January 31, 2022

“Settler” and Other Words – Ambiguous, Ominous and Otherwise

Am I a settler?

Not by the dictionary definition: “a person who moves with a group of others to live in a new country or area.”

By Indigenous scholars’ definition, I am: “(one whose) ancestors came and settled in a land that had been inhabited by Indigenous people.”

Given the differences, I wouldn’t use the same word for both meanings.  In fact, I wouldn’t use the word at all.

Why?  Because ‘settler’ is not a mere descriptive.  It is another divisive word that is more Academic than Indigenous.  If it ever was, it’s no longer neutral.  It comes freighted with original sin, an expanding catalogue of shame and guilt; it is linked to genocide with little prospect of forgiveness.

It’s another in a succession of words that are becoming more ominous.

Here is the signature wording used by some at City Hall:

Social Policy & Projects Division | Arts, Culture & Community Services, City of Vancouver

Humbled to be an uninvited guest on the unceded traditional Coast Salish territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ / sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) nations.

The City of Vancouver seems to be suggesting that its staff and the citizens they serve are uninvited guests.

Another name for that is trespasser – someone who could be evicted from their illegitimate occupation by fiat or force.

See, that only took three steps – from settler, to guest, to trespasser.  Same with the use of “unceded”.  It has evolved from “traditional” to “unceded” to “stolen” – which, like trespasser, has some serious implications.

I remember a COPE candidate at a 2018 all-candidates meeting yelling out when there was a reference to unceded territory: “It’s stolen land! Give it back!”  He was talking about the City of Vancouver.  All of it.

There will not be a thoughtful, nuanced discussion or negotiation over reconciliation when we don’t really know what the words mean – but feel the implications are becoming more threatening.

Take “decolonization”

If decolonization means rejecting systems that have served to oppress Indigenous peoples, then what came after the European arrival is up for questioning. Here’s a tweet that reveals how far that can go:

Power and time may be ambitious, but let’s look at one of the most basic systems established by the settlers: the land tenure and registration system set up by colonial government in 1860 so that the land, having been pre-empted (without treaties), could be surveyed and legally described.  Then bought and sold and speculated on and exploited.  Colonialism at its most blatant.

Settler possession was based on the paper trail of verification housed in this building, the New Westminster Land Title Office at 668 Carnarvon Street.


Every map, every line on the map, every word describing the line, every owner, every buyer, every successor, every step of the way, all recorded and archived by these people (right):

It continues today, in an unbroken trail, by these people:


These are the settlers.  The uninvited guests.

It’s not likely that anyone with political sense will call them ‘uninvited guests’ with the implication that they could in theory be uninvited and go back to where they came from.  Or that the land tenure system on which the entire real-estate industry rests should be delegitimated.  At least not head on.

But if the common law system – another foundation of our society – is up for decolonization, then why not?  And in at least one university, it looks like that might be the case. 

UVic prof John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law, describes the difference between common law and Indigenous law this way: 

Indigenous law looks to nature and to the land to provide principles of law and order and ways of creating peace between peoples; whereas the common law looks to old cases in libraries to decide how to act in the future.

“… old cases in libraries”.  A tad dismissive?

Within the Academy, changing the meaning of words is more about questioning an objective version of truth and undermining blind trust in society’s laws, customs and institutions.  If most of what followed European arrival can be seen as suspect, it’s easier then to dethrone those who wrote and adjudicated the old cases.  Literally.

Across the street from the historic Land Registry Office is Begbie Square, which until recently hosted the statue of that colonial jurist.  The Begbie statue was removed in a gesture of reconciliation.

When statues are pulled down, names changed or rejected for their settler provenance, when the meaning of words is left ambiguous, it’s not long before there will be a crisis of legitimacy.  But  the elected could not govern nor raise taxes from those whose colonial-based ownership had been negated.  The leaders of First Nations could not claim possession without law-makers and law-enforcers defying the interests of the citizens who elected them.

The immediate casuality would be any prospect of reconciliation.  Or, as the UVic indigenous law professor stated: “creating peace between peoples”.

Whether is it for that reason, or fear of the conflict when anguish and anger are unleashed, or even just a respect for lexicography, please, find another word.  Something more nuanced and empathetic.  But please, don’t call me settler.


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  1. Thank you Gordon, for saying what many Canadians no doubt feel, but are perhaps too afraid of voicing out loud in public, lest they be labeled racist or colonialist or simply ignorant. The accelerating process of politicizing language and delegitimizing anyone who has the temerity to demure is political correctness run rampant. This is problematic if we value truth and honesty in our public discourse. It is even more problematic for reconciliation.

    Am I opposed to meaningful (i.e. with tangible results for Indigenous people) reconciliation between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Canadians? Not all all. This is one of the greatest challenges for our country going forward, and the terrible, unjust treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples in the past is real and needs to be addressed as a national priority.

