Welcome, and thank you for your interest in my work. Please note that I am on leave from summer, 2018 until mid-2019. During this time, I will be slow responding to e-mails, but I will do my very best to get back to you. Thank you for understanding!

Family Separations, John Smith’s General Historie, and our Empathy Crisis

Halfway through John Smith’s General Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), the Powhatans and the English colonists exchange children. By this point in Smith’s text, the English have been customarily adopted into the Powhatan nation, a sophisticated polity that, before the arrival of the Virginia Company, consisted of more than thirty distinct peoples.

Smith describes the exchange as follows:

The next day [Christopher] Newport came a shore and received as much content as [the Powhatans] could give him: a boy named Thomas Salvage was then given unto [Wahunsenaca], whom Newport called his sonne; for whom [Wahunsenaca] gave him Namontack his trustie servant, and one of a shrewd, subtill capacatie. (p. 107)

In a forthcoming special issue of AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples — one dedicated to adoption and Indigenous citizenship orders, edited by Damien Lee and Kahente Horn-Miller — I discuss this moment in the context of Powhatan kinship and adoption protocols. This is just one of many scenes from Smith’s text that captures Wahunsenaca and the Powhatans in the process of solidifying social bonds that subsequent generations of colonists and Settlers should have had a difficult time breaking, had they at all understood or respected what was happening around them.

Time and again in Smith’s text, the English colonists struggle to glean or take seriously the implications of the Powhatans’ actions. Always teetering on the brink of starvation, the colonists remain frustratingly and, at times, absurdly oblivious to the able willingness of the Powhatans to demonstrate how to live happily and healthfully in Tsenacomoca.

Largely, my article is about the specific narrative process through which Smith disparaged, destroyed, and moved to supplant Powhatan kinship structures and obligations, consolidating patriarchal governance structures against existing Indigenous laws. When discussing the above mentioned scene in which the two sides trade children, I use sources from Mattaponi oral history, along with this excellent thesis on Indigenous customary adoption practices, to argue that through the exchange, the English entered into a common Powhatan familial arrangement — one that was generally reserved for close relatives, and one in which the needs of children and adults were weighted pretty much equally. From the perspective of the Powhatans, “a period of time living with another family member” would have been “a regular part of the upbringing and education of a child” (Trerise, p. 172). Such exchanges maintained and strengthened kinship relations within and across the diverse Powhatan polity, valuing and empowering children as useful and important diplomatic agents, building intimacy across distance and difference, and providing valuable opportunities for each community to learn more about the other through peaceful (or non-threatening) intermediaries.

Because I couldn’t discuss every aspect of this scene in my article, which, again, focuses primarily on Smith’s descriptions of Powhatan customary adoption practices, I wanted to explore another angle here — specifically, the idea that Smith, Newport, and the other English colonists would have been familiar with their own practice of exchanging children, and that their culturally specific practice might have been a significant part of what prevented them from understanding or empathizing with the Powhatans.

Briefly, in early modern England, family units were structured to uphold the power and authority of the state. Patriarchy infused and policed dominant social views, acting as what Stephanie Coontz calls, in her History of American Families, “the glue that bound individuals to households and households to communities” (p. 79). The primary function of colonial households was to mold children into subservient adults who would likewise reproduce the authority of patriarchal governance. In these structures, fathers — like political leaders — essentially had no hard and fast obligations to the people they ruled over. They were simply the authorities, and their households were the rigidly stratified, highly regulated environments that could train children to live obediently within the established hierarchies of English society.

This is why English families would commonly exchange children — not to forge or to deepen kinship relations or to empower children as important members of society but to actively circumvent parents’ natural instincts or impulses to respect or care tenderly for their own kids. Parents immersed in this political culture found it much easier to raise, train, and indeed abuse children who were not their own — children who they themselves did not love. Thus, for the good of the state and its structures, English children would be routinely separated from their families and sent to live among strangers. These separations would in turn help perpetuate the continuous and systematic reproduction of a society that, as a whole, lacked certain essential qualities — such as empathy.

[Here’s just one article about how childhood trauma and/or abuse affects empathy.]

