When I first encountered the term ‘settler’, I didn’t like it. I felt it was provocative, and I’d been hearing a lot about how we need to stop “creating divisions” by calling people white, or non-native, or Europeans or whatever.
But the truth is, no matter what terms you use, it is going to be provocative, because as an indigenous person, you don’t get to define anything.
That’s not your job.
You get to be defined.
Blood quantum. Ancestry. Looks. Community. Laws. Policy. Politics.
None of it for you, by you. It’s top down, hon, and we all know it.
When I write to reach a wider audience, I don’t use the term “white” first and foremost because invariably it allows settlers to complain that “white” is an inaccurate term. It allows them to once again, make everything about themselves. It allows them to convince themselves that when I don’t speak about the Irish or the German or the Polish or the Ukrainians or the Italians, that I am ignorant of the history of these ethnic groups in Canada and the US. That I shouldn’t talk, because my skin is pale and doesn’t that make me white? In short, it allows them to derail the conversation.
I agree it’s not particularly accurate, but I didn’t create this term. White people did. They are the ones who decides who gets to join that club. A club I get to be in as long as I don’t open my mouth too often.
But fine. I got sick of the fights over the term. “Settler” was a bit jarring at first, new, fresh…but I got it immediately.
To me, settler is synonymous with coloniser. It is not a historical term, it is also a contemporary one. Settlers, and their descendents, continue through socio-political means to colonise us. That process has never stopped, not once. Studying the law finally allowed me to verify that concretely, to be able to point to how similar today’s policies are to those of the past, how very little has actually changed.
Settlers are those who are descended from the original colonisers, but they are also the descendents of those who remained in Europe and benefited from colonisation.
The African slaves and their descendants who were forced here are not settlers.
And what of the non-Europeans? The Chinese who came and worked and died and were denied reunification with their families because of racist immigration policies…they settled here, are they settlers? “And what about the Irish”, you’ll be asked. The acid test. “They were oppressed at home and came as unwanted refugees!”
Ah, but were they used to settle our lands? Used to stake claims over our territories?
Not the Chinese. They were reviled and tolerated as a necessary evil. Denied the ability to expand their population for many years.
Ukrainians, Germans, Italians, Irish, Scottish…all hated by other Europeans at one time or another, but they became white here. Familiar. Less frightening than the “Orientals”. And they were absolutely used to stake territorial claims on behalf of the Empire. A job they did smashingly.
And later on, many nations are represented here. Newer immigrants…but not the architects of the colonial system. Should they understand that they are on native land, in great part unceded native land? Absolutely. But settler, for me, is about colonialism, and these people may benefit from it and they absolutely have a duty to understand it, but they are not responsible for it.
The space of a few generations is not the determining factor. These new people, these non-settler immigrants, still have an obligation to resist the ongoing colonialisation of our peoples. But the real power is not theirs. That power continues to belong to the settlers, and their descendents, because ultimately it is they who claim the benefit of our lands and who wield the political power which continues to guide that colonial process.
There is no escaping that. There is only a choice.
You’re either for colonisation…or you’re not.
You don’t get to be neutral, settlers.
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