Settlers Choosing The Sad and Happy Stories: Peeling Ceremony, Relations, and Pain Away From Indigenous Sovereignties

Forest at Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Source: Sean Kheraj, 2017

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

I am interested in engaging settler-colonial violence through a “new” materialist lens, in which nonhumans entities are not assumed as passive, inanimate, and apolitical actors. This means to not reduce our understanding of harm to (human) socio-crimino-cultural analysis. I am specifically attached to the Val d’Or case, in my home region, where police officers were accused of sexually assaulting many Indigenous women. There are 37 cases – yet no charges were laid. Rather, a public commission on the relations between public services and Indigenous people was launched. The region I grew up in also happens to be a place where white settler families often rely on extractive industries (logging and mining) to make a living. Thus, in other words, I am interested in accounting for white settlers’ (non)relationships to land and nonhumans and the possibilities that emerge if we dare to look at the very materiality of white bodies playing, knowing, living and extracting this place without being in communication with it. I ask myself questions such as; how does this land know me and how does it know my ancestors? What violence is legitimized and flowing from arrangements that lack elaborate kin-based, immemorial and reciprocal attachments?

Settler-Colonial Dismembering of Unsettling Ontologies

In the current context of a settler-colonialism that is pryingly ready to devour Indigeneity for the sake of rebooting itself, it seems that Indigenous ways of life are reduced to “culture”, one from which we can extract and be inspired. What needs to be at the forefront of white minds when thinking about certain types of relations to nonhumans on this land is that they cannot be divorced from existing ceremonial practices – and by extension, that ceremony is not divorced from Indigenous sovereignty. The abstraction of ceremony, or of spiritual practices, from its place-based, material context, is a known tactic of assimilation, as documented by Vanessa Watts [1]. Whether it is the banning and criminalization (until 1951) or the superficial celebration and objectification of (elements) of Indigenous ceremony, these actions rest on the same spectrum of possible white settler violence. Thus, practicing or considering elements of Indigenous ways of relating to nonhumans out of its full context – that is of Indigenous sovereignty unmeshed by imagined settler Canadian sovereignty – risk to contribute to everyday re-settlings. As Zoe Todd writes, it is not just lands that are unceded, it is also the knowledges that we come to find so innovative and attractive in this time [2]. The appropriation of such elements necessarily strips them out of their capacity to serve as decolonizing as when they exist within their own ontology. This ontology does not fit neatly into ones who assume the futurity of Canadian sovereignty in every move it makes in the present.

Translating Decolonization into Liberal Progress

Land acknowledgements are a great example of this re-settling, and Deborah McGregor [3] unsettles not only their performativity, but the common-sense they rely on to even be intelligible within late white settler modernity. She powerfully summarizes her critique to the fact that “one cannot simply tell Anishnaabe ontologies in a [2-minute] land acknowledgment.” [4] Moreover, a land acknowledgement skips over many entities that are less palpable than “the land” – such as waters, air, animal nations and ancestors. Along with deep-seated anthropocentrism, these entities are not acknowledged because of their femininity, queerness and unmodern nature. An acknowledgement of ancestors (nevermind a relationship with them) in the same timespace as ours violates more than one rule of white settler modernity. Relating to animals as their own nations  is such a queer relationship that it does not even qualify of as queer. McGregor advocates for land acknowledgments that will teach the stories that make up her world rather than ones that simply point at it. If responsibilities and communication towards nonhumans is not respected through legal place-based traditions, then what happens? Joseph Wawatie from New Credit First Nation reminds us that not only does the environment (nonhumans) have a right to survive, but that it has its own lifeforce. This means that it is not just a matter of saving the environment – if we do not engage with it reciprocally, as established by protocols existing within Indigenous sovereignties, then we might have to face a possible nonhuman rejection, or refusal. Future environmental histories of the so-called anthropocene may be ones of submission to nonhuman will and responses.

The Space of Not Having Responsibilities

Deborah Mcgregor also prompted us to think of the responsibilities that settlers have, whether they know them or not, and whether they are practicing them or not. While Mcgregor did advance that “Canada is more complicated than “settlers”, I reckon that settler identity and/or status nevertheless matters because it is what affords space for settlers to avoid their intergenerational mess and responsibilities. The vast majority of Canadians, let’s face it, do not have to ask themselves whether their lifestyle has anything to do with ongoing colonial injustices. If place-based Indigenous sovereignty was as taken for granted as settler sovereignty is, then those questions would not be “optional” in the lives of the everyday settlers. Settlers, in that sense, are those who are afforded the illusion and material space that they do not owe anyone anything (especially since their grandparents struggled to establish themselves here). Being a settler allows for access to the claim of neutrality, the choice of disengagement, and the space of never having to be bothered by these very questions in the first place. For instance, when we speak of Britanny Luby’s exceptionally vivid portrayal [5] of the gendered politics of methyl mercury poisoning in Dalles 38C Indian Reserve (1890-1910), do we tie in those environmental histories to their environmental presents, such as the urgent and similar impending flooding and contamination in Muskrat Falls? [6]

