Tag Archives: settlers

Summary of ‘Urbanizing Frontiers’ by Penelope Edmonds

Penelope Edmonds: Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th Century Pacific Rim Cities

urbanizingfrontierspicThis is a summary of a new book by Penelope Edmonds, comparing two settler colonial cities—Victoria in Canada and Melbourne in Australia—to reveal the operations of British settler colonialism in the 19th century, and its implications for settler colonialism today. She focuses on the ways that both cities increasingly regulated bodies and spaces in attempts to create civilized, British subjects, and to dispossess and discipline indigenous people and control and police indigenous bodies.  I drew heavily on Edmonds’ work in a recent piece I wrote about the acknowledgement of territories by Victoria’s newly-elected mayor, Lisa Helps, her refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen, and the racist backlash that followed.  Edmonds wrote an article called “Unpacking Settler Colonialism’s Urban Strategies,” which unpacks a lot of the book, especially as it pertains to Victoria, specifically.  It’s available here.

Victoria vs. Melbourne

I live in Victoria, so in this summary I focus in particular on Edmonds’ work on this city, with less of a focus on Melbourne. Compared to Melbourne, the dispossession and violence perpetrated in Victoria against indigenous peoples was more subtle and less overt. In Melbourne, pastoralism meant that indigenous people were quickly targeted for removal and elimination, whereas in Victoria, the mercantilist economy of resource extraction (especially the fur trade) meant that indigenous people were necessary, and they were much more a part of the emerging colonial city:

During the fur trade, there was great violence, but land was largely under the control of Frist Nations, because mercantilism left Aboriginal peoples on their land. Settler colonialism, by contrast, sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their land and denied or extinguished Native title. In the Australian pastoral frontier, land, not labour, was the primary object. It was an object that was pursued with rapidity and violence. (33)

Colonial Frontiers

Edmonds suggests that the ‘colonial frontier’ has been conceptualized as “a distinctly non-urban geographical space that sits somewhere out in the country or borderlands” (5). She shows how frontiers exist within urban spaces (through the segregation and contestations around spaces) and in intimate/bodily relations (through attempts to maintain the racial purity of whiteness and concomitant attempts to police indigenous bodies). These frontiers are “mercurial, transactional, and, importantly, intimate and gendered” (6). This is a counterhistory of Empire, which challenges the amnesia of settler colonialism, which makes its own processes seem natural and normal (to settlers, at least). This historical amnesia is political, writing out the dispossession of indigenous people, and the political processes and struggles that attempted to make Victoria into a white, propertied, bourgeois space. In this context, Edmonds explains that she seeks to “indigenize historical understanding of the settler-colonial city by focusing on human stories and individual lives transformed in the context of British colonizing structures and urbanization in the Pacific Rim” (9).

Counter-history

Edmonds notes how dominant histories create a top-down view of power, privileging narratives of individual white males and military engagements in a supposedly linear process of colonialism (6). These condition the idea of Victoria as it’s marketed to tourists, as ‘more English than the English’ which erases the way that space in Victoria was transactional, heterogeneous, and contested. Furthermore, Edmonds argues that geography and urban planning has tended to understand colonialism in functionalistic ways, focusing on the circulation of products and goods, omitting “the important human and cultural aspects of empire’s urbanizing landscapes: the displacements and transformations of peoples and ideas” (50).

Crucial to this counter-history is a conception of space and race as a processes, and an attempt to reveal the lived realities of these cities. Whereas race and urban space tend to be understood as natural or given, Edmonds draws on Henri Lefebvre’s work to show how space “is a process of uneven power inscription that reproduces itself and creates oppressive spatial categories” (10). In this sense, spaces are always contested: “the unequal distribution of power in social space becomes naturalized and its operations forgotten. That is, spaces obscure the conditions of their own production” (10). To write counterhistory and reveal the production of spaces, then, requires tracking the “generative processes” that make spaces work in the ways they do (11). In the case of both settler-colonial cities, these crucial processes included the “regulation, partition, and sequestration of Aboriginal peoples and attempts to control so-called mixed-race relatiosnhips” (12). Indigenous peoples were systematically constructed as nuisances and prostitutes, and indigenous spaces in the city were represented as bedlam, chaos, disease and filth. Edmonds argues that these categories are key to understanding the production of space in Victoria, and to understanding the process of settler colonialism more broadly.

