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Yesterday, the New York Times published a fairly smarmy piece by Daniel Victor, titled “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.