On Thursday, the Samuel Leonard Tilley statue in King’s Square was marked with red paint in a manner not unlike what we have repeatedly seen elsewhere, ushering many unwilling Saint Johners into longstanding national debates around issues of public commemoration, vandalism, the re-writing/restoration/reconstruction of history, public property, and Indigenous land.
Before the Canada Act was patriated in 1982, the holiday that Canadians typically observe on the first day of July was known as “Dominion Day.” Despite disuse, “Dominion of Canada” remains the country’s formal title, and with Tilley’s assistance, we can easily trace the idea of Canada as a “dominion” back to Confederation, when the so-called Fathers of Confederation decided that instead of referring to their new country as a “kingdom” — which, they worried, might irritate the United States — they’d call it a dominion. It was Tilley who advocated for the adoption of this language, citing Psalm 72:8 as his inspiration: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” This is the idea now enshrined in the Canadian motto, A Mari usque ad Mare, from sea to sea. According to the theologian Albert Barnes, Psalm 72:8 alludes to the promise of Exodus 23:31, which speaks of the dominion of a chosen (or exceptional) people over land that stretches from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates River.
Much has been written about how American colonists internalized and performed this sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, but in The Homing Place, I explained that exceptionalism is additionally among the most important theoretical concepts underlying Canadian identity. In a colonial context, as I’ve argued elsewhere, exceptionalism is much more than a simple perception or articulation of nationalist difference or superiority — it is a fundamental Atlantic World logic and lens through which Europeans assumed and asserted dominion and sovereignty across centuries over Indigenous peoples, land, and resources.
In the City of Saint John’s response to the news about the Tilley statue, they reminded citizens of a few recent and encouraging changes around the council table, including their adoption of a land acknowledgement before meetings. I would additionally encourage this council to consider whether the idea of Canadian dominion is reconcilable with their expressed understanding of this land as Wabanaki territory. Are we ready to understand how this statue participates in a legacy that alienates and disenfranchises Indigenous people on their own land? TRC Call 45.1 asks governments to “Repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” Dominion and exceptionalism are rhetorical extensions of these concepts, and in this moment we have an opportunity to stand as a community behind this repudiation.