Victoria was constructed as a white (initially Anglo-Saxon) space. Edmonds suggests that whiteness needs to be understood not simply as a skin colour but “as a strategy of power or a set of political relations” which is associated with property and the segregation of bodies (17). She explains that “shoring up a white settler population became a priority in both sites, especially after the 1860s” (45). This involved engineered immigration schemes to encourage Anglo-Saxon migration and discourage Chinese immigration.

Dispossession

The supremacy of settler society and the backwardness of indigenous peoples was legitimated by stadial theory, in which four various modes of production (hunting, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce) conceptualized as hierarchical and successive forms of human progress. Specific to stadial theory was not simply the concept of different modes of production, or their hierarchy, but the linear telos: “pastoralists were not merely superior to nomads; they were so because they had once been nomads but were no longer” (58). This meant that indigenous lands were conceptualized as ‘wastes’, waiting to be improved by European agriculture and industry, and “the precondition for the highest stage of progress and commerce was the absence of Indigenous peoples in the city” (61).

The Douglas treaties were modeled on the idea that Indigenoups people had “the right of occupancy but not property”—their claims “extended only to their cultivated fields and building sites or villages” (42). These cultivated fields had to be enclosed to be considered cultivated, so this did not extend to camas fields. Legally, indigenous people could ‘pre-empt’ land within the terms of colonial law, by clearing it, fencing it, and building a house. Edmonds doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s striking that owning land requires clearing, fencing, and dwelling like settlers.

Edmonds only briefly discusses the cultivation of camas in and around Victoria (90-97) and notes that colonizers immediately saw camas meadows as future sites for agriculture (94). Edmonds traces early settler imaginings of land to show how they followed stadial accounts of “two modes of subsistence—the uncultivated inviting land and the land transformed by European agriculture” (96). The land that Douglas described as a ‘perfect Eden’ was most likely Meegan, or “Beacon Hill Park.” Settlers systematically appropriated these camas fields: wherever Europeans sought to settle on the islands of the Puget Sound, they looked for these open meadows… these fields that in fact had been cultivated by Coast Salish peoples” (96).

Edmonds suggests that the enclosure of these fields were closely linked to broader processes of dispossession and dominance:

the balance soon tipped in favour of the newcomers as the gradual encroachment of fields for cultivation, the grazing of livestock, and the allotment of lands pushed Lekwammen people off their lands and threatened the camas bulb fields on which they subsisted. A growing cadaster of European-style fields began to overcode Aboriginal land (98).

This encroachment was resisted by indigenous people, who “retaliated against the invasion by harvesting the settlers’ cattle” (98). When these tensions escalated, Lekwungen people threatened to attack the fort, and the HBC fired a cannon into the chief’s house (which was empty) as a demonstration of military strength. As Edmonds explains, this display of “sheer firepower” and outright violence “would be used repeatedly in Victoria and the surrounding area to elicit co-operation from local peoples” (98).

Settler-colonial cities

Edmonds points out that transnational colonialism made metropolitanism possible: the grand metropoles of Europe were produced through the exploitation of Europe’s colonies. The city was the epitome and consummation of colonialism as a complex assemblage, involving “specific styles of architectures, certain kinds of transport and communications, hygiene and the regulation of bodies” (61). This corresponded to the ideal subject of colonialism and universal history, Civis Britannicus: “Defined by and made through his global entitleemtns, civis Britannicus could make tranglobal journeys between British settler colonies, where he (not Indigenous peoples) would be configured as native” (64).

Abjection of indigenous spaces and bodies

A central focus of Edmonds work is the representations of indigenous peoples by colonial newspapers, authorities, and settler subjects. They were part of settler fears and anxieties about indigenous peoples. Crucially, they were connected to property values: indigenous peoples were represented as “nuisances” and their existence “render[s] property in their quarter useless” (191). The Native camps were inscribed with European medical ideas about racial hygiene, and posed “as the antithesis of the ordered, rational civil space of the gridded city” (197). This was part of a new set of regulations around contagious diseases in colonies, which “identified female prostitutes as the main source of contagion” (220). Indigenous womenThe medicalization and pathologization of indigenous people helped to erase the complicity of settlers in the theft of land and the policing of indigenous people, positioning settlers as virtuous, moral, and law-abiding (200). This went hand in hand with ongoing attempts to control space and increasing encroachments on the Lekwungen reserve, along with efforts to get control of it and remove indigenous people. Settlers fought about different strategies: missionaries and assimilation, expropriation, purchase, or ‘waiting until they became extinct’ were some of the options discussed. This finally happened in 1911, when a select number of families were paid ten thousand dollars each and forced to relocate (205).