Anglo-American colonial literature is in many ways the story of one society’s collective failure to extend empathy to another. But this legacy of childhood trauma also manifests today in the structures and functions of settler state bodies. In the context of contemporary U.S. political theory, the patriarchal family unit is in many ways similar to what George Lakoff describes as the “strict father” family model, which he locates at the “center of the conservative worldview.” In Moral Politics, he writes,

This model posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules. The mother has the day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents; by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are, of course, a vital part of family life but can never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance—tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.

Once children are mature, they are on their own and must depend on their acquired self-discipline to survive. Their self-reliance gives them authority over their own destinies, and parents are not to meddle in their lives.

According to Lakoff, this model is where contemporary conservative morals come from, and it informs the way in which today’s conservatives view government. But Anglo-American Settlers of all political stripes have been using and abusing children to uphold, reproduce, and demonstrate the authority of this governance model since before Jamestown, and one of the most chilling ways in which we have always done this work is through the removal of children from their parents.

These separations help carry our empathy crisis into forever. And so we respond to refugees by closing our borders or by ripping babies from their families. We find new and creative ways of illegitimately removing Indigenous children from their communities and kin. And we live quietly under laws like the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees only up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to new parents, systematically frustrating breastfeeding efforts and/or confounding the production of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for the regulation of “social memory and cognition, emotion recognition, empathy, and attachment.”

Settlers urgently need to step back from their lives and think about the kind of world they want to live in. We do not understand what we are doing to others and to ourselves and why, what our governments are doing and why, or how much violence and suffering stems from our refusal to face or heal from our own suppressed histories.

Could a better understanding of those histories help us finally stop treating others so shamefully? I don’t necessarily know the answer to this, but it’s what I want to try.


Yes, Canada Did Burn Down the White House in the War of 1812

Yesterday, the New York Times published a fairly smarmy piece by Daniel Victortitled “No, Mr. Trump, Canada Did not Burn Down the White House in the War of 1812.” Here is the crux of Victor’s argument:

“No, Canada did not burn down the White House during the War of 1812, which was fought with Britain over maritime rights. What is now Canada was not yet a country in 1812, but rather British colonies.

Canada didn’t become a nation until 1867, long after British troops did, in fact, burn down the White House in 1814. The fire gutted the president’s house along with several other crucial structures in Washington, which was still a relatively small town when the seat of government moved there 14 years earlier.


So you can’t really pin that on Canada, considering that Canada didn’t exist.”

Who is responsible for history? Reading Victor’s piece, I was reminded of another article that ran in the New York Times — this one by the Irish Member of Parliament William Trant, originally published in The Westminster Review in 1895. “Canada has never fought the Indians,” Trant argued in that piece,

“and she will not begin to do so now. Never has Canada had an Indian war; an Indian massacre is unknown in the annals of her history. She is too poor to seek glory by slaughtering the natives born of her soil, and too proud to defame her character or stain her escutcheon.”

In the first chapter of The Homing Place, I discuss how this kind of logic was developed to intentionally absolve Settler Canadians of everything that happened on Turtle Island prior to 1867. If the people who today call themselves “Canadians” spontaneously manifested with Confederation, then Settler Canada can’t be implicated in wars fought before that date — we remain pure and guiltless in everything from the Pequot War to Father Le Loutre’s War and beyond, even if the people who fought in those wars were our direct biological or cultural forebears.

This is a context in which Canada actively chooses to situate and understand itself, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, such framing makes it very difficult for Settler Canadians to understand or historicize contemporary eruptions and ongoing conflicts, such as the clash at Elsipogtog in 2013. We have protected our societies against history in an effort to make our present offences, systematic or otherwise, mostly unintelligible and even unpredictable to ourselves. And this makes us bad neighbours.

In Red Ink, Drew Lopenzina talks about how important the idea of continuance is for Indigenous writers and scholars seeking to help heal the cultural and historical ruptures that have been caused by the violence of colonialism. Many Indigenous scholars are invested in the work of demonstrating continuity — demonstrating that their cultures and nations are the same cultures and nations that were here before the Europeans showed up and started shouting over everyone else. Meanwhile, it seems that societies like mine have been involved in the reverse work — in establishing or maintaining our discontinuity with a past that we can’t bear to claim or associate with.

We aren’t the only settler society who has changed its name and formation over the course of time, and I can’t help but wonder if Victor would extend this same disassociative logic to the United States, rendering history of the New England and Virginia colonies (for example) suddenly and exclusively British. Who owns the history of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans or the Salem witchcraft trials? What nations were produced by and through the New England colonial wars? Which chapter of my British history textbook contains the story of Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment?

