‘Settler’: Upsetting the semantics of superiority

at Pierre Gladu's

John Arnot Fleming, woodcut, showing Settlement houses along the Red River, 1858, sketched from lot 61 at Rotagon/ St. Vital, the property of Métis settlers Pierre Gladu and Nancy Dease.[1] Source: Henry Youle Hind, Narrative of the Canadian Red river exploring expedition of 1857, and of the Assinniboine and Saskatchewan exploring expedition of 1858 (London: Longman Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), 165.

‘Settler’ as a substitute for ‘European’ has been common in ‘White’ historical studies — including in some studies positioned as ‘post-colonial’ histories.[2] The name has been adopted and popularized by individuals and groups to mark a distinction between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous, particularly with respect to present-day political movements and membership.

One problem of such usage is that — in the latter, popular instance — although the purported goal is described as a desire to recognize cross-cultural allies with a common cause, effectively the term codifies and thereby strengthens division (perpetuating ‘us and them’ divides that are vulnerable to manipulation by opponents to a cause).[3]

The more pernicious problem with such usage — particularly in the initial, academic instance — is that the term perpetuates dispossession and colonialism in its marginalization of Original Peoples of Turtle Island/ North America (not to mention non-‘Anglo Saxon’ newcomers).[4] The usage achieves colonial silencing by implying that only ‘White’ migrants who crossed the ocean sea to get to North America established ‘real’ and enduring settlements. Accepting that proposition denies the existence of “persistent” settlements established by peoples indigenous to North America.[5] (How would one construct an intelligible narrative about the activity of Métis people of Red River Settlement, with their persistent stopping there to live and farm, and their creating a system of governance, and their insistence on protection for their properties during confederation negotiations with Canada, if one was to avoid applying the word ‘settler’ to them? Especially since “settler” is the word used for them in primary sources? My guess is that one would not compose such a history — instead, the historical Métis of Red River would only enter historiography as a ‘colourful’ and ‘vivacious,’ if ‘doomed,’ bunch of ‘ethnics.’)[6]

At the same time, the proposition denies the transience of hoped-for settlements, begun by migrants not native to North America; settlements that failed to thrive, that disappeared from landscapes in the past (and that, even when apparently solidly established, continue to collapse/ relapse).[7]

Historically (and ‘pre-historically’), there were settlers of settlements in North America who were not ‘White’ and who were not from ‘elsewhere’ than North America.[8] There were migrants from Europe who did not stop migrating — some of those ‘newcomer’ people remained ‘nomadic’ in their quest for a ‘better life,’ virtually to the day they died.

Where a distinction is desirable, I have used the phrases ‘internal migrant’ and ‘external migrant’ to distinguish between people/ peoples who travelled within a continent, but eventually settled in a location, and people/ peoples who arrived from across the ocean sea to find a place to settle.[9] In both instances, it was historically ‘normal’ to have some people persist at a settlement location and to have others wander off — regardless of their antecedents (culturally, biologically, or whatever).

Otherwise, in my usage, settlers settled at settlements. If they were Aboriginal/ Indigenous, I identify them as such (as in Métis settlers who settled Red River Settlement). Likewise, if they were from Canada, or Ireland, or Jamaica, I say so (as in French Catholic settlers from Quebec who settled at the pre-existing Métis settlement of Point des Chêne, later known as Ste. Anne).

The problematic aspect of non-Indigenous settlers was not their desire to settle, but, among some, the carrying and perpetuation of colonial, imperial, and nationalist bigotry, propaganda, and jingoism.[10]

St. Peter's 1837

The “Indian Settlement,” a.k.a. Peguis’ Settlement, St. Peter’s Parish, 1837. Source: Sarah Tucker, The Rainbow of the North: A Short Account of the First Establishment of Christianity in Rupert’s Land by the Church Missionary Society (London: James Nisbet, 1851). Circa 1792, Chief Peguis (son of an unidentified Saulteux woman and an unidentified French Canadian fur trader), at about 18 years of age and heading a band of about 200 people, established the first settlement in the area that eventually became St. Peter’s parish.


[1] Pierre Gladu and Nancy Dease’s son William Gladu married Louis Riel‘s sister, Eulalie, in 1879.

