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The anthropocentrism of settler colonialism and the survivance of land

The anthropocentrism of settler colonialism and the survivance of land

Benjamin Kapron

Benjamin J. Kapron studies philosophies, understandings, and ways of thinking that generate, undergird, and uphold Canadian settler colonialism, particularly regarding understandings of Land and the other-than-human beings who together compose Land (animals, plants, waters, rocks, et cetera). While dominant settler thought may commonly understand Land to be a passive material object—the ground, or an expanse of space—for many Indigenous nations, Land is understood as an encompassing relation of beings—human and more-than-human—with agency, spirit, and even personhood. Ben asserts that this disjuncture between settler and Indigenous understandings of Land can hinder settler efforts to contribute to decolonization: if settlers deny or overlook the personhood of other-than-human beings, their attempts at challenging settler colonialism may be ineffective or may even reify understandings that undergird settler colonialism, detracting from Indigenous efforts to dismantle settler colonialism and contributing to attacks on Indigenous knowledge.

In his dissertation, Ben is exploring what it means and looks like for a settler to try to earnestly engage with Nishnaabeg conceptions of other-than-human personhood, analyzing the settler colonial imposition of the Trent-Severn Waterway as a case study for this project. The Trent-Severn Waterway is a 386-kilometer-long system of locks, dams, and canals built onto and into waterbodies and rocks throughout what is now considered Central Ontario, in order to connect Chi’Niibish (Lake Ontario) with Waasegamaa (Georgian Bay). The waterway was constructed throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, under the presumption that it would facilitate colonial settlement, logging, and commercial shipping; however, in actuality, the waterway has primarily only aided tourism.

Lock 44 of Trent-Severn Waterway, Big Chute without water

At the same time that it expanded access to central Ontario for settler Canadians, the Trent-Severn Waterway had devastating impacts on the Indigenous nations whose territory it cut through, principally the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg; as well as waters and rocks who it was built onto and into; and plants, animals, and other beings who live interrelated with those waters, rocks, and Indigenous nations. The waterway flooded Nishnaabeg Land, graves, and sacred sites; destroyed manoomin beds (wild rice); and extirpated salmon and eels from the waterbodies it was built onto, with dams preventing these animals from reaching their spawning sites. Ben contends that these violences make the Trent-Severn Waterway a fruitful example of the anthropocentrism of Canadian settler colonialism. Moreover, having grown up in Nogojiwanong—known by the colonial name of Peterborough, Ontario—a city known for a hydraulic lift lock that is part of the Trent-Severn Waterway, Ben intends for his dissertation to be an attempt at relational accountability, building his relationships with Odenaabe (Otonabee River) and other waters who the Trent-Severn Waterway is imposed upon, other-than-human persons who live entwined with these waters, and the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg who have taken care of these waters and been taken care of by these waters, since time immemorial.

Lock 44 of Trent-Severn Waterway, Big Chute with water

Rather than being a damage-centered account of the settler colonial violences of the Trent-Severn Waterway, Ben’s dissertation will also explore the survivance of other-than-human persons impacted by the waterway. Survivance, a concept particularly promoted by Anishinaabe writer, poet, and literary scholar Gerald Vizenor, is a framework for understanding and affirming Indigenous Peoples’ continued survival against settler colonialism as active and agential: Indigenous Peoples are not merely passively still alive despite settler colonialism; Indigenous Peoples continuously undertake strategies to survive against settler colonialism, maintaining their ways of life and relationships with Land. Examining the history of the Trent-Severn Waterway through the lens of survivance reveals numerous instances where the Land themself acted agentially to survive and resist the imposition of the waterway. Water frequently frustrated the construction of the waterway, including in an 1838 flood that destroyed a partially built dam in Buckhorn, Ontario, and a 1906 flood through East Peterborough. Even the rock that the waterway was built into showcases the agential survivance of Land: the initial lock built to travel around the Bobcaygeon Rapids—which later became the first lock of the Trent-Severn Waterway—could not hold water, due to cracks in the limestone that the lock was built into.

Lock 36 of Trent-Severn Waterway, Kirkfield Lift Lock

Ben is exploring the anthropocentrism of settler colonialism and the survivance of Land made evident by the Trent-Severn Waterway through textual analysis of histories of the waterway, archival research, and semi-structured interviews with Nishnaabeg knowledge keepers, as well as settlers working in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and engaging with Indigenous knowledge pertaining to the Trent-Severn Waterway. Moreover, Ben asserts that the anthropocentrism of settler colonialism carries into who is considered able to hold and share knowledge in academia. Inspired by Indigenous understandings of learning from Land, Ben is also undertaking a walking methodology where he spends time with waters that the Trent-Severn Waterway is imposed upon, in order to learn from other-than-human persons about their agency, spirit, and personhood, and about his own role in dismantling Canadian settler colonialism.

Benjamin J. Kapron is a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Studies in York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. He is exploring how he might develop and inform his decolonial and ethical praxes, as a settler, through understanding Land to be a decolonial agent and teacher, focusing particularly on Lands where he has lived: Bawahting (Sault Ste. Marie), Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), and Tkaronto (Toronto). Ben aims to bring into conversation environmental ethics and philosophy; decolonization, Indigenous studies, and settler colonial studies; and critical environmental thought challenging human exceptionalism and exemptionalism. Ben is a managing editor of UnderCurrents: journal of critical environmental studies, a student-run journal housed in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. He holds a Master in Environmental Studies from York University, and an Honours Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto, where he majored in zoology and philosophy. His PhD research is supported by a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship.