Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, March 31, 2016

There Are No Aboriginal Canadians

Listen to me, as when ye heard our father
Sing long ago the song of other shores -
Listen to me, and then in chorus gather
All your deep voices as ye pull the oars; 
Fair these broad meads - these hoary woods are grand;
But we are exiles from our fathers' land. 
From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas -
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides. 
Fair these broad meads - these hoary woods are grand;
But we are exiles from our fathers' land. 
We ne'er shall tread the fancy-haunted valley,
Where 'tween the dark hills creeps the small clear stream,
In arms around the patriarch banner rally,
Nor see the moon on royal tombstone gleam. 
Fair these broad meads - these hoary woods are grand;
But we are exiles from our fathers' land. 
When the bold kindred, in the time long-vanished,
Conquered the soil and fortified the keep,
No seer foretold the children would be banished,
That a degenerate lord might boast his sheep. 
Fair these broad meads - these hoary woods are grand;
But we are exiles from our fathers' land. 
Come foreigner rage - let Discord burst in slaughter!
O then for clansmen true, and stern claymore -
The hearts that would have given their blood like water
Beat heavily beyond the Atlantic roar. 
Fair these broad meads - these hoary woods are grand;
But we are exiles from our fathers' land.

-- Canadian Boat Song, anonymous. 

Faeroes stamp.

In 1960, in a remote cove at the far northern tip of Newfoundland, the husband and wife archaeological team Helge and Anne Ingstad uncovered the remains of a Norse settlement dating to roughly 1000 AD. It is now confirmed that Europeans have been in Canada for at least a thousand years. There are tantalizing hints of visitors from Europe even earlier. The Norse themselves, for example, were insistent that when they arrived in the new continent, they found the Irish already there. Since the Norse sagas have proven correct in so many other details, they perhaps deserve credence here as well.

The Norse also encountered non-European inhabitants, aborigines or Indians, if you like, whom they called skraelings. But these skraelings were not any native group now in Canada. They were apparently representatives of the Dorset culture, which has since disappeared. They were supplanted in their lands by the Inuit. The Inuit (Eskimos) began moving into Canada from Asia through Alaska in about 1300 AD, seven hundred years ago.

In other words, Europeans were in Canada before the Inuit. Who then gets to be called “native” or “aboriginal”?

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Oddly, nowhere in that document is the term “indigenous peoples” defined. And for good reason: a consistent definition is just not possible; or if it is attempted, it produces odd results. The term is really purely a social or political construct, applied usually only and arbitrarily to specific groups in Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand. The Norse, Welsh, Irish, Basque, or Bretons, not to mention the English, French, Germans, or Italians do not qualify, although they were certainly in possession of their own ancestral lands much longer than the Inuit. Why? Apparently because their skin is white. Similarly, minority groups like the Montagnards of Vietnam, the Aka (“pygmies”) of the Central African Republic, or the Igorot of the Philippines are rarely seen to qualify, although they are distinct ethnic minorities in the lands they inhabit, apparently there before the current majority population. Why? Apparently because the majority groups in their host countries are not white. And what does it matter? What if there were three or four distinct waves of settlement? Does only the first group in chronological order get to be considered aboriginal? Or is it the first two or three?

European visitor with pygmies..

So does the term really have any consistent meaning?

Consider the Iroquois of the Grand River and Bay of Quinte in Ontario. They arrived in Canada in the 1780s with other United Empire Loyalists. They had left their homes in upstate New York out of loyalty to the British crown. The land in Canada was purchased for them by the British government from the Mississauga Indians of the area, just as it was for other UE Loyalists. They are immigrants from another country; they immigrated at the same time as many Europeans, and after many other Europeans. How is the one group “native” or “aboriginal,” and not the other? What is the rule here?

Consider, too, the Assiniboine of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 1640, the Jesuit Relations place them in present-day Minnnesota. Some time between then and 1806, they emigrated to the Assiniboine River Valley. They arrived in Canada centuries after the first Europeans. Why are they aborigines, and the French of Quebec or Irish of Newfoundland are not?

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that the Iroquois were aboriginal to their lands in upstate New York. They were not, of course; they migrated there from elsewhere before they migrated to Ontario and Quebec. But allow it for the sake of argument. Surely the Europeans who came to Canada before and since are just as native or aboriginal to the homes they left to come here-- in Ireland, France, Scotland, England, Germany, Poland, Italy, indeed any country you might mention.