    Am I a ‘settler’? No I am not. I am a proud Canadian, an immigrant who came to Canada as an individual young adult seeking a better life in a ‘free’ society that valued fairness, good governance, law and order (although I fully acknowledge that these principles were certainly not equally applied to all Canadians, as we know). As did so many people living in Canada today, from different backgrounds, cultures and walks of life. I did not come to Canada as “a person who moves with a group of others to live in a new country or area.” Nor am I “(one whose) ancestors came and settled in a land that had been inhabited by Indigenous people.” I came because I was invited by the elected government of Canada to come here and make my own contribution, however modest, to this country.

    I believe in the power of language. We all need to agree however on the meaning of the words we use, or we are at risk of speaking past each other. Words matter, and if we give in to the fear of being publicly shamed, demonized or ‘cancelled’ because of the words we use, then this is a slippery slope that will not help bring true reconciliation for Canada’s Indigenous people. Quite the contrary. I strongly support and advocate for reconciliation. I also support honesty, transparency and mutual respect for others. We are all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. Reconciliation cannot be based on a zero sum game of one group expunging the rights and responsibilities of another. That would be to repeat the mistakes of our history. True reconciliation requires us agreeing on the meaning of the words we use for advancing this process. Assuming that Canadians like me are ‘colonialists’, ‘settlers’ or ‘uninvited guests’ in this country is both untrue and unhelpful to the urgent process of reconciliation.

  2. These issues need to be raised and questions asked if we are going to truly understand each other and find common ground in the future. If we’re headed in a direction that ends up at a different place than many expect we are destined for, there will be no reconciliation, only fear, resentment and even chaos.

  3. Thanks Gordon. It is important to acknowledge that these words are not used by most indigenous people. Some aboriginal leaders like former Haisla Chief Councillor Ellis Ross call them racist. They are mostly used by the woke who are identified by black scholar John McWhorter as ‘neo racists’. Technically you could say that all aboriginal people in Vancouver who are not from the three First Nations are ‘settlers’. Thanks for bringing this sensitive but important subject up.

  4. Our feelings are not material here. It IS stolen land that our forebearers settled on. That’s not a judgement. It’s simply what happened. Any problems we have with the terminology are our own. It’s not First Nations’ responsibility to tiptoe around our insecurities with assuaging language and gestures. Those days are done. This process of reconciliation is weird and new. It’s groping around for a way to share and it will continue to be imperfect. But it’s not intended for our comfort. We need to get over ourselves or this is going to be much harder than it needs to be.

    1. Dan I completely agree with you. The language and terminology are also colonial constructs so it seems odd to quibble. I am personally committed to being part of the exploration of the way to share. It’s an exciting time and important to check personal privilege.

      1. Such an interesting discussion. I am also less fussed about the word but am certainly surrounded by many ‘settlers’ who are bothered by it. Recently attended a workshop by the Victoria Native Friendship Centre and the speaker explained the notion of being a settler as a cultural mindset, rather than a definition of how long you or your ancestors have lived here. Thought that was insightful and I can accept that I do have a settler mindset. However words do matter and I look forward to seeing how the shared language of truth and reconciliation develops.

    2. Then it is going to be much harder than it needs to be because both sides need to learn how to cooperate and if you are sittinf at the table of reconciliation and peace demanding that an entire group of people who were born here and live here and will continue to live here no matter what because there really is no way to send us all “back where we came from”. The fact is that we are here and aren’t going anywhere so YES our feelings on this discussion and the language used to define it matter greatly because for true reconciliation to happen there has to be respect on both sides. Stating that the “other sides” thoughts ideas and feelings on the social constructs of the society we all have to share and live in going into the future – is not an attempt at respectful reconciliation – it is a declaration of war. It is saying you do not matter in this discussion. You do not belong here.

  5. Having been born in Vancouver to an Eastern Canadian couple who moved west when they were demobilized in England at the end of WWII, I find it curious to be labelled a “settler.” My parents were economic migrants, as were the Chinese, Japanese, South Asians, Scots, Italians, Mennonites, etc. etc. (and, of course, the Indigenous people who are moving here seeking a better life).

  6. Well said Gord. As an editorial in the Dorchester Review also points out, using the term settler “falsifies the reality that all cultures are a blend of influences that arise as people interact, borrow, impose, improvise and adapt…The current science tells us that natives didn’t emerge from the North American soil, they migrated from Asia… in successive waves over the course of thousands of years…Native history is subject to the same forces and the same results as all peoples throughout all time.”

    This Orwellian manipulation of language rewards its believers with self-righteousness—but it falsifies reality, stokes division and endangers the democratic progress.

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