Unsettling Spirit

A Journey into Decolonization

Reviewed by Carolyn D. Redl

Posted December 1, 2021

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 self-identified “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 Unsettling 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.

Buy this book from Chapters-Indigo

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

This article originally appeared in the December 2021-January 2022 issue of Canada's History.

Related to Books