21 Imagining a Better Future: An Introduction to Teaching and Learning about Settler Colonialism in Canada

Andrea Eidinger and Sarah York-Bertram

This is an image of Lake Louise in the winter. In the foreground is a view-finder, looking across the lake towards the mountains.

“If you come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson

We wish to acknowledge that this blog post would not have been possible without the work of Indigenous scholars, many of whom are listed below, who have been researching and writing in this field for decades. We are deeply indebted to them for their generosity and patience. 

Like so many others, both Sarah and Andrea have been appalled, angered, and outraged by the Stanley decision, as well as the way in which so many people are in denial about anti-Indigenous racism in this country.  While we are heartened to see all of the great discussions online, we are alarmed to see that many individuals do not know or understand how settler colonialism has shaped the history and present of this place we now call Canada. As settlers, scholars, and historians, we believe that it is our responsibility to help rectify this situation. We also believe that we need to keep these conversations going, beyond the Stanley decision, and that they should be an integral part of the teaching and learning of history in this country. Further, we believe that it is important that we continually and actively fight against racism in all its forms. Anti-racism is an active approach to unpacking, accounting for, and dismantling systemic racism. It’s not about simply abstaining from being racist, it’s about doing what’s necessary to build an equitable, de-colonial culture and society that all humans can thrive in. What follows are guidelines, resources, and frequently asked questions that are informed by anti-racist and decolonial approaches to teaching about settler colonialism in Canada. This blog post istargeted specifically towards educators who want to increase their knowledge of the subject as well as integrate it into their teaching practice. However, it is our hope that this guide will also be of use to any individual who is interested in helping to imagine a better future for us all.

A Quick Word on the Meaning of the Term “Settler”

A lot of people in Canada take offence to being called “settlers” even though the term is not derogatory. Being a settler means that you are non-Indigenous and that you or your ancestors came and settled in a land that had been inhabited by Indigenous people (think: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.). However, it is important to recognize that while the term is not derogatory, it can often be very difficult to hear. Many people, particularly when first learning about the subject of settler colonialism, have strong and negative reactions to it. Andrea recalls yelling at the person who first called her a settler (thankfully Emma forgave me!), and Sarah recalls feeling like the rug had been ripped out from under her.  Most of us like to think that we are good people, and being told that we’re complicit in a colonial project can be emotionally wrenching. So we would like to encourage those who are interested in learning about this subject to make space for their feelings, recognizing them without judgement, and, whenever possible, to extend the same consideration to others. This is not to suggest that racist behaviour is acceptable under any circumstances, but, rather, that each person is on their own journey. We embrace the philosophy of love as political resistance whenever possible. However, part of this radical love is being open to learning and growing, even when it is painful.

What is Settler Colonialism?

Simply put, settler colonialismis a term that is used to describe the history and ongoing processes/structures whereby one group of people (settlers) are brought in to replace an existing Indigenous population, usually as part of imperial projects. Settler colonialism can be distinguished from other forms of colonialism by the following characteristics:

  1. Settlers intend to permanently occupy, and assert their sovereignty, over Indigenous lands.
  2. This invasion is structural rather than a single event, designed to ensure the elimination of Indigenous populations and control of their lands through the imposition of a new governmental/legal system.
  3. The goal of settler colonialism is to eliminate colonial difference by eliminating Indigenous peoples, thereby establishing settler right to Indigenous lands.

Though often assumed to be a historical process, settler colonialism as a project is always partial, unfinished, and in-progress. Examples include Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Colonization, settlement, and the creation of nation-states like the ones mentioned above depend upon particular historical narratives that reinforce or justify settler occupation of Indigenous lands. These narratives seek to reinforce the idea that these lands “belong” to settlers and that settlers “belong” on this land.  Therefore, the rewriting of history is a key part of settler colonialism. This often rests on an artificial temporal division that divides a location’s history into two distinct periods: before and after settlement. Central to the “before” time is the idea that the lands in question were either empty or not being used (referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery/Terra Nullius(literally, empty lands). {1}

{1} Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada(Newburyport: Portage and Main Press, 2017), chapter 26 and Henry Yu, “A Provocation: Anti-Asian Exclusion and the Making and Unmaking of White Supremacy in Canada,” in Dominions of Race: Rethinking Canada’s International History, eds. Laura Madokoro, Francine McKenzie, and David Meren, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 25-37.