I understand that poking fun at Donald Trump’s endless gaffes can be a fun activity, even if it is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. But given the historical mythology that pieces like Victor’s are helping to perpetuate this week, I wonder if we should’ve just left this one alone.

Features from The Miramichi Reader

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of electronically “meeting” James Fisher, The Miramichi Reader himself, after he wrote a generous review of my book, The Homing Place.

After I thanked him for his review, he asked if we could arrange an interview to chat more about where I’m coming from and what I’m working on, and I was grateful for the opportunity. Here is a link to that interview in its entirety.

Thank you again, Jim, for your thoughtful questions and your kindness!

“One could not exist without the other”: A Review of Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet

Peter J. Clair’s Taapoategl & Pallet was published in the fall of last year by Chapel Street Editions out of Woodstock, New Brunswick, and it was recently named a finalist for a New Brunswick Book Award in the fiction category. A few days before last year’s Word Feast literary festival in Fredericton, I stumbled across a copy at Westminster Books and was thrilled to have found a new Mi’kmaw novel to read – the first, I think, but please correct me if I’m wrong, since Lorne Simon’s Stones and Switches way back in 1995. Here’s the image from the store that I immediately and excitedly texted to friends and colleagues across the northeast:

ClairClair is widely known as an ash splint basket maker, and his baskets have been exhibited in galleries across the continent. When he’s spoken about his baskets in the past, he’s done so in the context of “a pattern without a break, without a beginning or an end” – a style of weaving based on the form of the periwinkle, a member of the shellfish nation and a traditional Mi’kmaw food source.[i] He uses the same design principle in his novel, where the narratives of Taapoategl and Pallet are woven together, at times echoing or merging before receding back into their distinct times and places. And like Clair’s baskets, it’s hard to say where this story truly begins. Is it with Taapoategl at home with her family? With the arrival of the colonizers and the forced displacements of Mi’kmaq communities? With the first steps of Pallet’s quest? Or does the story begin much earlier, with the weathered writings on birchbark, with the creation story that is brought to gatherings and read to the larger community – the story that produces the world through which both of these characters move despite the distance of centuries?

This story reaches into the future and cycles back onto itself almost continuously; its pieces are carefully interwoven to produce a larger historical sense of trauma and loss but also of connection, recovery, and irrepressible “belonging-to.”[ii] I’m searching for a way to discuss what I love about this incredible novel without giving too much away. I love the revisions of beloved Settler mythologies – the stories Clair weaves into his narrative about Chief Membertou, about Marc Lescarbot’s Theatre of Neptune, and about the invention of hockey. And I love the descriptions of the early Mi’kmaw writing system, which developed gradually within the context of the nation so that families could communicate with each other across time and/or distance. The system reflects “the connection between the Nigmag and the world around them” just as the language of the people “comes from imitating the sounds and motions in nature, the calls of birds or the manner in which a fish gathers food.”[iii] In part, this is a novel about the connections that were lost or endangered when language and stories began to be lost or forgotten – the histories and contexts and links that re-emerge when scattered pieces of bark are sought, recovered, and threaded back together by the people of their original communities.

Pallet enacts one person’s role in this recovery process. As a Mi’kmaw man, he has a place in the story of his nation, and through his journey, he both creates and claims his own belonging. He travels through a territory in which figures from Mi’kmaw oral tradition are ever-present, occupying their places on the land as always, living their stories and waiting to reconnect and share with their kin. While the Settler society of this region has systematically denied the relevance of Wabanaki oral traditions to the patterns of daily life, relegating traditional Indigenous stories to the distant world of mythology and intentionally weakening the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their cultural worlds, Clair does the reverse work, restoring the immediacy of his nation’s stories to the land from whence they first emerged.

Here is an exchange from his first encounter with a traditional figure:

Pallet stumbles past the fire and goes to the river to wash his eyes. He regains some vision and now sees a shadowy image. He is not sure how many there are. He squints his eyes toward his campfire; there is a dark round cloud above it.

Admitting to his confused state he says: “Ok. I’m Pallet and I’m from Signigtog. I can barely make you out. All I see is a dark cloud of smoke. I am glad you are here. I have been alone for so long. Are you from Tlaagati? Are you here to help?”

