Its been three days since I sat with Lisa Laco and Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux on CBC Thunder Bay’s flagship morning radio show, Superior Morning, to talk treaties and Anishinaabeg sovereignty. CBC did a great job in gathering questions about treaties that were then put to Cynthia and I. The show was meant to honour National Aboriginal Day, but it was also a response to an agonizing past six months of white backlash against Indigenous peoples in northern Ontario. There’s no need to reiterate that craziness here, but for those unaware please see the #RelaxTamara hashtage on Twitter, as well as some great commentary by folks such as Karen Drake and blogger Manic Expressive.
The fallout from the radio show has been productive in some new and important ways. Since it went to air, I have been contacted by many individuals identifying as white people in support of Indigenous struggles and decolonization. Complete strangers have been coming up to me in person, and sending me messages through email and social media, saying that they are sick of the racism they’ve been witnessing in Thunder Bay. So I wanted to put this out there for consideration: Thunder Bay needs a “Settlers in Solidarity” group.
However, before we can discuss this group, I need to define my use of “settler.” Indeed, this has been a contentious word in Thunder Bay, getting criticism from both Anishinaabeg and zhaaganaashii alike. Therefore, in this two-part series, I begin by defining and contextualizing the word “settler” (Part 1), and then move on in a separate post to propose an initial agenda for establishing a Settlers in Solidarity group in the city (Part 2).
Defining Settler: Not a race-based term
The term “settler” describes a person who occupies Indigenous lands as a result of historical/on-going settler colonialism. As my friend and colleague Adam Barker writes, “[i]t is not enough to simply state that Settler people are ‘non-Indigenous,’ as is often done; this ignores the complexity of Settler society and culture itself and normalizes non-Indigenous society, preventing much useful analysis. Settler people in this context include most peoples who occupy lands previously stolen or in the process of being taken from their Indigenous inhabitants or who are otherwise members of the ‘Settler society,’ which is founded on co-opted lands and resources.”
In northern Ontario, “settler” would describe those people enforcing and upholding non-Anishinaabeg legal and political orders at the expense of Anishinaabeg law and polity. Just as Harsha Walia writes that “it is imperative to understand being Indigenous as not just an identity but a way of life, which is intricately connected to Indigenous people’s relationship to the land and all its inhabitants,” so too is the way of life of a settler: what matters is one is intentionally or unintentionally centering a colonial rather than Indigenous sovereignty-based relationship while living in Indigenous lands. (I can’t see Indigenous peoples being “settlers,” because they are not in control of, or work to protect the structure of settler colonialism, which is a system of dominance that removes peoples from their territories in the name of state-building; but that doesn’t mean they can’t protect settler colonialism in other ways) Thus, while there were “original” settlers in northern Ontario, say a century or two ago, settlers continue to occupy those lands today when we consider that the settler identity is based on continued occupation of Indigenous lands in ways that either assert or protect a presumed Canadian sovereignty.
It follows, then, that the term “settler” is not a race based identity. White people can be settlers, but so can people of colour in the Canadian context. It is important to point this out because, too often people assume that “settler” is describing only white people. This is not the case, as Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua write:
People of color [in Canada] are settlers. Broad differences exist between those brought as slaves, currently work as migrant laborers, are refugees without legal documentation, or émigrés who have obtained citizenship. Yet people of color live on land that is appropriated and contested, where Aboriginal peoples are denied nationhood and access to their own lands. … The Canadian nation-state project was one of white settlement. It displaced Aboriginal peoples and targeted them for physical and cultural extermination to open land for settlers, while marginalizing and restricting the entry into Canada of people of color. … [However, ongoing] settlement of Indigenous lands, whether by white people or people of color, remains part of Canada’s nation-building project and is premised on displacing Indigenous peoples.
Therefore, if we take this definition of “settler” to a deeper level of reflection, we find two very important anti-colonial tools that we can use to move forward. First, it moves us beyond the artificial binary of white-vs.-native. This binary obscures the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been affected by, partnered with, and use(d) relationships with non-Indigenous peoples to further their goals. Indeed, the colonial history in northern Ontario has been more complex than a simple Us-vs.-Them; there is ample evidence in oral histories and in the archives to show that Anishinaabeg adopted and treatied with non-Anishinaabeg to build strong communities, and to adapt to new challenges and opportunities brought on by the emergence of the settler state. The binary is exploded when we realize that both white and non-white people can be settlers, and this opens up more productive discussions about how to end settler colonialism by undermining one’s complicity with it (see Part 2).
Second: defining “settler” based on complicity with settler colonialism rather than race thus helps us to identify settler colonialism as the real problem that we have to eradicate. Its not about ending racism per se, although that is an important and much needed step along the way. But if our work is only about ending racism (a symptom), we risk leaving settler colonialism (the root cause) uninterrogated. In other words, by focusing only on racism, or by using a discourse based only in racialized identities, we fail to reveal what racism actually is: a tool of settler colonialism.
To explain this better, consider what Andrea Smith recently wrote about racism and settler colonialism in the US context:
[S]ettler colonialism does not merely operate by racializing Native peoples, positioning them as racial minorities rather than as colonized nations, but also through domesticating Black struggle within the framework of anti-racist rather than anti-colonial struggle. Anti-Blackness is effectuated through the disappearance of colonialism in order to render Black peoples as the internal property of the United States, such that anti-Black struggle must be contained within a domesticated anti-racist framework that cannot challenge the settler state itself. Why, for example, is Martin Luther King always described as a civil rights leader rather than an anti-colonial organizer, despite his clear anti-colonial organizing against the war in Vietnam?
My read of this quote is that the settler colonial state protects its settler colonial nature by making sure no one sees it. And it does so by entertaining anti-racism discourse, but will resist any talk about the fact that the state itself is a settler colonial entity based on historical genocide of Indigenous peoples. We can see a similar situation in Canada by looking, for example, at Himani Bannerji’s critique of multiculturalism. It is this very thrust to keep settler colonialism hidden that betrays its power over us today.
This is exactly why Thunder Bay needs a Settlers in Solidarity group. We need those to whom the state distributes most of its benefits – namely, settlers… and more specifically, white settlers – to call the state and this community out for how they use “domesticated” social movements, such as anti-racism, to distract us from the root cause of settler colonialism. To explore putting this into practice, lets move on to Part 2.
I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Jana-Rae Yerxa, for her rigourous critique on earlier drafts of this piece.