This week’s sermon makes a number of references to Settler: Colonialism and Identity in 21st Century Canada by Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker. You can find a copy here.
Repudiate – Reconcile – Response(ABILITY) –
Grappling with the Doctrine of Discovery as a Lenten Practice (Part Four)
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, Psalm 51:1-13, John 12:20-33
Sunday, March 18, 2018 – The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
This morning is the last instalment in a series of Lenten reflections grappling with concepts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
In this final reflection, I want to spend some time exploring a single word – Settler.
I call myself a settler. It is a term I am comfortable using to describe myself, my family, the community I identify as part of.
And I believe that while using this word can be considered a political, or social act, I would argue, as a person of faith, as one who seeks to follow in the way that emerges from the life and teachings of Jesus, that to use the term settler, is for me, also a spiritual practice—and I’ll say more about that.
There may be others here who likewise find this a helpful identifier for yourself.
There might be others who have not heard this term used as a modern descriptor —who would consider Settler to refer to those who generations ago did the literal work of settling land and so might not see the contemporary relevance, and there might be others who have heard this term used in our current national discussion about the relationships between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples and find it disconcerting, disturbing, off-putting, even offensive or unnecessarily divisive.
One of the goals of this series was to take a complex and emotion loaded topic and seek to untangle some threads in a thoughtful and prayerful space where we can name perhaps come to a clearer understanding —and while potentially uncomfortable, I believe this is in fact life-giving.
I think that this is a very Lenten thing to do, because while we might commonly associate Lent with self-denial or giving something up, I think that it’s spiritual and psychological invitation is about truth-telling, about examining that which is complex and confounding about our world and within own hearts.
I think that this is what our reading from the Book of John is hinting at with the contrast of light and dark. While this binary is often used, I believe this is deeply problematic, to divide people and actions into moral and immoral, I think it is more helpful as an image of truth-telling, or of confronting and bringing into the light that which we may have not before been able to see, or may have for whatever reason, been unwilling to examine.
For the past three weeks of reflections, all of which can be found on our website for those who are interested, we have pondered the call to action of the TRC #49, to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.
The Doctrine of Discovery whose roots we looked at in the first part of this series refers to the broad notion that the first Europeans who arrived in what we call North America could be said to have discovered these lands and having done so, make a claim to them, despite the fact that these lands were already inhabited. This is possible because the first peoples of this land, were able to be labelled as uncivilized as less than fully human, and there were actual historical church doctrines that support this.
This idea erases from some versions of national stories the fact that the society that builds from these European roots does so by displacing those already here and that the view of Indigenous people as less than fully human or as inferior, persists, occasionally explicit, but more often couched in policy, stereotypes, in subconsciously absorbed narratives that persist by becoming hidden within polite, liberal discourses.
To repudiate, then means to expose the disturbing truth of the persistence of these ideas, to recognize their ongoing effect, and to name them as invalid, and to refuse to allow them continued influence—again, here is John’s concept of bringing into light.
When the United Church of Canada made an official statement in 2012 repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, this statement included the suggestion that these ideas had a lasting impact on how Indigenous Peoples are viewed by Non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, and that the call to repudiate means also to dismantle ways of thinking that perpetuate this, and policies built from these ideas.
I think that the practice of using the word Settler to describe Non-Indigenous, European descended Canadians is itself a practice of repudiating, and so I’d love to look at what this means.
Several years ago now, we held a 3 week study group looking at Geez Magazine, a publication from Winnipeg connected to the Mennonite Tradition, that like this sermon series, would suggest that responding to contemporary issues of justice is a spiritual call in and of itself. We read an issue that explored Decolonization and Reconciliation, which included a reading list, one of the titles being Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada by Emma Battel Lowman and Adam J. Barker. It’s a short and engaging read, and while it takes on an occasionally abstract topic I think it does so in a very accessible way. I would highly recommend it, and would be happy to loan my copy and have a second on order for the church book table.
Early in their first chapter, Why Say Settler?, Lowman and Barker write about the power of the words we use to name things and how words shape our understanding of ourselves and our world, and they suggest this about this specific word:
Settler. This word voices relationships to structures and processes in Canada, today, to the histories of our people on this land, to Indigenous peoples, and to our own day-to-day choices and actions. Settler. This word turns us towards uncomfortable realisations, difficult subjects, and potential complicity in systems of dispossession and violence. Settler. This word represents a tool, a way of understanding and choosing to act differently. A tool we can use to confront the fundamental problems and injustices in Canada today. Settler. It is analytical, personal, and uncomfortable. It can be an identity that we claim or deny, but that we inevitably live and embody. It is who we are, as a people, on these lands.
So what does it mean, and does it matter what terms we use?
To avoid descending into an amateur political theory lecture, the word Settler refers to settler colonialism a political term that describes how nations like Canada, and also Australia and South Africa are formed—originally as overseas colonies of Britain—but eventually as unique societies whose population replaces (or incorporates) the original inhabitants of a territory, obviously eventually incorporating many Europeans from places other than Britain.
A settler society is created when a newcomer people shift from identifying with the distant empires and states that often founded them or from which they emigrated, to identify primarily with the political constructs, goals, and society in a new homeland.