“Don’t be jumping to conclusions. Don’t be too hasty. Rest your eyes, Nigmag. It’ll come to you. My name is Miigemooesso. . .”

[. . .]

“I’m just trying to be honest, but I’m not used to this sort of thing. I’ve heard stories . . . and I accepted the stories for what they were. I have to accept that you are here. You are not just a story anymore.”[iv]

It’s significant that Pallet is half blind in this scene, which takes place relatively early on in his quest. He’s recovering from a compulsion to dismiss the possibility of what is happening to him, and he’s learning to accept that these figures aren’t simply of stories that long ago reached conclusions. The stories and their characters are alive, unfinished, ongoing – Pallet is himself inside of stories, and part of his journey involves learning to accept his place in those stories.

His journey also involves the recovery of Taapoategl’s story and the contribution of a ten-year-old girl’s survival knowledge to the collective memory of the Mi’kmaq. Pallet works with the elders at a summer gathering to piece together the fragments of this story, messages on birchbark that Taapoategl left behind in hopes that her family would find them. And while this process of finding takes centuries, her people are unyielding in their recovery efforts, refusing and refuting the notion that a little girl and her story could be irrevocably stolen from the present and future of her nation.

Taapoategl gathers a pile of pine needles and carefully covers over the gravesite, arranging them so there is no sign of disturbance. Like the old Nigmag, Taapoategl hides the gravesite as best she can. Hopefully, she will not have to move it. She knows gravesites are sacred because they are the hidden portals by which we return to our origins. She has heard Nigmag say the portals to the past must be tended to. You never know when the past will visit the present, the two feed on each other; one could not exist without the other.[v]

Taapoategl & Pallet empowers the future of an already powerful Indigenous nation by tending to the portals between the past and the present. It speaks of a territory that has been exploited and defiled across centuries by a colonizing culture that has strewn artifacts and bodies in the wake of its attempts to scramble and destroy connections between the Mi’kmaq and the land that mothered them. Like the people who kidnap Taapoategl, we have tried to steal and contain Indigenous stories — to hide them away, to hoard them, to render them unintelligible to Indigenous peoples. And yet the land has always remained occupied by its own stories.

Searching for a sense of connection and purpose, Pallet moves through his homeland, guided by an understanding of protocol passed down by his grandparents and his community. What he encounters and enters into on his journey are the stories of the land — the stories that have produced his living culture and connected his people as a nation for millennia. And by joining these stories he finds the sense of “belonging-to” that he seeks.

You can purchase a copy of this important book through the publisher or on Amazon.


[i] Janet Clark, Epogan: Recent Work by Peter J. Clair (Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Art Gallery, 1997).

[ii] Peter J. Clair, Taapoategl & Pallet: A Mi’kmaq Journey of Loss & Survival (Woodstock: Chapel Street Editions, 2017), 2.

[iii] Clair, 118.

[iv] Clair, 22, 23.

[v] Clair, 143.

News & gratitude

Last month, Lara Minja of Lime Designs was honoured for the absolutely stunning work she did on my book, The Homing Place, which will be showcased during the 2018 Association of University Presses Book, Jacket, and Journal Show in recognition of Lara’s beautiful typographic design. Lara is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and I am so grateful for the work that she did with this project!


Even more recently, the book was selected as a finalist for two regional awards: the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick Book Award for Non-Fiction and an Atlantic Book Award for Scholarly Writing. I was extremely surprised and humbled by these announcements, and more than anything else, perhaps, I am looking forward to the opportunity to meet and chat with other shortlisted authors at events in May and June. Peter J. Clair’s incredible book Taapoategl & Pallet, the best new novel I’ve read in some time, is a finalist for a New Brunswick Book Award in the fiction category, and there’s a question about periwinkles I’ve been dying to ask him.

My experience working with the team at Wilfrid Laurier University Press continues to be fantastic, and I’m grateful to Clare Hitchens for submitting my book for consideration in these competitions!

I’ll be reading from The Homing Place at the Central Branch of the Saint John Free Public Library on Tuesday, May 8 at noon as part of the Atlantic Book Awards Festival (the event  will be co-presented by Fog Lit Festival).

The Lone Mitten

the-education-of-augie-merasty-a-residential-school-memoir1My students will begin grappling with The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir tomorrow evening, and one of our many topics of conversation will be this striking book cover, which features a photograph of a single green mitten, taken by Alan Clarke.

