Friday, July 13, 2012

Some personal Meditations on Aboriginal Day (June), and July first, 2012. Henk Smidstra

Two hundred years ago, on June 1, 1812, United States President, James Madison, declared war on England and its North American Colonies. Now from a 200 year old perspective, 2012 is going to be a reflective and patriotic year in Canada as it goes down memory lane to revisit the events, meaning, and impact, of this war on Canadian identity as a nation. In 1812, the conquest of New France in1760 by England was still a recent painful memory for those living in Lower Canada; for those in Upper Canada, the majority, as Tories, had chosen to remain loyal to Britain during the American revolution of 1776, and had, as Empire Loyalists, emigrated largely to the area we call Ontario today, and to the Maritimes. The war of 1812 involved what existed then, Lower and Upper Canada, (Quebec and Ontario) and the Maritimes. Now scant decades after these social political dislocations and migrations, the death and destruction by American militia type incursions into Canadian Communities around the great lakes affected both English loyalists and French Canadians, and a deepened sense of Canadian identity was forged.  Some Canadian historians have identified the war of 1812, more than the loyalist migration from revolutionary United States, as being the significant beginning of Canadian nationalism (Mac Kirdy, Moir and Zoltvany, 1971, p. 117). But read any Canadian History book and you will likely not hear much of the war’s effect on, or participation of, First Nations peoples.
 At the turn of the 19th century, two cultural-social traditions, or “two races,” as it was then said, existed side by side; the two were the English and the French. Emerging Canada was largely ruled from Britain through its Colonial office reflecting Victorian social, economic, and cultural, values and theories. French speaking Canadiens, though, contributed to an early sense of an alternative society, distinct from the British culture. Given these two colonial, cultural ascriptions, one is struck by the lack of mention or concern of the first cultures and communities living on Canadian soil since time immemorial. Early contact with native communities was controlled by British mercantilism through the monopolies of the Hudson’s Bay and later the North West trading companies and a somewhat mutually supportive relationship existed. However, later in the 19th century under pressure of national policy and desire for land for settlement and resources, the relationship became more one of exploitation and domination, especially for the First Nations and Metis of Western and Northern Canada. Politically, the stated motive was to build a nation that would be distinct and less vulnerable to absorption by the republican powers-that-be-of the youthful United States of America.   John A. MacDonald would later, (1878), after Confederation, place great emphasis on national policy to build an independent nation, a Gaullist policy suggests George Grant (2005, p.46).

 The two Canada’s and the Maritimes would experience significant internal conflict and sectionalist dissent and rebellion during the years between 1812 and Confederation in 1867. Federalism was chosen as a form of governance to affirm the particularities of cultural-regional differences in an attempt to address the conflicts of sectionalism and dissent. These were important foundational years in my opinion, in defining a Canadian way between the libertarian egalitarianism of the republic, and the more traditional organic and communitarian values of Catholic Lower Canada and Protestant Upper Canada. Canadian nation building had at work within it the loyalist, ancient, Tory vision of an organic society of communities, a social vision that differed from liberalism’s individualistic and laissez faire theories of the American republic, a republic that was more heir to the perspectives of the British Whigs, to Thomas Paine and John Locke. In the development in emerging Canada, it is possible to regard as positive the effects of the challenges and dialogue in the conflict resolution of the sectional debates between the two colonial cultures; yet we can lament and wish that the Aboriginal voices could also be said to have been represented.  George Grant in His, Lament for a Nation (2005), has indicated the toxic dangers of individualistic liberalism with its inherent movement towards a homogeneous, absolutely differentiated human society, a homogeneous continentalism (pp., 23, 40, and 41). I suggest that  the sectional debates in Upper and Lower Canada during the 19th century, and continuing today in the separatist stream of thought in Quebec,   has left an important inclination towards an inherent vision of a pluralism of Communities in Canada; not a plurality of individuals, attached remotely only by contract, but the plurality of particular communities.  In Canada we have used the term, cultural mosaic, to affirm the importance of the particularities of the many immigrant communities which exist in Canada today. Ron Dart in his, The Canadian High Tory Tradition: Raids on the unspeakable (2004), alludes to an inherent originality of virtue and goodness of the parish, or shire, and citizens of the local community (pp. 151,153, 203).

