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From Atlantic fisheries to Alberta classrooms, we must confront the denial of settler violence

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Two people hold the Mohawk Warrior Society Flag during the All Eyes on Mi’kma’ki Rally in front of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Saskatoon, October 23, 2020. Photo by Heywood Yu/The Sheaf.

The attacks against Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia escalated rapidly this fall. Suspicious fires on fishing vessels, burned out vehicles, sabotage of lobster traps, assault, and the ransacking and subsequent arson of a lobster pound all came within weeks of the Sipekne’katik First Nation establishing a self-regulated fishery.

In Alberta, as the conflict on the east coast was being contained, leaked documents suggesting the removal of mention of residential schools from the K-4 curriculum elicited outrage against the United Conservative Party and their education advisory panel.

The ostensible motivations behind both events were thin to begin with and have since been discredited. Scientists were quick to dismiss claims that Indigenous fisheries posed any serious threat to lobster conservation, and specialists called Alberta’s social studies reforms “utter nonsense” that would make the curriculum a laughing stock.

Indeed, the unattributed driver that connects these seemingly separate issues—an often-ignored influence in Canadian culture and politics—is settler violence and its denial.

The reality of inter-generational trauma as experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada has gained awareness and acceptance in Canadian society. We can now acknowledge the insidious legacy of residential schools or the bounty placed on the heads of Mi’kmaw, but this is primarily framed as a problem affecting these communities alone—as an Indigenous issue.

Just as the perpetrators often remain unnamed in talks of these atrocities, the influence of this violence on contemporary settler communities likewise remains removed from public conversation.

“There is a growing literature on the consequences of perpetrator trauma, even if this line of research has focused on instances of recent intercommunal violence and not on the settler societies,” says Lorenzo Veracini in an interview with Canadian Dimension. “This trauma has specific consequences in the case of the settler societies because the violence of colonization is ongoing—settler colonialism as a mode of domination is ongoing, even if it has changed its modalities of operation.”

Veracini is an associate professor of history and politics at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research in Australia, and is the author of several books on settler-colonialism.

“In these instances, perpetrator trauma takes the form of a drive to repress: the temptation is to deny,” he says. “Historical violence is denied, contemporary violence is denied, the consequences of dispossession are denied, or perhaps attributed to some other reason (i.e., personal failings, inherent community disfunction), which is a form of denial.”

The need for denial is so strong because this violence is central to settler identity. Like the cycles of anger and abuse that are reproduced in families, colonial violence is inherited too. It presents itself in the political traditions that perpetuate it, and in the psychologies of individuals who have been deformed by it.

“If I am a settler, and I am, even if I am a political descendant of the settlers who violently seized the land I live on and not their direct descendant, violence is who I am,” Veracini confirms.

Violence is, paradoxically, essential to who we are. And yet, we’re unable to acknowledge it.

The leaked Alberta curriculum documents have been criticized for their misrepresentation of residential schools as a form of “harsh schooling” that applied only to “a minority of children.” The proposed changes also consider delaying introduction to this “traumatic material” until later grades. But in the discussion of trauma and denial, what remains in the curriculum is just as important. Heroizing depictions of the Mounties’ long march into the Prairies, the hardships facing homesteaders, cowboys and rodeos and the untamed frontier mythos are all parts of the fractured way history is told.

When the subject of colonial violence is admitted, it is described as an exceptional event. The starvation on reserves that followed the numbered treaties is isolated from the stories of sod houses and sprawling cattle ranches. The historiography of the RCMP is scrubbed of its role in residential schools.

This is not to say that the problem lies with education. These examples are just more visible than the myriad manifestations of the legacy of violence in our individual lives. They serve as illustrations of how the undesirable parts of our psychological inheritance are sequestered away from our conscious self-perception. Being repressed, only indirectly addressed, they erupt in unconscious and variably irrational ways.

“In the case of teaching children, the assumption is that it is possible to focus on something else, which is a form of denial,” Veracini continues. “In the case of making a living while relying on collective Indigenous rights, denial takes the form of refusing to recognize that Indigenous peoples enjoy specific rights because dispossession was never complete—if I acknowledge a partial dispossession, I acknowledge dispossession too.” 

However incomplete, there has been a growing willingness in our society to reckon with past violence. In 2018 the Halifax Regional Council voted to remove a statue of the city’s founder, Edward Cornwallis, who issued a proclamation of bounty for the lives of Mi’kmaw people.

Amid the wave of demonstrations against police violence this summer, protestors didn’t wait for a vote to topple a statue of John A. MacDonald, whose racist views and policies are now widely acknowledged. As important as these actions and this emerging consciousness are, however, they aren’t able to adequately confront the issue of violence on their own—and may actually exacerbate it. This is because, Veracini asserts, the problem is not ignorance, but denial.

“This is the point! It is precisely because we know that denial becomes all important and more material and psychic resources are devoted to it (i.e., officially-endorsed denial in education, or taking the law in one’s own hands). The more the accumulated knowledge, the more intense a demand to deny, the more violent the outbursts. It is an agitated state of mind. And if you point this out, more denial.

“If I win an argument, I fortify a drive to deny. Guilt and shame are unlikely to lead to a paradigmatic breakthrough. Settlers must realize that it is in their own interest and for their own individual and collective sakes that knowing about one’s history, especially the ugly bits, is important, or that one’s own industry will actually benefit from Indigenous environmental stewardship and participation.”

A large part of the public rolled their eyes at the suggestions of Alberta’s education review panel that teaching “traumatic material” be put off until kids are older. But this exemplifies how we as settlers have effectively postponed dealing with our own trauma for generations. Even in socially conscious circles, there is a tendency to turn our energy outwards and take aim at unjust institutions. It is too uncomfortable to confront the latent brutality in our own families, and in our own heads.

It certainly feels better to position oneself as an ally of communities victimized by violence, than as the disturbed offspring of the perpetrators. Until we sit with this fact, any attempts to beat back vigilantism and other overt expressions of racism will be insufficient. Like settler-colonialism, decolonization is an ongoing and continuous process that involves virtually all aspects of our lives.

Our willingness to leave settler violence unnamed permits it. It allows arsonists to be cast as conservationists, and for systemic problems to be framed as regional disputes. From Atlantic fisheries to Alberta classrooms, there is no part of settler society violence does not touch. And, as Veracini reminds us, “It is a whole society that must realize the need to face the consequences of a traumatic history.”

Brett McKay is a writer and journalist based in Edmonton, AB. You can contact him here.

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