Contact — a White Settler’s Journey of “Discovery”
We supposedly live in a post-contact reality, but many non-Indigenous people have no contact with Indigenous people or community. Acknowledging the lack of relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is one step in a much larger process of reconciliation, which requires us to address the roots of the problem. The racist, settler colonial foundations of our nation continue to stratify our society along racial lines. Until we actively forge and recognize relationships of care and interdependence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we are unlikely to see the political will to reconcile or repair injustice and inequity, past, present and future. This is an exploration of the concepts of first contact, settler colonialism, doctrine of discovery, segregation and racial hierarchy. I am attempting to bring these large scale, historic concepts into the small scale, tangible realm of personal experience through a process of self-reflection.
In 2001, when I was 21, I wrote a one-off zine called First Contact, that I never published or distributed. I didn’t publish it because I had an instinct that my perspective and analysis were limited. Years later, I think it was a wise decision. Why bring up a zine I never published 20 years ago? Because right now the topic of settler colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism are urgently relevant, and the process of self-reflection required to write a personal zine offers a means for transformation. Doing inner work to become aware of our own assumptions, biases and narratives can help us to change how we make decisions — decisions about relationships, communication, daily life and long term plans. In this way, transformation on a personal level can influence and support systemic and institutional change.
The flawed idea of “first contact,” refers to the 1492 historical encounter between Europeans and Indigenous peoples in the “new world.” This concept has created a binary timeframe for the Americas, divided into pre-contact and post-contact, before and after 1492. Obviously this timeframe is Eurocentric and inaccurate, given that there were other points of contact between Asia and the Americas over thousands of years, as well as contact with northern European peoples and Inuit peoples well before the 15th century. The story of Christopher Columbus’ voyage and “discovery” of the “new world” has taken on enormous significance in Western history and has been thoroughly critiqued by scholars, activists, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. So, my intention was not to unpack the history of “first contact.” Instead, the zine was about my own personal history of contact. I highlighted the irony of how in a post-contact world, I had grown up with little real contact with Indigenous people and culture.
My purpose in excavating that zine I wrote 20 years ago and exploring my self-reflection as a timeline of “discovery,” is to highlight the entrenched narrative of settler colonialism, how it shows up in our lives. To unsettle the narrative we must rewrite our own life story and relationship to settler colonialism. In writing the zine originally, I reflected on how as a white kid in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t know anyone who was Indigenous, despite growing up in a prairie city surrounded by Indigenous reserve lands and a high population of urban Indigenous people. Recently, to my surprise, I am discovering that some of my childhood friends, classmates and acquaintances were, in fact, Indigenous. Decades later, it is unsettling to find out that I never understood or saw that part of them. I don’t remember if I thought of them as white or if I thought of them as racially ambiguous and it just didn’t come up… or if my whiteness and the whiteness of our context actively suppressed the visibility of their Indigeneity. “Unsettling” my own story and memory could be a small step towards shaking up the settler colonial and white supremacy cultures that continue to harm Indigenous people.
Segregated and Stratified
Identifying the ways our society continues to be racially stratified and segregated is not an intellectual exercise. Indigenous people are dying at higher rates than any other ethno-cultural group in Canada and people in power are not mobilizing resources or making decisions to change this fact. Why not? Partly because the majority of people with power are not Indigenous and do not have significant meaningful relationships with Indigenous people. The lack of contact, lack of relationships and lack of awareness of the presence and vitality of Indigenous people around us is one of the key factors in the increasing anti-Indigenous racism in our country right now. Racism is responsible for innumerable harms, from the developmental and mental health impacts of the violence of social exclusion to physical injury and death inflicted by overt violent acts. By acknowledging the significant absence of meaningful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and groups we can begin to address the root causes of the vast inequities.
Keeping people apart through official segregation is a racist strategy that was used effectively to maintain white supremacist social order in the United States after slavery ended. Creating reservations where Indigenous people were forced to live is another form of segregation that has functioned in Canada for almost 150 years. This model was exported to South Africa and became known as Apartheid in the Afrikaans language. Legally enshrined segregation can end, as it did in the US as a result of the 60s civil rights movement and in South Africa in the 90s as the result of widespread civil unrest and the leadership of Nelson Mandela. However, after segregation laws are overturned, the deeply entrenched social norms and geographical manifestations of segregation remain. Family and community bonds are deeply rooted in segregation, and so geographical and social borders often remain drawn along racial lines.