2012 will be a good year to look at the war of 1812, as well as at the significant post-war events in Canadian history, and to renew a vision of what it means to be Canadian in the 21st century. Post-war of 1812 considerations could be extended to the American Civil war, the Boer War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, not to forget Afghanistan; all have had a defining effect on Canada qua Canada. However, I do want to focus on the Canadian colonial social-cultural issues. Social cultural conflicts have also had a defining impact on Canadian identity. I wish to suggest that Nation building two hundred years ago was quite insensitive to the nations and communities that had existed on North American soil for thousands of years. The question is important to reflect on: how sensitive are we to Canadian First Nations issues today; and are we willing to respect the integrity of their traditional teachings about land and community? Perhaps there is an affinity of the ancient Celtic Tory way Dart alludes to (2004, pp. 199-203), to that of First Nation’s perspectives that places sacred inherent value on the environment and community, a vision lost in the rush towards individual liberty and technological progress in developing western Canada. I would like to think that it is also more than the experience of war, or fear of war (including fear and public safety), that defines us as a nation. The questions and issues that George Grant (2005) raised in the 60’s are as relevant now, as they were then, in gaining insight into our implicit Canadian identity.  I find hope in the last lines of Grant’s lament for a nation; he concludes that we can reflect and lament, but as people of hope we recognize that ultimately the events of Canadian history take place in an “eternal order” of love, (p.95). However, the history of Canadian nation building is multi-factorial with social-psychological and cultural world view issues entwined with political philosophy and economic political theory.

 Aboriginal Day for me this year (2012), personally  culminated 21 years of  experiencing Aboriginal Day events in the prisons where I have served (as chaplain) for that long. This year again, I recognize the importance and value these annual events have in educating and connecting both young modern aboriginals, and non-aboriginals, with an aspect of Canadian history about which we seem to have  amnesia. Perhaps it is selective memory, avoiding the pain of cognitive dissonance regarding the prejudicial exploitation Canadian first nations’ peoples experienced in colonial and recent history. I look around me in prison and note painfully the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Metis prisoners, a consequence of the rapid destruction of the social fabric of First Nations’ traditional community way of life as a result of rapid colonial expansion, specifically in the opening of the Canadian West to settlement, to mechanized agriculture, western commerce, and resource exploitation. Canadian prisons are, also of origin, within the legacy of John A. MacDonald’s Canadian national policy; but, they have nothing particularly Tory about them. The Canadian government did place an emphasis on having law and order provided by the North West Mounted police preceding the settlement of western Canada to prevent the kind of frontier justice of the western United States. However, in the suppression Red River resistance of the Metis and Cree,  (North-West Rebellion) the Police had no choice but to force the submission of the Metis and Cree to the  justice of western national expansion, and to allow the progress of the CPR over their traditional lands.  History, it has often been recognized, has been written by the victors of conquest; little has been written of the truth of dark side of colonialism, of war, prisons, and ceding (extinguishment of title), of the shadow side of Canadian Nation building.  If there are any memorials or cenotaphs of the war of 1812, they will probably celebrate the accomplishments of the two “founding races” leading up to confederation, the English and the French; the presence, contribution and participation of the First peoples of Canada did not seem to count, or warrant publication. Of the century of nation building, there seems to be a lack of awareness of, and a dearth of memorial markers, to the suffering and death of thousands of Canadian first nations’ people under the onslaught of ceding territory, of disease, and of, let’s use the well-known sociological term, anomie. Their loss was not only of a traditional way of life, but also of the death of their languages and community narratives, and of cultural-spiritual practices. The legitimacy of their human communities was implicitly and explicitly invalidated; and, their sense of self had been inextricably tied spiritually to their ancestral lands. Becoming wards of the state cut to the very core of their spirituality and identity. 

