Weighing in on “Canadian exceptionalism”

I really love the group blog and #twitterstorians movements in History, and I wish we were similarly motivated in literary studies. Sometimes just clicking through the links in Andrea Eidinger’s weekly history roundup is enough to leave me with the same feeling of exhilaration I’ve received from the very best conferences I’ve attended. Historians know how to generate energy online.

And it finally occurred to me to contribute something. This week’s Borealia post is mine, drawn from material that is developed further in my forthcoming book. In the post, I discuss exceptionalism as a deeply ingrained and inescapable part of Settler Canadian identity, exploring its contemporaneous presence in political, religious, and nationalist discourses.

. . . Exceptionalism is premised on this fundamental if sometimes unspoken or secularized belief that the God of Israel gave the world to industrious Western peoples so they could do with it as they pleased. In Canada, this vision was officially consecrated into statehood with the adoption of Psalm 72:8 as the basis of the national motto in 1867: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” This is the same essential idea that John Locke so carefully developed in his second treatise on government, where we find what is generally treated as the definitive argument in defense of the supposedly natural rights of English colonists to conquer and acquire the world. According to Locke, the seizure of land and paranoid control of resources is not a “prejudice to any other man,” and even if “God gave the world to men in common… it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational.”

The creation of Canada was another aggressive consolidation of this self-aggrandizing mythology against “the common pot” of Turtle Island – the Indigenous perspective of land as a shared territory capable of equally sustaining all kinds of beings across generations. By adopting “A Mari Usque Ad Mare” as their unifying motto, the founders of Canada expressed their conventional belief in the right of “exceptional” people like themselves to acquire and dominate the world, signaling, too, a belief in their own principal and essential place in what was, to their minds, a predestined but unfinished tale of Western deliverance. If, decades earlier, the American Revolution had robbed the world’s most exceptional people of their supposedly “natural” right to dominance over the lands and resources that some now call the United States, those exiles had persevered in their search for the so-called promised land, casting their gaze upon the Canadian “wilderness” and on the great material bounties that were waiting in its depths. . . .

I’m grateful to Keith Grant and Denis McKim for allowing me to hang out with the historians for the week. Click through to their site to read the whole piece.

The role of education in the Settler Canadian civilizing mission

In The Homing Place, I compare the culture and spacial organization of early New England meeting houses with Settler Canadian universities — seats of Western cultural rule and epistemological control where the lectern has replaced the pulpit and where populations are generally trained to revere transatlantic traditions and modes of thought.

I earned my PhD in 2016 from a school (the University of New Brunswick) that was founded by Loyalists in 1785. This morning I stumbled upon an anonymous report from 1788, titled “Progress of New Brunswick”:

When we look back to the origin of this new province, and trace it to a short period of only four years we find it rapidly arriving into use and consequence to Great Britain. The public Academies and private Schools establishing in that province with a view of Civilizing the Indian natives and thereby making them useful inhabitants, as well also for keeping their own youth from going into the neighbouring States of America for their education and imbibing the disloyal principles of that country.

A clear articulation of the role of these institutions in the consolidation of settler state power. Here’s to all the unlikely products of this system that was specifically designed to produce a citizenry that is unNative and unAmerican.