A (Brief) History of Settler Colonialism in Canada

Most of us are familiar with the traditional narrative. Once upon a time, North America was basically empty of humans. Then some people came across the Bering Land Bridge, and started moving across the continent. We call these people Native Americans. Some of them practiced agriculture, while others were hunter-gatherers. But then, European explorers arrived and “discovered” the New World. The colonists who came were intrepid adventurers, determined to make a new life for themselves through hard work and perseverance. There will often be some mention of Louis Riel after this point. But afterwards, while there are some variations depending on where went to school, Native peoples essentially vanish from the narrative. Aside from a short discussion of Louis Riel, Native peoples essentially vanish from the narrative.

While there are myriad problems with this narrative, the most important part is that it is not accurate. This is the kind of history that results when only sources from settlers are used, and these sources are not interrogated regarding their intentions.

So what really happened? Here’s what we know:

Indigenous peoples have lived on Turtle Island (A.K.A. what settlers call North America) since time immemorial (more on this later). The continent was highly populated, the people culturally & ethnically diverse.It was a diplomatically complex space inhabited by a wide range of Indigenous peoples who had systems of law, trade, and governance. These societies were as complex and sophisticated as other societies at the time.

After contact, the French & British began to send settlers to what is now Canada in order to benefit from its resources. Britain and France had differing approaches to Indigenous relations but when Britain eventually took over in 1763, British law began to develop different categories that reflected their understanding of race. Through the Indian Act, the crown divided inhabitants of Canada into two categories: Indigenous people and non-Indigenous settlers. While Turtle Island prior to contact was as complex and sophisticated as Europe at the time, the Indian Actnegated Indigenous diversity and reduced the people of Turtle Island to the category of “Indian.” By the same mechanism, all non-Indigenous people who came to Canada for economic benefit were settlers.

Some, though not all, Indigenous groups signed Treaties which constituted agreements that Indigenous and non-Indigenous settlers would share the resources of the lands in good faith, that non-Indigenous settlers wouldn’t take more than what they needed, and that the relationships would be respectful. However, this isn’t what happened. Even after making many agreements the crown actively and violently broke its agreements with Indigenous leadership in order to achieve racial  and economic dominance, and to assimilate Indigenous people into British/settler culture.

Expert Tip: A legacy of Canada’s settler colonial history is the ways Canadians continue to pay the royal family money. According to Business Insider, Canada paid the family $20.86 million in 2015, for example. And we’re just ONE of the commonwealth nations who gives them money.

The category “settler” was legally solidified in Canada through the construction of legal binaries developed by the Indian Act. That is, not only does being a settler describe a particular history of migration and economic relationship; in Canada, it’s also an effect of the law.

General Guidelines When Learning about Settler Colonialism

1. Do not act out of guilt, but rather out of a genuine interest in challenging the larger oppressive power structures;
2. Understand that they are secondary to the Indigenous people that they are working with and that they seek to serve. They and their needs must take a back seat;
– Lynn Gehl, “My Ally Bill of Responsibilities.”

Andrea and Sarah have both been learning  and teaching about settler colonialism for several years. The following recommendations are based on our own experiences and a lot of trial and error. We do not wish to present ourselves as experts in this area, nor are these guidelines to be taken as authoritative.

  • Accept that you will make mistakes and upset people as you learn.
  • Accept that you will be corrected by those more knowledgeable than you. Be gracious, thank your corrector, and apply the correction.
  • Do not waste time feeling guilty. This is inherently selfish, and does no good. Act instead.
  • Do not burden Indigenous peoples with your feelings. Do not go to them seeking guidance or validation. It is not their job to educate you or make you feel better. Be considerate of the fact that they already carry a heavy burden of emotional labour. Do not add to it.
  • Self-educate. Where do you live? Are you on unceded land? Are you on Treaty land? If you’re on Treaty land, that makes you part of the Treaty. Learn what your responsibilities are. If you’re on unceded land, look into why it is unceded, what that means, and how you can act in solidarity with Indigenous people in your area.
  • Learn the terminology and use it. Don’t be afraid to practice in regular conversation.
  • When writing about Indigenous peoples, comply with the following guidelines from the Journalists for Human Rights’ Indigenous Style Guide.
    • Whenever possible, always be specific about the group, people, community, or nation you are referring to.
    • Defer to the community or individual(s)’ preferences on being identified.
    • Otherwise, use the correct Indigenous terms for groups, communities, and nations ( or example, Kanien’kehá:ka rather than Mohawk).
    • Avoid saying things like:
      • Canada’s Indigenous Peoples
      • Indigenous Canadians
      • Native Canadians
    • In general, include an Indigenous person’s nation or community in their name. For example, Frank Calder (Nisga’a) rather than just Frank Calder.
  •  Learn how to properly pronounce Indigenous words and phrases (Youtube can be very helpful for this).

