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Unpacking our racist baggage

By: 
John Bell

June 8, 2016

During a winter trip to the US, Justin Trudeau told a group of students that Canada was suited to peacekeeping roles because it lacks “some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have—either colonial pasts or perceptions of American imperialism.” Observers were reminded of Stephen Harper’s notorious assertion that “We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.”

Trudeau’s defenders point out that when asked directly about Canada’s First Nations he responded: “We have consistently marginalized, engaged in colonial behaviours, in destructive behaviours, in assimilationist behaviours, that have left a legacy of challenges to a large portion of the people who live in Canada who are Indigenous peoples.”

The apparent contradiction poses no problem for anyone paying attention to Trudeau’s government: we are getting used to hear him speak out of both sides of his mouth. Witness the signing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, followed almost immediately by fast-tracking approval of the Kinder-Morgan tar sands pipeline, which violates that very Declaration.

Trudeau isn’t the only Liberal out to obfuscate the history of Canada’s colonial past. Paul Martin weighed in. "I do not believe Canadians are racist," he said recently. “I do believe, unfortunately, that the whole issue that we are talking about (First Nations) is invisible to so many Canadians.” Martin has been around long enough to learn a rhetorical trick or two. Rather than address the systemic, institutionalized racism that has relegated First Nations oppression to invisibility, he flips the switch and makes it about individual racism. Whether or not a majority of Canadians is racist at any given moment does not erase the centuries of government policies and racist attitudes of colonial history.

Further, Martin’s claim of invisibility is nonsense. After the powerful rise of Idle No More, after the revelations about genocidal abuse practiced in the residential schools, after First Nations leading the fight against fracking and pipeline building, after the horrifying headlines about rampant youth suicide: how is the oppression of indigenous peoples invisible?

It certainly isn’t invisible in Halifax, where Mi’kmaq people have called for the removal of a statue of General Edward Cornwallis, first governor of Nova Scotia and founder of Halifax in 1749. Beside the statue, Cornwallis’ name is on streets, buildings, schools, organizations, parks, rivers and even a Canadian Forces military base – its pretty much everywhere you look. Why the controversy? What raises Cornwallis above the rest of the colonial elite that created “Canada”? Ready for some back story?

Cornwallis the terrorist

A child of aristocracy, he followed the expected career path into the military and took enthusiastic part in establishing English domination over Scotland. The Highland clearances involved crushing the old, feudal connections of small farms and clan organization. Cornwallis was an officer at the Battle of Culloden, and was put in charge of a regiment tasked with “pacifying” the west Highlands.

“Pacification” involved slaughtering livestock, rape and mass murder; in particular Cornwallis and his men were fond of “boarding”, where people were crowded into homes, the doors and windows boarded shut, and the buildings burned. In short, Cornwallis was a terrorist. But he was a successful terrorist and grateful powers in London sent him to use his talents in the “New World”.

There was nothing “New” about the Atlantic northeast for Mi’kmaq and other first nations. The Mi’kmaq were part of  the Wabanaki Confereracy of First Nations who lived in what we now call the Maritimes and New England. An earlier treaty signed with England stated that, in return for allowing an English colony in what is now Maine, no further communities would be established without agreement from the First Nations.

England already had a military stronghold at Annapolis Royal, designed to counter the French at Louisbourg, which Mi’kmaq leaders had allowed. But the new colony at Halifax, an important hunting and religious site, according to a letter sent byy Mi’kmaq leaders to Cornwallis, was “a great theft that you have perpetrated against me.”

Mi’kmaq warriors defended their land, attacking military establishments and ships. Cornwallis fell back on his old tactics, putting a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps. This was a common practice among English and French commanders looking to extend their colonial power, but Cornwallis paid top dollar.

For years, Mi’kmaq people have tried to raise awareness to the fact that seeing the name and likeness of Cornwallis everywhere around them is an insult, a constant reminder of the lies and slaughter brought by colonialism. This is the “baggage” Trudeau says we don’t have.  Mi’kmaq activists and allies have raised the issue at Halifax City Council. A recent proposal to move the Cornwallis statue from the downtown park was designed to remove the “invisibility” of the real history of colonialism. The motion was narrowly defeated.

It should be noted that the proposal did not want the statue destroyed, but moved to an historic military site, where interpretive information could present a more honest view of Cornwallis.

Opponents cried that all this amounts to “rewriting history.” In fact they are right. Our official histories have deliberately erased or glossed over the real histories of First Nations. Colonialism is “nation building”, bringing civilization and progress. In fact, it was theft conducted by a combination of genocidal brutality and trickery. Cornwallis excelled at the former.

It has been said that history is written by the victors. Cynics say that’s just the way it is. Sycophants say the way it is is just. Both say, “Get over it.” I say let’s get on with it. Now is the time to turn the old histories on their heads, to tell the story from the victims’ point of view. It is an essential process if we are ever to turn our society on its head, and make it work for the majority instead of a tiny elite.

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