Review of Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J Barker, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (Fernwood Publishing 2015).
Canada is a colonial-settler state. This society was built by Europeans and their descendents on land taken from the indigenous peoples of Northern North America. As Emma Battell Lowman and Adam Barker put it in their new book, Settler, “Canada was forged by settler colonialism, and as a contemporary settler state maintains legal, political, and economic systems rooted in the settler colonial usurpation of Indigenous lands and the dispossession and disappearance of Indigenous peoples.”
This reality is still ignored or denied by most non-indigenous people, including people on the Left. Fortunately, though, growing numbers are beginning to recognize this truth about Canada. The brisk sales of books like Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian reflect the growing desire to understand the history of indigenous peoples and how they have been treated by governments, churches, schools and other institutions.
More than ever before, some non-indigenous people accept that colonialism is a present-day reality, not just something in the past, and are grappling seriously with what it means to live in a colonial society.
If you don’t agree with this view of Canada, Settler isn’t for you (but you should read King’s book and others like Howard Adams’ Prison of Grass and James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains).
However, people who do agree that Canada’s foundations are settler-colonial can learn a lot from this book. Settler is a study of “the Settler identity in Canada, an identity shared by many but claimed by few.”
There are lots of insights in the book’s discussions of how colonialism is perpetuated by cultural appropriation, institutional and interpersonal racism and national myths like “multiculturalism, peacekeeping, socially progressive politics, and hard-earned prosperity” which “attract newcomers and assure Canadians of our moral righteousness on the world stage and at home.” Battell Lowman and Barker’s point about the difference between the relationships that indigenous peoples have “with the land” and the relationships “to the land” of the rest of us is one that stands out in my mind.
The book’s discussion of treaties is also helpful. For example, the authors point out that “treaty has been used as a strategy to extinguish Indigenous peoples’ claims to land in order to extend the sovereign control of the Settler state.” They also have perceptive things to say about how “newcomer or newly accepted communities” are encouraged to “buy into and reinforce” colonialism. They thoughtfully analyze the fear and efforts to comfort ourselves with which non-indigenous people often respond when challenged to face up to colonialism.
When it comes to the struggle to change society, they argue that it’s important to shed the belief that “discomfort means that we are doing something wrong.” They add that accepting discomfort “is not the same as engaging in active struggle against colonialism.” Both ideas need to be taken to heart by non-indigenous people who want to help end colonialism. So should their emphasis on what we actually do and the relationships we build with indigenous people, and their caution against “seeking special status as a Settler ally.”
Settler Identity Politics
Battell Lowman and Barker rightly argue that “we need to create a critical mass of people… willing to commit to doing something” about colonialism. Unfortunately, the book’s focus on identity makes it less useful tool than it could be in explaining how this can be accomplished through decolonization politics. The book’s academic writing style is also a flaw.
The book’s focus risks treating “Settler identity” as something that exists separate from the social relation between indigenous and non-indigenous people. People’s identities are just one dimension of the fundamental social relationships between groups of people that structure society. Identity isn’t a thing and it doesn’t do anything (only people act).
A more serious political problem is Settler’s claim that most people consciously and deliberately choose to perpetuate settler-colonialism. This overestimates most people’s understanding about what’s happening. It also exaggerates how much power most individuals have to influence the shape of society.
The book has a weak analysis of what the material and psychological advantages (privilege) of colonialism are for non-indigenous people. Most importantly, it doesn’t note how the capitalist class has a vastly greater stake in colonialism than anyone else or that colonial privilege is contradictory for the working class .
Decolonization and Class Struggle
Although the authors write that “it is impossible to discuss capitalist exploitation, racial oppression, or settler colonialism separately from each other,” the book’s discussion of decolonization doesn’t take into account how deeply colonialism is interwoven with capitalism in Canada . Class is treated as more a matter of how much money people have than about where people fit into the capitalist system for producing goods and services. The relationship between the struggle against colonialism and class struggle isn’t raised.
The book is vague about what kind of social change would be required to end colonialism (at one point the authors even write that decolonization is not “a goal to be achieved”). It seems to suggest that decolonization would involve struggle but could happen gradually. The question of whether colonialism could be ended in a capitalist Canada is never asked.
The authors are right that “anti-capitalism is not the same as anti-colonialism.” But capitalism is not, as they claim, a tool developed for the sake of colonialism (European colonialism was originally a response to the crisis of feudalism, but settler-colonialism was a product of the development of capitalism). Unfortunately, their brief discussion of socialism wrongly assumes that the USSR and similar societies were in some sense socialist (these bureaucratic dictatorships were profoundly anti-socialist, in spite of their leaders’ words).
My last concern about Settler has to do with language. I’m not convinced that calling non-indigenous people “settlers” and encouraging us to identify this way is helpful for the difficult task of building support for decolonization when anti-colonial politics are so marginal.
Settler offers a mixture of insight and unhelpful ideas, and doesn’t address some vital issues. Still, people who oppose colonialism should read this book.
David Camfield is one of the editors of New Socialist Webzine.
 The book also doesn’t consider that the Canadian state is a multi-national political entity made up of Canada (the dominant nation), Quebec (colonial in relation to indigenous peoples but subordinate to Canada) and indigenous nations.