I’ll be delivering this paper on a panel dedicated to Canadian Exceptionalism at the Modern Language Association convention in New York City, January 4-7, 2018.
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.
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:
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.
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.