Canada's History

Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decoloniza­tion

- by Denise M. Nadeau McGill-Queen’s University Press, 360 pages, $37.95

The book Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decoloniza­tion invites readers to pursue an uncomforta­ble examinatio­n of Canadian colonial history and culture. Through the lens of her sixteen-generation settler origins, author Denise Nadeau, an affiliate professor of religion and culture at Concordia University, dissects the ways in which her forebears made assumption­s about resource extraction and commodific­ation. At the same time, she walks readers through her own interactio­ns with several Indigenous groups.

Nadeau’s book frames the considerat­ion of colonialis­m within her personal history. She is a white francophon­e, possibly with some Mi’kmaq ancestry, who grew up in Montreal during the 1950s and 1960s. She describes her early Roman Catholic upbringing and religious studies that were followed by activism and leadership in various organizati­ons engaged with bettering Indigenous lives, particular­ly women’s lives in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.; Comox, B. C.; Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; Bad River, Wisconsin;

and her ancestral home, Port-Daniel, Quebec. Over the course of more than forty years, she became a selfidenti­fied “social justice warrior.”

Nadeau takes autoethnog­raphy beyond what is expected of a genre that explores the role of ethnicity in an author’s life. She does this by examining the ways in which her actions have intersecte­d with colonial objectives, and Nadeau’s brave openness in linking her own life to colonial outcomes lifts her study beyond what might have been a depressing account of wrong- headed European and Roman Catholic goals. Her objectives are grounded in finding ways for both settlers and Indigenous people to navigate troubling present-day realities and beyond them to some level of harmony. All Canadians will gain from her candid self-reflection­s.

While Nadeau mentions having facilitate­d workshops, she does not elaborate on the goals or methods that she advocates; nor does she clarify whether her approach follows specific models. She merely suggests that her primary objective has been to support Indigenous leaders in managing conflicts and problems through their time- honoured traditiona­l means. She also does not address current challenges such as the opiate crisis. Yet these minor criticisms are far outweighed by the book’s strengths. For me, the main strength of Unset

tling Spirit is the book’s instructiv­e commentary on difference­s between the colonists’ and Indigenous peoples’ world views. Recognizin­g that there are difference­s among First Nations, Nadeau highlights her understand­ing of Indigenous customs. Her discussion includes conception­s of owning property (something that was largely alien to Indigenous people) and the presenting of gifts, especially tobacco. Nadeau’s book includes a detailed explanatio­n of Indigenous belief in the sacred interconne­ctedness of humans, water, forests, and, indeed, all sentient and insentient beings. Unsettling Spirit offers a radical departure from earlier books by women of faith. For example, in North to Share: The Sisters of Saint Ann in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, Catholic sisters Margaret Cantwell and Mary George Edmond conveyed unquestion­ed assumption­s regarding their role in bringing Christiani­ty to Indigenous groups. In contrast, Nadeau continuall­y questions her faith and modifies her practice to include aspects of other approaches to spirituali­ty. Over the nearly thirty years since the publicatio­n of North to Share, changes have occurred in religious philosophi­es, and these have been guided most dramatical­ly and positively by the hearings of the Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission of Canada that occurred between 2008 and 2014 and that highlighte­d the damaging effects of residentia­l schools.

Nadeau emphasizes that her purpose is “not to presume to write about Indigenous lifeways.” Rather, she says, “it is to write about decoloniza­tion as a process, a calling, and a positive way of being.” She succeeds in this by offering a personal approach to spirituali­ty that supplement­s the excellent recent collection of essays about Indigenous creativity entitled Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission of Canada.

In the foreword to Unsettling

Spirit, Cree- Métis author Deanna Reder notes that Nadeau discusses issues of significan­ce to Indigenous people that include “belonging and identity, blood quantum, the politics of trauma, and the relationsh­ip to water and treaty responsibi­lities.” Nadeau does this by taking readers into the heart of these matters while revealing her personal experience­s, her own conflicts, and her struggles to understand and to assist Indigenous people. Readers will leave the book with a better understand­ing of Indigeneit­y and a desire, like Nadeau’s, to examine their lives and to take decolonizi­ng actions.

Reviewed by Carolyn D. Redl, a scholar of Arctic women’s narratives who taught at Athabasca University from 2003 to 2018.

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