The doctrine of discovery is a legal framework dating back to the 15th century, which justified the domination of Indigenous people and theft of land and resources by European Imperialists. The logic it followed was that land was up for grabs if there were no Christians who owned it. Any such “unoccupied” land would belong to whichever Christian Imperial exploration that discovered it, by decree of the Pope. The doctrine of discovery was designed not only to steal land and profit European empires, but to implement and uphold a profoundly racist, Eurocentric worldview, which is still in place today.
I like to think of my own journey of discovery as a kind of reverse exploration where I begin to see from the perspective of the BIPOC side of history, recognizing the racist, Eurocentric biases that underscored my education and upbringing. Examining my own life for ways that I have benefited from settler colonialism, segregation and the legacy of the doctrine of discovery, I am working to educate myself and others and to redistribute power.
Reading books and articles by BIPOC authors has been an important part of my own journey of discovery. Building vocabulary and understanding concepts articulated by BIPOC academics and activists helps me to see the path that led us here and to see new paths leading to better futures. In his celebrated book Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition, Glen Coulthard explains the ongoing settler colonial dynamic. The project of settler colonialism is founded on a racist premise, the vision of creating a prosperous nation, the promised land, for the white European race. Advertisements, posters and messaging were aimed at young white men and women, offering free or cheap land to farm and homestead. In Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia explains that immigration laws in 19th and 20th century Canada explicitly excluded Black and Brown people, allowing racialized migrants to come to Canada only temporarily and only as laborers in specific industries that had labour shortages. The laws were explicitly racist up until the 1960s but immigration law continues to favor white immigrants from majority white countries. Settler colonialism is about taking the land from Indigenous people and ensuring it is controlled by white people for maximum productivity. In other words, exploitative resource extraction.
As a white person living in a white supremacy culture, I have no first hand knowledge of what it’s like to exist on the margins, on both sides or neither side of segregation. Again, reading the perspectives of BIPOC thinkers has helped me discover the histories of current racist social norms and structures and their impact on groups and individuals. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime illustrates with humour and grace the bizarre reality of racial segregation in South Africa and how his experience, having a Black mother and a white father, made his existence impossible according to the law and all social conventions. Métis writer and activist Maria Campbell’s foundational book Half Breed reveals the beauty and hardship of life as a Métis woman growing up in the 50s and 60s, living in the margins of white settler society, excluded from both Indigenous reserve land and from white owned property and spaces. Personal accounts, autobiographies and fiction by Indigenous and racialized authors helps non-Indigenous and white readers gain a deeper understanding of the ways that segregation manifests as disparity and injustice as well as to highlight the strength and resilience of people, communities and cultures that are marginalized. Reading theory and perspectives by Indigenous and racialized writers can be a good way to expand one’s limited perspective, but it is not enough. Participating in workshops, community events, professional development, Indigenous-led movements and direct actions are also important options.
Canada is not the only place where settler colonialism happened. European Imperialism practiced by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British empires to name the most obvious, employed the strategy of settler colonialism all around the globe. Similar devastation to Indigenous/local people and cultures was caused by expropriation of land and resources, imposition of racial hierarchy led by white rule, genocide and assimilation. To “unsettle” or dismantle settler colonialism in “Canada” at this point would be a huge project, maybe as big as the 500 year project of imperialism and colonization. It would mean removing white settlers from our property and land without compensation, having settlers give back what was originally stolen generations ago. Over the last 100 years the process of decolonization has happened in many former colonies including India, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, removing white settlers from government, from institutional power and repossessing property including buildings, businesses and homes. This has not happened in North America.