Canadian 19th century social-cognition was largely Victorian, European, dominantly, Anglo-Saxon or French; the Canada that was emerging was conceived of as that of two “races.” It must be said though, that the concept of race had not yet accumulated the toxic of pure race or master-race thinking as developed by later eugenic and Nazi ideology. With some historical insight and its lessons, this year, no doubt, in commemorating the War of 1812, we will hear more of the support of various native communities supporting the British efforts, the Huron’s, the Iroquois, and of Chief Tecumseh, without whose help the Americans might have conquered Canada. Chief Tecumseh, as well as other First Nation leaders at that time, regarded the governance of Britain as more favourable for the wellbeing and historical affirmation of their communities, than the republican rule of Jefferson and Madison. Some stories of past wars have achieved mythical proportions; some are ones sided and need to be revisited.  It is an apothegm that the truth will set us free; selective memories can only keep us trapped in a pattern of thinking that is at the very root, the cause of many 21st century social political crises.

 One can only heal and reconcile the pain of the past if first recognized, and then felt. I will suggest that our current emphasis on reconciliation of residence school survivors is an absolute must; however, the residence school abuses issue is not the root problem, it is rather a symptom related to the underlying cause of utilitarian, Darwinist thinking, and social prejudice in nation building. Let’s be honest and fair, recognizing that as human beings, we all have difficulties recognizing our own biases and theoretical assumptions…our emotional intelligence, then as much as today. 2012 can be the year we face the whole truth, so that we can move forward as a true reconciled multi-cultural and multi-faith nation, a federation taking the best of English, French, and Aboriginal virtues into a collaboration of common goods, along with the added value of the multitude of immigrant streams that have served to build Canada as the nation it is today. We can’t solve social problems with the same thinking that caused them in the first place. Confederation, Meech Lake and Charlottetown, all struggled with the tensions of an inherent Canadian social cultural “mosaic”; Canada is not a republican melting pot. Elijah Harper, at Meech Lake, certainly opened the door to important reflection on the absolute need to include First Nations, Inuit and Metis, in on the creation of local and national policy and legislation affecting their communities and the land they live on. This should not be a problem; Canada is used to not being a homogeneous atomistic  society of an absolute consensus of individuals, but rather a pluralistic nation of communities a bi-lingual, or rather, multi-lingual, multi-cultural society.

1812 was still of the era Canada Gordon Lightfoot sang about in his Canadian Railroad Trilogy: “a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run”; a time before the violence of technology on the Canadian landscape, being broken by hammers and dynamite; and of its victims in railroad and nation building, of a silence, and of dead men “too silent to be real.” Rupert’s Land and the North West territories and its developing Metis society, and traditional Aboriginal societies, all lay as it had since time immemorial. Assinaboia (Lower Manitoba today) had become a thriving Metis community. The fur trading era had made its impact in these regions, however, social-economic development had been slow, and the first nation’s people benefited some during this era. The Quebec Act and the policies of mercantilism had provided a protection for this ancient realm of nature with its first societies. The past need not be vilified or romanticised, but it does need to be set free by telling the whole story so that healing can occur, and for life to move forward in a collaborative way. Specifically, the story of how the Canadian West was “won” must be reviewed. As one reads of the “development” of the nation, it is apparent how national policy aggressively and progressively “dispossessed” the first inhabitants of the plains and the Metis of Manitoba, to make room for the CPR and settlers. This job was sealed in the Manitoba act in 1970 (Treat #4 in 1874). No numbered treaties were made with the Metis; they were not even consulted at the outset, though some script was offered for compensation of the expropriation of the land they had built their communities on. In 1885, Louis Riel was executed as well as 11 Cree supporters (31 Cree were incarcerated) for sedition in the North-West Rebellion. This, and the incarceration of the signatories of the plains treaty #6 (1876; concerning Central Saskatchewan and Alberta), was a sad moment in Canadian history in the, of “opening up” the west for settlers and resource exploitation more along laissez faire lines. The year the Cree  chiefs, Big Bear, Poundmaker, and One Arrow, spent in the new Stony Mountain Federal Penitentiary was humiliating, demeaning of their humanity, status, and health, and the experience hastened their death.

