Canada’s History of Colonialism

2 10 2009
First Nations, 1870

First Nations, 1870

Native Groups have called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to apologize for saying that Canada has “no history of colonialism”.  (Also see here, here, and here). Harper made these remarks at the G20 in Pittsburgh, a recent gathering of the leaders of developed (G7) and emerging economies (including China, India, and Brazil). You can watch Mr Harper’s statement in Pittsburgh here.

First Nations groups say that Harper’s statement overlooks Canada’s long history of domestic colonialism. They have also said that Harper’s “colonialism denial” is incompatible with his recent apology for the residential schools and efforts to engage with aboriginals.

I can certainly see the point that Mr Harper was trying to make. Unlike Britain, the United States, France, and some of the other industrialized countries, Canada never had overseas colonies. The fact that Canada never had a colonial empire does colour the way in which former European colonies, such as India and Singapore, see us. We don’t have the baggage that the other major western countries do.  However, in equating “colonialism” with having overseas colonies in the tropics, Mr Harper may have been making a common mistake, the “saltwater fallacy” that says that if you colonize a territory that is connected to you by land, you aren’t a colonialist. By this definition, Russia and China would not be considered “colonialist” powers, since they colonized contiguous territories, Siberia and Tibet respectively.

Colonialism involved seizing overseas territories in what is commonly called the Third World. But colonialism can also be about the Fourth World, the indigenous communities that live within the borders of industrialized countries such as Canada, Australia, Sweden, and the United States.

Both sides in the debate generated by Mr Harper’s colonialism remark have made excellent points. One hopes that this debate will help to increase the public’s interest in Canadian history.

The image above is from Library and Archives Canada and is the public domain.