They say that history is written by the victors.
But this lie, propagated by those who expect to win, papers over the fact that victories always leave their scars, to which eventually societies are fated to return—was this not the point of Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy?
According to the Portuguese artist and psychologist Grada Kilomba’s reading of Antigone, if history is not told properly, we end up with a haunted history, stalked by the spirits of those excluded from its narrative.
Canada is living through the return of one its scars – its very own settler-colonial holocaust, which played out under the eyes of successive governments for decades up until 1996, when the last residential school was closed. The Canadian public has still not fully reconciled itself with these crimes.
The residential school was not and is not the only institutional manifestation of the genocide the United Empire Loyalist elite and their settler hangers-on have perpetrated with growing intensity since the early 1760s. But, residential schools are what got a majority of the non-indigenous population to start paying attention.
Residential schools are a gateway into a trauma process, through which many societies pass and have passed.
What does it mean for a country like Canada to confront this past in the way it is beginning to do so now?
Certainly, students of Canadian history have confronted this past before – it was always there for anyone to see. As a high schooler, I remember thinking—because this is how settlers thought—that these problems were in the past. Surely, we could not hold the past accountable to the moral standards of today, could we?
Yet, contemporaries of colonial atrocities knew they were immoral, and correctly blamed the incompetence and callousness of authorities in charge of volatile colonial situations, in which British interests were to maintain control, not improve social conditions.
The dispossession of Wolastoqiyik people of their resources, and the responsibility of incompetent and genocidal missionaries and government officials in colonial New Brunswick was well known, and well-documented in reports, like the one M.H. Perley wrote for the colonial government of New Brunswick in 1841.
John A. Macdonald’s policies of extermination in the Canadian West were very much opposed by his contemporaries.
John A. Macdonald is in a long line of British colonial officials from the 1870s to 1890s who presided over the starvation deaths of tens of millions of people in the British Empire — a Victorian Holocaust caused largely by incompetent and callous colonial officials (Sir Richard Temple in 1876-78, Lord Curzon in 1898-1900, to name but two) who failed to preserve the lives of the people they governed. They were later rewarded in Great Britain, because British aristocrats didn’t feel the pain they caused was commensurate with their own economic interests.
These famine masters—Macdonald, Temple, Curzon—emerged in a line one generation after the colonial disaster of the Irish potato famine, in which the failure of one crop resulted in the death or displacement of over 3 million people, all while British officials exported grain from Ireland to fuel Britain’s world-beating industrialization.
At the time, the famine was rationalized as a law of nature, just “survival of the fittest” doing its work—a turn of phrase that still carries something close to its imperial meaning amongst some members of Canada’s elite economic classes.
The famines of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s occurred against the backdrop of British organization of a global free market for grain. As in Ireland in the 1840s, British officials in India exported grain to the burgeoning industrial cities of Great Britain even as millions died of starvation or cholera, brought on by famine. British pursuit of a global economy based on laissez-faire free trade is largely held responsible, in the historical literature, for the deaths of tens of millions.
But Canadians never talk about this today. Britain’s parliamentary system is/was the paragon of democracy and liberal society—that is what our schools teach us.
A generation after Macdonald, Temple and Curzon, a new group of British imperial elites would lead Canada and the other Dominions into the disastrous First World War, which chewed up the lives of about 20 million people, whose ghastly trenches helped spawn a global flu pandemic (the Spanish Influenza) that carried off perhaps 50 million more.
What was that “Great” War for? In school, I remember learning that Canada fought for democracy and freedom against Germany. But upon closer inspection of the historical facts, all the major European powers that fought one another in that “Great” War had colonial empires where democracy and the human rights of non-white people were suspended in the belief that God had given the Earth to white people to govern, and non-white people were to be their beasts of burden.
Beneath conservative historians’ emphasis on faulty German institutions and on the violation of Belgian neutrality as casus belli, one should remember the Congo—where the Belgian king murdered 10 million people in just over a decade to launch his country as the centre of European rubber production.
As the American sociologist and black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote at the time, World War I was a war to control non-white labour power for the white European metropole. He perceived keenly what beliefs this global project was built on.
“What is the breath of life, thought to be so indispensable to a great European nation?,” he wrote in Darkwater, published in 1920. “Manifestly it is expansion overseas; it is colonial aggrandizement which explains and alone adequately explains, the World War. How many of us today fully realize the […] theory of colonial expansion, of the relation of Europe which is white, to the world which is black and brown and yellow? Bluntly put, that theory is this: It is the duty of white Europe to divide up the darker world and administer it for Europe’s good.”