 James Douglas in pre-confederation BC, had made treaties with the inhabitants, and insisted that they have as much land as they wanted. However, Robin Fisher (1992) says of treaty making, that the concept of land was based on then current theories of the nature and use of aboriginal land tenure, and did not take into account native realities (p. 66). This kind of thinking also influenced the treaty-making that was going to “open up” the west; the first plains’ treaties # 1 and #2 were made in 1871, involving southern Manitoba; treaty #7 was signed in 1877, and it involved southern Alberta. Fisher’s (1992) insights are important as he further notes, that it is unlikely that the local inhabitants understood fully the concepts of the treaties’, written, legal, language: “In the pre-settlement period the Indians had no way of learning about European concepts of land ownership, and the signatories of the treaties probably thought that they were surrendering the use of the land rather than the title of it. But in spite of the many inadequacies, implicit in these treaties was the notion that the aboriginal race exercised some kind of ownership over the land that ought to be extinguished by the colonizing power” (p. 67. Emphasis mine).  That Europeans of the time had little cross-cultural understanding of the seasonal and migratory patterns of Aboriginal land-use is also evident in hindsight. The numbered plain treaties were signed by signatories, overpowered, starving, and desperate, seeking the survival and wellbeing of their communities upon the disappearance of the buffalo, and of the apprehension of vast swaths of their land by railroad magnates and settlers.  One only needs to read Rudy Wiebe’s, The Temptations of Big Bear (1999), to get a sense of the incommensurability of the oral organic culture of the first nations, and the Lockean legal positivism and “contractarian” treaty making with the First Nations of the Canadian West. 

 A prejudicial spirit of supremacy was also at work in the undoing, the “reallocations”, of James Douglas’s treaties in BC by William Trutch, who was to become BC’s first Lieutenant Governor after BC joined Confederation in 1871. Douglas’ maximum land allotments were reduced to his absolute minimums; the aboriginals did not need much land according to Trutch, and he indicated that they were savages, mostly immoral, in communicating with the Prime Minister in 1872 (Fisher 1992, p. 161).  Later in Laurier’s long Liberal term as prime minister, Minister of the interior, Clifford Siffton advertised Canada’s western lands as the “Last best west.” The 20th century, he proclaimed, was to be Canada’s century (Callwood 1981, pp. 223,225). One recognizes that the Canadian West was open for business with the flood of settlers eager to get 160 free acres per family; fist nation’s rights as equal human beings-in-community did not seem to enter the minds of the time. The needs of Aboriginal communities’ survival in the face of loss of land based on migratory and seasonal patterns of nature seemed absurd to most European settlers and politicians at the time. Dart (2004) notes that the social values of Victorian England’s Tory’s were impacted by Darwin and Adam Smith; but also that abuse of the Tory vision does not disqualify its legitimacy and use (pp. 120 and 144).  

By the time the 19th century ended, most aboriginal communities were devastated by disease and the effects of the legislation involved with nation building. It was hard to stop the steam roller of corporate Canada at work in the rail transportation and resource industries, the private sector as Cree Chief Piapot   learned. When oil was disovered in Northern Alberta on unceded Indian lands, land considered wasteland previously, treaties # 8, and later, #11, were hurriedly made in 1899 and 1921 respectively, after the oil discoveries (Fumoleau, 1973, pp. 153-159).Today with oil (and minerals) from these same areas still of vital national importance with current debate regarding the building of more pipe lines across sensitive ecological territory and first nations’ lands, we must enter into discussion and serious collaboration with those most locally affected. We cannot address these enterprises with the same attitude and thinking of the treaty-making of a century ago. There must be strong, compassionate, impartial governance, able to intervene in aggressive corporate enterprises which are likely to do harm to the land and its people; expropriation of land for the “common good” today is likely to be mostly for the “common good” of the corporation and stockholder, and the abstract universalized consumer, not for the local communities and their inhabitants. The ecology and the most vulnerable and powerless need a strong state to protect them from abuses and pressure from high profile corporate lawyers.

