Addressing the Settler Problem


Strategies of Settler Responsibility and Decolonization

By Leah Decter and Carla Taunton

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 36-4  (September 2013). 

We are caught up in one another, we who live in settler societies, and our interrelation- ships inform all that these societies touch.

—Scott Lauria Morgensen, Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization

As white settler women we are beneficiaries of colonialism and as such we recognize our privileged identities in Canada. Through our artistic, academic and writing practices we both pursue personal and professional decolonizing processes, actively working in alliance with Indigenous decolonization. Drawing on Paulette Regan’s [1] calls for settlers to take responsibility for their decolonizing work, beginning with transformative actions that interrupt colonial forms on the individual level, we put forward the urgency for creative and critical settler-driven interventions. We are wary of the space that settler decolonization has and could potentially claim, and are aware of the potential risks of becoming another colonizing discourse and aesthetic. With this in mind, our conversations are framed by the following question: How can the practice of decolonizing settler colonialism work in productive ways that do not co-opt or de-centre Indigenous decolonization and political and cultural sovereignty? Through each of our personal and professional experiences we have witnessed the potential for creative practice to function in this way, to stimulate the decolonization of the settler imagination. It is important to recognize that approaches to arts-based decolonial strategies vary. In the following conversation, we focus on the strategies that we have undertaken and speak from the grounding of our respective positionalities. We begin by framing some background about our practices and discussing how we each came to work through a critical settler lens.

Carla — The development of my critical settler lens began through my work as a non-Indigenous scholar of Indigenous art histories and anticolonial discourses. During my PhD course work, which focused on Indigenous women performance artists, I had a transformative moment of settler self-reflexivity. I realized through engagement with the artists’ stories and performative research, that in order to productively contribute to Indigenous art histories, to social justice and to decolonization I had to first start the process of decolonizing myself. At this time, I had a critical understanding of settler colonialism and was already working within a politicized anticolonial framework; however, these ideas were at times abstracted from my own family history. I came to ask myself, how can I discuss the performance of Indigenous memories, arts-based resistance strategies and anticolonial interventions if I do not know my own history of colonialism?

I returned home to unceded Coast Salish territory to talk and listen to my grandmothers’ stories about my family, embarking on a research project to understand how and why I was implicated in the colonial project. I became aware of how my family members, including myself, are beneficiaries of colonialism who continue to be part of settling, and thereby occupying, Indigenous territories. The stories told by my grandmothers were indicative of the invisibility of colonial violence felt by many white settlers, and the ways in which Canadian nationalistic narratives can indoctrinate individuals and families into a hegemonic colonial society. I became aware that I am a fifteenth-generation settler of North America, am part of a British Empire Loyalist family, and had a great-grandfather who negotiated land title for CN railroads and purchased land for CN hotel estates. This process of recovering settler experience revealed narratives of settler labour, hardship, community, loss and love.

By mapping the immigration histories of my family in conversation with my knowledge of the colonial project and Indian Policy in Canada, I encountered an uncomfortable and profound conclusion: my family’s economic development was buttressed by violent assimilationist and ethnocidal policies. Fundamentally, this process of uncovering my settler families’ histories (Scottish, English, Irish and Welsh) activated an unlearning of Canadian national myths and encouraged a learning of my personal and familial privileges as white settlers.

The processes of unsettling my settler identity and unsettling my conception of home were significant both personally and professionally. I came to the realization that in order for me to contribute in productive and meaningful ways to the communities that I lived and worked in I had a responsibility to clean up some colonial debris, as it were. I conceive of my work as a settler scholar to participate in the dismantling of nationalist narratives that bolster and perpetuate white settler dominance and complacency in colonization. I do so through activating a politic of remembrance, which in the context of settler colonialism can mean, but is not limited to, the recognition and unearthing of seemingly invisible colonial agendas, apparatus and narratives.

