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.

Canada’s Constitution

30 09 2009
British North America Act

British North America Act

Does Canada have a written constitution? According to a recent article in the American Political Science Review by James Fink, Canada’s constitution is entirely customary or unwritten. As political scientist Janet Ajzenstat points out, Canada has a written constitution.

I would add, however, that the unwritten parts of the Canadian constitution are more important than the written documents. This is probably what Fink meant to say.

Ned Franks on History of Minority Parliaments in Canada

29 09 2009

Ned Franks, Queen’s University political scientist, talks about the history of minority parliaments in Canada on TVOntario’s Agenda. Steve Paikin was, as always, a superb interviewer.

Article in Guardian About Ignatieff

2 06 2009

Yesterday’s Guardian carried a piece by Michael White comparing current Canadian and British politics. It is rare to find an article that comments on both the UK MP expenses row and the Tory attack ads.

If only Ignatieff had a moat that needed cleaning, that would make for a great attack ad.

The New GM and the Redefinition of Nafta

1 06 2009

We now know who will control the equity of the new General Motors. Ownership will be divided as follows.

60 per cent U.S. government.

12.5 per cent The Canadian and Ontario governments.

17.5 per cent United Auto Workers.

10 per cent Unsecured bondholders.

0 per cent Existing GM shareholders.

0 per cent– government of Mexico.

I’m wondering what the implications of this arrangement for Nafta are. During the 1990s, Canadians got used to the idea that North America consists of three countries, not just Canada and the United States. These three countries shared an integrated automotive market. (The three amigos summit, an annual meeting of the leaders of the three nations, was premised on the  idea that North America really was part of North America). Mexico lacks even a token stake in the new, reorganized GM. The symbolism is striking. Moreover, because the Mexican government hasn’t a seat at the table, it will be powerless to prevent manufacturing jobs from being repatriated back to the USA by the new, more politicized management of GM. (Canadian governments acquired an equity stake largely to avoid such job losses– I don’t know if it will work. Americans are, sadly very nationalistic. When push comes to shove, they may well prefer to save jobs in Michigan at the expense of non-Americans in Ontario).

Harper’s Bad Idea

1 06 2009

Canada’s Conservative government has proposed a law that would allow victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments and organizations that sponsor terrorism in Canada courts.

This law is a terrible, terrible idea.

First, this law appears to infringe on provincial jurisdiction. Suits for the loss of life, limb, and property are connected to property and civil rights,  which are clearly a matter of provincial jurisdiction according to the British North America, er, I mean, Constitution Act, 1867. If a provincial government wished to pass a similar law, I would have fewer objections.

Second, this proposed law would further politicize our judiciary by forcing judges to define “terrorist”.  Defining terrorism is much more complicated than it might sound.  Nelson Mandela once used tactics that that can reasonably be described as terrorist. Some Western countries regard the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, while others do not. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Third, I’m disturbed that Mr Harper announced this law at an ethnic organization.  (The identity of the ethnic group in question is not really important, although for the record it was a Jewish organization.) This law risks drawing the Canadian government into Old World ethnic-nationalist strife. What the Canadian government needs to be doing is to promote a sense of unhyphenated Canadianism, a civic nationalism that embraces all citizens. We should be encouraging all groups to identify primarily with Canada and to forget, as much as possible, where their ancestors are from. The proposed law, which would probably lead to lawsuits by competing ethnic groups, will do nothing to advance this aim.   It will set ethnic group against ethnic group.

Anyone who lives in a major urban area in Canada is aware that some immigrants bring Old World rivalries with them to Canada (e.g., Serb vs. Croat, Sikh vs. Hindu, Jew vs. Arab). Like most old stock Canadians, I sometimes find myself wishing that we could wipe the memories of certain classes of immigrants.

Ask yourself this question: had this law been in place in 1985, would it have promoted healing in the wake of the Air India bombing? I think not.

It will be interesting to whether Michael Ignatieff, the noted expert of ethnic conflict, reacts to Mr Harper’s proposal.