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A people's history of Canada

Jesse McLaren

June 29, 2017

This year the Liberals are spending half a billion dollars on celebrating Canada’s 150th. This will have wide appeal, but for contradictory reasons

In polls on Canadian identity people rank the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the most important national symbol above the flag, national anthem, and RCMP. The most important values were human rights and gender equality, and a majority think we should emphasize environmental protection over growth

Polls show two-thirds of people have “deep emotional attachment to Canada”, though less than half young people, and only a third of people in Quebec. Levels of pride were greatest for Canadian history, Canada’s armed forced, Medicare. But polls also found pride outpaces knowledge only 44% knew this year was the 150th anniversary and only 11% knew the opening lines of the national anthem. As pollsters said, “What they’re saying is, ‘We feel great about where we are…and let’s not worry about the details too much.”       

This is what patriotism is based on: a mixture of myths and half-truths, where the details don’t matter too much. Mythology claims that Canada was not colonizing, slave-trading country like the US but rather a nation of friendly Mounties and peacekeepers

There are also a series of half-truths: that Canada is bilingual and multicultural, provides universal healthcare, respects rights and freedoms, and protects the environment.

Liberals especially like to present themselves as the providers/protectors rights while many progressives look to the NDP. These rights, to the degree that they exist, were not delivered from above, but were won from below, and have to be defended and expanded.

Instead of a contradictory history from above, we need to look at history from below, to expose the myths of the Canadian state but also celebrate the resistance to it, whose legacy we need to continue. This article will focus on five claims about Canada, addressing myths and half-truths about the origin, peacekeeping role, Medicare, Rights and freedoms, and environmental protection. Because Canada is built on Indigenous land, this history from below will rely on the words of Indigenous scholar and activist Howard Adams—a key source to learn about the people’s history of Canada.


Mythology has it that Canada begun fundamentally different than the US. As Trudeau said, Canada is “without some of the baggage that so many other Western countries have, either colonial pasts of perceptions of American imperialism”

Indigenous scholar Howard Adams disagreed: “After invasion and the holocaust, there are a number of succeeding homicidal actions before the Aboriginal people are exterminated or imprisoned. All Indigenous people of the colonies suffered the same fate: Canada, Australia, Africa. The Indians and Metis of Canada were no different. Canada probably had better public relations affairs than the other colonies. This is why Canada’s history suffers from the greatest distortions and falsehoods of imperial nations.”

These falsehoods include the myth that there was simply fair trade instead of colonization, and that slavery didn’t happen. As Adams explained,“Indian communal society was transformed into an economic class of labourers by European fur trading companies, particularly the Hudson’s Bay Company…The term ‘fur trade’ is misleading because in the early years of occupation, Europeans did not actually trade with the Indians…the French plundered and raided Indians, forcing them to ‘contribute’ furs. As the fur trade flourished, so did Indian slavery.”

If there were a film made about early Canadian history it would be called 200 years a slave: from the 1600s to 1800s Canada enslaved Black/Indigenous people. As Desmond Cole put it, connecting slavery of the past to carding in the present “The history of Black people on this land—from enslavement to today—is that Black people are monitored. That’s the Canadian way: you can have Black people, but you have to monitor them.”

But there was also resistance: slaves escaped captivity, or burnt owner’s houses. Abolitionists pushed legal challenge to slavery, and supported slaves escaping US

There’s also the myth of a peaceful bilingualism, but Canada has a long history of oppressing the Quebecois repeating British tactics used across the globe. From 18th to 20th centuries, Canada maintained Quebec in a semi-feudal state through an alliance between Anglo bosses and conservative Catholic Church—using Quebec workers as a pool of cheap labour.

In the late 1800s a new industrial system arose, as Adams explained, “The conflict between two different economic systems—the old economic system represented by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the new industrial system. This new ruling class of British financiers and Canadian industrialists had consolidated its position in Eastern Canada and was now extending its empire westward across the prairies. They wanted not only the land and the resources of the Northwest, but also a capitalist order that would consolidate and further their economic enterprises, so it was natural that they encountered opposition from the old order of the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

The new industrial order won out, creating the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867—but kept the British colonial flag for another century. That’s what Canada Day celebrates: the triumph of industrialists over fur traders over who would control Indigenous territories

As Macdonald acknowledged when he bought Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay, “All these poor people know is that Canada has bought the country from the Hudson’s Bay Company and that they are handed over like a flock of sheep.”

As “Father of Confederation”, John A Macdonald symbolized the colonial state: he pushed residential schools, outlawed the potlatch, executed Indigenous leaders and used police force and starvation to force Indigenous people onto reserves.He also used migrant labour to build the railroad while imposing a racist head tax, and imposed British law criminalizing abortion and homosexuality.

