Setting our Stories Straight: My Own Settler Story

One of the great lessons of postmodernism and postcolonialism has been that there is no such thing as an objective philosophy or theology. All theology is contextual theology. And so, before I begin this project of dismantling the bad Christian theology that supported European imperialism and colonization, I need to situate myself within my own religious and social contexts, especially as I, a white descendant of English settlers, sit and write on the traditional lands of the of the Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek Nations, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

My family has been in what is now called Canada for a long time by Euro-Canadian standards. I am eighth-generation Canadian on my mom’s side, and so unlike many Canadians, my childhood did not involve stories of ‘the old country’ or the tensions between the culture at home and the dominant culture outside of it. What I’ve come to realize over the past few years, thanks to the shifting conversation about race in society at large and to some specific conversations with patient friends, is how much this seamless cultural experience hid from me, and how much privilege it actually conveyed.

Despite this very white settler upbringing, my experience with Indigenous cultures started when I was very young. When I was just a year old, my family moved from the county where my mom’s line had been settled for close to two hundred years, to a small, majority Indigenous (Kaska Dena) town in the North, Watson Lake, Yukon, where my dad ministered at the local Anglican church. By the time I started school, we were living in Whitehorse, a larger, whiter, city, but one where there was still a significant Indigenous presence — my elementary school, for example, offered lessons in three different Indigenous languages (Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, and, I believe, Tlingit (Teslin)). During that time, my dad served in another Indigenous (Selkirk First Nation, Northern Tutchone people) community, and I would often travel there with my parents. The 1980s were a time of transition in Yukon. The Residential Schools had been shut down for over a decade but still loomed large, Treaty and Land Claims negotiations were well underway (an ‘umbrella’ agreement was reached in 1988), and there was excitement in the local Church for increasing Indigenization. (I remember, for example, everyone making a big fuss over a visit from the first female Indigenous deacon in the area.)

My awareness of Indigenous cultures continued in my teenage years, when we lived near a large Cree community (recently renamed Maskwacis) in central Alberta. And, I spent my college years on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen/Songhees and W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) peoples, where I studied Linguistics from professors who were all involved in language preservation and reclamation projects partnering with local and regional First Nations communities. During my undergrad we had regular visits from speakers of local Indigenous languages, and I was lucky enough to take a class on Salish languages (the specific language we studied was Lushootseed, which was originally spoken around what is now Seattle), and assisted with research on Lower Chehailis, a Wakashan language from the Olympic Peninsula.

This history places me in a strange space when it comes to Canada and the Indigenous peoples of the land. On the one hand, my family were among the early white settlers in Southwestern Ontario; my ancestors cleared and reshaped the land that had been inhabited by various Anishinaabe peoples (the Anishinabewaki, Attiwonderonk, and Mississauga nations) for thousands of years. And, as missionaries in a region where, and at a time when, some elders still remembered their first encounters with white people, we were part of one of colonization’s major players, even if the tide had already turned away from assimilationist values before we got there. This long history means that I feel a sense of personal responsibility when it comes to Canadian and Church relations with Indigenous peoples.

But at the same time, my story also means that my earliest memories are from Indigenous communities, where being Indigenous was ‘normal’, where traditional Indigenous arts — leather- and bead-work — and local greens and wildflowers decorated the church altar, and where we thought nothing of “making church” on a river bank to offer the Liturgy surrounded by smoking fish. I grew up and was educated in environments where Indigenous languages were valued and taught, and where Indigenous identity was valued and taught. This means that I value Reconciliation not just because it is an issue of justice, but also because I know first hand that Indigenous peoples, cultures, languages, and ways are good, beautiful, and true and deserve to be celebrated.

And so this is my context. These are some of the factors and memories that shape my understanding of Canada, of Reconciliation, and the work people like me need to do. I encourage you to think about your own cultural and ethnic histories and experiences with the Indigenous peoples of the places you’ve lived. It can be a helpful and eye-opening exercise.

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