[2] By “‘White’ historical studies” I mean those histories of colonialism, imperialism, and empire that focus on the activities of those historical actors who expanded the power of the ‘European West’ by way of being historical agents whose antecedents were European- (including British-Isles-) born (why ‘invaders,’ or ‘occupiers,’ were not preferred as more objective/ less obfuscating terms I do not know — as used for instance by H.C. Brookfield, Colonialism Development and Independence: The Case of the Melanesian Islands, back in 1972). See, for an example that privileges ‘White’ settlers, Christopher Lloyd, Jacob Metzer, and Richard Sutch, eds., Settler Economies in World History (Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2013), xx, xxi, who allow that ‘European’ and ‘Indigenous’ might intermarry in a settler context and insist a settler economy is distinct from that of the ‘home’ country, but nevertheless implicitly distinguish between settler economies and Indigenous/ Aboriginal economies, and in doing so imply settlers where not/ are not Aboriginal. In such settler histories, the ‘others’ (meaning Aboriginal/ Indigenous) that the principle actors encountered in newly accessed territories are described, but, just as in preceding historical genres, they are usually kept to the side, or used as a backdrop, mirror, or foil (speaking in terms of literary device). In such studies, if interrogated at all by the historiographer, the Aboriginal/ Indigenous historical subjects are seldom ‘understood’ as ‘normal’ (with, say, families and children and everyday economic lives, as well as plans, aspirations, and opinions). Rather, they continue to be seen/ presented as ‘exotic’ and ‘outsiders’ to colonial and imperial projects (apparently because, for some historians, the ‘lenses’ supplied by primary sources were so powerful as to have ‘fixed’ them this way). For example see Martin Daunton, and Rick Halpern, eds., Empire and others: British encounters with indigenous peoples, 1600-1850 (London: UCL Press, 1999), a collection of essays designed to enlarge the scope of British and American history while retaining a coherent centre from which to examine the ‘European’ perspective. The stated goal is to ‘reintegrate’ history of colonial North America with imperial and British history in order to extend chronology and obtain a wider set of contact/conflict histories for comparative analysis. Aboriginal peoples worldwide are not the central subject scrutinized, rather their presence serves to define European subjects. See also the writings of Ann Laura Stoler — anthropologies of ‘Whiteness,’ which describe and decode the ambitions of colonizers, point to their confusion with respect to those meant to be colonized, but which do not attempt a decentred perspective.

The term ‘White’ is capitalized to reflect its function as signifying a sociopolitical category, not a colour. As well, the category so designated is regarded as non-normative for the place and time  — Red River — of primary interest in this site’s web pages. Erica Chung-Yue Tao, quoted in Constance Backhouse, Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 284-285 n. 10, argues that an alternate approach is appropriate in contexts where — unlike at Red River — the notion of “white supremacy” is reinforced by the numerical, practical or situational dominance of nominal or symbolic representatives of a group upholding the ‘white’ construct.

For observations on ‘Settler Colonialism’ and the problematics of terminology see Tequila Sovereign, “Why ‘Settler Colonialism’ Isn’t Exactly Right,” blog (posted 27 November 2013). See also Crommunist, “Unsettled: Reflections on Patriotism and Non-White Settler Identity,” blog (posted 12 November 2013), on the invisibility of non-White ‘settler colonialist’ experience; Malissa Phung, “Are People of Colour Settlers Too?” Speaking My Truth (2012), who notes, “the English term is rooted in a colonial language,” and points to some of the ambiguities it hides; and Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, “Decolonizing Antiracism,” Social Justice 32, no. 4 (2005) who wrestle to insert Indigeneity into academic dicourses/ ‘conversations,’ where language of description poses barriers. Catherine Dauvergne, “The End of Settler Societies and the New Politics of Immigration,” Trudeau lecture (University of British Columbia, 2012), asserts “It is now evident that the idea of a settler society, previously an important landmark in understanding migration, is a thing of the past.”

