(Re)Narrating Settler Colonialism in the Stories we tell Ourselves and Others

(Re)Narrating Settler Colonialism in the Stories we tell Ourselves and Others

A blog by Daniel MacKinnon.

Moving to Nova Scotia to attend university forced me to present a personal narrative. I was an outsider. But I had an answer ready: I was no “upper Canadian” tourist. I had family in Nova Scotia. We had been visiting almost every summer of my childhood. Nova Scotia was internalized as a part of my identity – a place of Scottish settlers and a culture that proudly announced itself in music, food, and Gaelic sayings. The challenges to this imaginary came swiftly. I learned the most from my housemate. He always introduced himself as being from Truro, Nova Scotia. Only later, after establishing a sense of trust, would he tell some people that he was from Millbrook First Nation, “just outside” of Truro. His need to protect his identity in the face of entrenched and persistent racisms and exposed the white fragility of my own. The settler story that I sought to identify with in order to establish my place was one that denied the presence of Indigenous peoples, Black Nova Scotians, and of other heritages.

A settler colonial imaginary is reproduced and sustained through cultural and personal narratives [1]. In sharing and repeating these narratives, we provide the imaginary with an intersubjectivity that creates the sense that the images and tropes of settler colonialism are an essential part of our collective unconsciousness. These narratives manifest themselves not only at the level of explicit stories of colonial and frontier life, but also subtly provide the structure and elements that we use to create and maintain our identities [2].

Tupper (2019) seeks to understand how the settler colonial narrative supports and reinforces an imaginary that shapes our Canadian political discourse and our own identities. Stories based on this narrative that we tell ourselves contribute to the ongoing harm of settler colonial ideology. Understanding these narrative forms help us recognize them within our own stories and provides us with the opportunity to rewrite them. In pulling the threads of these interwoven stories apart, a distinction has been drawn between colonialism and settler colonialism in terms of historical phenomenon, cultural imaginary, and narrative forms (Veracini, 2010).

The stories of colonialism render non-Western places and people as exotic and, in turn, provide the foundation for modes of learning and understanding that express themselves as ethnography: we travel to discover, observe, extract, and learn. Colonial narratives structure the discourse of orientalism, creating conditions for political violence (Said, 1978, p. 92–109). Figure 1 illustrates the three part cyclical structure of the colonial narrative, which frequently includes encounters with Indigenous peoples as an exotic other during the middle passage of struggle and conquest (Veracini, 2010, p. 98).

Figure 1: The structure of the colonial narrative
A cyclical narrative in three parts, A: departure and discovery, B: struggle and conquest, C: return.

The archetypical settler colonial narrative is markedly different: it is not a journey of discovery, but one where values and “civilization” are carried along with the settlers to their destination; there is no eventual return, but only perpetual residence; it is not cyclical, but rather linear and unending (Figure 2). This linear narrative of perpetual settlement typically renders the encounter with Indigenous peoples a non-event – the settler story ultimately requires the displacement and erasure of Indigenous peoples, while the colonial narrative marks them as an exotic other, to be studied, conquered, and ultimately left behind (Veracini, 2010, p. 98).

Figure 2: The structure of the settler colonial narrative
A linear narrative in three parts, A: departure and penetration to interior, B: settling of the frontier, C: perpetual progress

It is this settler colonial narrative that dominates the Canadian historical consciousness, and that weaves itself into our personal stories of identity. Tupper (2019) identifies a number elements that are typically deployed within the settler colonial narrative and that fit within this understanding of its essential structure: (1) pioneering nation building (p. 88) (2) the settler as a peacemaker or heroic savior of Indigenous peoples (p. 89), (3) the situations of Indigenous people as a problem to be solved (p. 90), (4) the settler as a peaceful colonizer, (5) the existence of an “empty wilderness” (p. 92). Tupper (2019) also notes elements that these narratives exclude: (1) the establishment of treaties (p. 91), (2) the voices and perspectives of Indigenous peoples (p. 91), and (3) the names of peoples and places used by Indigenous peoples (p. 91). These narratives describe a “settling” rather than an “invasion” (Tupper, 2019, p. 92), a settling that conveniently omits Indigenous agency, thereby obviating the need to consider political settlements and agreements between the forming nation and an Indigenous polity that is seen not to exist.

According to Tupper (2019), Canadian national and political discourse is “replete” with the elements and structure of the settler colonial narrative (p. 93). Describing the components and structure of the settler colonial narrative, we can recognize its use in support for political calls of national unity, regional exceptionalism, and economic and environmental policies. At the same time, awareness of these narratives can help us see how they support the continued symbolic and physical violence that colonialism inflicts on Indigenous peoples. For Tupper, it is most essential how educators, particularly those like her from a white settler background, recognize how these narratives are linked to our personal stories of identity. Tupper proposes a process of settler life writing as presenting “real possibilities for reconstituting our collective memories, which in turn holds possibilities for a new ethic of historical settler consciousness, new conversations to take place, and a new national narrative to emerge” (p. 95). [3]

Tupper’s recollection of particular confrontations with her own settler colonial consciousness introduces us to Badiou’s notion of event. In these confrontations, Tupper enacts a truth procedure in facing the void that has opened up within her understanding, and in this, cracks appear in simulacra of the colonial imaginary she had unknowingly been sustaining until that point (see van Kessel, 2018, 2020). Through these events, Tupper (2019) reaches following the conclusion:

