What it means for me to be a settler of colour on unceded Indigenous lands

Writer Jianna Faner explores her journey in understanding what it means to be a settler of colour, what actions settlers of colour can take to respect and recognize the Indigenous people of Canada, and embracing the road ahead towards reconciliation and decolonization.

My immigrant parents settled our family on a land that, for thousands of years, sustained and nurtured the people who still live here. Those people share a name with the city I grew up in, kʷikʷəƛ̓əm, meaning: “red fish up the river.” My parents sacrificed much to get us to that place, where salmon once ran in great numbers in the Coquitlam River, just outside Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory — the place that we currently know as Vancouver.

As I was studying one day, my mom came into the room and peeked at the article open on my iPad: “Indian Act Colonialism: A Century of Dishonour, 1869-1969.” 

“You learn about that in law school too? First Nations things?” she said. 

I told her yes, of course: Indigenous issues are very important.

“Don’t they already have so much power? You can’t do anything to question them, and their chiefs don’t work but they get money from the government?”

I paused. I wasn’t sure how to address her question in a way that she would understand. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where to start. So I went for the low-hanging fruit, and said that First Nations groups have leaders who should be compensated: the Prime Minister is paid, isn’t he? 

Mom conceded and didn’t question me further. She admitted that she wasn’t even sure exactly what she had meant: she’d just heard my tita talk like that in the past, but she hadn’t really understood it then, either.

At Allard Law, my cohort is the first to have a mandatory course dedicated to Indigenous-Settler Legal Relations, and though it’s far from a perfect answer to addressing the injustices and violence perpetrated on Indigenous peoples in Canada, I am finding it thought-provoking, to say the least. It has me thinking just how much I still need to do and learn — especially when my mom comes in with big questions that I don’t know how to answer. 

Even now, I continue to struggle to articulate just how much she and I, and the rest of our family, continue to benefit from the historical and colonial violence inflicted upon Indigenous peoples. 

“Settler”

Author Jianna Faner at her Canadian Citizenship ceremony, circa 2011
Jianna and her father at their Canadian Citizenship ceremony
Photo submitted by Jianna Faner

I took a number of Indigenous studies courses during my undergraduate degree, but it was a long time before I redefined my understanding of the word “settler” to include myself.

For a long time, I told myself: I’m not a settler, I’m an immigrant. How could I be a settler? My own country was colonized for centuries by the Spanish, followed by the Americans. Settlers are “the white man” and the peers of John A. MacDonald, not me.

As I learned about residential schools, the 60s Scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, I didn’t feel any kind of guilt. How could I be responsible for atrocities that happened before I was born, let alone before migration to the Canadian colonial state was even a glint in my parents’ eyes? We had our own problems.

But then I came across the term “settler of colour,” and the possibility occurred to me that I could be complicit. Maybe not in these historical atrocities, but when the last residential school closed in the year I was born, generations of Indigenous peoples continued to live on with the painful, lasting impacts of their experiences there. Worse still, many of the other laws and policies which governed and controlled the lives of Indigenous peoples still exist today.

I think of all the opportunities that have been afforded to me as a migrant to these lands, so many of which I would not have had access to, had my parents stayed in Manila. I’ve benefited from having one of the world’s most powerful passports (outside of a global pandemic, anyway), a world-class education including a law degree in three years’ time, I hope. These things would not have been possible without colonial violence.

I am so lucky, so privileged. Sure, as immigrants we could put our heads down and say, we have our own problems. But my parents worked hard to bring me here, and not just so I could reap some benefits but so that I could contribute to this society and make a difference.

If there’s a chance that I can work to make the society I live in, one that—at the very least—recognizes the harms and violence experienced by Indigenous peoples at the hands of colonial policies, why on earth wouldn’t I take that chance? If we as settlers can do something to redress those historical and ongoing harms, then don’t we have a responsibility to do that?

What to do

Whenever I engage in conversations like this, I know what settlers like me ask: Okay, so what do we do?

Before I take a stab at this question, I want to acknowledge the many, many Indigenous groups and individuals who have been fighting since European contact to assert their rights to this land and to their self-determination, as well as their basic human rights, so heinously infringed upon by colonization. So much work has been done already by Indigenous communities to resist, and in fact, so much work has been done to answer the question, “What do settlers need to do?”— it’s now long overdue for settlers to actually listen. 

Jianna holding a stack of Indigenous books
Photo submitted: Jianna Faner

In the first place, whose lands are you on? Do you know the languages they speak, their histories, or how they have contributed to the society you live in?

At gatherings you host, whether virtual or not, do you know how to acknowledge the land? Have you thought critically about how or why you do?

Can you name an Indigenous artist? A writer, a filmmaker, a musician?

Particularly if you are in Canada, did you recognize those historical atrocities I listed earlier? Even if you are not in Canada, but some other settler state—do you know what mechanisms your government has used to control and oppress Indigenous peoples?

If you are a Canadian settler, have you read the Calls to Action of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission? How have you responded? 

Feeling unsettled

I often find myself nervous when I think about these issues, and I will likely be nervous when this article is published. I share this in case you feel the same. I feel nervous about getting it wrong and not knowing enough, and pretending to be an authority on something I’m not. 

I also feel nervous because this process is about questioning, interrogating, and dismantling settler colonialism, which means dismantling a system that has afforded me privilege and safety. That means my feelings of discomfort are a necessary part of this process.

And so, I say this to myself as much as I say it to you, if you feel the same: let’s keep pushing that comfort zone. Let’s be open to getting it wrong and constantly not knowing enough. In order to unsettle, I must be unsettled, constantly unlearning and relearning, and working towards reconciliation and decolonization.

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