Leah — In my practice as an intermedia artist and in the research I am undertaking as I begin a PhD, it has been crucial for me to develop critical examinations of both personal and historical narratives in order to articulate colonial truths that counter dominant mythologies, and to analyze their excision from the mainstream national imaginary. I came to the imperative of confronting my own complicity, and by extension that of larger white settler culture, through examining the conditions of my maternal grandfather’s immigration and his experiences prior to coming to Canada, as well as the way the (in)visibility of that story functioned in my family narrative. My ancestors, all Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia, came to Canada in the first quarter of the twentieth century. My maternal grandfather was the last to arrive, reaching the port of Quebec City in 1925 at the age of 22. Travelling with false papers, he immigrated after eight years of displacement following the destruction of his village in which his family perished. Through my art practice, I mined elements of his story in order to look at broader historical and contemporary intersections of place, identity and (dis)location — the idea that making place is a human imperative and at the same time, a potentially destructive force. In 2005, while developing here (2006), the body of work that evolved from this research, and while preparing to relocate from Vancouver to Winnipeg, I began to ask myself questions about my relationship to place and place making, given the violence of settler colonial practices. This, together with further explorations of my grandfather’s story in relation to the global movement of people through several iterations of imprint (2006 – 2010), led me to consider the program of Indigenous displacement as intrinsically tied to the attainment of refuge and advancement on the part of those arriving and their descendants.

Drawing on these underpinnings, my art and research practices are directed towards “the settler problem” as characterized by Roger Epp, Taiaiake Alfred, Paulette Regan and others. As such, my work contends with settler resistance to and involvement in decolonizing processes, and renders counternarratives that seek to disrupt dominant understandings of settler identity as articulated within the history and contemporary conditions of settler colonialism in the Canadian context. It is carried out through a practice that intertwines self-reflexive creative production, Indigenous-settler collaboration, critical intercultural social engagement and an operational strategy that positions settlers as the subject under scrutiny. [2] By centering colonial truths with respect to settler culpability, colonial myths can begin to be unravelled, and the ways we are implicated can be uncovered. Further, by harnessing the significant capacity for creative practice to generate productive entry points for critical engagement with contentious issues, the settler imaginary, long stagnating in a self-imposed “narrative deficit,” [3] can be influenced to dislodge entrenched colonial attitudes and open up to the potential of decolonizing imperatives.

[1] See Paulette Regan, “A Transformative Framework for Decolonizing Canada: A Non-Indigenous Approach” (paper presented at IGOV Doctoral Student Symposium, University of Victoria, 20 January 2005), available online; and Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010).

[2] See Roger Epp, “We Are All Treaty People: History, Reconciliation, and the ‘Settler Problem,’” in Dilemmas of Reconciliation: Cases and Concepts, eds. Carol A.L. Prager and Trudy Govier (Waterloo:Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), 223–244.

[3] See Lorenzo Veracini, “Settler Colonialism and Decolonisation,” borderlands e-journal 6, no. 2 (2007; online).

Leah Decter is a Winnipeg-based intermedia artist working in video, digital media, installation, textiles, performance and social practice. She has exhibited and presented her work widely in Canada and internationally in the US, UK, Australia and Germany. Her videos have screened at the Images Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and at Malta Contemporary Art. Her work investigates histories and contemporary conditions of settler colonialism in Canada through a critical white settler lens. Decter holds an MFA in New Media from the Berlin-based Transart Institute, and is currently undertaking a PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston.

Carla Taunton is an assistant professor of Indigenous arts and visual culture at NSCAD University. Completing her PhD in Indigenous visual culture at Queen’s University in the department of art in 2011, her dissertation explored Indigenous performance art as acts of resistance and self-determination that participate in the project of decolonization. Her current research investigates the projects of Indigenous sovereignty and settler responsibility. Dr. Taunton is an alliance member of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective and an independent curator.

Image credit: Leah Decter, Castor Canadensis: Provokas (2013). Performance. Image courtesy of the artist.


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