My settler memories have been carefully constructed to avoid, wherever possible, historical harms and traumas done to the land, to the Indigenous people who have been here since time immemorial. (p. 100)

In her examples of settler life writing, Tupper (2019) reminds us to go beyond mere reflection, and use these curricular opportunities to revisit assumptions, language, and missing understandings. She notes how her own settler consciousness triggered techniques of evading learning about treaties – how part of this consciousness is sustained through willful ignorance and the diminishment of forms of knowing that fail to fit into western epistemic model of knowledge (p. 97). Tupper demonstrates that how learning about the Indigenous histories of the places that we have built our personal narratives around provide opportunities for recasting these reflections in a new light that can surface ways in which our own narratives participate in the denial of the essential Indigeneity of these places (p. 98-100).

Why is changing our personal and shared narratives important? As Veracini (2010) explains: “detecting settler colonialism and its operation, of course, is not enough, and the decolonization of settler colonial forms needs to be imagined before it can be practiced” (p. 108).  However, Veracini (2010) continues:

Discontinuing settler colonial forms requires conceptual frames and supporting narratives of reconciliation that have yet to be fully developed and narrated (p. 114).

Will we be able to rewrite our personal and national narratives of a post-settler future? For Tupper (2019), this “difficult work” begins with settler life writing, which she believes has the potential “to shift the national conversation and perhaps even the national ethos” (p. 102).

I moved to Nova Scotia just after the release of the report of the Royal Commission into the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall Jr (Nova Scotia, 1989). It seemed, at the time, a moment of reckoning. The commission clearly stated that the miscarriages of justice against Marshall, including his wrongful conviction, were “due, in part at least, to the fact that Donald Marshall, Jr. is a Native” (Nova Scotia, 1989, p. 1). And now, many years later, we mark the first anniversary of the release of the report of Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Canada, 2019). With its finding of a race-based genocide of Indigenous Peoples enabled by settler colonial structures, the national inquiry reminded us:

Canada is a settler colonial country. European nations, followed by the new government of “Canada,” imposed its own laws, institutions, and cultures on Indigenous Peoples while occupying their lands. Racist colonial attitudes justified Canada’s policies of assimilation, which sought to eliminate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples as distinct Peoples and communities. (p. 4)

The Canadian settler imaginary has been presented with many events which should have cracked its foundations, and Canadian society has been presented with a wealth of text with which its narrative can be rewritten. It may be that the time for therapeutic interventions to gently mend the consciousness of Canadian settler society has passed.  As Tanya Talaga (2020) writes from within the midst of our current crisis and reckoning, waiting for any future time to make change only amounts to further complicity, and that “the time is now.”


[1] Charles Taylor (2004) provides a concise description of what is meant by an imaginary:
By social imaginary, I mean something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations. (p. 23)

[2] David Carr (1991) outlines the importance of narrative to identity:
… narrative structure pervades everyday life as the form of our experiences and actions. The complex structure of narrative …  represents the manner in which our experiences and actions are organized over time. (p. 73)

[3] The process of introspection is in line with Shah’s (2019) socially engaged Buddhism, Critical Race Theory and Critical Whiteness Study proposed by Shaw (2018; 2019), Donald’s métissage (2009),  Pinar’s method of currere (1994), and the Jungian shadow work called for by Wang (2019).


Canada (2019). Reclaiming power and place: Executive summary of the final report of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Retrieved from: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Executive_Summary.pdf

Carr, D. (1991). Time, narrative, and history. Indiana University Press.

Donald, D. T. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and indigenous métissage: Imagining decolonization of aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1–24.

Nova Scotia (1989). Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall, Jr. Prosecution. Retrieved from: https://novascotia.ca/just/marshall_inquiry/

Pinar, W. F. (1994). The Method of “Currere” (1975). Counterpoints, 2, 19–27. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42975620

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Shah, V. (2018). Leadership for Social Justice through the Lens of Self- Identified, Racially and Other-Privileged Leaders.  Journal of Global Citizenship and Equity Education. 6(1), pp. 1-41.

Shah, V. (2019). Calling in the Self: Centering Socially Engaged Buddhism in Critical Pedagogy Through Personal Narrative. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 10(2), 2019.

Talaga, T. (2020, June 13). There have always been two Canadas. In this reckoning on racism, both must stand together for Indigenous people now. The Globe and Mail. Opinion p. 1. Retrieved from: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-there-have-always-been-two-canadas-in-this-reckoning-on-racism-both/

Taylor, Charles. Modern social imaginaries. Duke University Press, 2004.

Tupper, J. A. (2019). Cracks in the Foundations: (Re)storying Settler Colonialism. In Kristina Llewellyn & Nicholas Ng-A-Fook (Eds.). Oral History, Education, and Justice. New York, New York: Routledge.

van Kessel, C. (2018). Banal and fetishized evil: Implicating ordinary folk in genocide education. Journal of International Social Studies, 8(2), 160-171.

van Kessel, C. (2020). Resistance is not futile: Badiou, Simulacra and a story from the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 17(2), 38-50.

Veracini, L. (2010). Settler colonialism: A theoretical overview. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Wang, H. (2019). An Integrative Psychic Life, Nonviolent Relations, and Curriculum Dynamics in Teacher Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education 38, pp. 377–395.

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