The bridge between the reserve in Esquimalt and the fort in Victoria was a particularly prominent frontier, constructed as “a liminal space, a border between civilization and savagery” (202). Colonial authorities used surveillance and curfews in an attempt to enforce this partition, in an effort to keep indigenous peoples on the other side of the bridge: “they decreed that an Aboriginal person found on the wrong side of the bridge after 10pm could, at the discretion of the police, be searched and detained” (202). The reserve thus increasingly “became a space of confinement within the cityscape” (202). Edmonds also shows how vagrancy was largely a charge reserved for settlers who entered indigenous spaces: the partition was enforced on both sides, though settlers were always punished less severely (213).

This was part of a broad regime of surveillance and control in Victoria. Edmonds reveals the way that Douglas deployed the “civilizing power of the grid. The grid plan, with the help of police surveillance on every corner, he hoped, would both organize and discipline First Nations subjects and reshape their subjectivities (209). This was part of the shift to increasingly modern, disciplinary forms of power in settler colonial cities, relying less on overt and explicit violence, and more on policing and surveillance, including a formal pass system. At the same time, she notes that this disciplinary power was “backed by the exceptional violence of sovereign power” (209). If indigenous people didn’t conform to the grid and the regulated spaces of the city, there was always the possibility of execution, lashings, and other forms of violence.

In addition to its racialization, this violence was also gendered. Edmonds explains that “violence by European men against Aboriginal women was frequent and stunningly brutal” (215). In fact, her evidence is drawn primarily from police reports, which means she is documenting a high level of reported gendered violence, let alone that which was not reported, or ignored by police.

Edmonds sums up her argument about bodies and spaces:

As has been shown, in the early streeets of Victoria an dMelbourne, Indigenous peoples were routinely described as ‘inconvenient,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘nuisances,’ ‘vagrants,’ or ‘prostitutes,’ but to varying degrees. These categories, I propose, take us to the heart of the socio-spatial relations that are distinctive to settler colonialism and reveal how law and property served to racialize the streetscape. Racializations were not only amplified in these colonial contexts, they were also particular to the urbanizing settler landscape. In Malbourne and Victoria, Aboriginal peoples’s amps were not natural entities but spaces produced through colonial relations; likewise, colonized Indigenous bodies or subjects were materially produced as abject, unnautrual, and inconvenient entities. These productions, I argue, were directly related to the settlement phase, when the taking of First Nations land became a key objective (217).

Contact zones and resistance

Part of Edmonds’ counter-history entails revealing not just the dominant constructions of space, but also the ways that early settler colonial reality looked very different from the idealized, white, ordered spaces of the colonial imaginary. Edmonds seeks to “counter scholarship that posits colonialism as a unilnear projection from the metropole by denying the interactivity and subversions of the urbanizing frontier” (15). Settler colonial cities were (and are) “contact zones” which were contested and transactional. She also argues that indigenous women’s bodies were contact zones, and that “paying attention to indigenous womens’ bodies as particular sites of anxiety in the streetscape can tellus much about imagined colonial orders that were both imposed and defied” (16).

Indigenous people also resisted police authority. Among other incidents, in 1860, the newspaper reported that when police accused an indigenous man of stealing a watch and attempted to take him prisoner at an indigenous encampment, the police were “set upon by about one hundred men and women armed with pistols, knives, and clubs who demanded his release” (207).

Sarah Hunt: Why are we hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause of #MMIW?

Short piece in Rabble by Sarah Hunt: “Why are we so hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause, yet so comfortable naming all the “risk factors” associated with the lives of Indigenous girls who have died? Why are we not looking more closely at the “risk factors” that lead to violence in the lives of the perpetrators? Isn’t that truly where the responsibility for this epidemic lies? When Pickton was convicted, why didn’t we see national coverage of the root causes of his actions and that of other white male serial killers?”

