most effective settlers tend not to reject them as colonizers, at least not at the outset; they see the intervention as part of a longer process, and try to leave space for future conversations.

Those aren’t instructions or answers; just behaviours in others that have inspired me because they confront colonialism while avoiding Manarchist tendencies.  Manarchists are not more “radical” than settlers who try to meet people where they’re at, rather than shove truth down their throats.  The Manarchist often drowns out other voices, because settler Righteousness and Truth are a lot louder than uncertainty and vulnerability.  I think that’s a major reason why many people fall back into Upsettlement and Monarchism: when they engage with other settlers trying to work on colonialism, they encounter the manarchist, and they don’t want to be his disciple or get hit with a sledgehammer over and over.

Manarchism is simpler than vulnerability.  Manarchists can often become their own little cliques, in their own pious corner.  It’s easier to have a radical anti-colonial circle-jerk than to engage with Monarchists and Upsettlers who might be angry or dismissive.  Demons and zombies can be scary, and angels often like hanging out with each other (and hitting each other with hammers).

Colonialism relies on these monsters to perpetuate itself.  Willing settlers are required to work, to keep consuming, to own property, and to keep Canada’s colonial-capitalist engine chugging.  But settlers can get in the way of colonial propaganda and repression, in solidarity with Idle No More and Indigenous resurgence.  We can play a role in unsettling the Upsettler and the Monarchist (and ourselves), but we’ll be unlikely to succeed as Manarchist angels.  I’m not urging oppressed people to be nice to folks like me.  Indigenous peoples have every right to be pissed off at us, and that’s not what I mean by Manarchism.  This is about the way settlers treat settlers when we talk about colonialism.  Take the words of Fleetwood/Majestic Luxery-Legay:

this world kicks the shit out of our hearts every day. when we turn around and do that to each other we are fucking each other over just as our respective states would like us to. one of the most revolutionary things we can do is cultivate new ways to connect, to be gentle and tender with one another in a world that is trying constantly to divide and conquer us. we can’t be tough without also being tender.

The Manarchist possesses us, and we attack others to show that we’re good, that we know.  We bash people with sledgehammers without considering plyers, or a flash light, or a nail file.  Upsettlers and Monarchists shriek in horror, and we mistake this noise for transformation.  But upsettlement is not unsettlement.

I’m not saying that all anti-colonial settlers need to be engaged with Upsettlers and Manarchists, all of the time, in an oh-so-compassionate way.  Certain projects and alliances require keeping these monsters at a distance.  It takes a lot of emotional energy to engage with them, and sometimes a good bashing is entirely necessary and effective.  This is not a call to shower colonizers with peace and love, rather than speaking hard truths or radical ideas.  When I have become a Manarchist angel, it means I can’t be challenged or reproached: I’m holy.  Now I’m trying to be more real with people, which includes anger, but hopefully not the holy kind.

Avoiding Manarchism can be compatible with radical visions of indigenous-settler relations and decolonized futures.  Vancouver-based activist Harsha Walia writes:

Decolonization is as much a process as a goal. It requires a profound re-centring of Indigenous worldviews in our movements for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships, and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet. As stated by Toronto-based activist Syed HussanDecolonization is a dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people and the state. Much of this requires study, it requires conversation, it is a practice, it is an unlearning.”

Unsettlement and unlearning colonialism requires a diverse toolkit (including a sledgehammer), and it depends upon our capacity to deal with the monsters within us and others.  Clear opposition and intense conflict are always part of struggles against colonialism.  Unsettling colonialism and decolonization also entails vulnerability and conversation.  No one can tell what this “dramatic re-imagining of relationships with land, people, and the state” will actually look like; we’ll have to figure it out together, in a struggle against zombies, demons, and angels.

An older version of this piece was originally published in No Fun City! and on Many Politics, before the Idle No More movement began.  This version has been expanded, changed and updated.  It was also published through the Dominion Media Co-op here.