Confronting the ‘settler problem’

Thoughts on Indigenous solidarity organizing in “Victoria”


I had the chance to spend a month in Zapatista autonomous territory two years ago. When I came back I realized that I knew nothing about Indigenous peoples’ resistances on this island where I live. I began to acknowledge my own implication as a settler in an ongoing colonial context, and began my own decolonization process.

While many non-Indigenous activists support Indigenous peoples’ self-determination abroad, such as in Tibet or Chiapas, they often become more reluctant when the issue is the closer to home. I realized that if I did not start organizing around indigenous issues here in Canada, then I might continue being relatively comfortable with my own settler status. Another settler, Jude Coates, and I decided to start up an anti-colonial group where we could learn and take action in an appropriate, reciprocal way with local Nations. Chiinuuks, a Nuu-chah-nulth activist, agreed to be my mentor.

The Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Working Group (IPSWG) was founded in the fall of 2005. Our purpose is “to create opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members to participate in education and action against colonization and in support of Indigenous peoples’ inherent right to self- determination and self-governance of Indigenous territory.” IPSWG remains an open, mixed group that did not start with a particular ideology – our only commitment is to the mandate that we communally wrote.

For the first while, many people in the group wanted to support any struggle that was brought to the group’s attention. At the end of May IPSWG agreed to focus on local issues. Although coordinated trans-national solidarity campaigns can definitely be important, it is a different commitment to build relationships over time with the people whose territory you are on.

There is less accountability with “dropin” support, as it is possible to go into a community when the heat is on, only to leave when things get messy or inconvenient. In contrast to solidarity campaigns that are pre-made elsewhere, local movements require effort, trust and a deep understanding of local history. Local issues tend to be less glamorous and more confrontational for both settlers and indigenous people.


In this work I have been reminded that settlers need to learn through discomfort, be self-reflective and put things in their broader systemic context, instead of being stuck in various forms of denial, defensiveness or taking things too personally.

Colonialism and imperialism affect us all, but in different ways. People need to renew their own values and principles and live their own backgrounds and heritage. It is important for settlers to figure out our own ways of reflecting, being balanced and giving thanks, without appropriating other peoples’ forms of spirituality.

Settlers are often hampered by guilt or uncertainty about what to focus on. But there are plenty of targets for decolonizing our societies, including racist attitudes and structures, as well as colonial governments and corporations – which together form the “settler problem.” I am personally committed to building alliances in the political and ethical common ground between the struggles of indigenous peoples and anarchists.


By the end of the fall, after conflicts in the group, it became apparent that most of the white settlers in IPSWG needed to simultaneously work through their prejudices and privileges while continuing with active organizing. The group set up a decolonization discussion group in January to unlearn oppressive behaviour and colonial mentalities, and to hold each other accountable for our personal commitments.

We’ve had to address internal issues of confidentiality, tokenism and exoticizing of people of colour, members speaking from outside of their own experiences or on a solely academic level, and racist comments during meetings and actions. We’ve also had to confront the settlers’ privilege in being able to take time out when overwhelmed, while countless indigenous people have been resisting and addressing these issues non-stop.

I have been organizing since I was 13 with various collectives around social and environmental justice issues; however, I did not begin to feel my work had been effective until IPSWG got underway. It has been an honour to share what I have been learning over the past year in confronting the “settler problem.”
Joanne Cuffe is a member of the Wasáse movement, and a founding member of IPSWG


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