When we talk about “decolonization” in Canada, it takes on an abstract intellectual meaning, referring to decolonizing your mind, or decolonizing education. While working to remove colonial/white supremacist/racist frameworks and influences from our thoughts and institutions is a worthwhile project, it does not directly benefit Indigenous people or change power structures in the way that giving back the land would. Indigenous scholar/activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson argues in As We Have Always Done that Indigenous cultures and ways of being are inherently connected to the land and that all Indigenous resistance movements must be land-based.
Although broader change must happen at the highest level with profound changes to the law, the judicial system, and all the institutions that form society, those changes will not happen at the top until enough of us can see and articulate the urgent need. We need more Indigenous teachers, lawmakers, university professors, health care professionals and politicians… and we also need more widespread support and respect for Indigenous ways of life that are not about Indigenous leaders assimilating into white culture and taking on the roles of colonial society. Real, caring relationships based on mutual respect are the foundation that can support change. A profound lack of trust due to centuries of harm, caused by racist settler colonialism and enforced segregation, continues to prevent us from forging friendships, relationships and family, which is why it is so important to celebrate the families, relationships and friendships that do form, persist and thrive. Métis culture and people with mixed Indigenous ancestry exist outside or beyond segregation. All families of racially diverse heritage are uprooting and rejecting racist segregation by virtue of existing.
Relationships based on mutual respect and care can form between teachers and students, classmates, colleagues, neighbours, on social media and in any situation where we have contact with each other. Many of these points of contact involve uneven power that must be accounted for, in the contexts of health professional/client, teacher/student, landlord/tenant. We need to find paths that we can all walk together, outside of and in spite of hierarchies. We need to adopt anti-racist analysis to develop the ability to identify the underlying racist systems that are designed to keep us apart. We need to find ways to dismantle these systems on the tangible and accessible level of our daily lives and personal interactions. We need to know and honour the lived experience of Indigenous people, as individuals and as members of complex communities.
In an exercise similar to, and in part inspired by, the reflections outlined in Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy Workbook, I have been looking at my past systematically with a critical lens, exposing the layers of colonialism that shaped me and my world. While reflecting on my own experience is the best place for me to start, I realize publishing my reflections could be triggering and would serve to further center my white perspective or whiteness in general. So, rather than share the details of my own exploration, I have included some of the questions I asked myself below.
As I continue my journey of discovery, I am wondering how my childhood Indigenous friends and acquaintances’ journeys compare to mine, how they experienced these decades and how they might read my confessions and the ignorance expressed in my reflections. The fact that I don’t know and haven’t asked only demonstrates the weak nature of those relationships. Many of the relationships were circumstantial and contextual and often didn’t endure beyond the times when we were in the same place at the same time. But I am forced to wonder if it is more complex than that. Did my whiteness and lack of awareness actively undermine the relationship…or did I passively neglect to cultivate ongoing, deeper relationships? Did the racist society we lived in serve to segregate us circumstantially, sending us on our separate paths according to our relative degrees of privilege, never to meet again? If we had stayed in touch and continued to be in relationship, would I have found out or understood their Indigenous identities at a discrete moment, or would it have been more subconscious and gradual?
Despite everything that has changed in the world and in me, I think my early 2000’s zine on “first contact” still rings true, as many people I meet through work and community have little or no meaningful contact with Indigenous people or culture, ways of knowing and being. In this reflection, I am looking for the relationships that exist and have existed, however invisible or suppressed. I’m looking for loss of relationships and my own accountability in that loss, and looking for hope and potential bridges or paths into deeper relationship.
Questions to Reflect On:
These seven questions guided my own process and they may be useful to you.
What were the points of contact / relationships with Indigenous people on a timeline of my life?
What was the context of each relationship? What were the power dynamics?
What did the relationship mean to me at the time? What happened to the relationship? Did it end? How? How can I get more information or perspective?
How does that memory fit into an anti-racist/anti-colonial framework? What does this reflection teach me about the ongoing process of settler colonialism?
How does this self-reflection change my narrative and change how I see myself and my place in challenging anti-Indigenous racism/ settler colonialism?
How could things have been different/more just and equitable? What would I do differently? Is there anything I can do to restore or repair relationships?
How can I support and cultivate current relationships with Indigenous people and community? What steps will I take?