The 'Settler' Nonsense

Editorial
IT HAS BECOME FASHIONABLE in some circles to call non-aboriginal Canadians “settlers,” implying they should go back where they came from and return Canada to its original inhabitants. Unfortunately I’d look darn silly in the maternity ward of Toronto General Hospital. And the original inhabitants of North America are long gone.

The Canadian Encyclopedia says “The ethnologists, archaeologists and anthropologists who have written about these cultural regions… inevitably operated within a settler-colonial framework — a worldview that privileges property acquisition, European-style government and economic growth…” And Fernwood Publishing hypes its Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada thusly: 

Being Settler means understanding that Canada is deeply entangled in the violence of colonialism, and that this colonialism and pervasive violence continue to define contemporary political, economic and cultural life in Canada. … This book… will unsettle, but only to help Settler people find a pathway for transformative change, one that prepares us to imagine and move towards just and beneficial relationships with Indigenous nations. And this way forward may mean leaving much of what we know as Canada behind.

For what? Where? And how? There is gross injustice in suggesting that someone born here, in my case to one child immigrant and one native-born parent, properly belongs to some other country. And a hefty dose of impracticality. Sending half of me to Scotland and half to England might be unwelcome there and I have no automatic claim to British citizenship. Other so-called settlers' ancestors came here from polities that no longer exist. Where shall they go? Or do we all start “culturally appropriating” First Nations beliefs and habits to replace discarded “settler” ones, while living on any vacant scraps of land between areas they claim? And how do we settle those conflicting claims if not in “settler” courts?

In 1983 Nisga’a Chief James Gosnell told Pierre Trudeau, “It has always been our belief that God gave us the land” and Trudeau Sr. retorted, “Going back to the Creator doesn’t really help very much … did He draw on the land where your mountains stopped and somebody else’s began …? God never said that the frontier of France runs along the Rhine …”

As Trudeau also reportedly said, it is as much as we can do to be just in our own time. Otherwise how much history are we to undo? Where is the “Dorset culture” today? Shall we return Mexico City to the Aztecs and welcome the return of human sacrifice as casting off settler-colonial attitudes? Have those the Aztec conquered no rights? Must Rome return Carthage to Ba’al worshippers, shoving Tunisia’s Muslim inhabitants back into the Arabian peninsula from whence they no more came than I emigrated from Britain? And must the Métis, half aboriginal and half “settler,” be cleaved in twain or erased from the land? 

If Ottawa goes back to the Algonquin who, PC placards in schools and the City of Ottawa Reconciliation Action Plan website tell us, never ceded their land, what of Scotland? Its lowland portions were never “ceded” to the “Sassenachs,” a Gaelic term of abuse for Saxons who swarmed across the North Sea during the Dark Ages. And to whom shall Germanic peoples driven west over centuries turn to disentangle their “settler” problem, military, cultural, and demographic? 

Why, indeed, return Montreal to the Mohawks, not the Iroquoians Cartier met in 1535, who had vanished by the time Champlain arrived, possibly driven off, enslaved or exterminated using “settler” weapons? Where does this chain reaction stop?

Curiously, the standard answer is precisely where European records began, privileging their “worldview that privileges property acquisition” and “European-style government” including the whole concept of “nations.” So before evacuating it physically or intellectually shall we burn Montreal down, erasing settler technology and legal and social foundations? And return it only to people willing to abandon cell phones, internal combustion engines, writing, Christianity, liberal democracy and English?

There is much creepy virtue-signalling in whites abasing themselves as “settlers.” But there is no road forward because, fundamentally, it is a collectivist concept. Fernwood’s book plug ends with a sympathetic academic claiming “settler colonialism as a mode of domination is fundamentally constituted by the unequal relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous collectives.”

Precisely. This approach blames some people not for what they did but for what somebody like them did. Or somebody quite unlike them in the case of “new Canadians” and their children. It absolves others of all blame based on skin colour and falsifies their ancestors’ history. It denies the very possibility of reconciliation and falsifies the reality that all cultures are a blend of influences that arise as people interact, borrow, impose, improvise and adapt. And it falsifies the present.

At bottom there is neither an “Indian” problem nor a “settler” one. There is a historical problem, the aftermath of massive collision between two very different cultures half a millennium ago. And a human problem: being just and compassionate in our own time.

Sneering at “settlers” might gratify a base urge for revenge. But I never “settled” anything except, ideally, this quarrel. 

 John Robson

Published in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of The Dorchester Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 2-3. Subscribe! 

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