Settler Resistance: Where Are We Now?

Since I left Ottawa, I have been thinking a lot about my place and where I fit; my place here in amiskwaciwâskahikan/peohan/Treaty Six, my place in Canada, my place in North America, and my place in the unfamiliar countries of my ancestors. More specifically, I have been thinking about what it means to be a settler in these places, and how to remain accountable to the peoples whose lands have been colonized.

While in Ottawa as I mentioned previously, I was fortunate to be at the Delta Hotel when the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners gave their list of 94 recommendations from their summary report. Of these recommendations, ten specifically have to do with education, though a number of others have what I guess could be classified as ‘educational qualities,’ or mention ‘education’ in some way. These recommendations are of particular interest because they are related to my academic work.

The summary has been given a great deal of press and a group of Indigenous peoples (Joseph Paul Murdoch-Flowers, Erica Violet Lee, and Zoe Todd)–with some settler accomplices–endeavored to read sections of the report, inspired by a query posited by Métis educator Chelsea Vowel, in what became #ReadTheTRCReport on social media. It should be noted that this report is only a summary, with the full report expected in the coming months.

I sincerely hope the TRC final report is given more importance than the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), an exhaustive 3,537 page and five volume report that examined how Indigenous peoples saw their relationship to Canada and Canadians. Though the entire report is not available online^, a summary report has been written by Chelsea Vowel which I believe should be read by everyone. The commissioners identified four issues–a better relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers, self-determination actualized through self-government, financial self-sufficiency, and the healing of Indigenous peoples and communities–and provided 440 recommendations (Dickason & McNab, 2009). Of these recommendations, only a few have come into effect; the only one that comes to mind is National Aboriginal Day, which is celebrated by far more Indigenous peoples than it is settlers.

So why were the RCAP recommendations never actualized? Quite simply, the reason is settler resistance. Settlers are for the most part unwilling to take a critical look at their/our history and are resistant to change if they/we are going to be inconvenienced in some way such as feeling guilty, for example.

Since decolonization is not a metaphor, as Tuck and Yang (2012) explain, then reconciliation must go beyond apologies and good feelings. Reconciliation requires that settlers take a look at them/ourselves, the institutions we have created, and trying to move forward in a way that promotes equity for all peoples.  Another thing that we need to do, is to look at our history, which is mentioned within the TRC’s recommendations.

For example, how many people are aware that Alberta was an important research centre for eugenics research, and that research occurred at the University of Alberta? Or that Emily Murphy*, Helen MacMurchy, Nellie McClung*, Louise McKinney*, Irene Parlby*, J. S. Woodsworth and Robert Charles Wallace all supported eugenics.  2,844 people–mostly women, many of whom were Indigenous–were sterilized through the Alberta Eugenics Board in a little bit over forty years time. A scholarship in Dr. J. M. MacEachran’s name is still awarded to upper year psychology undergraduate students at the U of A, though the Faculty of Education and Department of Philosophy stopped giving out awards in his name in 1972 and 2003 respectively. Though the province of Alberta apologized for its wrong doing in 1999, then-Premier Ralph Klein stated, “We extend regrets for the actions of another government, in another period of time. It’s unfortunate.” To me, that is not an authentic apology.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece on the Canadian government’s 2008 apology on the Indian Residential School program, explaining how and why I did not think it constituted a genuine apology. As more and more institutions and governments–my current count is nine with the Alberta government–offer apologies, I think it is important that we deconstruct their meanings and determine if the words are honest.

Both the Alberta Eugenics Board and the Indian Residential School system caused irrefutable harm to those forcibly sent to their institutions, and yet when this is brought forward, it is often met with settler resistance. The actions of the governments involved were not secret: they were in policy, points of discussion in the House of Commons and the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, as well as in the media. However, because it was thought that there was nothing wrong with this behaviour, few settlers did (or tried to do) anything about it.

Last week, Métis  academic Zoe Todd wrote a manifesto for the yeg [Edmonton] arts scene, pointing out that a number of institutions in the arts scene have perpetuated, in some ways,  colonial behaviours (despite a great deal of effort by Indigenous activists to try and change this dynamic). These institutional dynamics are thereby doing harm to Indigenous peoples here. Though some settlers did read what Zoe wrote, and thought about it and how they are implicated in these colonial systems (or are still thinking), others reacted in violent ways. Once again, this is settler resistance, plain and simple.

Though this happened in Edmonton, let us not mistake it as an isolated issue–these kinds of situations arise across the country when Indigenous women ask for accountability regarding colonialism. What Zoe was calling for went beyond the pseudo-reconciliatory rhetoric that seems to be present when Indigenous issues hit the news.  Reconciliation is not puppies, gumdrops, rainbows, and unicorns: that is to say it is not a process that can be completed in an afternoon. It requires work.

The manifesto asked for reflection, humility, and a change of the status quo. These things were not given by some of the settlers who read it. Those who did respond in public forums reacted in anger rather than acting on their anger. To be more clear, this was a matter of retaliation versus on of reflexivity for those who were angry about the manifesto. Since there was so much hostility generated, it is abundantly clear that the settler colonial heteropatriarchal state of affairs we find ourselves in requires a great deal more work.

