Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada
Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada is a well-focused, engaging, and unsettling book about the relationship between the Indigenous and Settler populations in Canada. The authors, Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker, “speak as and to Settler Canadians” and engage in critical reflexivity on what it means to situate as a Settler theoretically, politically, and ethically. This book aims to problematize and interrogate Settler identity, whereas the notion of identity is conceptualized as situated and process-based: “not biologically determined, culturally circumscribed, or structured by a single political or economic system” (p. 109). Battell Lowman and Barker’s project is to scrutinize such processes in which Settler identity becomes bound up with settler colonialism, through claims to the land we call “home.”
The book begins with the poem “Forever,” by Janet Marie Rogers of Mohawk-Tuscarora heritage from the Six Nations reserve. The poem revisits the intent and delivery of the Two Row Wampum Treaty of 1613 between the Haudenosaunee and Settler populations, and insists on how far the relationship has strayed from its original intent of mutual respect. The authors seek to elucidate the ways in which Indigenous and Settler relations have turned violent, unequal, and colonialist. By examining the historical roots of settler colonialism, they demonstrate how Canada was forged through an unlawful claim of Canadian sovereignty on Turtle Island and built on a “protracted project of dispositions, elimination, and one of the largest land grabs in the history of humankind” (p. 47). Battell Lowman and Barker emphasize that colonialism is neither a thing of the past nor a legacy but still a very vital and powerful force in Canada. This is evident not only in the contemporary political structure and institutional practices such as private property ownership, policing, public education, and child welfare systems but also in the ways in which Canadian Settlers have reacted with anger and hostility to social justice movements such as the Oka Crisis and Idle No More. When Indigenous people insist on protecting their lands, cultures, and histories, Settler people react with fear in order to secure the national narratives and colonial innocence that legitimatize their privileges and existence on the stolen land. Settler identity, then, is premised on the displacement and destruction of Indigenous people’s pre-existing relationships to land.
The strength of the book lies in its ability to pinpoint how and when settler colonialism was, and continues to be, produced and reproduced at the individual level. The authors state: “Settler people are personally and collectively involved and responsible for indefensible acts of cruelty and greed, even if these acts occur at such a remove that most of us never perceive our connections to them” (p. 21). Battell Lowman and Barker note various examples as to how Settler people participate in settler colonialism. Canadians appropriate Indigenous symbols, objects, knowledge, and practices because they are assumed to be part of national identity. Indigenous symbols and objects such as the Inukshuk, canoe, maple syrup, dream catchers, and snowshoes are taken out of context, claimed as “Canadian,” and sold for financial gain. New Age and mystical movements that rely on Indigenous symbols such as the medicine wheel, medicinal plants and herbs, and spiritual rituals and practices like the sweat lodge are used without an understanding of the massive power imbalance, and without knowledge of and connection to the sacred significance of many aspects of Indigenous culture. Canadians also sustain their Settler identities by uncritically accepting and engaging in national narratives and myths. Settler stories of pioneering frontiersmen and myths of terra nullius, as well as contemporary narratives about multiculturalism, peacekeeping, socially progressive politics, and hard-earned prosperity, all contribute to displacing Indigenous people’s history and justify national claims of belonging to the land.
The authors demonstrate how even personal emotions can manifest, and function as a site of, settler colonialism. They argue that fear emerges when Settlers are confronted with how deeply our lives are structured by colonialism. Settlers become uncomfortable and attempt to escape complicity in and responsibility for settler colonial processes by responding with feelings of guilt, anger and shame, arrogance, empathy or apathy, and sometimes even a false sense of shared victimhood. However, these feelings do little in terms of contributing to a genuine decolonizing project, but are often used to re-establish a barrier or to remove ourselves from proximity to our own colonial identities, to disavow ourselves as settler colonizers, to rebuild the comfortable spaces of settler colonialism that we are used to residing in.
The authors acknowledge that Canadian Settlers are made up of diverse people, and that not everyone benefits from being a Settler in the same way. Class struggle, sexism, and racial discrimination constitute oppressive systems within Canadian society, and it is crucial to examine settler colonialism along with capitalist exploitation, racism, and patriarchal oppression. The authors warn, however, that shared experiences of oppression and marginalization do not necessarily mean that other marginalized people are not invested in settler colonial projects. Building on the work of Andrea Smith, Battell Lowman and Barker argue that it is possible for communities of marginalized people to buy into and reinforce structures of invasion, to identify strongly with Settler Canadian myths and narratives, and to participate in the systemic dispossession of Indigenous people, all the while struggling against their own marginalization or oppression. As an example, they analyze the Occupy movement. They argue that the discursive trope and strategy of the Occupy movement were built on and underscored the settler colonial narratives such as individual rights, equality, and freedom and public space as “empty land,” thus further contributing to the erasure of Indigenous identity and nationhood.
The final chapter deals with the topic of decolonization. The authors approach this topic tactfully, and do not offer simplistic solutions to settler colonialism. Instead, they offer warnings. First, they argue that engaging with settler colonialism in an ethical manner, is supposed to be unsettling and uncomfortable. Decolonization must start with accepting and owning up to the Settler identity, which means coming to terms with the realization that our belonging to the land, as attached to the institutions of the Canadian state and the narratives of Canadian exceptionalism, is indeed illegitimate. Second, they argue that such realization must come collectively, since we, as Settler people, choose en masse to act as settler colonizers and believe in national myths and narratives. Finally, decolonizing efforts should not simply follow, rely on, or consume Indigenous practices or knowledge. As Settler people, we need to find our own ways of building decolonizing practices, engaging in transformative struggles, and supporting the resurgence of Indigenous nationhood. In a way, this book itself should be considered as a decolonizing effort in practice, in that Battell Lowman and Barker critically reflect as to what it means to situate oneself as Settler while paying attention to the knowledge and work of Indigenous scholars, leaders, activists, and advocates.
I would have wanted to see their argument look more closely at how the dynamics between and among Settlers and Exogenous Others (examples given by the authors include enslaved peoples, imported labors, and marginalized migrants) come into play in our collective efforts toward decolonization. As the authors note, Canadian Settler society is made up of diverse populations and some of them take up the subject positions of Exogenous Other and Settler simultaneously. Since the Exogenous Other is a product of the broader colonial system in global contexts, it is important to understand how different colonial histories intersect in our collective efforts to address settler colonialism in Canada. Failing to do so would again lead to instances where Exogenous Others must ignore their own histories of colonialism and violence in order to enter so-called “decolonizing” projects.
It would have been additionally helpful if they included the discussion around how to grapple with the feeling of unsettlement and discomfort that may arise in decolonizing efforts. This is particularly important in a thought-provoking book such as this because (Settler) readers might develop strong reactions when realizing their complicity in settler colonialism, which might lead to feelings of apathy rather than feelings of conjoint responsibility. Since decolonizing efforts require long-lasting if not permanent feelings of discomfort, it is important to develop collective strategies of hope.
Overall, this book makes an excellent scholarly and political contribution in thinking about Indigenous and Settler relations in Canada. It offers rich and careful analysis and would make a good teaching tool in academic disciplines beyond Setter Colonial Studies and Canadian Studies. The book is also timely in that it provides a critical framework in examining how the past injustices such as Indigenous Residential Schools are considered as “settled” with official apologies. As Battell Lowman and Barker warn, it is the moment when we feel settled with our colonialism that we should be most troubled with.
— Chizuru Nobe-Ghelani, Transnational Social Review, Aug 2017