Du Bois saw in the cataclysm of the war a violent force unable to contain or confront itself: not merely imperialism, but racism, a factor today not often mentioned in relation to what is remembered as a European war.
Today this “bad war” is often contrasted with the “good war” against the sacred evil of European fascism and Nazism—which followed just a generation after World War I.
Yet, contrasting the Allies with the Nazis papers over Canada’s (and the other allied powers’) avowed white supremacy and anti-Semitism leading up to and after World War II.
No sooner had the war ended, but France and Britain swiftly sent troops to quell national independence movements in their colonies, delaying liberation for over a decade in Kenya, Algeria, Malaysia, and elsewhere. For its part, Canada didn’t end open racial discrimination in its immigration system until 1962 (though research has shown that the reform merely rationalized Canadian racism in immigration, rather than ending it).
The lives we live—all of us—reflect the different ways our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on, were positioned within the European empires—we have inherited this system. Some of us benefited, and many of us have not.
In the last month, Canadians have been confronted with the discovery of over 1,000 unmarked graves and counting on former residential schools, all are remainders of Canada’s role in European imperialism.
Empires and their settler states took the lives of their white populations very seriously. They promoted family projects of patrilineal property accumulation in the colonies. States like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and others also worked to advance the lives of their settler populations, reducing public health risks, while improving sanitation, public safety, and education—imperfectly, but assertively.
These same empires, however, systematically devalued the lives of non-white people, applying to them what the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe calls “necropolitics”: the deliberate policy of imperial states to allow certain people to die.
Canada’s residential school system is a textbook example of necropolitics. But in addition, the theft of land and the livelihood it gave to Indigenous people meant inevitable hardship, which colonial authorities did little to address.
In his 1841 report to the New Brunswick legislature, M.H. Perley mentioned (p. xciv) a group of squatters he encountered near Tobique. “They pay no rent, acknowledge no title, and from long impunity have become very insolent and overbearing,” he wrote. “Besides occupying the land, they openly plunder the forest in vicinity of the most valuable Timber, and dispose of it in the face of the Indians [sic], whom they will scarcely allow to set foot upon the land, and invariably hunt off like wild beasts, if they attempt to look after or prevent the trespasses which are constantly committed.”
These actions were illegal in 1841, but the colonial government did little to enforce its rules. Perley noted that one of the squatters said he was just doing what he saw everyone else doing. “[H]e thought he also might as well have some benefit from the Indian Land [sic].”
215 children. 751 children. 184 children. These unmarked graves are messages from the past to the present. They speak literally of a history whose central characters, as Kilomba put it in her re-reading of Sophocles’s Antigone, “haven’t been buried properly.”
They change the meaning we might give to some of the characters and plot of what we call Canada.
What would it mean to be proud of Canada after taking into account the country’s role in creating the starkly unequal world we live in today, a world where our government can hoard Covax vaccine ssupplies, while unvaccinated people in India and Indonesia die due to lack of oxygen?
We are living through a global pandemic, a global economic crisis, a refugee crisis, renewed geopolitical tensions between great powers, and the chemical transformation of the globe’s atmosphere and oceans as our rapacious industrial economy seeks out more and more profit wherever it can find it, apparently oblivious to the ecological boundaries being traversed.
In the future, who will share the world’s resources? Who will live under heat domes, and who will have air conditioning and potable water? Whose lives will be saved, and who will experience the logic of necropolitics: the willingness of the G7 to allow some people to die?
What would it mean now to “win” at a game of patrilineal property accumulation given the violence it implies?
Canada’s trauma process is a reminder of how unequal political and economic rights produce scars and injustices, that repeatedly return.
These injustices manifest themselves daily in the water crisis of places like Attawapiskat, in the housing crisis facing northern communities, in the murdered and missing indigenous women whose disappearances were ignored by colonial police forces, and in many other small and large acts of violence (for instance, the Thunder Bay man who threw a trailer hitch at an indigenous woman walking on the side of the road, or the racist slurs hospital staff heaped on a dying Atikamekw woman).
The Canadian government’s plans for the future still take an imperial standpoint: it is building a pipeline in the midst of an ecological emergency, violating indigenous sovereignty to do so.
If Canada is to be a beacon of hope for anything now, it can only be that a society of settlers forged in the global history of empire and capitalism can come to see what it has done, and stop before it is too late.
Matthew Hayes is a professor of sociology and the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University.