Settlers with Opinions
Daniel Heath Justice, University of British Columbia
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It’s a depressingly common experience for Indigenous people in this country. It happens on a daily basis: At work with colleagues, in encounters with strangers, in news commentaries, in social media exchanges and at parties when we just want to relax.
It’s almost a guarantee that any time an Indigenous issue receives public attention, we will be subjected to the pronouncements of Settlers with Opinions.
Recently we have had to deal with the misinformed public opinions of a Canadian senator who celebrated Canada’s assimilationist policies in an open letter and who in the spring cited fake news in her defence of residential schools. She is just one of many with inaccurate and distorted opinions, including editors of influential Canadian media and men serving in the Canadian military.
Settlers with Opinions are far from those fair-minded non-Indigenous folks who bring generosity and humility to their interactions with Indigenous peoples: thoughtful professionals who do their research and build meaningful connections, curious and committed students in my Indigenous Studies classes, sincere strangers with challenging questions and friends who trust that their gaps in knowledge won’t be shamed.
Regardless of political affiliation — whether sneering Conservatives or head-patting Liberals — Settlers with Opinions are of an entirely different type. It’s attitude, not identity, that distinguishes the two. Mostly white and often — though not always — men, these apologists for colonialism can be readily identified by their relentless, resentful Certainty, detached from informed understanding or even empathy.
Opinions without knowledge
The Settler with Opinions doesn’t just have thoughts about these matters: He has important Opinions, and he insists on subjecting us to them. He is generally not trained in any relevant profession or scholarly discipline that would give some credibility to his assertions, nor is he even a particularly careful or selective reader. When more academically inclined, he typically adheres to long discredited 19th-century pseudo-scientific theories.
Nor does he have meaningful personal experience or relationships that might provide understanding of Indigenous matters. Maybe he lived near a reserve or worked with an Indigenous person once. Maybe he’s among the growing ranks of settlers who has found an anonymous Indian in the family tree that seems to magically authorise commentary on all things Indigenous without accountability to a living community.
The Settler with Opinions believes herself to be above critique or even questioning, as she is The One with All the Answers. She assures us she knows our problems better than we do. Her lack of knowledge is no obstacle: She claims her ignorance as a badge of honour, for it confirms that she’s Objective.
Her solutions are a tiresome regurgitation of devastating imposed policies that have failed time and again. But because she doesn’t do any careful research, because she feels no need to actually engage with people who’ve experienced these things firsthand, she’s unfamiliar with this long and ugly history.
We’ve heard the exact same vacuous Opinions and ill-formed stereotypes a thousand times before. Our parents and grandparents and many generations before us heard them, too, and they resisted them as best they could. They had to deal with Settlers with Opinions in their times, too.
Reconciliation without truth
There’s nothing the Settler with Opinions won’t opine upon, no matter too intimate or too painful for him to intrude.
He loves to weigh in on matters of Indigenous identity. He knows next to nothing about the complex internal processes of belonging or the ongoing and destructive legacies of colonial intrusion into these most private matters. Yet this never stops him; it seems the less he knows, the more confident he is that we’ve got it all wrong no matter where we stand.
He has no investment in Indigenous women’s issues of any kind and no particular concern about their well-being. But as a firm advocate of patriarchy and its values, he’s quick to offer a blaming assessment of their sexualities, gendered expressions and even their bodies.
He’s rarely, if ever, read a book by an Indigenous writer. Yet he can explain, in detail, how much they’re lacking in literary quality, scope, sophistication and universal appeal.
The Settler with Opinions is allergic to all but the most partial context, and only that which justifies her pre-existing biases. She dismisses cultural appropriation, but is the first to defend her intellectual property rights.
She insists Indigenous land activists should be held accountable to Canadian law but is unfamiliar with Indigenous legal orders that predate those of Canada. She’s predictably silent about the centuries of legalized racism that continue to strip us of our lands and imperil our relations. And she has no clue of the obligations we have to one another or to our other-than-human kin.
She dismisses the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a guilt-inducing waste of time and money. She waxes poetic on the “good intentions” of those who empowered this system of child-theft and abuse and rape. She’s not particularly concerned with the horrors that were visited upon little bodies, hearts and minds as long as their souls were saved by their charitable Christian tormentors.
She says we shouldn’t judge the past by today’s politically correct standards. But she refuses to acknowledge the contesting voices of the past, and she refuses to see the privileging of only non-Indigenous perspectives as a political decision with real consequences for real people.
She’s fine with talking reconciliation as long as the status quo doesn’t change. It’s the Truth part of the TRC she simply can’t abide and won’t take any effort to learn.
Conversations without exchange
When we do counter his shallow stereotypes with voluminous evidence alongside personal or familial experience, when we complicate his simplistic savage and civilized binaries with more accurate and more complex realities, the Settler with Opinions shifts tactics.
He’s a master at dismissal, tone policing, derailing and evasion. When we actually want to have a real discussion, the Settler with Opinions changes the topic. A real conversation or thoughtful exchange is the last thing he wants. He prefers an audience for his singular settler monologue locked on generational repeat.
For years he’s insisted that we didn’t have the professional or scholarly credentials to legitimately respond to his Opinions. When we earn them, he sniffs about the academy’s diminished standards, the insularity of the Ivory Tower elite, the decline of traditional journalism. And he certainly has no patience with community-based knowledge holders whose deep expertise comes from enduring relationships and experience with the land.