It is important to note that the loyalists brought to Canadian soil a model of strong  compassionate governance with an implicit communitarian social philosophy; and the French Canadians had a keen sense of the importance of language (language is not an individualistic aspect of history) religion, and community identity. However, it seems neither dominant group regarded with much importance, the governance, language, culture, or religion of the First Nations citizens of the land. It seemed normal to European people of that time and culture to think as they did about social cultural realities of those different from their own culture and religion. That land seemed to them a wasteland unless settled by European settlers; Aboriginals were regarded it seems as lesser humans unless civilized by Christian beliefs and practices. Victorian era social values originated in a highly stratified, class oriented England and Europe. In the pressure of the spirit of the times, and in terms of the profits to be made in nation building, mistakes were made. To us, living after the lessons of the holocaust, having learned much in the struggles for full humanity in the civil and human rights movements of the 20th century, we recognize the toxic social effects of racism and prejudice on the total Canadian social fabric. I know from personal experience of being called a goddamed little DP (displaced person) in 1949 when we immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands. I can imagine the effects of being devalued as a human, (ascribed shame) because of one’s language or race on the very soil of your ancestors.  Gordon Lightfoot sings of the navvies who sweat, toiled, and died, building the Canadian railroad so vital to the nation- building of Confederation. The navvies refer to a class of workers in “navigations” in the 19th century British-European railroad and canal building boom. The labourers of this vital work force were vilified and dehumanized, and all sorts of social and moral ills were blamed on them. The Navvies on Canadian soil were mostly men of Chinese origin; hundreds died in building the railroad. Yet, after the last spike was driven (1985), John A. Mac Donald levied a head tax on all Chinese, and disenfranchised them as well as the Aboriginal peoples and ”Mongolians” (Callwood, 1981, pp. 214-215). Such thinking and the resulting policies may have seemed “normal” to the people of Victorian times; but we know better today.

It is good to go down memory lane and honour, celebrate, and grieve, the stories of the war of 1812, and to focus also of that what was to follow on Canadian soil. We do need to learn from the, lessons of history and social psychology. I have also heard it said that Canada came into nationhood in World War I. War seems to forge identities. But wouldn’t it be nice if our identity as a nation could be linked to, and defined by, peacemaking and community building, and not war waging and corporatization. Nationalism would be guided by an ancient vision based on natural law supporting an organic, community wellbeing, defined by virtue, by common grace and common good, and not by possessive individualism, socially distant contractual relationships, or by racial, or exclusivist supremacy thinking. George Grant in his lament for a Nation (2005), laments the policies of liberalism, individualism, and the absolutization of technology, that lead to the erosion of a form of governance that is strong enough to intervene when the needs of the human community are endangered; strong and compassionate enough to reach out to the powerless and marginalized. The ancient Tory vision is one that is grounded in the eternal Good, and focussed on the local community, the shire, and parish, according to Ron Dart in his, The Canadian High Tory Tradition: Raids on the unspeakable (Dart, 2004, pp. 153, 199-203). Both Grant and Dart recognize, as the first nations do, that there is an organic spiritual dimension to all of life, a sacredness of the land and its people, and a concern for the commonweal of community, for it is in community life that we are nourished, inevitably in relationship with others near to us, and with the One who created us in whom we live and move and have our being. We can do well to go down memory lane to Lundy Lane, but it will be imperative to learn that war is hell, and peace making and peace as shalom is divine, Prosperity is not necessarily synonymous with more technology, more railroads, more pipelines, more oil, more money, or more land, for corporate growth and private and individual consumption.


Callwood, J. (1981). Portrait of Canada. New York: Doubleday & Company Inc.

Dart, R. (2004). The Canadian High Tory Tradition: Raids on the Unspeakable. Dewdney, BC: Syntaxis Press.

Fisher, R. (1992). Contact and Conflict; Indian-European Relations in British Columnbia 1774-1890. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Fumoleau, R. O. (1973). As Long As This Land Shall Last; A History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 1870-1939. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited.

Grant, G. (2005). Lament for a Nation: 40th Anniversary Edition. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

MacKirdy, K.A, J.S Moir and Y.F. Zoltvany. (1971). Changing Perspectives In Canadian History. Don Mills Ontario: J.M. Dent & Sons (Canada) Limited.

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