In the second chapter of the book, Augie describes being sent out of school with another boy and made to walk for about 20 miles in a -60F windchill — their “punishment” for having each lost a single mitten on the previous day. It’s a distressing story of two “very nervous and scared” ten year old boys, alone but for each other in the middle of a vast frozen lake, each clutching a stick to protect against the wolves. When the boys eventually return to the school without their lost mittens, they are beaten.

Today it’s not uncommon to see lone mittens or other articles of clothing laying lost on the ground in parking lots or beside sidewalks or roadways. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to images of shoes found lost on the side of the road. Some people are deeply fascinated with the lost-clothing phenomenon and can’t help but wonder or imagine how the items came to be lost.

Personally, when I see an abandoned shoe or glove on the side of a road, I think, with some amount of trepidation, what happened? There’s a story here — but if I’m being honest, I don’t especially want to know what that story is. I am not curious, I do not wish to know more, and I quickly avert my eyes. Because I always fear that it might be a sad or an upsetting story — like an abduction, an assault, or an accident. I don’t want to know what potentially horrible thing that lost piece of clothing might mean to somebody, somewhere.

So I have been thinking today about this photograph and about its efficacy as a representation of Settler Canada’s desire to avert its eyes from the history and legacy of the residential schools. Maybe we see the mitten and we look away because, if we’re being honest, we’d rather not know its story. And maybe our lives would be easier or happier if we didn’t have to think too hard about the mitten or about what it means to somebody, somewhere — if we didn’t have to connect it to a story of little boys, cold, alone, afraid.

Merasty’s memoir is powerful and it deserved powerful cover art, so kudos to the design team at the University of Regina Press.

Teaching Mihku Paul’s “The Water Road”

Mihku Paul gave me this beautiful copy of her poem “The Water Road” after I organized a reading for her at the Saint John Free Public Library several summers ago. This now hangs in my kitchen and I look at it when heating bottles of milk for my babies. It’s one of my favourites of hers, but also, more generally, one of my favourite things ever written about the Wolastoqiyik homelands.


And because it’s featured in the wonderful Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England (ed. Siobhan Senier), I have the privilege of discussing it with students this week in a third-year Indigenous Literatures course at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. To some degree, the poem is a response to The Old Meductic Fort and the Indian Chapel of Saint Jean Baptistea paper that was read before the New Brunswick Historical Society by Rev. W.O. Raymond in 1897. Raymond refers to a tributary of the Wolastoq River that the Maliseets call “Madawamkeetook, signifying ‘rocky at its mouth,'” and also to a report penned by Abraham Gesner — the Settler geologist who invented kerosene — who noted, in his survey of Wolastoqiyik portage paths, that the “‘solid rocks'” between Meductic and Tobique had been so well travelled that they were “‘furrowed by the moccasins of the native tribes.'” Gesner’s writings on these trails are themselves fascinating, filled with detailed references to awikhiganak, the images inscribed into tree bark that helped Wabanaki peoples navigate dense forests.

Against this incredible image of people traveling, for centuries, down worn and familiar passages, echoing the footsteps and movements of their ancestors, mapping and inscribing their land with their bodies, and leaving written messages, warnings, and instructions for one another along the paths, Raymond consolidates his simplistic idea of wandering nomads. He describes “the Indians of the Maliseet and Micmac tribes” as “a race of nomads, wandering about from one camping ground to another, as necessity or caprice impelled them.” Paul counters his vision of aimlessness with an exploration of her own personal reasons for travelling the water road. Her poem moves from Madawamkeetook down the Meductic trail to the Chiputneticook lakes at the Maine border and to Mattawamkeag, an eastern tributary of the Penobscot — where, Paul writes, “a girl became a woman.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 3.30.45 PMPaul herself grew up primarily in Old Town, Maine, but she also spent portions of her childhood among family at Indian Island, which stretches for miles along the Penobscot River. An enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, her family’s life in Maine was born of her grandfather’s struggles in the New Brunswick residential school system — experiences that ultimately caused him to flee the province before Mihku’s mother was born.

Paul’s poem speaks of someone who “became a woman” along the Penobscot, but whose “body craves the past, its water seeking / The cool flow, ancestral memory, / Where tributaries meet, flooding / Undernourished roots that cling to her edges / Eroded year by year with forgetting.” And so she follows the “map / Flowing inside [her body]” — from Penobscot to Mattawamkeag, to the Chiputneticook lakes, and up the water road to Meductic, where furrowed rocks speak of old life ways and the purposeful movements of a people who always find their way home.


