Settler Colonialism in Quebec: a blind spot of academic research? Part 1: The Words

By Kathleen Villeneuve

Translated by Robert Twiss from an original publication in HistoireEngagé

On November 25 to 26, 2021 the Université de Montréal hosted the workshop “Settler Colonialism in Quebec: a blind spot of academic research?” Organized by professors Catherine Larochelle and Ollivier Hubert, the aim of the workshop was to survey the state of research in settler colonial studies, a field which, while it is more developed outside the province, is still in its infancy in Quebec. The workshop was therefore conceived as a first step in the development of the study of Quebecois colonialism, in a context in which “colonial agnosia”[1] still limits debate, in this province perhaps more than elsewhere.

The presentations were grouped into thematic panels representing the physical and symbolic spaces through which settler colonialism carves a path. Today we look at Philippe Néméh-Nombré, Ollivier Hubert, Mathieu Paradis and Sarah Henzi presentations about words and how they play a large role in both the production and invisiblization of colonialism.

Philippe Néméh-Nombré kicked the workshop off with an invitation to rethink terms like “colonialisme d’implantation” and “peuplement,” the French conceptual lexicon of settler colonial studies. Because words participate in the production of the meanings of the objects they represent, it is important to pay attention to the terms that designate complex and charged realities. While indigenous and racialized activist researchers at the turn of the twenty-first century mobilized concepts to express unambiguously the destructive and violent dimension of the colonial project—“conquest,” “imperialism,” “genocide”—, the field of settler colonial studies, developed in the Australian academic context and then exported internationally, distances itself from these terms by absorbing them into the expression settler colonialismwhich Néméh-Nombré considers too neutral. 

Building on the reflections of Joanne Barker, who remarks that the term “settler” implies reconciliation, understanding, and resolution, Néméh-Nombré proposes to analyze the French conceptual lexicon of settler colonial studies and to the imaginary it invites. While the term “implantation” signifies, in its most common sense, the action of introducing one’s self into a space or settling somewhere, “peuplement” refers to the action of peopling, of deliberately increasing the population of a territory. These concepts refer to processes that are creative and productive, and therefore positive, while evacuating the violent and destructive dimension of colonialism. These lexical choices therefore represent a kind of euphemism for the colonial process, an effacement of the “violence of antagonisms” that compromises a truly decolonial practice.

In the Quebec context, this linguistic moderation runs the additional risk of feeding the still very common myth of harmonious métissage and the close relationships between French colonists and indigenous peoples.

This myth is closely related to that of a “colonized” Quebec, an idea problematized by Ollivier Hubert and Mathieu Paradis. The two researchers observe that, since the 1960’s, some Quebecois have begun to use the word “colonized” instead of “conquered” to refer to themselves.

To understand the meaning of this shift, they studied the magazine Parti pris (1963-1968)which theorizes a decolonial socialism founded on the representation of the Quebecois as victims of British and American colonialism. The magazine’s discourse borrows indiscriminately from the decolonial literature of its time; citing Aimé Césaire, Albert Memmi or Frantz Fanon, the magazine’s authors identify “without limitation” with the colonized subject, going so far as to describe Quebecois as an “indigenous community,” a “tribe without its reserve,” and the victims of a “cultural genocide.” By presenting a binary vision of colonialism within which the Quebecois are the victims, the magazine remains silent on the decisive role French Canadians played in the process of dispossession experienced by indigenous populations.

In reality, this borrowing from decolonial theories does not serve as an accurate representation of the condition of French Canadians, but instead as a discursive creation of a reality that conforms to the pro-sovereignty agenda of the magazine’s authors. The manipulation of facts and concepts in Parti pris, and the resultant effacement of indigenous peoples, can be identified as a persistent form of colonial violence that can be seen, for example, in some of today’s debates on systemic racism.

According to Sarah Henzi, the attribution of a form of indigenous identity to the Quebecois, through the myth of métissage or the appropriation of the colonized indigenous identity, runs counter to any real attempt at decolonization. Through the words of indigenous writers such as Louis-Karl Picard-Sioui (Wendat), Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine and Joséphine Bacon (Innu), she studies the relationship these writers have with their identity.

Picard-Sioui illustrates how colonialism operates through language when he says that he lives in a country whose two official languages are foreign to him, or when he refers to the effacement of indigenous civilizations through the replacement of original place names by the colonizer.

Inversely, words can be the road towards healing in a context in which the physical restitution of land appears impossible: unable “to possess geographical landscapes,” Natasha Kanapé Fontaine writes that she “hopes to reappropriate our imaginary, philosophical, cultural, and human territories.” She says she dreams of a country where people would call her “Innu” instead of “indigenous.”

In 1976, in Eukuan nin matshi-manitu innushkueu/Je suis une maudite Sauvagesse [I Am A Damned Savagess], An Antane Kapesh takes back the word “savagess”, making it a point of pride because it reaffirms her identity as an indigenous woman while opposing her to the colonizer, whom she calls “less civilized.” But her book was ignored when it was published: according to Naomi Fontaine, who wrote the preface to the last edition. With  the “quiet revolution” in full swing, Quebec wanted to “build a country” and saw the territory and its resources as its “salvation”; a “nationalist ardor” left no place for Kapesh’s story. Sarah Henzi, for whom this non-listening is an ongoing problem, affirms the necessity of “mutual, respectful, consensual, and reciprocal dialogue” that will leave space for the voices “of those who have been silenced.”

Kathleen Villeneuve is a masters student at the Université de Montréal.

[1] Colonial agnosia refers to the idea that settler colonialism, as a power structure that is invasive, totalizing, and genocidal, remains misunderstood by the population of colonising States. Colonizers experience cognitive dissonance when they refuse to see the consequences of their actions for First Peoples. See Manu Vimalassery, Juliana Hu Pegues et Alyosha Goldstein,  “Introduction : On Colonial Unknowing”, Theory & Event, vol. 19, n°4, 2016. ; Mark Rifkin, “Settler Common Sense”, Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 3, n°3-4, 2013.

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