Guidelines and Recommendations for Teaching about Settler Colonialism

The same caveats apply here.

  • Allow your Indigenous students to opt-out. Not only are they constantly bombarded with this information on a regular basis, but they do not need to be put in a position of teaching their peers about their historic and continued oppression. Keep in mind also that many subjects that are discussed in history classes have personal meaning for many Indigenous students, so it’s a good idea to give them a head’s up about when you will be discussing these topics (like residential schools or the Numbered Treaties), and give them permission to miss class if they want.
  • Avoid turning class discussions into “both sides” debates (especially role-playing court cases). These debates tend to alienate Indigenous students and re-perpetuate the impacts of settler colonialism.
    • Some good discussion ground rules that are frequently used in similar contexts include:
      • 1. Listen actively — respect others when they are talking.
      • 2. Speak from your own experience instead of generalizing (“I” instead of “they,” “we,” and “you”).
      • 3. Do not be afraid to respectfully challenge one another by asking questions, but refrain from personal attacks — focus on ideas.
      • 4. Participate to the fullest of your ability — community growth depends on the inclusion of every individual voice.
      • 5. The goal is not to agree — it is to gain a deeper understanding. {2}
  • It often helps to include some kind of warning at the beginning of the lecture, particularly if you come from a marginalized group. For instance here is the one that Andrea uses:
    • You are free to disagree with my comments in this lecture.
    • This lecture is informed by the common consensus among Canadian historians with respect to the history of colonialism in Canada
    • Particularly since the publication of the TRC findings, scholars and the general public alike have been tasked with decolonization.
  • Anticipate that, for some students, this topic will be emotionally difficult. Make space for all of the feelings, good and bad. Provide emotional aftercare (special office hours for people who want to talk, etc…)
  • Ground your discussion in the place you live in or teach in. This will help make the topic much more immediate and relevant to your students.
  • Once students have an understanding of what settler colonialism is, have them consider the way it continues in the present.
  • Take care of yourself. Understand that a lot of emotional labour goes into facilitating these necessary and sometimes difficult discussions.

{2} These guidelines appear in numerous forms across the internet. We have reproduced them here, but would like to be clear that we did not come up with them. For more information, please go here.

Student FAQs and How to Answer Them

These are some of the most common questions we’ve received on this subject from students.

  • Didn’t we win the war/conquer Indigenous peoples?

No, “we” didn’t.  There was no single moment or battle that has shaped the course of Indigenous and settler relationships in this place that we call Canada. Keep in mind that contact and colonialism occurred over the course of more than five centuries, with some Inuit communities not contacted by settlers until the 1920s. It’s impossible to generalize across such vast distances and times. It would be more accurate to say that starting in the late 18th century, the British (and later Canadian) governments embarked on a mission to assimilate and eliminate Indigenous peoples by whatever means necessary, be it forcible enfranchisement, starvation, or genocide. While these efforts have been devastating on Indigenous peoples, the process has always been partial and incomplete. Indigenous peoples have always fought against and resisted these pressures, and continue to do so to this day.

  • Didn’t the British/Canadian government purchase this land from Indigenous peoples?

Nope. Again, it’s impossible to generalize in this case due to the the vast geographic and temporal ranges. When individuals talk  about “purchasing land,” they are often referring to the treaty process. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the treaty process actually involved.  The first thing to keep in mind is that settlers and Indigenous peoples have two different attitudes regarding the meaning of treaties. Settlers believed that land can be owned, and subdivided into parcels. They did not recognize that Indigenous peoples held title to the land, but in order to prevent any problems down the road, they wanted Indigenous peoples to surrender any claims to the land in return for gifts or annual payments. Indigenous peoples believe that no one can own the land, because it is divinely created. In their eyes, treaties confirmed that they held the land, as stewards for future generations. They sought to secure and protect land for the future, while allowing some settlers to live alongside them. Thus treaties were intended as pacts of friendship, peace, and mutual support, not the abandonment of their rights and interests.

For example, in Eastern Canada, Indigenous peoples and settlers (first the French, then the British) signed several agreements outlining how they could share the land. One of the most famous of these agreements is the Two Row Wampum, which visually depicts two boats going down a stream side by side, never intersecting. One boat represents Indigenous peoples, while the other represents settlers. Each group governed themselves, and shared the land on the basis of friendship and respect.