Canadian Literature is a System of Enclosure

I’d been planning to deliver this paper on a panel dedicated to Canadian Exceptionalism at the Modern Language Association convention in New York City, January 5, 2018. Due to a massive winter storm, travel plans have been cancelled, but here is the text of my talk.

Slide 1.jpg

When John Locke wrote, in around 1689, that “in the beginning all the world was America,” he did not mean that all the world was the United States.[i] He was instead invoking a common rationale for the expropriation of Indigenous land and resources – the biblical ethos that would enable the founders of American settler states, like the US and Canada, to view the lands and resources they desired as the natural domain of a chosen people who carried their rights inside of them as they traversed the globe, seeking new land to convert into the service of their missions. When Locke wrote that “in the beginning all the world was America,” he meant that all the world was waiting to be converted into parcels of property by a chosen, exceptional people.

As cultural ideology, exceptionalism exists to systematically justify Settler peoples’ occupation of land and control of resources, but there are ways in which we used to be a whole lot more explicit about this. In the late 1620s, the Mayflower invader Robert Cushman justified his presence in New England by explaining that “[the] God of old did call and summon our fathers by predictions, dreams, visions, and certain illuminations to go from their countries, places and habitations to reside or dwell here or there, and to wander up and down from city to city, and land to land, according to his will and pleasure.”[ii] According to Genesis 1:28, the Judeo-Christian God had instructed his people to “‘fill the earth and subdue it,” to “‘Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,’” and the Mayflower Settlers, Cushman believed, were simply furthering that mission, just organising their lives around that sacred directive.[iii] Because American settler societies today are comparably secular, it can be more difficult to recognize this rationale at almost constant work; some Canadians might actually recoil from any suggestion that as a society we’re still just trying to act out a command from the Old Testament, and yet this exceptionalism remains fundamental to our extractive structures and economies.

Slide 2.jpg

On the day in November when I started writing this paper, the Supreme Court of Canada greenlit the development of a massive ski resort on sacred Indigenous land in British Columbia. And this is just another day in Settler Canada – because in 2018, Canada’s highest governing structure maintains that section 35 of its Constitution Act does not grant Indigenous nations veto power over our God-given right to pursue development projects. Nothing will get between us and our sacred mission to “subdue” unsettled environments, to convert stolen Indigenous land and resources into our own properties.

Like the US, Settler Canada is an extractive, expropriative state whose unshakable belief in its own essential entitlement to land and resources is so ingrained that we no longer even recognize the historical ideologies informing our behaviours and governance decisions. The early Americanist Drew Lopenzina refers to this phenomenon, the process through which the colonizing culture legitimizes ongoing “violence and oppression by relying on intrinsically ahistorical narrative frameworks,” as unwitnessing – “the largely passive decision to maintain a particular narrative structure by keeping undesirable aspects of cultural memory repressed or inactive.”[iv] Today I’d like to speak about exceptionalism as a deeply undesirable aspect of Settler Canadian cultural memory – one that we have tried to obscure beneath popular invented narratives of peacekeeping and multiculturalism. To facilitate this discussion I’ll be referring to Oliver Goldsmith’s 1825 The Rising Village, known today among Canadiansts as “the first poem to be published in book form by an English Canadian.”[v] In what is perhaps my favourite piece of criticism on this poem, David Jackel argued against Goldsmith’s prominent position in the Canadian canon, concluding that “the poem has historical value, but it is neither a very good poem nor a Canadian documentary. What it ‘documents’ is a state of mind, and that state of mind is not Canadian but colonial.”[vi] For Jackel, as for many others, Canada was something much nobler than a colonizing culture, and Canadian Literature was much more than a settler colonial power structure.

