Volume 51, Issue 2: Spring 2017

Exploring settler-colonial culture

  • Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada

    Emma Battell Lowman & Adam J. Barker

    Fernwood Publishing, 2015

Lowman and Barker’s Settler really dwells on the dominant culture in Canada as a settler-colonial culture. Hence it is not “about” Indigenous peoples per se, but rather the bad faith of a culture constructed on ongoing colonial dispossessions. It is my own view that we do not yet have a fully developed theory of the specificity of settler colonialism, though such a theory no doubt is coming and can be found in nascent forms in earlier writing on colonialism and in the work of emerging scholar/theorists. Various earlier theories of colonialism take for granted the notion that settlers are in a minority and can be overthrown by a nationalist project (though they often do have striking things to say about the settler-colonial minorities). Lowman and Barker offer a dense description of settler-colonial culture and identity, though not, alas, a theory. The lack of a theory means there is no adequate explanation for why settler-colonial culture developed and develops in the way it has; though they reference both capitalism and primitive accumulation (or at least, land theft), they do not recognize the central place of these as totalizing forces. Hence, there are moments in the text that are cringe-worthy (the “trialectic”?! the very simple-minded equation of socialism with the Soviet regime), but also pieces of what feel like hard-won wisdom (“recognizing that settler colonialism is a shared burden means that it is only through collective action that we can make the choice to be colonizers, or to be something else” [18]). Though their understanding of history and law involve lapses, they do cover a lot of ground in a very short space, raise wide-ranging, evocative themes, and have positioned themselves as an important and distinctive voice in the emerging field of settler-colonial studies. This book is certainly a good starting point, especially for non-Indigenous “allies” in the decolonial struggle, and I can’t resist quoting the beautiful concluding lines:

We say Settler because it’s a place from which we can determine how we live on these lands. We say Settler to signal that we’re ready to do the work. We say Settler because we believe ethical and exciting decolonial futures are possible. We say Settler because we have seen the identification shake how people feel about themselves and their belonging, and how it has been the start of decolonizing awareness and action.
We say Settler because it is who we are. We say Settler because it is not everything we could be.


While, for my own part, I would rather strive to become an “unsettler,” I do think they are right that acknowledging settler status has to be a starting point for allies.

Peter Kulchyski is head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, author of several books including Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights: In Defence of Indigeous Struggles and a frequent contributor to Canadian Dimension. He is co-director of the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas.

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