Contrary to the myth of the friendly Mountie, the RCMP emerged as the repressive apparatus of the colonial state. As Adams explained, “It is not just a coincidence that the Mounted Police were established during the development of Indian reserves to ensure the ‘success' of the treaty negotiations with the Indians and 'help' relocate Indians and halfbreeds to their reserves and colonies...The Indians, who had lived in the area for thousands of years without police, saw no reason for the establishment of a force in the Northwest since there was no serious disorder or lawlessness in the country…The Mounties were not ambassadors of goodwill or uniformed men sent to protect Indians; they were the colonizer’s occupational forces and hence the oppressors of Indians and Métis”

There wasn’t lawlessness, but there was organized resistance. The conflict between the fur trading and industrial economies opened up space for Indigenous and settler resistance to the expanding Canadian state, which exploded in 1869 and again in 1885.

This has been called the Riel rebellion, but as Adams explained, “The term ‘Riel rebellion’ for the hostilities of 1885 is not only misleading but incorrect because it implies that Louis Riel alone was responsible for the hostilities. The war of 1885 was the culmination of a complex struggle that had arisen over the previous two decades between the people of the Northwest and the industrial rulers of Ottawa. Western protests were made by local merchants, farmers, settlers, workers, Indians, and Metis, and their demands essentially centered around the need for a responsible government to make economic and land reforms.”

At the same time, Macdonald faced an emerging working class movement, with the Toronto strike of 1872 and the movement for the 9-hour work day.

So there’s nothing progressive about the founding of Canada, but we can celebrate the early resistance to colonization, slavery, and capitalism.


As Trudeau articulated, Canadian mythology denies its policies at home and abroad. WWI was supposed to be a war for freedom and democracy. But where was the freedom?

Canada was running residential schools, criminalizing homosexuality/abortion, banning Asian migrants, denying language rights in Quebec, and imposing conscription to force working class kids to war. And what democracy was there to defend? The vote was denied to women, indigenous people, Asian immigrants, and people with disabilities

WWWII was supposed to be a war against fascism. But Canada had its own eugenics program, sterilizing those deemed “unfit” including Indigenous, Black and disabled people. Under Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada interned 20,000 Japanese-Canadians in prison camps. And Canada blocked a boat of Jewish refugees, MS St. Louis, declaring “none is too many” and sending them back to Holocaust.

Canada is supposed to be based on peacekeeping, following Liberal Lester Pearson. But Pearson’s helped partition Palestine and his intentions of peacekeepers was to broker peace between imperialists to resolve the Suez Canal crisis. As Pearson explained, “I could see trouble developing. I wasn’t thinking of trouble in terms of a war in Palestine. I was thinking of trouble in terms o a grave difference of opinion between London and Washington. That always gives a Canadian nightmares, of course.” Peacekeepers emerged as a UN force serving imperialism

Pearson also pushed for a makeover of the new flag, the Maple Leaf, in 1965. But despite Canada’s claims of peacekeeping, old fashioned imperialism is never far from the surface

As Michael Ignatieff wrote before he became leader of the Liberal Party, “Imperialism used to be the white man’s burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect…Afghans understand the difficult truth that their best hope lies in the temporary experience of imperial rule.”

This “temporary experience” became more than a dozen years, and countless lives as Tories and Liberals supported repeated extensions of the occupation. Canada under the Liberals also helped organize coup against Haiti in 2004 and have continued Harper’s war on Iraq and Syria. When not directly involved, Canadian weapons manufacturers have profited—from the Vietnam War to the arming of Saudi Arabia. That’s Canada’s shameful history from above, but there is a proud history from below

In the context of the Russian Revolution, there were protests around the world against WWI and the Canadian government tried to quell revolution and stop its spread. As historian Ben Issit described, “Bolshevism would be wiped out by banning radical parties and newspapers, jailing dissident workers, and invading soviet Russia from the Siberian front. However, inadvertently, the Borden government strengthened ties between Canadian workers and Russian Bolsheviks. The two-pronged strategy of domestic repression and foreign intervention appeared to confirm a commonality of interests, drawing parallels between conditions of revolutionary Russia and wartime Canada and strengthening the appeal of the Russian model as a vehicle for social change.”

In 1918 there were riots against conscription in Quebec, a general strike in BC and a mutiny in Victoria with troops refusing to take part in counter-revolution in Russia. This paved the way for the 1919 general strike in Winnipeg, when tens of thousands of workers began running the town themselves.

Veterans of the war also played important roles when they returned, like those from Verdun, working-class community with highest casualties. As playright David Fennario explained, “Verduners went overseas to fight for democracy but those that survived came back and found out they had to fight for democracy where they lived. Verduners played a key role in the organizing of unions in the CPR, Bell Telephone, Nortel, and also for welfare rights, medicare and housing. The first community clinic in Canada was organized down in Verdun in the 1930's with the help of Doctor Norman Bethune. That’s the kind of victories we should be celebrating, and not the slaughter at Vimy Ridge where thousands of young working class men, German and Canadian, died in defense of profit.”