But the colonial mechanisms of this poem are precisely what make it so enduringly Canadian. The poem manifests Settler exceptionalism – through the speaker’s invasion and seizure of land – and then Goldsmith unwitnesses that same exceptionalism through the assertion of a peacekeeper myth. Here’s the point where I’m picking up the thread of Goldsmith’s vision of early Canada – he’s describing the so-called “savage tribes” here:

Slide 3.jpg

So he’s got a cottage at this point, but the woods around his dwelling place are filled with these unsettling people who “maintain / Their right to rule the mountain and the plain.” He’s being told repeatedly and explicitly that the land he’s trying to steal is already someone else’s home, and yet he’s buoyed by an enduring sense of his sacred mission to convert this soil into his property. In accordance with the ideology of exceptionalism, he “retains possession of the soil” no matter what dissenters may say, because the rights he carries inside of his body always trump those of peoples who were not chosen by his God.

Goldsmith offers an important and deeply conventional vision of how to assert and normalize these imported rights, which is fundamentally a matter of outnumbering Indigenous peoples on the ground and of holding or occupying land against competing interests. Here’s how Goldsmith describes the progression of Settler Canadian settlement:

Around his dwelling scattered huts extend,

Whilst every hut affords another friend.

And now, behold! his bold aggressors fly,

To seek their prey beneath some other sky;

Resign the haunts they can maintain no more,

And safety in far distant wilds explore.

Here we’ve got a classic “vanishing race” trope – the Indigenous people just pack up and leave because, in time, they too recognize the Settler’s inherent right to this soil. In deference to those rights, the Indigenous people vacate their ancestral land, the land their Creator gave to them as a gift, the land to which they have important responsibilities — they leave their homes and go west. Because in Settler mythology, Indigenous peoples aren’t really rooted anywhere, they are just wanderers. Goldsmith continues:

His perils vanished, and his fears o’ercome,

Sweet hope portrays a happy peaceful home.

You eradicate Indigenous peoples from your vision, since they’ve been the only thing, to your mind, contesting your title. You drive them from their territory, and then you amend your cultural memory by establishing an idea of yourself as peaceful.

On every side fair prospects charms his eyes,

And future joys in every thought arise.

He has rescued Settler Canadian futurity by eradicating unsettling knowledge from his vision.

His humble cot, built from the neighbouring trees,

Affords protection from each chilling breeze;

His rising crops, with rich luxuriance crowned,

In waving softness shed their freshness round;

By nature nourished, by her bounty blest,

He looks to Heaven, and lulls his cares to rest.

The arts of culture now extend their sway,

And many a charm of rural life display.

Where once the pine upreared its lofty head,

The settlers’ humble cottages are spread;

Where the broad firs once sheltered from the storm,

By slow degrees a neighbourhood they form;

And, as its bounds, each circling year, increase

In social life, prosperity, and peace,

New prospects rise, new objects too appear,

To add more comfort to its lowly sphere.

And here we have the systematic establishment of “home” for the Settler populace. Again, the Settler’s violence is elided from this vision – he has driven Indigenous people from their land just by maintaining his own natural rights. They’re OK – they’re safe! – they’re just gone. It was their choice to leave! There was no war, there were no scalping proclamations. And there are no treaties in this vision because there’s no one left to treat with. All that exists in this vision is the realization of this sacred covenant between the chosen ones, the soil they’ve subdued, and their god in heaven.

So the Settlers convert Indigenous land into their own homes first by building houses and cottages, then by expanding their comfort zones through systematic enclosure, and finally by planting crops on their land. This is a deeply English way of claiming, holding, and thinking about space.

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In Ceremonies of Possession, the American historian Patricia Seed describes the peculiar systems of enclosure that the first English settlers brought to bear on this continent. Anglo-American people created property through a three-part process – first we’d build houses or dwellings, then we’d draw a line or build a fence around the swath of land we were stealing, and then we’d plant gardens inside those boundaries to very clearly and literally mix our labours with the stolen soil. This highly ritualized sequence consisted of actions that were so conventional by the seventeenth century that their meanings could be easily understood by English people on both sides of the Atlantic “without elaboration” and “often without debate.”[vii] In the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries, what Seed calls the “enclosure movement” had converted huge sections of England and Wales into private, individually-held properties, pockets of land that individuals suddenly owned against their neighbours; through these rituals, some people produced property for themselves, but at the same time, “a considerable number of people” became “landless.”[viii] The historian Alan Taylor estimates that “about half [of England’s] rural peasantry lost their lands” through enclosure “between 1530 and 1630.”[ix] And some of those people came here.