I’m not an artist, nor do I claim to ‘get’ a lot of art. Maybe I don’t have the right aesthetic eye or sense of proportion or something. But isn’t an aspect of growing in your craft–visual arts certainly, but other kinds of performative art as well–supposed to be open to critique? If we, that is the common ‘we’ –  folks both creating art and those consuming it, cannot critique art and the systems that support them then is it not just holding up an ideal that is exclusionary, or only for certain people?  Apparently I should have paid far more attention in that sculpture class I took in grade ten.

I see the antagonism directed at Zoe as being endemic of the violence Indigenous peoples, but particularly Indigenous women, face in Canada. When settlers are challenged–in their/our beliefs, understanding of history, or if they are being accused of being racist–they/we do not know how to handle it, for the most part. Why? We/they live in a system we/they have created that serves our interests while purposefully subjugating Indigenous peoples. Given that 1,224 Indigenous women having been reported murdered or gone missing, of which 43 occurred in the last year, according to the Edmonton Journal, the correlation between settler resistance and violence toward Indigenous peoples becomes that much more apparent.

Some of the folks that are angry at the manifesto seem to be Good White People. With that term being somewhat exclusionary however I think Good Settlers is a more appropriate.  People of colour can (and do) act in racially prejudiced ways against Indigenous peoples and some do not speak out against anti-Indigenous racism. Treating the reaction of the Edmonton arts scene as a microcosm for the rest of Canada and settler Canadians, it becomes ostensibly clear how much work needs to occur.

Several of the provinces (Manitoba and Alberta for example) are either amending or updating their curricula following the TRC summary report to include Indian Residential Schools. The thing is, most of the provinces and territories already have Indigenous content as part of the curricula, including teaching about residential schools. The problem is that it is not being taught. Again, at least in part, this is due to settler resistance.

The academic literature points out three primary reasons why teachers do not feel comfortable teaching about Indigenous content: a) little knowledge of Indigenous topics (Battiste, 1998; Donald, 2009; Kanu, 2005, 2011; Nardozi & Mashford-Pringle, 2014; Restoule, 2011; Schissel & Wotherspoon, 2003; Taylor, 1995); b) few classroom resources; and c) insufficient administrative support (Kanu 2005, 2011).  To me, this is a kind of benevolent resistance, feigned in ignorance: “I can’t teach because I don’t know how.” Sorry, but there are these things called books, and curriculum guides, and videos, and Aboriginal liaisons, and professional development courses, and the internet. If you don’t know, do something to change that.

The other, malevolent kind of resistance is flat-out refusal, and tied to racism. That’s the one that’s harder to overcome. That’s the one that is damaging to Indigenous students as well as settler ones: the mythology of Canada as a tolerant, multicultural place where everyone is continues the idea

that every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination and that everyone has the freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association and guarantees those rights and freedoms equally to male and female persons (Government of Canada, 1985/2015).

Indigenous persons are not equal before the law according to the Canadian Constitution Act (1982), nor were they previously under the British North America Act (1867), or any of the policies in existence since European feet first touched this land. The Canada that is promoted to us and to the outside world is a false representation of what it truly is.

As such, that’s why I think Canada is a country where closeted, malevolent settler resistance poses for benevolent settler resistance. Canada is full of racists, full stop.

So what can we do about this? The short answer is that I don’t know.

I really don’t know.

What I do know is I really don’t like where we are.

^ I was wrong about this – thanks for pointing that out, KB! The link is available here.
* These women were all members of the Famous Five; they believed white women were persons under the law, and should have the right to vote, but did not feel the same about Indigenous peoples or other folks of colour.

References (read these things)

  • Battiste, M. (1998). Enabling the autumn seed: Toward a decolonized approach to Aboriginal knowledge, language, and education. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 22(1), 16-27.
  • Dickason, O. P., & McNab, D. (2009). Canada’s First Nations: A history of Founding Peoples from earliest times (4th ed.). Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.
  • Donald, D. T. (2009). The curricular problem of Indigenousness: Colonial frontier logics, teacher resistances, and the acknowledgement of ethical space. In J. Nahachewsky & I. Johnson (Eds.), Beyond ‘presentism:’ Re-imagining the historical, personal and social pages of curriculum (pp. 23-41). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
  • Government of Canada. Canadian Multiculturalism Act. (1985 [updated May 22 2015]). Retrieved May 25, 2015 from
  • Kanu, Y. (2005). Teachers’ perceptions of the integration of Aboriginal culture into the high schoolcurriculum. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 51(1), 50-68.
  • Kanu, Y. (2011). Integrating Aboriginal perspectives into the school curriculum. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
  • Nardozi, A., & Mashford-Pringle, A. (2014). Engaging teacher candidates about Aboriginal education perspectives in Ontario. First Nations Perspectives, 6(1), 52-66.
  • Restoule, J. (2011). Everything is alive and everyone is related: Indigenous inclusive education. In C. Rolheiser, M. Evans, & M. Gambhir (Eds.), Inquiry into practice: Reaching every student through inclusive curriculum (pp. 17-19).
  • Schissel, B., & Wotherspoon, T. (2003). The legacy of school for Aboriginal people: Education, oppression, and emancipation. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.
  • Taylor, J. (1995). Non-Native teachers teaching in Native communities. In M. Battiste & J. Barman (Eds.), First Nations education in Canada: The circle unfolds (pp. 224-244). Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
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