There Is No ‘Relatively Benign’ Version of Settler-Colonialism

Highway through Menominee Reservation (Flickr: James Stutzman)

I might be made to agree with Erna Paris that using the term “genocide” in reference to Canada’s treatment of indigenous populations is inaccurate. But this would not be because I agree that the term is applied “gratuitously” or that the country’s record of assault against indigenous peoples does not meet the legal, that is to say the state’s, definition. But because the charge of genocide is not capacious enough, it cannot begin to reflect eliminatory violence in settler-colonial society.

If genocide is to refer to only the systematic and intentional destruction of a people, we will need a term that accounts for killings that are the result of dehumanization but can be unplanned, impulsive, or simply the result of disinterest in racially-marked life. Casting enslaved people on the Zong slave ship overboard to their drowning deaths to claim them for insurance is not the same as Lothar von Trotha’s ordering the extermination of the Herero. In the latter case the indigenous were considered a threat; in the former, they were dehumanized to the point of being seen as disposable cargo. Both were interested in elimination, but one did not require elaborate planning. Genocide organizes racist society’s sporadic killings. It is a wave in the ocean of racist culture’s weaponized disregard. To account for eliminatory violence, we must not only consider Auschwitz, but Kristallnacht — not only 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, but the Red Record.

In Canada — as in all colonies — colonialism’s violence is the violence of the everyday. Its most deleterious effects are those that are routinized and banal more than those that are spectacular. Conditioned as we are by Hollywood and historical writing to recognize colonialism only through the sensational incident, it is difficult to recognize the violence that has been naturalized. Where colonial violence is not celebrated in Westerns and Cornwallis statues, but disavowed, it is still only read in the massacre. It’s in Wounded Knee and the hunting down and killing of Mi’qmaq people, not in Yonge St. It is not read in what Red Nation activists Melanie Yazzie and Nick Estes call “anti-Indian common sense,” which is the way of thinking that assumes indigenous people are not really supposed to exist — one that leads to a mode of elimination that takes the form of “unnatural deaths”; deaths that come not from gas chambers but from winter; from the psychological after-effects of sexual violence, from depression, forced migration, and the law. Colonial anti-indigenous violence is certainly not read in the suffering of a substance-dependent African American subaltern woman in Regent Park, Toronto, or Baltimore (unless she can be proven to have Mi’qmaq or Seminole blood). The forced transatlantic migration of Africans has meant that not only bodies, but the ability to recognize the anti-indigenous violence that made their capture and removal possible, has been cast into the suds of the Middle Passage — Indigenous, non-Black scholars often peering over the gunwale.

The suicide rate for many indigenous communities is several times the Canadian national average. The Albuquerque Police Department has a rate of police shootings eight times that of the NYPD, disproportionately targeting indigenous communities. These are the “slow deaths” of settler-colonialism: a mode of elimination that is effective even if not methodical. The ubiquity of “anti-Indianness” makes colonial violence appear merely as the regrettable First Nation backdrop to ordinary Canadian life. That genocide is held up as the highest of all crimes may, in the end, say less about our abhorrence for mass atrocities than it does about how the long-term suffering of colonized people simply cannot register.

To defend against the charge of genocide raised by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) report, liberal nationalists point out that many of the perpetrators are indigenous themselves. They nudge us towards seeking solutions in communities only, or suggest violence against indigenous women, girls, and gender non-confirming people are reflective of gender-based violence in general rather than state-sponsored genocidal practice — as if colonialism was not deliberate in its intensifying communal divisions and patriarchal power. These deflective maneuvers serve two purposes. They deflect from state culpability while announcing that the speaker is, in fact, on the side of marginalized peoples. The point towards “internal problems” is recognized by any Black Lives Matter sympathizer who has had to sit and endure similar attempts at misdirection. Racist police killings are defended by raising “Black on Black” violence, as if Black people are immune from internalizing the dehumanization inherent in anti-Black culture. If certain bodies, especially indigenous bodies, are popularly understood as disposable, they become vulnerable to attack by everyone. “Everyone” includes indigenous people. It is easy to prey on those who are considered surplus to society. It is easy to hate and hurt those who have been traditionally hated and hurt with impunity. Even — especially — if you look like them.

The charge of genocide has animated apologists for the Canadian project like nothing else. Unlike politicians’ statements of regret for a “sullied” past and the nation’s “failures,” it has seemed to draw immediate and passionate response. This is because “genocide” both threatens the liberal narrative of the Canadian project and suggests that something other than the performance of contrition is in order. Escape from the charge must hastily be arranged. Colonial culture becomes History: episodes in Canada’s “flawed” past. These are then condemned as “terrible.” Conviction is given the slip; pity is called for, not action; and a road to absolving the colony is eked out. Shaking one’s head disapprovingly is always an easier price to pay than remaking the social and material infrastructure of cities. Guilt, as James Baldwin said, never interferes with the “private chamber of the heart” where “the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much.” And Canada is not different from America in this. The imagined geography of a relatively benign colonialism is liberal fiction. Settler culture does not step on the breaks at the US-Canada border. Colonial pioneers themselves traveled and imported their techniques of governance to new colonial outposts around the world. Generals were seconded; knowledge and representations of “the native” circulated globally. Settler-colonialism is not only racist atrocities in a defined space, but a way of seeing and treating the they.

Unsurprisingly, proposed solutions are caught in the web of liberalism, premised on “reconciliation.” Liberal solutions to problems effected by settler-colonialism, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang explain, always presume settler dominance and a settler future. The truth is colonialism cannot be rehabilitated. And let’s not forget, not all colonists are liberals. Everyday, still, settler citizens and “vigilantes” kill indigenous people in New Mexico, Kenya, Israel, and Afghanistan. A cursory glance at the comments section of editorials on the MMWIG reveal open advocacy for genocide in Canada. If an end to the culture of eliminatory violence is genuinely and earnestly sought, something other than a settler’s future may be required.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Yannick Marshall

Yannick Marshall is assistant professor of Africana Studies at Knox College. His dissertation is on policing in colonial Kenya, and he teaches and writes about settler-colonialism, anti-Blackness, and police power. Marshall has also published poetry and short fiction.

Comments on “There Is No ‘Relatively Benign’ Version of Settler-Colonialism

  • Rarely does one come across writing of such clarity and depth, yet bristling with raw anger and yet still, very attentive to history. Many streams of what is called liberal thinking eould not oppose ‘a willing buyer willing seller’ accomodation as the primary condition for the white minority to accept black majority rule. The weight of liberal thought falls heavily on the property rights of the owner. Mainstream liberal theory which is concerned mainly to secure individual autonomy, hence it’s over reliance on elections. Only critical scholars such as Franz Fanon in his book ‘A Dying Colonialism’ and also in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’s have analysed the question of what is to happen to the economic benefits accumulated by the white minorities in settler societies such as Algeria, Kenya, ,South Africa, Zimbabwe, Israel, Palestine, USA, Canada, at the end of racial minority rule. The main concern for a colonialism in retreat is the security of the property accumulated during its own existence. Kenya’s independence constitution is a case in point.

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