A is for Awakening: Coming to Understand Myself as a Settler
As with many White people in North America, I have spent most of my life trying to define myself by what I am not. I have seen Whiteness as an absence of Colour, indicating nothing in and of itself. I am not Black. I am not Muslim. I am not Indigenous. I am not an immigrant. I know what I am not, but not what I am.
My paternal grandfather came from Ireland, does that make me Irish? My paternal grandmother came from England, does that make me English? My maternal ancestors have been in Canada for generations but some came from Scotland at some point. What does all of this mean? Sure I am Canadian, but so is my South Asian best friend and my Indigenous sister-in-law. Being ‘Canadian’ tells me nothing, culturally speaking. (Incidentally, I don’t watch hockey, eat Tim Hortons donuts or have an inordinate love of bacon, so those tired stereotypes are not very helpful.)
This pursuit of identity, explains, in part, the popularity of Stuff White People Like, a blog that takes satirical aim at the interests of North American “left-leaning, city-dwelling, white people” (Sternberg, 2008, par. 4). The blog was created by Christian Lander, a 29-year-old aspiring comedy writer who is originally from Toronto. It is devoted to “stuff white people like” and is presented as a list of numbered, encyclopedia-like entries, e.g. #5 Farmer’s Markets; #15 Yoga; or #62 Knowing What’s Best for Poor People. I believe the reason we White people like, Stuff White People Like is that, at the very least, it is a tangible beginning to talking about our identity.
As a teenager, growing up in Burnaby, BC, I was inordinately swayed by CBC radio hosts as I searched for a racial/cultural identity. At home, we always had CBC radio on (Stuff White People Like: #44 Public Radio). My childhood was filled with the voices of Peter Gzowski and Rex Murphy from Radio 1 and classical music (Stuff White People Like: #108 Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music) from Radio 2. Lunch on Sunday would often coincide with Cross Country Checkup and we’d marvel over how kind Rex was to the inevitable wing-nut who would call in ranting about the topic of the day. Rex was the voice of reason and moderation in our house, the quintessential Canadian. When Rex spoke on TV for the National News, his opinions on the day’s affairs greatly influenced our household opinions. I remember clearly as a 19 year-old thinking Canada should not be involved in the war in Kosovo and then changing my opinion when Rex Murphy stated the opposite. In my case, Lander’s statement that “all white people’s opinions are developed from Public Radio” (#44 Public Radio par.5) is pretty accurate.
This devotion to both a quest for identity and an infatuation with Rex Murphy and his opinions continued well into my 30s. In late 2013, Rex Murphy wrote an article for the National Post entitled “A Rude Dismissal of Canada’s Generosity.” He was responding to recent protests against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick by mostly Indigenous activists. He took issue with the terms “settler”, “colonialist” and “genocide”. He argued that when these terms are “tossed scornfully at [Canadians], they quite reasonably ask themselves whether everything done to right our historical wrongs has been for nothing,” (par.19). He claimed that the Canadian present is significantly different from the Canadian past and that resorting to “academically-generated ‘narratives’ of colonialism and racism and genocide are an abuse of reality and yes, disrespectful to many — most — Canadians,” (par. 26).
At the time, I took this article as gospel. Reading this now, post-Rex Murphy crush, it is hard to abide the article’s hostility towards Indigenous peoples and the glib dismissal of their claims for justice.
Setting aside the many problematic statements in this piece, the vocabulary bears interrogation. When I first read this article, mid-identity quest, I was compelled by Rex’s analysis of the words ‘settler’, ‘colonialism’, and ‘genocide’. Reading this article was the first time I had encountered the word ‘settler’ in a present-day context.
It was a pivotal moment for me. Finally, I had a cultural identity! No longer did I feel the need to force an affinity with some distant European nation to which I had no tangible connection. I was a settler-Canadian!
Except… Rex says that’s bad, so I’m not.
No, really, that’s actually how it happened.
I fell in love with the term ‘settler’ and then dismissed it, all within a 1,500 word National Post article. Because White people get their opinions from public radio personalities… This experience clearly highlights the incredible power the media have over, not only our perception of the world, but also our understanding of ourselves.
It wasn’t until several years later that the term ‘Settler’ and I were reunited thanks to Paulette Regan’s (2010) book Unsettling the Settler Within. I must admit though, that I googled Rex’s article before buying the book. I wanted to check back in with him to see what was so wrong with the term ‘settler’. To see what I was missing. Finding nothing compelling, I gave myself permission to leave Rex behind.
Vowel (2016), defines Settlers as “the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority” (p.14). She argues that there is no sanctioned or widely accepted term for this group due to the fact that “the majority tends to have the power to sanction and widely accept terms, and does not really have much cause to refer to itself” (p.14). Lowman & Barker (2015) have published a whole book on the concept of being a Settler, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada. The first chapter, ‘Why Say Settler?’ does a great job of explaining the significance and importance of the term. I will do my best to summarize some of their arguments here.