Similarly, the heroes of the Vietnam War tens of thousands who refused to fight and the solidarity movement pushed Pierre Trudeau to declare that Canada should be a “refuge from militarism.”

In 2003, peacekeeping came not from Chretien, who wanted to join war in Iraq but a mass movement across Canada, as part of global anti-war movement. On February 15, 2003, 30 million people marched around the world including quarter of a million in Montreal, thanks to union mobilization. The movement pushed the NDP to oppose the war without or without the UN, split the Liberals and forced Chretien to bow out days before war. And the movement opened up a campaign to support US Iraq War resisters, who like their predecessors in Vietnam are seeking a refuge from militarism. So the real peacekeepers are the anti-war movement and war resisters


Whereas the origin of Canada and the role peacekeeping are based on mythology, Canadian pride in healthcare is half-truth as is the role of Tommy Douglas, voted most popular Canadian. There’s nothing inherently Canadian about Medicare and it wasn’t delivered from above by benevolent governments but emerged from the process of struggle from below.

As Maude Barlow wrote, “Women had fought for and won the vote. Western farm radicalism was growing. Grain growers were forming co-operatives and establishing collective, prepaid hospital services. Trade union membership was growing exponentially. Medical protection for its members and their families was a top priority of the labour movement. The first medical insurance programs were won by mining and logging unions. During the war, increased pressure was placed on the federal government to provide health care and compensation in case of injury for the men on the front lines of the battlefield and the factory.”

The CCF, which expressed this growing radicalism, was elected in Saskatchewan and brought hospital insurance after WWII. In 1960 the CCF campaigned to broaden insurance to all health services, and won a strong mandate despite opposition from the Liberals, the insurance corporations who backed them, and the medical establishment. When universal health coverage began provincially, the majority of the province’s doctors went on strike against it

In response labour unions and the Saskatchewan Farmers’ Union set up health clinics, staffed by progressive physicians from inside and outside the province. The support for universal health care broke the reactionary strike and pushed the Liberals to institute Medicare nationally a few years later.

But since then they’ve worked to undermine it. When it began the deal was that the federal government would pay half costs but has fallen to less than a quarter after successive Conservative/Liberal cuts. Harper cut $36 billion from federal health transfers to provinces and it seems like Trudeau is just fine with that.

But as we’ve also seen, health movements from below can push back against cuts. To distract from his massive Medicare cuts, Harper scapegoated refugees and cut health but health workers fought back for four years. When the Liberals were elected they responded to pressure by reinstituting funding but are not expanding refugee healthcare, or Medicare.

Rights and freedoms

Another half-truth about Canada is Rights and Freedoms. When asked about “Canadian values” in polls, people list human rights, gender equality, cultural diversity. But where do these come from?

The Liberals love claiming to be the “party of the Charter”, associating Pierre Trudeau with right and freedoms and the constitution. Pierre Trudeau continued the foundational traditions of Canadian state: the colonization of Indigenous communities and oppression of Quebec. In 1969 Trudeau’s White Paper tried to extinguish distinct status for First Nations. And to deal with rising sovereignty movement in Quebec he imposed War Measures sending the military into Quebec and rounding up activists, saying “There are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed.”

Howard Adams appealed for solidarity with Quebec against the Canadian state: “Many workers and unions in Quebec are in the forefront of struggles against the capitalist system. Nevertheless, there comes a time when all oppressed people must join together in a united struggle…The ruling class must be prevented from isolating any one group from the remainder, as they did in 1885 and again in 1970 during the Quebec crisis.” Adams was part of the Red Power movement that swept the country in the early 1970s. There were occupations, resistance to pipelines, the defeat of White Paper a legal challenge defending land rights and solidarity from sections of the labour movement.

Meanwhile, War Measures Act failed to quell resistance in Quebec, which exploded in general strike in 1972. A Common Front united over 200,000 workers, who fought for equal pay, higher minimum wage and job security. When government arrested labour leaders, workers occupied town across province with strike committees similar to Winnipeg running operations.

Trudeau again tried to exclude First Nations and Quebec from Constitution. The original draft omitted Indigenous rights, and it was only mobilizations by Indigenous communities that added Section 35 recognizing aboriginal and treaty rights. But the Canadian state won’t honour its own Constitution so the Chippewas of Thames are going to Supreme Court to defend their rights. Meanwhile Trudeau didn’t include Quebec in the signing of Constitution

Justin Trudeau is trying to revive the mythology of Liberal progressiveness: marching in Pride, calling himself a feminist and saying he’s pro-choice. It’s good that he feels he needs to do this, but this shouldn’t erase history.