Kwetlal Against Colonialism: A Summary

This is Corey Snelgrove’s summary of his MA Thesis, drawing connections between environmentalism, colonization, and what he calls “settler stewardship”–settlers’ ways of knowing and relating to the land perpetuate and reify settler colonialism. All of this is grounded on Lekwungen Territory, in “Victoria” where he did his MA, and he also gestures towards productive alternatives where settlers are taking leadership from indigenous peoples and supporting indigenous relationships to land, worked through his participation in the Community Toolshed here:
“This orientation marks a difference between the Tool Shed and settler stewardship, and this difference is shared by many of those participating in the Tool Shed. For example, discussions with Community Tool Shed participants reveals a recognition of the entanglement between colonization and the environment. Participants also recognize the different role for non-Lekwungen peoples than Lekwungen peoples in engagements with the land, such as removal of invasive species versus the harvesting of camas. Additionally, participants do not seek to absolve themselves from colonization. Rather, they often trace their involvement to their implication in colonization.”

White Settlers and Indigenous Solidarity: Confronting White Supremacy, Answering Decolonial Alliances

“If white people who practice Indigenous solidarity miss, or never consider these nuances when invoking “settler” status, I am concerned that we then leave its whiteness normalized and unchallenged within our theories and activism.”

Decolonization

White settlers who seek solidarity with Indigenous challenges to settler colonialism must confront how white supremacy shapes settler colonialism, our solidarity, and our lives. As a white person working in Canada and the United States to challenge racism and colonialism (in queer / trans politics, and solidarity activism) I am concerned that white people might embrace Indigenous solidarity in ways that evade our responsibilities to people of color and to their calls upon us to challenge all forms of white supremacy. This essay presents my responsibilities to theories and practices of decolonization that connect Indigenous and racialized peoples. I highlight historical studies by Indigenous and critical race scholars — notably, those bridging black and Indigenous studies — as they illuminate deep interlockings of white supremacy and settler colonialism. I call white settlers to become responsible to these, and related projects, so as to challenge the authority we might claim, or…

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notes on a bioregional decolonization

Really thought-provoking and nuanced perspective on decolonizing bioregionalism: “For every thread in the fabric of colonialism, there is a story of resistance to be told. For every lie told by the civilizers, there is a truth to be told. For every place that has been decimated through industry and agriculture, there is still possible a good way to live there; and this way is kept alive in the stories of that particular place, the Indigenous Knowledge so viciously and systematically attacked by the colonizers. And each of us as an individual is a living story, connected to place(s) and ancestors, whose stories formed the world we live in today. Our identities are not static. Our stories evolve and our cultures evolve, as Cascadia herself rises in fire and falls into the sea. All of our stories need to be told, and in a way that empowers us in our responsibilities, not as a set of evasions or “settler moves to innocence5.” Telling our stories as our identities moves us beyond the dualism of guilt or innocence, denying neither, while illuminating our responsibilities as individuals and as Peoples in this life. (I reject the guilt-ridden associations of the word “responsibility” and embrace response-ability as the antidote to resignation and disempowerment)”

Míle Gaiscíoch

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The lands and waters of the Northeast Pacific Rim are a colony.  This was not always so.  Colonization began in the late 18th century and has continued unabated to the present day, as the centralization of power continues to be concentrated into a disembodied abstraction called Capital.  Prior to colonization, power was balanced throughout the many Nations here, each with their own decentralized network of autonomous clans, bands, villages, and families.  At that time, the epistemological separation between the Land and the People was contradictory to the cultures here, and it was exactly this division that the colonizers came here to enact in order to replace laws of relationship and reciprocity with resource extraction to feed the growth of Capital.  This process has turned living communities into dead commodities through the imposition of a culture of occupation1, and despite the many successful acts of defense and restoration…

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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

“An Open Letter to My Settler People” – Adam Barker

This video was originally posted near the time when the Idle No More movement began.  In it, Adam Barker lays out settler colonialism and its implications for settlers in a really accessible way, urging settlers to take responsibility for colonialism here in Canada: “The theft of land has enabled our incredible achievements, and also our dreadful mistakes.  It is up to us to reclaim our responsibilities as Settlers – as world makers, as dreamers and builders, and people who can work together despite our differences to achieve great things – and to use our powers, privileges, and skills differently.  We built this world, we built the nations of Canada and America, but we did it by trying to destroy many other nations as part of the process.  It’s time to reverse this process.  It is time to let go of our nations and privileges, and throw our support behind the regeneration of Indigenous nationhood.”