For starters, ‘Settler’ is a term, much like ‘Indigenous’ (Vowel, 2016; Lowman & Barker, 2015). Both reference “a broad collective of peoples with commonalities through particular connections to land and place,” (Lowman & Barker, p.2). This does not deny the diversity of distinct cultures and peoples encompassed by either term, rather, each term collectivizes a common experience in relation to colonialism. Settlers, the beneficiaries of colonialism, and Indigenous peoples, antagonists to the colonial agenda, each have distinct entanglements with colonization. While being distinct, the Settler and Indigenous identities are “always in relationship” (Lowman & Barker, p.16). In our current colonial moment, it is rare to have one without the other. Yet, these identities are not discrete. They overlap, with many people claiming some or bits of both.
The rise in the use of the term ‘Settler’ can “only be understood through the rise of Indigenous resurgence” (Lowman & Barker, p.7). This makes sense since the term ‘Indigenous’ is defined in part as being “oppositional to colonization” (Lowman & Barker, p.14). As the fight against present-day colonialism becomes more visible to a wider public, the definition of those who benefit from colonialism becomes increasingly urgent; understanding who we are in relation to the colonial project becomes crucial.
Although, Rex clearly read the term ‘Settler’ as an insult, the term is not pejorative. It is not a racial slur. Using it indicates no disrespect. Rather than pejorative, Lowman & Barker encourage us to see the term, as interrogative, as a tool to provoke curiosity and reflection. Using the term ‘Settler’ invites us to consider the following questions:
How did we come to be here?
How do we claim belonging here?
Can we live here in a way that does not reproduce harm? (p.19)
The idea that Indigenous peoples might instead become the fastest growing demographic in the country, with legal and political rights… didn’t seem to have occurred to a great many of us.
We were the couple of generations of white-skinned Canadians who had come to understand that our responsibilities with regard to the eradication of racism began with tolerating exotic music, [and] venturing increasingly spicy recipes…
As it turns out, this training left us relatively ill-equipped to deal with the grievances of First Nations, Métis and Inuit, who seem less interested in finding a hyphenated, subcultural Canadian identity and more interested in exercising their legitimate sovereignty over the land… -Charles Demers, The Horrors, (p.158)
We, non-Indigenous Canadians, struggle to understand Indigenous sovereignty in the same way that we struggle to self-identify as Settlers. These two concepts are intertwined; without an understanding of ‘Indigenous’ there can be no understanding of ‘Settler’. Having come to know Indigenous peoples as characters from Canada’s past, to be found only in museums and dusty textbooks… Having come to conceive of colonialism as over and done with… Having come to see the colonial project as having been achieved… We are genuinely lost when we find these things to be untrue. The landmarks we have come to rely on to make sense of the world, are not as they seem. And we are slow to put the pieces together.
Our understanding of history is lousy and distorted. Our training in anti-racism (spicy recipes aside) is weak. Our understanding of colonialism is mostly non-existent. So we are ill-prepared to understand our own historical moment, let alone to understand ourselves.
Demers argues that Canada “is being forced into a reckoning,” (p.158). This reckoning has been a long time in the making. And we Settlers can pout about it and stomp our feet and dismiss these words that we need to make sense of the world as “rude”, “disrespectful”, “illiterate”, or (this is my favourite) “an abuse of reality,” (Murphy, 2013). Or we can pull our heads out of the sand, take a deep breath, and awaken. Awaken to the world as it is, awaken to our current place within it, awaken to our Settler identity.
Personally, I find solace in the term ‘Settler’. It rings true to me in a way that ‘Irish’ and ‘Canadian’ never have. The term ‘Settler’ ties me to my grandparents. It connects me to this land but also concurrently to the faraway land of my ancestors. I say connects me to this land, but not in the same way my Indigenous neighbours are deeply interconnected with the land, but rather in a way that elucidates how I have come to be in this place. Being a ‘Settler’ allows me a lens through which to look at myself and my history, at Canada and Canada’s history in a way that makes sense, in a way that thinking about Whiteness cannot. Whiteness, bound as it is with an understanding of race, is only peripherally associated with an understanding of colonialism. Canada is a country that began as a handful of European colonies. It is a country that continues to struggle to legally and ethically justify its land base. Therefore understanding colonialism, and understanding my role within it as a Settler, is the only way to come to understand myself in this place I call home.
Demers, C. (2015). The Horrors: An A to Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things. Madeira Park, Canada: Douglas & McIntyre.
Lander, C. (2008, Jan. 31). #44 Public Radio. Blog: Stuff White People Like. Retrieved from: https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/31/44-public-radio/
Lander, C. (2008, Sept. 1). #108 Appearing to enjoy Classical Music. Blog: Stuff White People Like. Retrieved from: https://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/09/01/108-appearing-to-enjoy-classical-music/
Lowman E. & Barker, A. (2015). Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada. Winnipeg, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.
Murphy, R. (2013, Oct. 19). Rex Murphy: A rude dismissal of Canada’s generosity. The National Post. Retrieved from: http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/rex-murphy-a-rude-dismissal-of-canadas-generosity
Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.
Sternbergh, A. (2008, Mar. 16). Why White People Like ‘Stuff White People Like’. New Republic On-line Magazine. Retrieved from: https://newrepublic.com/article/62462/why-white-people-stuff-white-people
Vowel, C. (2016). Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada. Winnipeg, Canada: Highwater Press.