The situation is more complex elsewhere in Canada. Much of Ontario, the Prairies, parts of Northern Canada, as well as much of Vancouver Island, are now covered by treaties signed between Indigenous communities and settler governments throughout the nineteenth and early 20th centuries (Nunavut being an exception). Many Indigenous communities were forced into signing these treaties in order to receive assistance and protection, since their way of life was being systematically destroyed by the Canadian government. What’s more, while Indigenous peoples entered into these agreements in good faith, representatives from the Canadian government did not. They routinely broke promises that they made, since their main objective was to open these lands for more settlers.

It is important to remember as well that many parts of Canada, including most of BC, are not covered by treaties or land sharing agreements. Settlers living in these areas are, by their own laws, illegal squatters. However, many Indigenous communities and the provincial and federal governments are in the process of negotiating treaties to cover these areas.

  • Can’t Indigenous peoples just make stuff up in their oral histories to get what they want?

The short answer is no. This is an attitude based both on a fundamental misunderstanding of Indigenous oral tradition, as well as how primary sources work. First of all, most Indigenous communities in this place we now call Canada record their histories orally. In some communities, certain individuals will be tasked with remembering these histories, and ensuring that they are passed on accurately to future generations. These are not stories that are told for entertainment purposes, but rather to record and transmit important information that is vital for the continued survival of Indigenous communities. The idea that someone would just “make something up to get what they want” is a violation of this sacred trust.

What’s more, as archaeologists, historians, and other scholars have begun working with Indigenous peoples, particularly with elders and knowledge keepers, they’ve discovered that Indigenous oral traditions line up exactly with both historical accounts as well as scientific evidence of past environmental events. There are numerous examples, with the Franklin Expedition being only one of the most recent.

Second, some individuals believe that written texts are inherently more “trustworthy” than oral histories. But this is not correct. The information that a person records is shaped not only by their worldview, but also the message they are trying to send, who the intended recipients are, and a whole host of other factors. For instance, if you were writing a report to your boss, you usually want to depict events in a flattering light. But this might not actually reflect reality.

  •  Aren’t we all immigrants, including Indigenous peoples?

No. Indigenous oral tradition records that Indigenous peoples have been here since time immemorial. What this means is that Indigenous peoples have always lived in North America, or for so long that the exact number of years is irrelevant. While there are settlers alive today whose ancestors came to North America five hundred years ago, this isn’t really comparable to the fact that Indigenous peoples have lived, worked, and died on this continent for tens of thousands of years.

Many people who bring up this question also talk about the Bering Land Straight theory. There is currently no historical or scientific consensus on how or when Indigenous peoples came to North America (although we are definitely sure that Europeans didn’t arrive first). As many scholars have noted, the debate on “when” Indigenous peoples came, as well as announcements of new “discoveries” about ancient archaeological sites are inherently problematic because they privilege scientific information over Indigenous ways of knowing. As one scholar put it,“‘we’ve always been here’ [should be] good enough.”

  • What is the relationship of other oppressed racialized people to settler colonialism? For example, what about Chinese people who were targeted by discriminatory and racist laws?

Strictly speaking, all peoples who are not Indigenous, fall under the category of “settler.” But the reality is a lot more complicated.

In Canada, it is English speaking white people who hold institutional power. That means that those of us who are white and English speaking benefit from racism and are protected from feeling its effects.

Black peoples and people of colour don’t hold the institutional power that whiteness confers to white people. The ancestors of many of these individuals came to Canada against their will, (such as as African slaves); as a result, their relationship to Indigenous people in Canada is different than what we’re describing here. Others came to Canada as refugees, fleeing oppression in their homelands. Each of these peoples have their own distinct histories and relationships with Indigenous peoples, and, further, “settler colonialism and antiblackness [are] entwined historical and contemporary social structures.”Some scholars in this area argue that Black peoples and people of colour should still be considered settlers, because they do benefit from settler colonialism (albeit not to the same extent as white settlers). However, other scholars argue that this designation ignores the complicated histories of Black peoples and people of colour and the fact that settler societies like Canada are deeply racist, and unfairly assigns blame to people who did not come to North America by choice.

However, as two white women, we are neither qualified nor in a position to make a judgement call here.