Adam shared his transcript with me, and I’m reposting it here, along with the video, below:

An Open Letter to My Settler People

Hello, my name is Adam Barker, and I am a Settler Canadian. If you’re listening to this, then you have probably already heard about Idle No More and the protests that have been happening over the last few weeks demanding rights, recognition, and most of all, respect for Indigenous peoples and their lands.

I am not speaking to you today to air another listing of grievances against the Harper government.  I am not going to advocate for changes to policy and law.  This is a message to my fellow Settler people about who we are and what we want to be in the future.

Maybe that term – Settler – makes you uneasy.  I’ve often heard people say ‘I didn’t take Indian land; I’m no settler!’  Let’s start with a really important point: this movement is not about historical redress.  Indigenous peoples have not suddenly risen up to demand that we educate ourselves on treaties and racist policies and laws from yesteryear.  Nor have they ‘suddenly risen up’ at all.  The Indigenous people you see protesting today are part of the same resistance against settler colonialism that has been going on for almost five hundred years.

All of us – every person who lives on and benefits from the theft of Indigenous lands – is a Settler.  We all live on someone else’s lands, and almost all of us do so illegally.  Everyday that you live in Canada or America, every day that you make a living, have freedom of movement, and enjoy a standard of living much higher than most of the world, you are part of settler colonization.  It does not matter if your family has been here since the Mayflower landed, or if you just recently moved to Toronto from abroad: you are part of this.  That is how settler colonization functions.  It’s not just about soldiers and conquest, and it’s not just about residential schools or underfunded housing.  It’s about thousands, millions of individual people, families, and communities pursuing freedom and wealth, at the expense of Indigenous people, their lands, and their cultures.

No, you alone are not solely responsible.  No one is solely responsible.  Your government is not solely responsible.  Corporations is not solely responsible.  Churches are not solely responsible.

Which means: we are all, collectively, responsible for this.

And what is ‘this’?  Settler colonization.  It’s land theft.  It’s the imposed change of lifestyle in places we claim as ours.  It’s modernity, and progress, and industry, and finance, and so many other things that we take for granted as part of our world.

But we have to recognize that our world is synthetic.  Our society is built from bits and pieces of shattered Indigenous societies.  Our wealth is ripped out of land that, for Indigenous societies, was holistically maintained and ministered to by place-based ways of being, very different from our own.

And let’s be clear, too, that this is not about more or less advanced technology.  Indigenous peoples achieved levels of good health, types of governance, and ingenious environmental technology that still surpass what we can often make with our high-tech, modern means.

This is also not about people who, through ignorance, did not see what they were doing.  The first colonists from England in the 1500s understood that they were on Indigenous lands.  They recognized the complex societies that they encountered as powerful, political entities.  They signed treaties that allowed them to live in these new colonies, but in respectful relationships withwith their Indigenous hosts.

Land surrender did not happen.  Terra nullius is a lie, invented years after settlements were founded, as disease and warfare took their toll on Indigenous populations, while the teeming poor of Great Britain and Europe increasingly flooded Indigenous lands.

Settler colonization is the excuse that we make for being here.  Settler colonization is our perceived ‘right’ to live on someone else’s land, without their permission.  Settler colonization is the belief that those people are too primitive, too weak, or simply too ‘extinct’ to have a voice.

Look out your window.  Look at your television.  Look at your twitter feed, facebook page, or youtube.  Indigenous people have voices.  Their cultures are strong and vibrant even after five hundred years of theft, murder, rape, genocide, and political and legal extermination.  And by their continued insistence on BEING on their OWN land, Indigenous peoples expose settler colonization for what it is: an elaborate lie, an imagined world, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves as Settlers.

Are you uncomfortable hearing that?  It is okay if you are.  I am.  I have been for a long time.  When I first began to discover the depth of settler colonization, I did not want to believe it.  I wanted to find ways to make things right, through party politics and voting, or through ethical consumption, or human rights.  I wanted Indigenous people to have what I had: a comfortable life in Canada.

