Unsettling this Settler (a prologue)

3925A couple of weeks ago, I read Paulette Regan’s Unsettling the Settler Within for a class I am taking on the nature of forgiveness and apologies. Dr. Regan is a scholar, a Canadian “settler” (i.e. like me, and probably most of my readership, she is not First Nations), and acted as the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This book was written prior to the start of the TRC’s mandate and deals with the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and, in a broader sense, the disastrous effects that Canada’s colonization has had on the Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands and thousands of years–long before the first British flag was planted on this so-called “empty” land. More to the point, she emphasizes the urgent need, not for First Nations people to reconcile themselves to their present situation, but for settler Canadians to reconcile themselves to Canada’s violent, intentionally racist, colonial history, and to recognize the ways in which these colonial structures and systems are still very much active in present-day Canada.

Unlike many of my fellow white Canadians, I did not grow up completely ignorant of residential schools or of violent policies like the “Sixties Scoop” (in which First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted out to white parents, in many cases actually sold to American families as if they were livestock). Since I didn’t learn about any of these events in school I can only assume I knew of their existence because my parents bothered to tell me (thanks Mom and Dad!). Beyond this starting point, though, my path as a settler who calls Canada home and wants to be part of a nation I can be truly proud of (a country that keeps its promises and actively upholds EVERYONE’S human rights) is not clear.

There is a step (or rather a long series of steps) beyond being simply “aware” of the history. What we do with this step is important. Regan cautions that well-meaning Canadian settlers are all to quick to pity Indigenous people, and the discomfort this pity arouses causes us to try to find quick fixes for “their problems”–in other words, to continue to disenfranchise and ignore the agency of First Nations people themselves. So if I’m not supposed to “fix” things, what can I do?

I sense this is a question (or rather a long series of questions) that I will need to ask myself as I move through my life, but for starters, I can let go. I can let go of cherished ideas based on lies. I can let go of the convenience of the status quo.

For me, today, this means two things:

  1. Acknowledging that what Indigenous people experienced at the hands of the colonial (and later, the Canadian) government was genocide. First Nations people were forcibly removed from their homes and lands, killed, starved, forbidden from participating in cultural traditions like the potlatch and the sun dance, and removed from their families and taken to Residential Schools where they were abused (physically, sexually, and psychologically), underfed, inadequately cared for, and prohibited from speaking their own languages. Until relatively recently in our history, Indigenous people in Canada were unable to vote, become professionals, or, in the case of women, marry a non-Indigenous person without losing their native status. For more than a hundred years, the government of this country enacted policies and programs with the specific intent of attempting to wipe out “the Indian problem” and make First Nations people and culture disappear in Canada. This is genocide, as defined by the United Nations. The fact that First Nations people are still here and that parts of their cultures have survived is a testament to their resilience, not our benevolence.
  2. Supporting BC First Nations if they want to change the name of the province of British Columbia. West of the Rockies, colonial agents stopped bothering to make any treaties with Indigenous tribes (not that the government honoured the ones they had made farther east but that’s another issue) and simply took the land they wanted. BC is unceded First Nations territory, and as such, to call the land of this province either “British” (i.e. belonging to the British) or “Columbia” (after the  “Columbian” district of this part of North American, which surely takes its name from genocidal rapist Christopher Columbus) is inaccurate and insulting. The name of our province was chosen by Queen Victoria (a monarch who never set foot here), but the land was never hers, or ours, to name. We did not buy it. We did not pay for it, trade for it, or treat for it. We have no right to insist on a status quo based on theft. Obviously, if BC’s First Nations ultimately decide that they’re fine with the province’s name as-is, that’s cool with me, but I don’t believe settlers’ wishes should be prioritized in the matter.

I called this blog post a “prologue” because these thoughts, these considerations, are just the very very start of what will presumably be a life-long project of identifying and acknowledging my colonial biases, the benefits my status as a settler has brought me, and trying, ultimately, to do something about it in a way that is respectful and effective. My own humanity is implicated in the ways I choose to respect or ignore the humanity of others. I’ve a long road ahead and I’m just getting started.

Women in France should wear what they want (and that includes “burkinis”)

Women in France, listen up: if you plan to visit the beach in the country of “liberté” and “egalité,” you must be prepared to show some skin.

