Denise M. Nadeau, Unsettling Spirit: A Journey into Decolonization, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2020, 348 pp. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-2280-0157-7.
By an “unsettled spirit” I mean one that has to constantly re-examine its understanding and to revisit, reinterpret, and renew its relationship with the spirit world. . . . This has been . . . about how I understand, think, and live in the world with the earth. (254–55)
Unsettling Spirit is an account of the author’s journey into decolonization. Denise Nadeau’s purpose in writing this book is to expose the ways in which the project of colonization has seeped into her very being, and then to offer insights about how to move into being a decolonized person. It is an honest, refreshing accounting of a complicated life.
Nadeau has organized her writing into five distinct “parts” through which she weaves the narrative of her own life experiences: (1) colonization’s connections to Christianity; (2) white supremacy’s impact on how settlers move through the world; (3) the need for settlers to understand their relationship to the past and to the land they are living on; (4) the gift of relationships with Indigenous peoples; and (5) a call to the liberating practice of “returning to the heart,” where we can “move beyond judgement and division to see our essential oneness with all living beings” (257).
I was drawn to read Nadeau’s book after participating in two events this past year. The first was the annual conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America-Bautistas por la Paz, at which the plenary speaker was Puerto Rican scholar Luis Rivera-Pagán. The conference pointed me to Rivera-Pagán’s book A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of
the Americas,1 which outlines the ways the church was complicit in the historic role of religion in conquest. Learning about this history deepened my desire to dissociate from the Christian tradition, especially the institutional church.
Nadeau recounts similar struggles throughout her journey with the Roman Catholic Church. Her attention to the ways in which evangelism perpetuates a colonizing mentality and practice is insightful and damning, but she chooses not to abandon the faith she was brought up with. Instead, she explores her faith in relationship to her work with Indigenous communities, where she is opened up to the reality that “God’s spirit is present in all cultures—the spirit was at work in the world before Christ” (48). She also becomes keenly aware of the need for the work of missions in the Christian church to be about how to address colonization, the power imbalances inherent in church structures, and the harm the church has inflicted upon Indigenous peoples (50).
The second event I participated in this year was a book club initiated by Steve Heinrichs in which we read Canada at a Crossroads: Boundaries, Bridges, and Laissez-Faire Racism in Indigenous-Settler Relations by Jeffrey S. Denis.2 This book unsettled me deeply as I have always believed that relationships and education could be our way out of the mess of deep injustice that is so present in Canadian society. The book is a sociological study that exposes the lie of the claims that are part of a “Canadian” sensibility—that we are somehow different from other colonizers. The only way out of the mess we are in is to deal with the racial inequality that is deeply imbedded in the White Supremacist state of Canada. The state’s engagement in apologies and reconciliation statements while it continues to disrespect Indigenous law3 exposes its true nature—colonial to the core.
A commitment to the Christian faith has been a part of me for over forty-five years, and I was looking for something to somehow keep me grounded in that faith. Something in me does not want to let go of that grounding, even though my deepening understanding of colonization has shaken that commitment. At the end of the book study on Canada at a Crossroads, I was given a copy of Nadeau’s work, and it has renewed hope in me that my life has not been a bad joke. There is so much in Nadeau’s story that I can identify with—her informed critique of colonialism and capitalism, her struggle with the white savior complex, and desire to understand where her people come from, to mention a few. I am grateful for her careful study, her thorough research, and her accessible writing style.
Nadeau ends the book with a discussion about the heart, drawing on her own experience with Indigenous ways of knowing, Judaism, Zen Buddhism, and somatic training, all of which refuse binary understandings of heart and mind and instead embrace an embodied understanding of the relational nature of all beings. I come away encouraged to continue finding “fellow travellers in many traditions who see that the way through is on the path that embraces the spirit dimensions of life” (261).
Teresa Diewert is partner of Dave, mother of three, grandmother of seven, living on the unceded, traditional territory of the Kwantlen, Musqueam, Katzie, Semiahmoo, Tsawwassen, Qayqayt, and Kwikwetlem peoples (under the colonially imposed name of Surrey, British Columbia).
Luis N. Rivera-Pagán, A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville: Westminster, 1992).
Jeffrey S. Denis, Canada at a Crossroads: Boundaries, Bridges, and Laissez-Faire Racism in Indigenous-Settler Relations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020).
We witnessed this disrespect for Indigenous law last year when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police invaded unceded and sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory to make a path for a pipeline project.