The Settler Playbook: Understanding Responses to #ShutDownCanada in Historical Context

Mohawks of Tyendinaga stand by railway tracks during an action near Belleville, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

Sarah Rotz, Daniel Rück, and Sean Carleton

On February 7, militarized RCMP arrested and removed Wet’suwet’en land defenders from their unceded territories, triggering demonstrations and blockades across the country. With large parts of the country’s rail traffic at a standstill, and shipping vessels unable to move goods, people are seeing that peaceful civil disobedience can #ShutDownCanada.

As solidarity actions spread, Canadian politicians of all stripes struggled to respond. On February 14, Conservative opposition leader Andrew Scheer called the rail blockades and political disruptions “illegal” and said Indigenous land defenders and their supporters should “check their privilege.” Scheer’s statement was ill-informed and arrogant, but it was also predictable. These kinds of statements are standard fare in settler colonial societies like Canada, and they are part of a pattern of behaviour consistent with what Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice has described as “Settlers With Opinions.”

When movements like Idle No More or #ShutDownCanada emerge, when non-Indigenous Canadians are inconvenienced by Indigenous assertions of nationhood and sovereignty, settlers often respond with what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call “moves to innocence.” Tuck and Yang define settler moves to innocence as “strategies to remove involvement in and culpability for systems of domination.” These “moves” or “plays” form a key part of the settler playbook: the common tactics and strategies used by settlers to defend the colonial status quo. Violence and coercion are a key part of the playbook; however, settlers also use a number of discursive manoeuvres to maintain the material conditions of colonialism. Exposing the settler playbook can help counter these strategies and advance decolonization. As activists and settler scholars, we offer this short primer to the settler playbook.

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If we had only known… whistle blowers, Florence Nightingale, and residential schools

By Thomas Peace

It appeared of great importance to ascertain, if possible, the precise influence which school training exercised on the health of native children…

The Indian schools in Canada afford a total annual death rate of 12 ½ per 1,000 for both sexes; but the mortality of girls is nearly double that of boys…

Making allowance for native children dying at home, we shall be within the truth in assuming the mortality of native children at school as double that of English children of the same ages [emphasis added] …

Florence Nightingale, Sanitary Statistics, 1863.

In 1863, Florence Nightingale – best known as the founder of modern nursing – published a statistical report on the health of Indigenous students in day and boarding schools across the British Empire. As these selections from her text suggest, the situation looked bleak.

I came across Nightingale’s work over the weekend, after listening to Lynn McDonald on CBC’s Fresh Air discuss the famous nurse’s turn to statistics and her concern with the plummeting populations of peoples whose land was increasingly occupied and commodified by Britain, its emigrants, merchants, and industrialists.

Florence Nightingale (middle) in 1886 with her graduating class of nurses from St Thomas’ outside Claydon House, Buckinghamshire (Wikimedia Commons)

What struck me most in this CBC interview was a sense of missed opportunity in the nineteenth century for a change in policy and approach. At its core, Nightingale’s argument in the report is this: colonial statistics are poor – almost useless – but what statistics she could compile suggest real health problems for Indigenous children attending colonial schools. While she does not directly blame settler colonialism for these health issues, her short report called for reform in how these schools were run.

As the TRC’s final report reminds us in vivid detail, in Canada, reform did not come until the late 1960s – over a century later.

What may surprise some readers, though, is that despite its 1863 publication date – indeed, it was penned several years before residential schools became a systematic, government-led form of oppression and re-education – Nightingale was neither the first, nor last, to call attention to the risks colonial schooling posed for Indigenous students.

In 1822, Continue reading

Remember/Resist/Redraw #21: The 2018 Hamilton Rent Strike and the Fight for Affordable Housing

With the fight for safe and affordable housing becoming a central struggle of our times, the Graphic History Collective has released RRR #21 that looks at the lessons of the 2018 Hamilton Rent Strike. The poster, by Simon Orpana, Rob Kristofferson, and Bjarke Skærlund Risager, situates the 2018 strike in the longer history of housing struggles in Hamilton, Ontario and makes the argument that affordable housing is a human right.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for social change. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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History Slam Episode 142: Born in Evin

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By Sean Graham

Born in Evin is playing Sunday February 2 at 1pm at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto as part of the 17th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Following the film there will be a discussion led by Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

In the Evin neighbourhood of Tehran, there is a prison. Both before and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it was home to political prisoners in a purpose-built wing which, because of the number of intellectuals imprisoned, became known as Evin University. In 1988, the Iranian government began a 5-month series of state-sponsored executions of political prisoners, including many at Evin. Not all were killed, however, as some prisoners survived and managed to escape Iran to safety.

