Where was the outcry?

At the G20 conference, Stephen Harper claims Canada has “no history of colonialism”

I expected outrage—an outpour of letters to local politicians or newspapers or a national media storm. Instead, there was no response.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said what could be the most offensive statement of his career as a public officer. At the G20 conference in Pittsburgh, in front of every world leader and the rest of the world, he said “We also have no history of colonialism.” What?

At first I thought I could be wrong. Maybe I don’t understand what colonialism is. I consulted various sources for a definition. The sum of all these definitions can be found in the Stanford Encyclopaedia definition: “Colonialism is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another.” That’s what I thought it was, too. I didn’t misunderstand the words that came from Mr.

Harper’s mouth.

By talking to some of my peers, I found many actually agree with the statement that Canada has no history of colonialism. In a public forum, someone expressed that “Arguably, we really don’t, and if we did, it’s nothing spectacular. Any form of North American expansion and westward movement before 1867 cannot be placed on Canadian shoulders. And you don’t see Canadians with overseas territorial interests.” So as it turns out, there’s debate to be had over this—which is why I’m writing this piece. Not only does Canada have a history of colonialism—Canada is fundamentally built on colonialist endeavors. It’s offensive to even debate the question “Does Canada have a colonial history?” The only reason I’m engaging in this ridiculous debate is to counter the only voices speaking out on this incident—voices in support of Mr. Harper’s statement.

At best, the comment was a gross assault on this country’s Aboriginal population. Stephen Harper trivializes the struggle of Native peoples throughout Canadian history, largely the history of the state attempting to control, dominate and subjugate First Nations groups. The historical amnesia represented by Harper’s comment forgets instances like Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs in the 1920s, saying, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.” From the beginning, the goal was cultural and political obliteration of Aboriginal people.

It disregards comments made by Canada’s 10th Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, regarding the control of the land: “…that Canada should remain a white man’s country is believed to be not only desirable for economic and social reasons but highly necessary on political and national grounds.” Above all, Harper’s ignorant comment makes light of the fact that our residential schools—the tool through which the state continued its assault on human rights by practicing cultural genocide and physical and sexual abuse—were Canada’s own version of ethnic cleansing. We did this. We, the people of Canada. It’s an undeniable part of our history. The Prime Minister himself issued an apology for residential schools just 14 months ago. When we speak of the residential school system, we’re acknowledging Canada’s own racist, colonialist past and history. The last residential school closed in 1996, when many Queen’s students were already in grade school.

It’s embarrassing for a nation to deny on the world stage any previous heinous acts it had committed. Sure, we aren’t directly responsible for acts committed by previous governments. But it’s offensive and hurtful to deny that these acts were committed. To this day, Canadian state colonialism stands in the way of the Six Nations, Akwesasne, Tyendinaga, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Athabasca Chipewyan, Secwepemc and many other peoples who are forced to put up blockades every year to stop environmental injustices caused by mining and resources extraction. That’s a form of dominating, subjugating and controlling others that this state still commits.

Canada didn’t spring up overnight onto an unpopulated and barren landmass. This nation came to exist through an extension of military, political, cultural and economic control on part of French, British and Canadian governments over the First Nations people.

If that doesn’t qualify as a “history of colonialism,” I’m not sure what does.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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