As a people, our occupancy is intended to be permanent, and as such, our claims to the land have to be beyond question. In order to stamp down the challenge from Indigenous nations to our right of occupancy, we often insist that history begins with our national inception—with explores, pioneers, soldiers, and traders, not the incredible span of Indigenous histories.
Settler Colonialism functions by becoming invisible, by erasing from front of mind the understanding that those who first came to particular parts of the land were not coming to empty space (which is what terra nullius means) but to land that was already home to peoples who are eventually displaced.
Contemporary understandings of history in Canada are beginning to illumine how violence, starvation, and intentional displacement, literally cleared lands that would then be settled.
None of this means that individual ancestors did not accomplish great feats of courage and fortitude in creating homes in these lands. Nor do they necessarily suggest malice or violence on the part of individuals, because this is not about individual acts, but about coordinated, orchestrated efforts on the part of a state that employs the hard-work of mostly well-meaning and benevolent individuals to create an unquestionable claim to land.
Many people struggle with narratives such as these citing that a particular ancestor or community had a good relationships with the Indigenous people they encountered, and this is of course true, and to be celebrated, learned from and lifted up. The violence and dispossession was not enacted by individual family farmers but by policies that created a legal framework by which European immigrants or descendants are given title after land is cleared in many cases through coercion and sometime force.
So it’s not suggesting that family narratives of heroism are false, people did struggle to make homes here, but these family narratives don’t necessary include how the land became “cleared” in order for it to be “settled”—and part of this is because individual pioneers didn’t know how land came to be open for settlement and weren’t the ones involved in that process.
If Canadian is synonymous with emerging from the hard, noble work of individual pioneers and homesteaders, Settler is a way to still honour their individual struggle, while placing those individual pieces into a greater whole, that tells a more complicated story.
And if Canadian as a contemporary association is about politeness, peace-keeping, tolerance, progress—which are all true, but require omitting some more difficult ideas. Settler as a term forces us to connect the dots between today and the parts of history on this land that are not pleasant to think about, are not laudable, that are reprehensible and deeply regrettable.
To me this is where it has the potential to be seen as a Spiritual practice.
This is a spiritual practice because it illumines and enlightens. It associates me with a history that includes dispossession and violence. It associates me with the use of starvation on the prairies, with residential schools and reserves, with the pass system. It is a spiritual practice because in using the term it forces me into constant relationship with these moments in history.
It forces me to understand my identity today in the light of these things, and I think in so doing, forces me to confront the contention that while specific acts may have changed, that Indigenous people, communities and land relationships still face dispossession, violence and erasure.
I think this can sound like an attempt to elicit guilt, but I think that here is where can lean on the wisdom of the great Jewish Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote in 1962, that few are guilty, but all are responsible.
We are inherently asking Settler people to see that they are personally and collectively involved and responsible for indefensible acts of cruelty and greed, even if these acts occur at such a remove that most of us never perceive our connections to them.
Herschel’s distinctions between guilt and responsible is key here. Responsible, not as in the ones who committed such acts, but as those whose current situation could not have come to be without these acts have been done, and are therefore responsible for doing something about the contemporary situations created by them. If clearing land created the conditions by which some people were able to thrive, it also created conditions by which others did not.
This should not be read as a blanket and inevitable condemnation of Settler Canadians. Rather, in understanding that we all bear some responsibility for settler colonization, this means that we are all capable of making a positive difference as well.
Settler, as an identity…when claimed, fore-grounded, and interrogated, can bring to light the effects of the relationships that Canadians forge with the territories on which we live and the Indigenous peoples who hold prior and continuing claims to (and relationships with) those lands.
The psychological goal of Settler Colonialism is erasure, which to use our image from the book of John is an act of willful darkness, through outright violence, force, but also through elimination and ignoring of contentious voices, using Settler then is an act of resistance to this.
It’s also an invitation into something beautiful, into building, upon new realizations and new understandings of historical conditions and contemporary dynamic, new possibilities of understandings between people, new possibilities for relationships.
In 2012, the Right Relations Network of Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church of Canada, at the time being coordinated by Dawn Rolke and Bill Wall (who many here will know), created this, a Treaty People’s Creed:
We are, all of us,
and those who came later –
of a diverse history,
in a common land,
toward a better day.
We have known
friendship and animosity
cooperation and oppression
blessing and pain.
And now we embrace
the sacred covenant
a new beginning:
that softens the heart
and dismantles the prisons
of the present
and the past.
We joyfully claim
as Treaty People.
This isn’t about policing language. It’s not about insisting that Settler replace Canadian.
It’s not just about the word itself, but it’s about the way of thinking and imagining our world that the world invites, challenges and even forces us into—and it’s about the way of relating that this way of thinking and imagining makes possible.
It’s also not about creating division, and some might question whether using different terms for different people may actually be moving away from harmonious relationships. To this I would suggest that using this word is about recognizing that a gap exists between communities who call this land home, and this word reminds us that this gap was constructed, has historical roots that can be named and understood, and has contemporary causes as well. Which means it is not inherent or inevitable, and it points us to the things we need to pay attention to see it disappear.
I also believe, that as Heschel reminds us, it is an act of claiming responsibility (which is not the same as guilt) but about claiming responsibility for how these things will play out from here onwards, and what sort of society we will leave for those who come next.
We are called to walk in light, to look courageously at challenging truths, this is our Lenten call.
For in life, in death, in life beyond death. God is with us.
We are not alone. Thanks be to God.