That’s right–although France’s very secular laws do permit the wearing of headscarves in public, if Muslim women choose to visit the beach in a headscarf while also covering their arms and legs, in many districts they will be issued a fine and ordered to leave the beach, and possibly even be forced to strip off (technically, the bans are specifically directed at the “burkini”–a swimsuit with sleeves and pants with a built-in head covering–but law enforcement officials seem happy to interpret that as applying to any modestly-dressed Muslim woman on the beach).


I have written about the issue of policing Muslim women’s clothing before (in a post entitled Women in Canada can wear what they want [and that includes niqabs]), but I have to say I find this ban on modest dress at the beach even more racist, and even more alarmingly sexist. We’re not talking about forcing a woman to show her face in a public place (which is already law in France and which I personally do not agree with), we are talking about forcing women to show their BODIES. Essentially, if you’re a Muslim woman who doesn’t wish to make her body (or hair) available to the public gaze, you can f*ck right off the beach.

Ostensibly, these new laws see clothing like the burkini as a religious display and a direct provocation of French citizens and their values of secularization (never mind that many of the Muslim women being harassed under these rules ARE French citizens, or that nuns in habits or other Catholic women dressed modestly or wearing crucifixes are not being punished for their displays of Christian faith). I cannot imagine how frightened and angry the people of France must be after recent terror attacks in the country (including in Nice, where a man driving a truck intentionally plowed into a crowd of festival goers and killed 86 people). I can only assume that they see signifiers of the Muslim faith (like headscarves and full-coverage swimming attire) as an affront to the painful losses they have experienced and the threat of terrorism they continue to face.

But there is simply no logical basis for a ban on the burkini: firstly, Muslims (including Muslim women in traditional dress) were also among the victims in Nice. Secondly, the “religious symbols” deemed most offensive to the French public seem to be disproportionately those which are worn by Muslim women, specifically (it’s still totally okay for men to wear full-body wetsuits in the water). Thirdly, to the best of my knowledge, a burkini has NEVER yet been implicated in any terror attack in France or any other country. This is not about safety. This is not about secularism. This is about white people who are afraid and angry being given permission by their local governments to humiliate and ostracize their fellow citizens. And the targets of this hatred are the people who are the easiest to spot and the easiest to scapegoat–Muslim women.

So much for “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. I know that the people of France are hurting, but a democracy that abandons its principles in the face of adversity and new challenges is no democracy at all.

Fellow white Canadians: it’s time to speak up about racism towards Canada’s First Nations

On Friday, the small northern community of La Loche, Saskatchewan was devastated by a school shooting that left four people dead and seven seriously injured. While friends and family members struggle to make sense of this shattering event, while the victims who survived recuperate in hospital, while Brad Wall, Saskatchewan’s premier, pledges the provincial government’s support, while the shooter (a youth whose name cannot be released) awaits his trial, while blame is laid here and there and many see this event as yet another tragic link in a long chain of poverty, violence, and government neglect in First Nations communities in Canada, the one thing I’m sure we can all agree on is that this is not a great time for making racist jokes.

Unfortunately not.


This is an actual tweet from Friday night, as people used the hashtag, “#LaLoche” to send prayers and messages of compassion and support to a community in mourning (I do not follow this tweeter–this tweet came to my attention through another person quoting it in disgust). Now, with a Twitter name like “liquorbeaver” and a handle like “@EtanTwatts”, this guy (I’m assuming, with the puns about licking beaver and eating twats this is a white, hetero-normative male rather than a lesbian woman but I suppose I could be wrong) could definitely be called an Internet “troll”. He clearly likes getting a rise out of people and knew that making fun of a tragedy would be a great way to do it. He must have had a great night, fielding the angry responses from people like me:


In fact, I’m absolutely sure he was loving it:




[Note how he calls the shooter a “savage” here–classy!]



Ah. I see. It’s MY fault for CHOOSING to INTERPRET his making a race-based hurtful comment about First Nations people in response to a school shooting in a First Nations community (in which he literally says, “Forget the shooting”) as racist. Pardonnez-moi. Poor liquorbeaver. He’s not a racist, right? He’s just a poor misunderstood truth-teller!