But that’s simplistic because, if you listen to your Indigenous friends and neighbours, that isn’t what they want.  They don’t want to share in the spoils of exploiting the land.  They don’t want a proportional voice in Parliament.  They don’t want to live like you do, look like you do, talk like you do.  That, my fellow Settlers, is another colonial fantasy: it’s called assimilation.  It has been the official policy of our governments in the past, and it remains the unofficial ‘idea’ behind reconciliation in the present: making things ‘equal’, but by our own measures of equality.

But would you accept that?  If someone forced you out of your house, took your possessions, beat your children, and burned your history books, would you gratefully accept room and board in that house?  Would you aspire to be just like them, to be friends with them, to do to others what they did to you?  Or would you be angry and motivated?  Would you be damn determined to get your house back, to rewrite your histories, and to get justice for those you love?

I know what I would think.  I know what I would feel.  I also know what I do feel now: scared, uncertain, and more than a little ashamed.  Sometimes I feel like there is no way out of this predicament.  I feel like the only way to make things better is to leave.  But guess what: that doesn’t fix things either.

I have been living in the United Kingdom – where my family came from, all immigrating to Canada in the early 20th century – for the past three years.  There is no ‘decolonization’ in this.  My leaving has done nothing to restore Indigenous governance, to return stolen lands.  I still have decades of privilege that allowed me to move, to pick up my life and relocate it, in ways that Indigenous people can’t.

We cannot make things right by running away.

Let’s accept something right now, Settler people: this is our mess to clean up.  This is our house to manage.  This is our legacy that we are building, and most of us build that legacy by refusing to take an active part in it.  What is that legacy going to be?  Will we be usurpers, continuing to take and take until there is nothing left?  That, my friends and family, is genocide.  Extermination.  It’s the most heinous crime imaginable and we pursue it everyday.

Oh, we lie to ourselves by pumping money into ‘social programs’ to help keep Indigenous bodies alive and breathing.  But that’s not living.  We long ago learned that we can kill a people by destroying their cultures just as effectively as by killing their bodies.  We can destroy with education, with appropriation of images and symbols, and by insisting that our way of living is the one, true way.  We destroy while convincing ourselves we are doing anything but.

If we do not want this to be our legacy, we have to change.  And I don’t mean change which party is in government: the Liberals introduced the White Paper in 1969, designed specifically to eliminate legal recognition of Indigenous peoples, making them just one more minority in their own lands.  Abraham Lincoln preceded the Emancipation Proclamation by ordering the mass hanging of almost forty Dakota people in what is now Minnesota.  Let’s be clear here: our sovereignty over these lands, the very basis of our political systems, our citizenship, and our legal rights, is based on the appropriation of land from Indigenous peoples and the imposition of our power over them.

We can’t vote our way out of this.  We can’t count on the NDP, or the Green Party, or anyone else seeking political power, to dismantle those same systems of power.  The Supreme Court of Canada or America cannot declare Canada or America illegal.  Why?  Because the government and courts are only empowered to make decisions and impose policies by settler colonization.  Expecting governments and courts to end settler colonization is like asking them to cut down a tree while sitting on one of the branches.

So what do we do?  If you’re like me, you might be feeling exasperated.  Votes don’t matter; lawsuits don’t fix what is broken; even just making a living, humbly and quietly, is colonizing.  But there is a way out.  And it starts with you, and me, together.

You see, all of this only happens because, despite the many, many differences between us Settler people, we all agree to relate to each other in settler colonial ways.  We think of politics as our governments and parties, not our treaty obligations to traditional Indigenous governments.  We think of economics as jobs and corporations, not the sustainable relationships to place practiced by Indigenous societies.  We think of our individual rights as of paramount importance, neglecting our collective responsibilities to our host nations.

We do this, in part, because we can.  Collectively, we are powerful beyond almost any measure.  Think about it!  We have created entire worlds!  We have imagined new societies, then built them, and regardless of the follies of war and failures of social justice, it is impossible not to be impressed by the incredible things that Settler societies have done.  Settler people, in all our diversity, over centuries, have very literally changed the world, forever.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

It is time to stop pretending that we are not powerful, that we are just individuals beholden to law, politics, jobs, and social norms.  We have made law.  We have invented our politics.  We defined and redefined our work and our social norms, again and again, in many places and many times.  But we have done all of this in part because of something we lack: land of our own.