Do More: Decolonizing Your Syllabus

Talking about settler colonialism is a good place to start. But we would also encourage you to go further by rethinking how and what you teach more generally. This subject is deserving of its own blog post, but here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • De-centre the historical experiences of settlers.
    • Break away from that more traditional historical narrative! Andrea likes to start her pre-confederation surveys, for example, by talking about the American World System around the year 1000 C.E.
    • Similarly, integrate Indigenous history throughout your course, no matter what your topic is. Make Indigenous peoples the centre.
  • Emphasize Indigenous agency, resistance, and activism whenever possible.
  • Talk about the historical narratives that reinforce settler colonialism in the present.
  • Use readings by Indigenous authors and show films with Indigenous directors, writers, and actors.
  • Take the UBC MOOC on “Reconciliation through Indigenous Education.”Not only is it free, but you can complete it at your own pace!

Becoming an Ally/Concrete Actions

A discussion of allyship is beyond the scope of this blog post. Keylsey Raynard’s piece on a recent talk by Chantelle Bryson, “Allyship in the Context of Indigenous Rights,”contains a lot of useful information. As Bryson notes, you cannot give yourself the title of “ally.” Instead, “with a continuous commitment to building relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities, you may be invited to act as an ally and to use your privilege to amplify the voices and concerns of others.” If you seek to become an ally, Bryson outlines three particularly important recommendations:

  1. Do “continually advocate for discussions about Indigenous peoples to be centered around the actual lived experiencesof these communities and the sources that support these experiences.”
  2. Do talk to other non-indigenous people about “privilege, oppression, and colonialism.”
  3. And finally, don’t take up space. Sometimes the most important thing to do is “[pass] the mic and [get] out of the way.”

For more information on concrete actions you can take in your journey to become an ally, we recommend the following sources:

Recommendations for Learning More

* Particularly important works. If you can only read a couple of things, read these.

Where possible, links have been provided.

Settler Colonialism in Canada

Settler Colonialism Outside Canada

Additional resources

Some Recommendations for Student Readings

*This is a very partial list of both personal favourites, and recommendations from friends and colleagues (see below for acknowledgements!)

  • Adam Barker, “Deathscapes of Settler Colonialism: The Necro-Settlement of Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, prepublished January 23, 2018: 1-17.
  • Kristin Burnett, Travis Hay, and Lori Chambers, “Settler Colonialism, Indigenous Peoples and Food: Federal Indian policies and nutrition programs in the Canadian North since 1945,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History17, no. 2 (Summer 2016).
  • Emilie Cameron, “Indigenous Spectrality and the Politics of Post-Colonial Ghost Stories,” Cultural Geographies15, no. 2 (2008): 383-393.
  • Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies, (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016).
  • Adam Gaudry and Darryl Leroux, “White Settler Revisioning and Making Métis Everywhere: The Evocation of Métissage in Quebec and Nova Scotia,” Critical Ethnic Studies 3, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 116-142.Rachel Alpha Johnston Hurst, “Colonial Encounters at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: “Unsettling” the Personal Photograph Albums of Andrew Onderdonk and Benjamin Leeson,” Journal Of Canadian Studies49, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 227-267
  • Victoria Jackson, “Silent Diplomacy: Wendat Boys’ ‘Adoptions’ at the Jesuits Seminary 1636-1642,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association27, no. 1 (2016): 139-168.
  • John S. Long, Richard J. Preston, Katrina Srigley, Lorraine Sutherland, “Sharing the Land at Moose Factory in 1763,” Ontario History109, no. 1 (Autumn 2017): 238-262.
  • Adele Perry, Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember(Winnipeg: ARP, 2016)
  • Adele Perry, Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth Century Imperial World, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  • Sharon Wall, “Totem Poles, Teepees, and Token Traditions : ‘Playing Indian’ at Ontario Summer Camp, 1920-1955,” Canadian Historical Review86, no. 3 (205): 513-544.

Resources for Talking About the Stanley Decision


Really Smart and Awesome People to Follow on Twitter


We would like to extend a special thanks to Catherine Larochelle, @rcormeau, Karina Vernon, Sean Carleton, Ian Mosby, Kristine Alexander, Adele Perry, Sarah Rain, Sam Mclean, Anne Janhunen, Georgia Sitara, Krystl Raven, Carling Beninger, Heather Stanley, Kristian Hogan, Pete Anderson, Erin Millions, Maddie Knickerbocker, Skylee-Storm Hogan, Andrew Watson, and Amy Blanding for their help compiling this list of resources.  Extra special thanks to Maddie Knickerbocker, whose guidance has been invaluable in the writing of this blog post. Seriously, our community is awesome, and we are privileged to be a part of it.


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Beyond The Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History Copyright © 2019 by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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