The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Caitlin Urquhart

I am a white settler

October 24 2017 24 October 2017


Recently a presenter introducing me stumbled over these words. I still feel awkward saying them. These words can make everyone in the room tense, on edge.

I am a white settler. Not my ancestors, not my history, me. I live here on traditional unceded, unsurrendered Beothuk and Mi’kmaq territory. I am a citizen of this colonial government that through current racist and discriminatory practices allows Indigenous peoples to suffer under boil water advisories, abysmal housing conditions, unacceptably high rates of children in care and school drop out. I have allowed this current government to continue to ignore the orders of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to end the discriminatory chronic underfunding of Indigenous children in care. And I am a part of the justice system that allows Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people to go missing and murdered and actively criminalizes Indigenous peoples making them the most overrepresented group in our prisons.

I am a white settler. Indigenous and racialized folks are often asked: What are you? Where are you from? But I am not expected to say what I am because I’m a member of the “dominant” (read: oppressor) race. We do not live in a “post-racial” time. Indigenous workers make 60 cents on the dollar compared to white male workers. Race continues to have significant impacts, even within the legal community – with racialized folks being disproportionately passed over for articling positions and ultimately employment. From the failure to acknowledge and facilitate Indigenous modes of justice, to laws that criminalize incidents of poverty, to racial bias and racial profiling – our legal system itself is part of an expansive colonial structure that was founded in white supremacy on the backs (and lands) of Indigenous and racialized people.

I am a white settler.

It’s time that we start saying these words, as uncomfortable as they may make us feel, and face the grim reality that they bear. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report is important, and as lawyers we have a responsibility to read it and act on the calls to action. But racism and colonialism are not relics of Canada’s dark history, they’re happening right now. I encourage you to watch Pam Palmater on CBC discussing Prime Minister Trudeau’s UN Speech.

What we need to do is more than reconciliation for past wrongs; it’s decolonization of our current practices, acknowledging and facing up to our current biases. We need to recognize the system of white supremacy that we benefit from and actively dismantle it.

I am a white settler. And it is my responsibility to learn about historic and ongoing colonial policies and laws that discriminate against Indigenous peoples. It is my responsibility to actively engage with Indigenous peoples, to ask them what their needs are and how I can help achieve them. It is my responsibility to believe Indigenous clients and witnesses are the experts of their own experience and not minimize them. It is my responsibility to make space for, support and lift up Indigenous voices and leaders. And it is my responsibility to echo their demands that all levels governments address the current persistent crisis on reserves. It is my responsibility to commit to the decolonization of our justice and foster care systems. These acts are my responsibility because I am a white settler. Are they yours?

Caitlin is an activist and lawyer focused on reconciliation and advancing the role of women in politics and the legal profession. She practices family law in St. John's, NL at Smyth Woodland Del Rizzo Barrett. The opinions expressed here are the author's own.

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