[3] See, for example, “How to be a #settler ally,” Valley Road Rambler blog (posted 5 February 2013) — in my view, those who adopt as a self-name are better identified as covert (to the point of being unconscious/ unwitting) social and cultural neo-colonialists. See “1) Racism as a Colonial Context,” this site. With the advent of the Idle No More movement, ‘#Upsettler‘ became a popular term on Twitter, used to describe overtly neo-colonialist opponents of Indigenous/ Aboriginal rights, individuals, and communities.

[4] Such usage of the term carries forward John A. Macdonald’s system of evaluation that accorded with conventional 19th-century Western European ideas of ‘nationality’ and ‘race’: that only the non-Indigenous could be classed as “actual” settlers. See John A. Macdonald and Adams G. Archibald quoted in D.N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869 – 1885 (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), 89, 91, 98, 107. For an example of a notable pigmented and non-‘Anglo Saxon’ settler see “Jean Baptiste Point du Sable,” Wikipedia.

[5] P.R.J. Mailhot and D.N. Sprague, “Persistent Settlers: The Dispersal and Re-Settlement of the Red River Métis, 1870-1885, Canadian Journal of Ethnic Studies 17 (1985), 1-30; see also Sprague, Canada and the Métis, passim; and Norma Jean Hall, “A ‘Perfect Freedom’: Red River as a Settler Society, 1810–1870,″ M.A. thesis (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2003), pp 8-9, 13, 19-25, and nn 63, 78, 83, 85, who notes — while arguing that the Aboriginal people who settled Red River Settlement were settlers — “The existence of difference has been identified as contributing to the creation and perpetuation of colonial rhetoric, itself an exercise of power, which propagates one view by silencing another.”

[6] See W.L. Morton, quoted in Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 6. See also N. Hall, “Notes on 1st Text for Aboriginal Studies Reading List: Barth,” aka “Comments on Fredrik Barth, ed., Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969)”; and Aya Fujiwara, “Reconsiderations of Frameworks of Ethnic History: A Comparison of Métis and Ukranian-Canadian Historiographies,” Past Imperfect 9 (2001-2003), 43-63.

[7] See, for examples, “List of Ghost Towns in Manitoba,” Wikipedia; “Ghost Towns,” Historic Sites of Manitoba, Manitoba Historical Society; “Raging fires, devastating floods and mines that ran dry: Haunting images of America’s abandoned cities paint picture of nation’s forgotten struggles,” Daily Mail (26 July 2012); and “Detroit’s Beautiful Horrible Decline,” Time (accessed 26 March 2014).

[8] Examples of historic Turtle Island/ North American settlements meant to be permanent include (but are not limited to): those of the First Canadians — recorded by Jacques Cartier and by Archaeological evidence that suggests they had sedentary home towns/ villages, had inhabited the area along the St. Lawrence River that they called Canada from the 14th century, and were populous, with many villages in addition to Stadacona and Hochelaga (two towns that Cartier visited); the 1,500 to 2,000 people who once inhabited the 4.2 hectare Wendat/ Huron village now known as the Mantle archeological site (possibly the settlement named ‘Ochelay’ on Paolo Forlani’s map of 1565?) [See N. Hall, “Francis the First King of Canada, 1541.”]; the Hopewellian Laurel/ Selkirk Peoples who settled in what is now Manitoba from about 2,200 years ago to approximately A.D. 1700 (or alternately, the Blackduck people, from approximately A.D. 700 to at least A.D. 1300); the settlement at York Factory / Kischewaskahekan and the settlement at Churchill on Kîhcikamîy/ Hudson Bay, whose persistent inhabitants (as opposed to temporary and transient overseas employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company) were overwhelmingly Aboriginal; the settlement established by overwhelmingly Aboriginal “British” Red River settlers; the settlement(s) in Oregon established by Aboriginal “British” colonists from Red River. See Harriet Cowan, quoted in W.J. Healy, Women of Red River; being a book written from the recollections of women surviving from the Red River era (Winnipeg: Russell, Lang and Co., 1923), 21.

[9] See Hall “Perfect Freedom,” 2; and William Norton, Human Geography (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[10] See “‘Annexation’ versus ‘Confederation’; ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Colonialism’; ‘Invasion’,” this site for definitions of colonialism and imperialism; and “Sorting History, the Past, Historiography, and Heritage,” this site for a note on propaganda.


Published 18 March 2014

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