Governing Trauma and Healing away from Indigenous Sovereignties

Trying to simultaneously work through (mostly sexual) trauma and its aftermaths and how the material contents of its occurrence are openly told in public spaces that cannot be guaranteed to be safe for the affected person, I have other thoughts. In anti-rape culture advocacy, the concept of the perfect victim is heavily criticized because it reifies certain myths about what is a rape and what is not. The burden of proof is often placed on survivors, and whether in courts or in public discourses, it is the survivor who often has to “prove”, reconstruct with unnecessary details, a believable reality of their rape. The perfect victim – the one who is a stranger to their perpetrator, who tried to fight back against their assailant, who is white, sober, and dressed “properly” – becomes tied in to the believable, worthy victim. A rape survivor must be virtuous because it is still instilled that rape is not a violent act of power but rather a breach, or uncontrollable spill of heteropatriarchal desires that “stains.” It is well known that rape survivors hardly ever report their rape, specifically because they know that they will not be believed. I am bringing this perspective forward because I would also like to point attention to the way that Indigenous stories of pain (in residential schools) are consumed. I wonder why details of abuse on Indigenous children are needed for white settlers to “gain” awareness. Beyond the healing properties of telling one’s truth publicly, I worry about the uses of pain stories without reciprocation. Or again, how structurally privileged Canadians, who already think of themselves as benevolent, may reinforce their identity in the very moment that they “feel” something for the poor Indigenous kids who went through this hell – reassuring themselves that they are empathetic human beings who would have never done this themselves. Would we believe the horrors of colonialism if Indigenous pain was also unceded – or do we require it?

There are Indigenous ways of addressing such traumas – again, these ways come entangled with place-based ceremony, legal traditions and sovereignty. [7] Do we know how they would treat stories of colonial survival? Eve Tuck tells us that “Reconciliation” is not an Indigenous theory of change, yet that is dismissed. [8] How stories of pain are circulated, just like Indigenous ceremonies, is a not value-neutral occurrence. There are existing ways within existing non-settler sovereignties that could honour those stories rather than having them become primarily brandished as tools of education for white settlers, especially if we consider how settlers’ ignorance about the past and present harms of colonialism is structuralized through social engineering. [9] Jocelyn Wabano Iahtail, an Ininewuk woman [10], one of the most valuable grassroots advocates in Ottawa, has severely critiqued the common-sense and bureaucratic protocols (yet exactly colonial) that the current Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry employs. She explains how knowledge holders, language speakers and affected families must be at the center of this inquiry if it is to do no more harm. It is time for white settlers to relinquish their hope as located in settler institutions. It is also time for them to expect more than awareness from each other. Illustrating contrasting ways of relating, Bonnie Devine told us that “No one walked the land they purchased, they simply drew lines on white pieces of paper.” [11] Yet our bodies on this land, and our ways of relating, including to other humans who relate to it as kin, are being acknowledged and accounted for – in forms of refusals we may not necessarily anticipate.


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[1] Watts, V. (2016). Smudge This: Assimilation, State-Favoured Communities and the Denial of Indigenous Spiritual Lives. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, 7(1), 148-170.

[2] Todd, Z. (2017) Indigenous Stories, Knowledge, Legal Traditions, Ontologies, Epistemologies as unceded territory (or: Hands Off of Our Teachings). Retrieved From:

[3] For another salient critique of land acknowledgements, see Vowel, C. (2016) Beyond Territorial Acknoledgments. Retrived From:

[4] McGregor, D. (2017) Acknowledging the Land and Waters of the Great Lakes. Lecture given as part of the Canadian History and Environment Summer School 2017: Gender and Indigenous Landscapes (NiCHE 2017).

[5] Luby, B. (2017).  “Heath and Disease Along the Winnipeg River: What I learned from the Women of Dalles 38C Indian Reserve”. Lecture given as part of the Canadian History and Environment Summer School 2017: Gender and Indigenous Landscapes (NiCHE 2017).

[6] See: and and

[6] Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European World Tour!). Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 2(1), 20-34.

[7] See, for instance, Deer, S. (2015). The Beginning and End of Rape. Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. University of Minnesota Press.

[8] Tuck, E. (2016) Keynote Lecture given at the conference “Decolonizing Conference CIARS”. November 3-5, OISE, Toronto.

[9] Schaefli, L., & Godlewska, A. (2014). Social ignorance and Indigenous exclusion: public voices in the province of Quebec, Canada. Settler Colonial Studies, 4(3), 227-244.

[10] Follow her social media advocacy group “Wabi’s Village”:

[11] Devine, B. (2017). Claims, Names, and Allegories. Lecture given as part of the Canadian History and Environment Summer School 2017: Gender and Indigenous Landscapes (NiCHE 2017).

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