Why comparing “local alternatives” cannot defend the colonization of Canada

In a recently published Macleans piece, Mark Milke argues that “We should celebrate Canada’s British influence, not denounce it.” Milke is a former senior fellow from the Fraser Institute, a conservative policy think tank based out in BC. I first noticed this article when Derek Simon posted about it on Twitter. His thread focuses on some of the article’s primary contradictions and failings, and it is well worth a read.

My favourite line from the article is its first conclusion — that “when looking back, one should always compare to local alternatives available at the time.” I totally agree. So what “local alternatives” were in place at the time of the Euro-Western colonization and settlement of Turtle Island?

To be sure, early colonists and Settlers harbored ideas that were very different from the beliefs that were held and put in practice by Indigenous peoples. The Anishinaabe scholar Niigaan Sinclair recently described “Turtle Island in the 16th century” as

a village made of thousands of villages, a nation of nations. Not perfect by any means, this was a place of large and small governments and communities who worked collaboratively and competitively, trading and warring and sharing and migrating over the seasons and with many reasons. People were travelling all the time, meeting new people, tasting new tastes, witnessing new ways of being, adopting and changing, and so on. It was this way for millennia.[i]

In the integrated landscape that Sinclair describes, villages were fluid, mobile spaces, continuously changing with the passage of time in form and function as peoples travelled in groups across and sometimes beyond their territories, moving between and among distinct subsistence bases and erecting and dismantling their dwelling-places as they went.

The sophisticated nature of early Indigenous village sites had been intentionally and thoughtfully developed across centuries as a means of “[reducing] potential strains on any particular segment of the ecosystem,” thereby “keeping the overall human burden low.”[ii] The palisaded longhouse villages of the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois, which were described in some detail by Cartier and then again, decades later, by Champlain, were themselves periodically dismantled, moved, and rebuilt to protect the integrity of the soil and to ensure the people’s continued success in agriculture.[iii]

Fundamental differences in early colonial and Indigenous dwelling practices are well documented in the Euro-Western archive. In sixteenth- and seventeenth- century European imaginaries, villages were generally envisioned as immobile structural units – as self-contained, permanent settlements consisting of entrenched, immovable buildings. In around 1675, when the Recollect missionary Chrestien Le Clercq advised a group of Mi’gmaq that “it would be very much more advantageous for them to live and to build [their villages] in [the French] fashion,” he immediately attracted the ridicule of a man identified by Le Clercq only as the “leading Indian” among those present:

“I am greatly astonished that the French have so little cleverness, as they seem to exhibit in the matter of which thou hast just told me on their behalf, in the effort to persuade us to convert our poles, our barks, and our wigwams into those houses of stone and of wood which are tall and lofty, according to their account, as these trees. . . . My brother, hast thou as much ingenuity and cleverness as the Indians, who carry their houses and their wigwams with them so that they may lodge wheresoever they please, independently of any seignor whatsoever? Thou art not as bold . . . as we, because when thou goest on a voyage thou canst not carry upon thy shoulders thy buildings and thy edifices. Therefore it is necessary that thou preparest as many lodgings as thou makest changes of residence . . . As for us, we find ourselves secure from all these inconveniences, and we can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere.”[iv]

By recommending French settlement expertise to the Mi’gmaq, Le Clercq indeed betrayed an “astonishing” lack of “cleverness.” After more than a century spent watching colonists struggle (and often fail) to keep themselves alive through the long winter months, the Mi’gmaq, like the other Indigenous nations of northern Turtle Island, were skeptical of any suggestion that they might emulate the “French fashion” of village life or settlement. To be sure, the French who had fared best in the Native northeast were those, like the Jesuit missionaries, who had grudgingly embedded themselves with Indigenous groups, adapting, for a time, to their cultural practices and seasonal movements.

I agree with Milke that “when looking back, one should always compare to local alternatives available at the time.” But when we do that in good faith — when we really compare what EuroWestern peoples brought to bear on this landscape with what was here before — we are led to produce altogether different think-pieces.

Notes

[i] Sinclair, Niigaan. “Kanata 150+, not Canada 150.” UM Today News, June 30, 2017.

[ii] Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983): 48.

[iii] According to Champlain, “they sometimes change their villages at intervals of ten, twenty, or thirty years, and transfer them to a distance of one, two, or three leagues from the preceding situation.” Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, Volume 3, 1611-1618. Translated by Charles Pomeroy Otis. (Boston: The Prince Society, 1882): 161.

[iv] Le Clercq, Chrestien. New Relation of Gaspesia: With the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1910): 103-104.

 

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.