He’s quick to condemn terms like “settler,” “colonialism,” and “genocide,” insisting that they’re uncivil and ill-applied. He insists the bloody reality thus named is too alienating. Such forthright language makes people like him feel uncomfortable. His comfort is the most important thing when discussing the oppression of Indigenous peoples.
We discuss the complicated relationships and emotionally challenging entanglements of belonging and kinship; she responds with simplistic soundbites about blood quantum and identity policing.
We critique the power inequities in appropriation; he condemns our delusional fixation on cultural purity.
We confront the devastating impacts of colonial policies on our nations’ diverse and complex languages, literatures, technologies, political structures and social systems; she gives us a treatise on how her ancestors so generously dragged our benighted ancestors into civilisation.
And it’s not just the past: The Settler with Opinions finds invalidating fault in every facet of our 21st century being. Raised outside of community? Illegitimate. Raised in community? Anti-modern romantic. Of mixed heritage? Inauthentic. Phenotypically Indigenous? Retrograde.
Racism without accountability
He may be peddling the ugliest, most antiquated ideas and beliefs about Indigenous peoples, but if we dare to even hint that these are racist he’ll rage about how he’s the victim of reverse racism. He insists that his perspective is unjustly marginalized, that Indigenous people are the real bigots causing racial strife, that we need to stop being so unreasonable and just embrace his rightness — no matter how wrong it may be.
And, oh, if we have other things to do than respond to him, beware, because the Settler with Opinions insists on being the focus of every bit of our attention at all times.
He insists that we not only listen to him but we also give him all our time and energy to reply to every single point he brings forward, address every tired argument, every snide comment, every sloppy stereotype and demeaning insult with servile adoration.
When we fail to appreciate or acknowledge his self-evident brilliance, he hurls insults about our substandard intellectual capabilities and rails about our bubble mentality and inability to engage contrary voices.
It hardly matters that we’ve been responding to such voices for a long, long time, to little evident effect, and that we have busy lives that don’t always include being his audience. But when we point that out, he gets mean.
We grow tired of the condescending dismissals, the racist epithets, the physical threats, the demeaning insistence that we’re subhuman and beneath contempt, the hypocritical evasions, the gleeful celebrations of our pain and loss, the relentless goading, the refusals to consider that we, too, have perspectives on our own being.
When we fight back with experience, facts, and rightful anger, the Settler with Opinions feigns shock and quickly turns petulant. He’s every bit as comfortable in the position of whinging martyr as righteous crusader.
Generations of resistance
He wails about our violation of his free speech, our cruel mob mentality, our animalistic swarming of his supremely rational self. He dismisses us as irresponsible, unhinged, sociopathic: Savages in all but name.
The Settler with Opinions becomes a remarkably sensitive soul when he’s the focus of public criticism. But he regularly turns a blind eye to the tidal wave of vitriol that Indigenous commentators experience on a regular basis — especially Indigenous women and transfolk who are regularly targeted with rape threats from his trollish supporters. It takes a particular level of courage to be an Indigenous person in Canada’s public sphere, especially online. He’s never been subjected to this kind of violence and bile, no matter how angry or frustrated we get.
Ultimately, it seems that Settlers with Opinions can only see Indigenous peoples through a lens of inherent deficiency. Their driving, desperate need for us and our ancestors to be not only inferior but utterly inhuman doesn’t actually have anything to do with us. It’s entirely about their fragile self regard. But knowing this truth doesn’t make them any more pleasant to endure.
It doesn’t matter whether the decree comes from Beyak, Black, M. Wente, Blatchford, Kay, Gilmore, Widdowson, Murphy, an anonymous social media troll or that uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, the message is always the same: Shut up and assimilate.
This is an old message and one responsible for incalculable misery. It was forced on our ancestors by churches, soldiers, policy makers, and everyday settler subjects who insisted they knew better and who insisted we should hate ourselves as much as they did. And it continues every day.
For those like me, who were raised outside of our nations and have spent the better part of our lives working to undo internalised family shame and trauma while trying to learn our responsibilities to kin and community from afar, this message is particularly painful. We know its deep generational consequences all too well.
Like all living human cultures, Indigenous peoples are fully part of the 21st century, but that’s not enough for Settlers with Opinions. They’ve decided we can’t be both Indigenous and part of the modern world. They insist we abandon the legacies, lands, languages, relations, commitments and complexities that have always rooted and sustained our nations. They insist we stop trying to rebuild what was destroyed, to give up restoring what’s been lost, to let go of what remains.
They want us to simply shut up and disappear as distinct peoples with values and perspectives of our own. They give us a single option: to accept settler claims to cultural superiority no matter how illegitimate or false the justification may be.
Worst of all, they expect us to turn our backs on generations of principled Indigenous resistance, the immeasurable sacrifices of our ancestors, and the continuing struggles of our nations and extended kin.
And for what? For the dubious benefits of assimilation into an exploitative, murderous mainstream that has for generations so relentlessly insisted on and worked toward our nations’ disappearance.
Then, at last, they would get to be right. Then there would be no one left to challenge the false mythology of settler sanctity or its ongoing devastations. Then there would be no one left to take up the hard work of righting relations with this wounded world.
Thanks all the same, but that’s an offer we must continue to refuse.Comment on this article
Daniel Heath Justice receives funding from SSHRC, as he holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture.
University of British Columbia provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA.
University of British Columbia provides funding as a member of The Conversation CA-FR.