The theft of land has enabled our incredible achievements, and also our dreadful mistakes.  It is up to us to reclaim our responsibilities as Settlers – as world makers, as dreamers and builders, and people who can work together despite our differences to achieve great things – and to use our powers, privileges, and skills differently.  We built this world, we built the nations of Canada and America, but we did it by trying to destroy many other nations as part of the process.  It’s time to reverse this process.  It is time to let go of our nations and privileges, and throw our support behind the regeneration of Indigenous nationhood.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: what kind of person do I want to be?  Do I want to be responsible? Do I want to control my own destiny and build a different world? Or do I want to live in the illusion of freedom that is built on dispossession, destruction and the death of whole peoples and nations?  Do I want to be a usurper?

If you would rather be the former, then there are a few more questions you need to ask yourself.  First among them is: how much am I willing to give up?  And I don’t mean money or property, although that’s certainly part of it.  I mean: how much of these artificial worlds that we have built are you willing to let go of?

I identify as a Settler Canadian because I have to recognize my privileges: I carry a Canadian passport, I have the freedom of movement that goes along with that.  I can participate in and benefit from the Canadian systems of politics and economics as much or as little as I want.  And that is precisely what I am willing to give up.  I am willing to think of a day when Canada is no more, America is no more.  I’m not so arrogant as to believe that these nations will last forever.  But more than that, I’m certain that they should not.  I’m willing to think of a time when my very identity has to shift, when I have to think about how you and I are related differently, not defined by our passports or flags or jobs or status or wealth.

I don’t know what that might look like.  But I am willing to try and find out.  That’s why, in addition to being Canadian, I first and foremost identify as a Settler; I accept that along with a legacy of colonization, being a Settler comes with incredible possibility for the future.

Can you conceive of letting go of your nationalism and patriotism, seeing them for what they are: expressions of our shared settler colonial privileges?  Can you picture a world where your government, whatever form it takes, doesn’t rely on ‘sovereignty’ to assert your right on the land, but instead talks about treaties and responsibilities that earn permission to live on someone else’s land?  It’s hard to let go of the things we think we know, the stories we tell ourselves, the world we take for granted.  But as a great man once said: imagine.  It’s easy if you try.

And once you have imagined these things, you have a responsibility to act.  And by all means, go to protests with signs, march and sing and dance and make yourself seen and heard in public.  Show Indigenous people that you support their struggle.

But rejecting settler colonization is more than that.  We have to work together, in our own communities, and not just when protests flare up, but every single day.  We have to relate to each other differently before we can relate to Indigenous nations differently.  We have to be differently in our homes, our workplaces, and our lives, before we can walk differently on the land.  If you KNOW now, if you SEE now, you have a responsibility to confront settler colonialism wherever you encounter it.

Are you ready for that?  Because it means you will have to engage your families, your friends.  You can’t let racism or ignorance slide.  And you can’t ever, not for one second, think that you know enough or have done enough.  Do you want to be an ally to Indigenous peoples?  Then here is one more hard truth you must accept: ally is a verb, not a noun.  It’s something you do, not something you are. 

There is always more to be done because there are always those who, when confronted with their own illegitimacy, choose to usurp.  There will always be colonizers.  We ourselves – and I speak from experience – will always be tempted, seduced back into the easy path of taking rather than giving, of demanding our rights rather than living our responsibilities.

And it is not our Indigenous hosts’ responsibility to challenge this colonization; we brought it with us when we came here, and it is up to us to expel it from our lives.

I’ll leave you with one more thought, my fellow Settlers: a friend of mine once told me “Freedom is the other side of fear”.  What are we afraid of, really?  Freedom itself?  Or just the change it would take for us to be free?  Right now we are not free.  We’re shackled by our arrogance, our conviction that our societies are good, or perfect, or just.  We’re shackled by our own hands.  Ask yourself this: are Idle No More and the many other Indigenous movements that have and continue to thunder across our nations really calling for you to give them freedom?  Or are they really demanding that you fight for your own?