Like their forebears across the pond, the first English Settlers on Turtle Island enclosed parcels of land in an effort to replace any existing ideas of shared or collective ownership with English expressions of individual ownership.[x] Over centuries, American colonizing cultures intellectually disavowed enclosure, rendering it effectively invisible to themselves.[xi] Of course, we still practice and benefit from enclosure – when we “buy a house in the suburbs” or in the country, for example,

“we are doing more than engaging in a private financial transaction: we are purchasing the idea of that land as ours – our own circumscribed space with attendant amenities like a backyard and privacy fences. Our purchase is a benefit of our placement on the inside of the structures of settler colonialism, and also a denial of Indigenous claims to those same lands.”[xii]

We enclose land to hold it as property against our neighbours. We pushed Indigenous peoples outside the boundaries of our enclosures, and then we normalized ahistorical narrative frameworks to make it very difficult to understand or imagine what Indigenous rights might look like within our settled environments. Through enclosure, we identified ourselves as the mediators of Indigenous presence within settled environments. Our daily behaviours actively carry forward the enclosure movement from sixteenth century England and yet enclosure itself has been disavowed as an undesirable aspect of Settler Canadian cultural memory – we maintain a murky sense of how enclosure dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land during a far-off colonial period, but we cannot so easily accept that our lives and societies carry forward the same action and consequence. We cannot be those violent invaders, damnit, we are Canadians, we are peacekeepers, but those invaders are nonetheless who we are.[xiii] By unthinkingly living our lives inside these systems of enclosure we continue to hold huge sections of land against Indigenous peoples, interests, and claims.

To conclude, I want to think about this line where Goldsmith says that within the settled environment, “The arts of culture now extend their sway.” Because for me, this is a chilling and direct reference to how the arts function institutionally to reinforce and normalize structures of settler colonial occupation. Simply the words “Canadian Literature” or “CanLit” invoke enclosure – the physical borders of the settler state. The clearest example of this for me, and the one I use in my book, is how non-Indigenous scholars have collectively decided to define what an early Canadian author is today. If you scan the table of contents in any anthology that includes an “early Canadian” section, you’ll see that we define an “early Canadian” writer as an English, French, or Indigenous person who produced alphabetic text within the physical borders of what became the Canadian state. These borders didn’t even exist in the early period in question, but we compulsively impose them onto maps and onto history retrospectively. Because when we say “CanLit,” we are invoking these borders, this contained sphere of dominance, this system of enclosure that only exists to hold this section of northern Turtle Island apart and against competing claims.

This is the Canadian enclosure, the frame that supports our extractions. Settler Canadians view themselves as governors and as mediators of the contents of this frame, the boundaries within which we have established all our rights as an exceptional people. Without this frame, unbearably, we’re just Americans or Europeans. And so we intuitively proceed as though this frame contains the soil that we have subdued, peopled, and mastered, and this is why our exceptionalist ideology surfaces and resurfaces in the mechanisms of our society –  not only in our violent and expropriative development projects and Supreme Court decisions but also in our daily behaviours and in our most fundamental intellectual frameworks. And we struggle to treat others with love, respect, or generosity within the confines of an enclosure that was created by Settlers to hold space against Indigenous claims and interests.



[i] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. Edited by C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980. 121.

[ii] Robert Cushman, Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing out of England into the Parts of America, from Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History, Edited by John Demos. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991. 4-10. 4.

[iii] Genesis 1:28. For more on the Old Testament as a basis of colonial claims to ownership, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): 69.

[iv] Drew Lopenzina, Red Ink: Native Americans Picking Up the Pen in the Colonial Period (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012): 12, 9.

[v] Desmond Pacey, “The Goldsmiths and Their Villages,” The University of Toronto Quarterly, 21 (October, 1951): 27-38. 38.

[vi] David Jackel, “Goldsmith’s Rising Village and the Colonial State of Mind,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 5.1 (1980): https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/SCL/article/view/7941/8998

[vii] Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995): 3.

[viii] Ibid., 20.

[ix] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Penguin Books, 2001): 120.

[x] On the distinction between common gifts and commodities, see Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful discussion of strawberries in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013): 22-32.

[xi] Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker identify disavowal as “a key part of the Settler identity” that “marks Settler people as benefitting from the dispossession and destruction of Indigenous peoples while at the same time vehemently denying complicity in the events and processes that make that happen.” Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (Black Point and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2015): 16.

[xii] Ibid., 32.

[xiii] For a thorough discussion of the peacekeeper myth, see Ibid., 44-47.