I should note that the screen shot he attaches here seems to be from a StatsCan report about dropout rates among different Canadian demographics, but since he didn’t actually link to the report I can’t verify its legitimacy. Here’s a closer look at the relevant section:


Giving Mr. Beaver the benefit of the doubt (not that he deserves it), let’s assume these statistics are accurate as of the time of whatever report this is. Let’s say the dropout rate among First Nations students aged 20-24 is higher than those of non-Aboriginal Canadians. Okay. Well–firstly, this is a statistic about people aged 20-24, so, this is not a report about typical school-aged children, secondly, a 22.6% dropout rate still means non-dropout rate of 77.4%, which means there are more people still in school than dropping out. Thirdly, there are a lot of complex, systemic, and/or just totally shitty, racist, and unfair reasons that a First Nations (adult) student’s ability to complete their schooling would be negatively impacted, far beyond the struggles most white Canadians experience. Fourthly, this statistic appears to apply to 20-24-year-olds specifically living off-reserve, so it’s really a terribly incomplete picture of the highschool completion rates of First Nations students as a whole. Obviously, the numbers don’t really say what he thinks they do, and liquorbeaver seems to be CHOOSING to INTERPRET them as justification for his bigotry. How unfortunate for the strength of his argument.

But Mr. Beaver’s poor understanding of statistics and his lack of critical thinking skills are not the point. The point is that I don’t think liquorbeaver is just some Internet troll. If he were, he wouldn’t care that I called his joke racist, and he wouldn’t try to justify his racist remarks to me or anybody.

The point is that he thinks it’s OKAY to make a joke about First Nations people in response to a school shooting. The point is that he seems to suggest that the disproportionately high dropout rate among First Nations students (which is generally accepted as fact in Canada although not represented in the report liquorbeaver was using) is somehow a product of their race, rather than, for example, the historical, ongoing, and far reaching disastrous impacts of colonial invasion and colonial extermination and assimilation policies. The point is that he thinks using words like “indian” and “savage” in reference to First Nations people is okay (hint: even when four people HAVEN’T just been murdered, it’s not okay), and that using these terms doesn’t make him racist because he feels he is “right”. And the point is that, at the time I took my first screen shot, two people had “liked” his racist tweet.

Two people isn’t a lot of people. But I know there are a lot of people, in Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada, who saw liquorbeaver’s tweet and secretly agreed. They maybe wouldn’t have been so callous as to retweet or “like” it or to make that joke themselves (at least not so soon after the shooting), but I know there are lots of white people in Canada who would agree with liquorbeaver because I’ve heard them say similar things before. And not just on the Internet. In real life. In public. At parties or at work or at school and even at university. A lot of white people in Canada think it’s perfectly fine to talk about First Nations people this way, as if it’s just “the truth” and isn’t racist. As if it’s not possible to be racist about First Nations people. As if, if they don’t like what white Canadians are saying about them, First Nations Canadians should just stop being so lazy, drunk, uneducated, criminal, promiscuous, or whatever other hurtful label we want to throw on them. I know there are a lot of white people in Canada right now reading about La Loche and tut-tutting about how this is just another example of First Nations people killing First Nations people and they need to sort themselves out and this has nothing to with the rest of us, that we are not implicated in this.

No. Sorry. Not good enough. I’ve had it with this bullshit (and if I’ve had it, I can’t even imagine how fed up and bone-tired and frustrated First Nations people must be). It’s 2016, for pity’s sake, the history is out there for anyone to learn, and we STILL think that people we have actively exploited and killed and neglected and trodden down and dehumanized over centuries should somehow pull themselves up by their bootstraps without us at least getting out of their f*cking way and admitting that the country as a whole has a serious problem? While we continue to use racial slurs and perpetuate racial stereotypes? While we ignore the fact that we benefit from our privilege every single day and that maybe, just maybe, we should try to help balance the scales?

There are a lot of white Canadians who are trying to be more cognizant of and educated about First Nations people and what they experience(d) in Canada, and who are trying to be good allies (I’m trying too). When I was younger I was too scared of my peers and co-workers to speak up when someone said something out of line. It was easier to just ignore it, and quietly find a peer group and profession where these kinds of comments are all but unheard of. But I’m older now. And this is too damn important. I’m a white, middle-class Canadian woman with a university education who experiences privilege in more ways than I’m even aware of. I know I could never understand what First Nations people in Canada have gone through, and I know I didn’t change liquorbeaver’s mind. But simply “not being racist” myself isn’t good enough anymore. I have a responsibility to point out racist shit that isn’t okay. I have a responsibility to let people who make these kinds of horrible “jokes” know that I’m not laughing with them. It’s really actually the very least I can do.