UE Loyalists

A large proportion of the Europeans who have come to Canada came because their ancestral lands were taken by other groups; they are aboriginal in any consistent sense. They have legitimate land claims, generally of a rather more substantial sort than do Canadian Indians, who mostly signed off on their land claims a century or more ago for mutually-agreed payment. Begin with the United Empire Loyalists, the original settlers in most of English Canada. They arrived here, often penniless, because their lands were taken in the US for their loyalty to the British crown. The Iroquois are a notable exception; they retained their lands in upstate New York after the Revolution, and those who came mostly came voluntarily.

Then, throughout the nineteenth century, the largest group of immigrants to Canada were the Irish. Their descendants remain the largest ethnic grouping in Canada after the French, although many, probably most, now identify themselves on census forms as simply “Canadian.” Their land was taken from them, both as a group and as individuals. It is not just that Irish sovereignty was obliterated, and Ireland assimilated involuntarily into the larger kingdom of Great Britain; the Irish themselves were legally forbidden, if Catholic, to own any of their land privately. Reduced to being mere tenants on English-owned land, they were commonly evicted, to likely starvation. This is something the Indians of Inuit of Canada never faced.

Even in French-speaking Quebec, the population is estimated to be one quarter Irish by blood. An estimated additional ten percent of Canadian Francophones, beginning with Jacques Cartier, are not French, but Breton (, a distinct, Celtic nation taken over by France just two years before Cartier sailed. Since then, the Bretons have undergone forced assimilation of the very sort Canadian Indians claim they have suffered. Another proportion of French Canada is Acadian, famously evicted from their farms in Nova Scotia by the British in 1755-64; the current population are mostly returnees forced to clear new land in remote areas of New Brunswick later. 

Highland immigrant awaiting the ship to Canada

Then there are the Scots, Canada's third or fourth largest ethnic group. The Highland Scots had their lands taken from them in the Clearances, and were forced into exile in, notably, Cape Breton, Antigonish, Prince Edward Island, and Glengarry County, Ontario.

Many other groups sought refuge in Canada largely or expressly because their lands were taken from them: the Kashubians of Renfrew County, Ontario, the Doukhobors of British Columbia, and the German and Russian Mennonites, are three such groups. Western Canada was largely settled by Poles and Ukrainians, nationalities that claim a similar history of conquest and forced assimilation by larger neighbours. Most German-Canadians came originally from Eastern Europe, not Germany; places where they were a minority, eventually (after 1881) forced to assimilate if they remained. Many also arrived as refugees from the Russian Revolution and the forced nationalization of their lands and properties that followed.

In sum, many if not most Canadians are “aboriginals” in the sense that their ancestors had their lands taken from them; it comes close to being the common Canadian experience. Given the culturally dominant influence of the UE Loyalists and the Francophone Quebecois, not to mention the Scottish and Irish, the sense of a lost homeland is close to the core of the Canadian experience. The native tribes of Canada are, if anything, the exception to this rule.

And did I mention the Jews?

How wrong is it, then, if the descendants of those who have actually had their lands taken from them, are now asked to pay some sort of compensation, again and again, to groups whose ancestors had their lands fairly bought and paid for.

Map of Hochelaga

There are other considerations. When Cartier came down the St. Lawrence in 1534-5, he found Indian settlements – around 3,000 inhabitants each – at Quebec and Montreal, Stadacona and Hochelaga, respectively. When he returned just six years later, in 1541, Hochelaga had disappeared. When Champlain arrived in 1608, Stadacona disappeared as well. Indeed, the entire Indian culture Cartier encountered, now called the “St. Lawrence Iroquois,” had disappeared without a trace.

Any Indian group that claims aboriginal ownership of this land, the St. Lawrence Valley, in succession to the St. Lawrence Iroquois has in fact been in the area for less time than the French. Which group is truly aboriginal?

Nor is this type of situation unique to Quebec. In 1650-53, during the Beaver Wars, the Six Nations Iroquois wiped out their southern Ontario neighbours, the Neutrals and the Huron. They cleared the entire native population of the area, to allow themselves unrestricted access to the French trading posts of the St. Lawrence Valley. Some time later, the Mississauga Indians moved in from their previous lands around Manitoulin Island, northern Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

The French built Fort Frontenac, modern Kingston, in 1673. They settled at Detroit by 1701. This being so, the Indian group from which the British purchased the lands of Southern Ontario were perhaps less, perhaps only marginally more, “aboriginal” to those lands than the first Europeans.