The story of one of these survivors is the subject of the new documentary Born in Evin. The film follows actress Maryam Zaree, who was born in the prison, try to learn about the conditions here parents endured at Evin, the earliest days of her life, and how she and her mother ended up living in Germany. Faced with family members who do not want to talk about their experiences, Zaree goes on an emotional journey in which trauma, fear, and, frankly, love come together to shape her family’s story. Dripping with humanity, the film invites the the viewer to not only consider what happened at Evin and the state of human rights in Iran, but also about their own personal relationships and how we each deal with trauma in our lives.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch about the film. We talk about the Iranian Revolution, the government’s imprisonment of political opposition, and human rights abuses in Iran. We also talk about Maryam’s story, the challenges of researching Iran, and the role of social media in fostering political debate.

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Stand! Show and Tell (and Sing)

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David Frank

The catalogue of labour history films in Canada is a small one. There is a very good body of work in the documentary tradition, but you will not need a long weekend to screen all of the dramatic films related to this country’s labour and working-class history.[1] To this shelf, we can now add a new film based on the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, arguably one of the best known events in Canadian labour history.[2]

Stand! is a film adaptation of the stage musical Strike! which was written by Winnipeg-based Danny Schur and Rick Chafe, especially Schur, who was responsible for the music, lyrics, and score. The musical was produced in 2005 and has played on summer stages in Winnipeg repeatedly since then. As the centennial year of the strike approached, Schur took up the idea of making a film adaptation. The producers were able to raise a $7 million budget, a substantial sum for any Canadian film. There was support from agencies such as Telefilm Canada and Manitoba Film and Music as well as from the Canadian Labour Congress and other unions. Shooting was completed in Winnipeg in 2018, under the direction of the Hollywood-based Canadian director Robert Adetuyi and the American cinematographer Roy Wagner.

The subject matter, of course, is well-known, or should be. For six weeks in the spring of 1919 one of Canada’s major cities was caught up in a general strike that attracted support from more than 30,000 workers. Most of the leadership were skilled workers from Britain who were seeking union rights and social reforms, but most strike supporters were not union members at all at the time. Many were hopeful immigrants from Eastern Europe; others were veterans returning from the horrors of the Great War. In the short run, the strike met resistance from the local establishment and the federal government, and the repression produced arrests, bloodshed, and defeat. In the long run, however, the strike entered history as a mythic event that contributed to the growth of union organization and labour political action.

How does the film present historical information and ideas? Continue reading

Retiring from Royalty: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex Escape the Spotlight

@sussexroyal Instagram post, announcing Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to “step back.” Screenshot.

Justin Vovk

On Wednesday, January 8, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, shocked the world—and their relatives—with an announcement made on their official Instagram account. They were going to “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent.” News agencies and social media picked up the story minutes after it broke, as shock gave way to a series of important questions: What do they define as “stepping back?” What will their new status be? What does this mean for the future of the British monarchy as an institution?

Before there can be any discussion of these questions, however, it is necessary to understand why the Sussexes’ announcement has caused such a stir and the historical precedents—or lack thereof—for this situation.

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Language Remediation at the WDM: Answering TRC Calls to Action #43 and #67

Kaiti Hannah

Museum exhibit construction

WDM Saskatoon location under construction, Feb 18, 1972. WDM George Shepherd Library 10-E(e)-8

Author Note: Portions of this blog post were originally published on WDM.ca. They are reproduced with permission from the authors and the Western Development Museum (WDM). The WDM is the provincially mandated human history museum of Saskatchewan.

Language is important. The words we choose to use in our historical interpretation must be inclusive, accurate, respectful, current, and meaningful. Language also changes with time. What were acceptable narratives, framing, interpretations, and usages in the past are now often no longer acceptable. As new research is released, and public engagement and expectations evolve museums need to adapt their approaches to interpreting history. The findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that were released in 2015 emphasized the power that words and language have over our perceptions and understandings of the world around us, and how words influence how we interact with and relate to other people.

Museums are perceived by many as places of historical authority, but museums aren’t neutral. Everyone involved in the development of exhibits, from funders to researchers to curators to exhibit designers, has their own biases and perspectives that seep into what they produce, no matter how neutral they try to be. Positionality is unavoidable but it needs to be acknowledged, and it can be mitigated through collaboration with diverse groups, recognizing and affirming a wide array of perspectives.

