Who is a settler? This was a key question of Train of Thought, the west-to-east, two-month-long travelling community arts journey from Victoria to PEI produced by Jumblies theatre and dozens of other partners in 2015. For Train of Thought, I worked both as an organizer in Toronto and as a traveller, visiting the stops in Kingston, Ottawa, and Montreal. During my brief time on the tour, I experienced some of the key aspects of Train of Thought: enjoying cross-cultural collaboration with indigenous artists and communities in spontaneous creations, workshops, feasts, and song, and spending concerted time contemplating indigenous historical, political, and current realities. What makes my time on the Train of Thought unique is that I experienced it as a conscious person of colour—-one of the few non-white, non-Indigenous travellers.
As a Black Trinidadian-Canadian on the Train of Thought, I found myself asking: what is the role of people of colour
in the settler colonial project? Moreover, how can people of colour enter the decolonization conversation if space is not made for our distinct points of view? In this article-—through consideration of academic debate, interviews conducted with travellers post-tour, and my personal reflections—-I attempt to address these questions as they manifested on Train of Thought.
Settler as White
In recent debates on the role of non-Indigenous people of colour within the settler colonial project, three main views emerge. Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, in their 2005 essay “Decolonizing antiracism,” admonish people of colour specifically, naming them as settlers who do not acknowledge their role in the continuing colonization of Indigenous peoples. Responding to this view in 2009, Nandita Sharma and Cynthia Wright, in “Decolonizing resistance, Challenging Colonial states,” argue that people of colour should not be called “settlers,” as such a view inevitably leads to neo-racist narratives in which all “foreigners” are necessarily unwelcome. And finally, Corey Snelgrove, Rita Kaur Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel present a third view in their 2014 essay “Unsettling settler Colonialism,” in which people of colour are settlers but are a different sort of settler from their white counterparts.
Personally, I favour the third view: people of colour, being non-Native, are settlers to Canada and therefore complicit in the settler colonial project. However, I think it is also necessary to note that the privileges afforded to white settlers surpass those of non-white settlers, as all are not created equal in colonialism. Moreover, being people of colour, our relationship to colonialism is layered, as many of us are also likely to come from a background of being colonized. As one traveller of colour stated in a post-tour interview,(1) “I was surprised at my feelings that arose especially before Toronto when I was really grappling with what it means to be a settler-–personally what it means to be a settler as a person from a colonized ancestry that’s differently colonized.”(2)
This duality within settlers of colour is not commonly addressed in mainstream conversations about reconciliation and indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships, nor was it addressed during the Train of Thought. Instead, within the scope of the tour, the term “settler” was effectively constructed as white. More than there being a lack of non-Indigenous people of colour present on the tour, which there was, there was no sense of the experience of such conflict: that is, the dual experience of being colonial and colonized. Instead, the tour only seemed to recognize white settler colonials and those who are presently colonized: Indigenous travellers. As one interviewee observed, this created a feeling of isolation among non-Indigenous travellers of colour: “it was a kind of isolation being the only non-white, non-Indigenous person for my first leg of the trip. I guess—-that’s stuff I thought about before but I was surprised by how much it shook me.”(3) Moreover, for people of colour, including myself, there is a strong desire to be excluded from such a classification as settler, because of resistance to being subsumed into whiteness. One traveller told me:
“there was this cyclical experience of feeling annoyed at that sort of binary that was emerging and that I was
sort of being de facto-—in the toft culture—-classified as white in that way—-because that’s not true. And then I was confronted with feelings of: why is this bothering me so much? Is it because it’s a legitimate thing-—and it is-—or is it also because of some kind of settler guilt, and maybe it’s that too.”(4)
Opportunities for people of colour to share, and the space to investigate their dual experience as colonial and colonized, were keenly missed.
While one could respond that conversations about decolonization in Canada are not about non-white, non-Indigenous persons, but instead—-and rightly-—focus on Indigenous perspectives, there are, nevertheless, more histories and peoples in Canada than those of white European-descended settlers. Thus, spaces—-artistic, academic, or otherwise-—that focus exclusively on whiteness and Indigeneity as a binary fail to address the full scope of colonization, particularly as it operates in Canada. If this is the case, we can then ask whether spaces like Train of Thought dismantle colonial structures for non-Indigenous people of colour, or reinforce them.