In 1969 Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality and contraception and allowed abortion under some conditions, but these did not secure gay rights or abortion rights. In 1981, Toronto police arrested nearly 300 people in the bathhouse raids in the biggest mass arrest since the War Measures Act. But the next night thousands of people marched on 52 Division and then onto Queen’s Park to challenge the Conservatives. The next month a Gay Freedom Rally was held, Toronto’s first Pride event and over the years the movement has raised LGBT rights.

In 1982 the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics was formed, to spread the lessons of Quebec where a doctor willing to risk arrest. Combined with a broad movement to challenge the law. When Morgentaler opened his clinic in Toronto, OCAC organized clinic defense and together they overturned the law.

As Carolyn Egan explained, “OCAC stated that for all women to have real choices in our society they require safe and effective birth control services in their own languages and their own communities, decent jobs, paid parental leave, childcare, the right to live freely and openly regardless of their sexuality, employment equity, an end to forced or coerced sterilization, and, of course, full access to free abortion. All were required if women were to have reproductive freedom…OCAC took a mass action approach. We did not leave the campaign to the lawyers or to the lobbying of politicians. We believed that tens of thousands of women and men would come into the street across the country to fight for women’s reproductive freedom...Through our organizing, we were able to broaden the participation of trade unionists, students, AIDS activists, people of colour and immigrant women’s organizations in the campaign. The goal was to build a visible, mass movement that fought together for women’s reproductive freedom.”

The Liberals claims to be the party of the Charter but have undermined civil liberties. The Liberals interned Japanese-Canadians in the 1940s, did a mass round up of Quebecois in the 1970s, and then in the 2000s scapegoated Muslims. After 9/11 the Liberals drafted “anti-terror” legislation allowing pre-emptive arrest and secret trials, which targeted Muslim men and created the precedent for Bill C-51. And when Harper passed C-51, Trudeau and the Liberals supported it in opposition to mass rallies across the country.


Finally, people’s interest in protecting the environment is constantly betrayed by governments across the political spectrum. Canada is continuing its foundational goal of colonizing Indigenous land—from annihilating the buffalo in the 19th century to magnifying the tar sands in the 21st. Whenever the tar sands have been in trouble, the Liberals have been there to defend them.

As Globe and Mail reported “In the mid-1990s, with oil prices at depressed levels, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien had to provide tax breaks to rescue the industry, in particular the two major oil sands producers, Suncor and Syncrude Canada Ltd. It wasn’t until international crude prices began to soar in 2003–reflecting war in the Middle East and the rise in China’s demand–that the oil sands sector found firm economic footing and expansion began in earnest.”

Now that oil prices have fallen again, the Liberals are continuing to invest billions and to support the tar sands politically and with threats of military defence. Despite campaigning on a new relationship with First Nations and support for UNDRIP, Trudeau has denied First Nations have a say over pipelines and Jim Carr said the government would use military to defend pipelines.

Unfortunately there is no major political party that rejects tar sands and supports a mass transition to a sustainable economy. So last election the NDP allowed the Liberals to monopolize anti-Harper sentiment. The NDP expresses the trade union bureaucracy whose conservative politics would rather preserve the status quo protecting few oil jobs rather than fighting for many more green jobs. The other problem is the NDP’s ambition to run the capitalist state rather than replace it—which leads it to perpetuate colonialism and capitalism

As Howard Adams wrote, “The New Democratic Party is very much like the other two bourgeois parties, except that it brings about small reforms in health, welfare, car insurance, etc. ; it is equally a part of the capitalist system and therefore unable to bring about any real and basic changes in society. All governments regardless of their political affiliations have discriminated against native people and denied them their rights as full citizens. Parliament is an instrument of the ruling class and its main purpose is to support and protect the ruling class.”

This was clear when the NDP was in power in BC when they sent the military against land defenders at Gustafsen Lake. At it was the vision that Mulcair presented when he refused to meet with Chief Spence and supported the tar sands.

So on July 1 we shouldn’t be celebrating the state built on colonization and slavery. We shouldn’t wave the Maple Leaf flag that adorned imperial interventions. We shouldn’t seek common cause with Liberals who coopt our gains.

Instead we should celebrate the rebellion of 1885, the protests, mutiny strikes against WWI, and the movement that won Medicare. We should remember those who resisted Pierre Trudeau’s tanks in Quebec, the Red Power activists who defeated his White Paper and the draft dodgers who refused to fight. We should learn from the gay rights activists who fought for Pride, the pro-choice activists who defeated the law and the anti-war activists who stopped Chretien’s war. And we should work towards a sustainable world of climate justice free from colonialism, capitalism, and the Canadian state.

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