The recognition of the importance of language, as well as the importance of acknowledging how history-making changes over time, has led the WDM to complete a systematic evaluation of all the language used in its public spaces. Continue reading

Remembering Air India Flight 182

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By Laura Madokoro

Dear readers,

Sometimes the present appears in the history classroom. And so, this post is a reflection about being sad and being a historian more than anything else (though I have a few words to say about pedagogy), and so I thank you in advance for your indulgence.

Like many others, I was deeply saddened to learn about the many lives lost on Ukrainian Air Flight PS 752 when it was shot down on 8 January 2020. When news that a student and alumnus at the university where I teach had been aboard that plane, my sadness amplified. I imagine many others felt the same as they learned about the people who lost their lives on that flight, including many students and others who had connections to communities, businesses and schools that they know. Fifty-seven of the passengers were Canadians.

In the wake of the tragedy, I was struck by the deep outpouring of support and sympathy, captured in the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on 11 January 2020 when he recognized that “Canada and the world are in mourning.” He emphasized that the crash was a “national tragedy” and underscored “that all Canadians are shocked and appalled at this senseless loss of life.” At the memorial service held in Edmonton last week, Prime Minister Trudeau continued in this vein, describing a moment of “national pain”, emphasizing that your “entire country stands with you.”

The emphasis on the crash as a national tragedy is significant. As columnist Shree Paradkar noted in a recent Toronto Star column, in the wake of the 1985 Air India Bombing, in which 329 people lost their lives, including 268 Canadians, the federal government and Canadian society as a whole struggled to think of the Canadian victims as citizens. Continue reading

Half Oil and Half Green: The Southern Roots of the Prairie West’s Anti-Environmental Rhetoric

The marquee above a local prairie-themed shop in Saskatoon; note the association of prairie pride with a pumpjack. Author’s photo.

Louis Reed-Wood

This past autumn, Aatash Amir, a Vancouver man concerned about emissions caused by gas-powered leaf blowers, circulated an online petition to have them banned in his hometown of Saskatoon. Upon posting the petition to a local Facebook group, he quickly received a flood of hateful comments, ranging from racist remarks, threats of violence, and calls for Amir to commit suicide. Some people sent videos of themselves using leaf blowers on nothing, ridiculing his suggestion of banning the machines.

As a historian of nineteenth-century America who grew up and did much of my training in the Prairie West, I found the response Amir received disturbing but unfortunately unsurprising. In recent years I’ve observed Western Canada become increasingly hostile toward environmentalist criticism. In this realm, I’ve noticed growing parallels between pro-oil, anti-environmentalist rhetoric in Western Canada and the argumentative strategies of another group closer to my own area of research—pro-slavery and anti-abolitionist agitators of the antebellum American South.

It is not my intention to suggest similarity between the oil industry and the slaveholding South generally; doing so would serve to diminish the cruelty and violence that was part and parcel of the commodification and ownership of human beings. These systems are markedly different from one another, but their supporters do share one key similarity. In both cases, these groups faced or are facing criticism that a vital source of their region’s wealth, social structure, and sense of identity is immoral and must be phased out. In turn, the petroleum sector’s defenders have adopted a similar response to this criticism. Like antebellum defenders of slavery, many Westerners have adopted an uncompromising strategy of redoubling their defence of the oil industry and seeking to harshly censure any criticism of it from within and without. With this unwillingness to change, Westerners—like Southerners—have adopted three main rhetorical strategies: a positive defence of their industry, an intolerance of criticism, and threats of secession. Continue reading

History’s Reputation Problem

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By Thomas Peace

Historians are out of touch. So we are told.

This summer, in response to declining enrollments in university history courses, The Economist ran a piece critiquing Britain’s university-based historians as hibernating while the world changes. “Historians need to escape from their intellectual caves,” the Bagehot columnist announced. They need to “start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power, and nation-states.”

Last week, TVO’s The Agenda picked up on the piece, asking the pointed question: why have university enrollments plummeted at a time when interest in history, and civic engagement with it, remains high?

Though the panelists on The Agenda mostly avoided critiques of the profession, others – like Bagehot – have framed the problem around the behaviour of professional historians and, specifically, our retreat from subjects that matter to society.

Remarks like these suggest that history – as a profession – has a reputation problem. When placed beside the sharp decline in undergraduate student enrollments, we must consider – given that interest in the past does not seem to have declined – perhaps, it is the public value of academic history, and – more specifically – the history professor, that has eroded. Continue reading