These examples—more could be given, in Newfoundland and Western Canada, both of which have “native” groups that arrived here after the Europeans--expose a truth of Indian history that is often forgotten or misunderstood. Until the British or Canadian authorities arrived with their muscular rule of law to end the game of musical chairs, nobody held anywhere for very long. The various Indian tribes were in a state of more or less constant warfare, and territory constantly changed hands.

On top of this, despite limited agriculture by some groups, all Indian tribes in Canada were essentially nomadic. They would think little of pulling up stakes--literally--and moving a thousand kilometers inland to new hunting grounds.

In other words, “ancestral lands” in fact did not exist in the Indian context. No one was anything like “aboriginal” to the territories they happened to be in when they signed treaties with the Europeans. In fact, in this sense, they were much less “aboriginal” to their lands than were the settled Europeans, whose borders and traditional land use tended to be much more stable, both in North America and in Europe. 

Cree warrior.

The perpetual motion of Amerindian tribes only increased with first European contact. Tribes who lived close to the European line of settlement suddenly and by sheer good luck developed an overwhelming competitive advantage over their neighbours. First, they had access to the wealth of the fur trade; they could trade with more remote tribes at a healthy markup. Second, they had preferential access to iron weapons, far superior to the stone weapons or bows and arrows more remote groups were forced to defend themselves with. Third, they also had preferential access to horses, guns and gunpowder, all militarily devastating. Fourth, they were often able to form military alliances with the yet more powerful Europeans, who had an interest in defending and supporting their trading partners.

For comparison, when Japan some time earlier gained access to the first primitive firearms through trade with the Dutch, it inspired the Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi to attempt to conquer Korea and China, with their vastly larger combined populations. The technological advantage gained by the Indians close to European settlement was vastly greater. Accordingly, in the areas beyond European settlement, these tribes were conquering and expanding more or less at will. Until the turkey shoot ended with the signing of treaties, after which they could rely on the Europeans to preserve their gains for them.

The Cree, for example, had the good luck to find themselves at the southern end of Hudson Bay when the Hudson's Bay Company first set up posts there in 1668. As a result, because they were the first to get modern weapons and were able to hold a monopoly for a time over the fur trade, they were able to spread West in a wave of conquest as far as the Peace River. They became the largest single cultural group among Canada's Indians. The Iroquois held a similar advantage: the Dutch set up trading posts at the eastern edge of their territory in upstate New York. This gave them the wealth and technological muscle to seize the American Midwest as far west as the Mississippi, and as far south as Virginia and Kentucky, as their hunting grounds.

It is therefore ironic for native groups to accuse the Europeans of having “stolen” their land. In most, if not all, cases, the Indians themselves “stole” the land, that is, took it by conquest, which they then bartered to the Europeans at rather generous terms.

Mi'kmaq wigwam, 1873.

Note too that the realities of a nomadic lifestyle meant that Indian groups did not have anything like the same relationship to the land that European settlers did. They were in effect tourists wherever they went, or like gypsies or tinkers; hunting grounds were highly variable month by month, year by year, and generation by generation. No particular Indian possessed any particular land. Moreover, it was entirely possible for different Indian groups to pass through and use the same hunting ground in the same year. So who then owns that land? Who is aboriginal or native to it? Both of them? What if one group had one family in the area for seven weeks last year, and the other one seven families for four? Do we work out percentages? On what basis? Do I have a legal claim on Algonquin Park because I once summered there?

Of course, all this is not even to mention the most obvious and best-known relevant fact. “Aboriginal” is nonsensical anywhere outside of Africa. Although many Indian groups claim to be autochthonous in their own legends, the best current science suggests that humans are not native to the Americas. The Western Hemisphere was the last large bit of land to be settled by humankind. Even the earliest inhabitants were immigrants, coming from Asia across the Bering Sea or land bridge about 14,000 years ago.

We are all immigrants,just as we are all God's children, equal in his affections. There are no aboriginal Canadians. None of us are special in this way. The whole thing is a political construct, a polite fiction.

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