Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
In a lot of my writing, I frequently use the term “settler” in referring to those comprising the dominant society of Canada. In another time and age, they might be referred to as white people – i.e. the colour-challenged, or people of pallor. But in these more politically correct times, we in the Indigenous community prefer “settler.” It sounds more neutral and historically relevant.
However, some disagree with that title. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a gentleman named Mike who objects to the term. After several paragraphs on how his Irish family were abused by the English and ended up celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Canada, he adds, “When writers, almost always Indigenous, use the term ‘settler’ to describe people like me, I can’t help picking up a tone of, what is it? Bitterness, anger, maybe even submerged hatred. At a minimum, what I sense is passive aggression.”
He finishes his complaint off by asking me, specifically, “that you please not refer to people as ‘settlers’ unless they really were ‘settlers.’ ”
I mentioned this to some friends and they called it settler fragility.
Let’s deconstruct the argument. Technically, who are these settlers of which we speak? That has been an intense topic of discussion in recent times. For some, its definition is as difficult to pin down as reconciliation. Some would argue it’s anybody whose ancestors were not a part of this land since Time Immemorial. Similarly, others might further define settlers as all the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada who form the society we live in today, politically, economically and culturally. Basically, if your ancestors came here, and you are enjoying and revelling in the end product of turning Turtle Island into Canada, you are a settler. So enjoy your latté and non-fat Greek yogurt.
Numerous settlers I have talked with accept and acknowledge that. Many have told me “guilty as charged,” “I’m a settler. It is not an insult, it’s a fact” or “where do I sign up for Settlers Anonymous?” Instead of a 12-step plan, their charter includes the 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But let’s face it, not every person walking the streets and roads of Canada can claim the divine right of terra nullius. If you were brought here, either by physical force (i.e. that all-expense-paid boat trip from Africa) or through intense economic coercion (i.e. come for the railway-building and stay for the racism), you might have a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Still, is it a nasty, critical moniker? It appears it can be. One person on Twitter reported they got a five-day ban on Facebook for calling somebody a settler. When you think about it, “settler” seems to be one of the least offensive terms that could be used. Others that have been suggested during a brief and highly unscientific poll I did online (from mostly settlers responding) include colonizer, occupier, original boat people, squatters, second-generation settlers, beneficiaries of genocidal Canadian Indigenous policies, colonial invader, Euro invaders, economic refugees, and my personal favourite, the Second Nation people, as opposed to First Nations. Actually, no, this is my favourite suggestion: the year-round multi-generational campers. It’s kind of a mouthful, but you get the picture.
Additionally, it would make a hell of a good name for a sports team. I hear a few out there are looking for a new one.
And I don’t think Mike is alone, although I am puzzled why he wants me, and it seems just me, to stop using the term. Everybody else is okay, I guess. I’m getting used to responses like this. Several weeks ago, I wrote an article about how many First Nations people find themselves sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. It was just a report on conversations I had with many Indigenous people and listing the reasons I had been told.
The response to the article, some positive but mostly negative, was surprising. I had e-mails from quite a few people telling me that I should tell those same Indigenous friends how wrong they are. Several different people, possibly settlers, sent detailed lists breaking down why Indigenous people should stay clear of the Palestinian perspective.
To the settlers of the world – Mike, this includes you – I know many of you may disagree with the argument I have posted, and may find it a little … unsettlering. If you don’t agree, just remember, I earn most of my salary from making things up.
Additionally, we could spend the next pandemic playing the “what if …” game: i.e. “what if my ancestors fled in religious terror and found themselves in Canada because they weren’t allowed into … let’s say Monaco?” As of yet, I can’t answer those. But I am currently putting together a detailed chart that should be able to answer all those questions.