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(DV) Petersen: The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada







Hoping Against Hope?
The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada

by Kim Petersen
March 5, 2007

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“No nation has a right to denationalize another nation.”

-- Kahentinetha Horn

On 24 July 1534, the French explorer Jacques Cartier landed at Baie de Gaspé on territory inhabited by the Haudenosaunee. The French erected a large cross there and Cartier claimed possession of the land in the name of the French king François I. When confronted by the Haudenosaunee, Cartier lied and said the cross was merely a navigational marker. [1] Later, Cartier was guided to the village (kanata) of Stadacona (present day Québec City) by two Haudenosaunee youths. Cartier designated the entire region north of the St. Lawrence River as “Canada.” Canada is a colonizer’s designation that came to encompass a massive swath of Turtle Island, where a nation state was born on hundreds of nations already existing across the breadth of what is now called Canada.

A three-part audio documentary series, Hoping Against Hope? The Struggle Against Colonialism in Canada (HH) -- produced by Praxis Media Productions and the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group, examines the current reality of colonialism in Canada.

HH notes that Indigenous communities throughout Canada are “beset with record levels of suicide, high infant mortality rates, rampant sexual exploitation, epidemic levels of gas-sniffing, and alcohol, drug and solvent abuse. Furthermore there is an over-representation of indigenous people in the prison system, and chronic levels of desperate poverty.”

Most societal explanations blame the Original Peoples. Dr. Roland Chrisjohn, a Onyota’a:ka (Oneida) from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Director of Native Studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, disagrees.

He asks people to imagine what would have happened if the World War II Holocaust had never stopped. A horrific answer stems from the Holocaust suffered by the Original Peoples of the western hemisphere. [2]

What was the reason this holocaust happened?

Historian Michael Parenti states that colonization of the “New World” was an extension of the economic colonization that had already occurred in Eastern Europe. But colonization is much more. 

HH narrates,

Colonialism is not just the theft of territory, and populating it with new settlers and their way of life. It also involves the destruction of the social, political, and economic institutions of the original inhabitants.

Since many Indigenous nations were crucial allies of the English the during the colonial wars they cannot be said to be conquered. Thus, Canada was left with the problem of how to steal Indigenous land by other means.

The solution to the Indian Problem became a reduction of those who were “officially” considered “Indian.” The Indian Act came into existence in 1876, nine years after Canada morphed from a British colony into a country, superseding over 600 sovereign indigenous nations.

The Indian Act imposed a colonial form of government in place of traditional indigenous government with a band council system.

Unsurrendered Territory

Since most of Canada is unceded territory, legally, there is no right to implement laws over the still sovereign Original Peoples. Bear Nicholas points out that, in the maritime provinces, most treaties were nation-to-nation agreements -- peace agreements between the encroaching settlers and Original Peoples. They were not land treaties.

Says Chrisjohn,

Nova Scotia is not surrendered territory. Canada has no right to write Canada across Nova Scotia, to collect taxes from the people who inhabit the land, cut down trees, to allocate natural resources, to pollute water in Nova Scotia. At least 90% of Quebec is not surrendered territory. About 75% of Ontario is not surrendered territory. The status of the Prairie treaties, which do appear to be surrenders are questionable on two bases; One, The Indians have no memory of land surrender being raised… And there is actually documented evidence of the people who were signing the treaties as saying: “Ha! Ha! We put one over on the Indians. We didn’t tell them what they were actually signing. We mistranslated it!” Or John Macleen is a really great one for that, he says; “the people we wanted to sign the surrender wouldn’t, so we found some other people, liquored them up and declared them the Chief and tribal council and got them to sign it!” In a fair court, how much would hold up? So the status of the real surrendered land is still questionable. Seventy-five percent of British Columbia is not ceded territory; only the far Northeastern arm it’s covered by Treaty 8 in Alberta may be surrendered territory. The Yukon Territory is not ceded territory. Where did Canada get the right to write ‘Canada’ across that? When you add it all up, about 90 percent of Canada. Even under the best possible scenario -- there is no legal transfer of title from the Aboriginal inhabitants to the Crown.

Hiding Genocide

The crimes against Original Peoples demand reparations, the return of what has been stolen, and atonement. How to avoid this? Bear Nicholas details the method: genocide. A bounty was offered for the scalps of Original Peoples.

It was state sanctified violence that has mainly been purged from Canadian history textbooks, a process Bear Nicholas calls “historicide.” 

As well as disappearing the history, there has been an attempt to disappear the people. Keetowah Cherokee and professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Boulder, Colorado, Ward Churchill states, “There’s a whole sort of revitalized eugenics movement going on now… How many parts Indian are you?”

Chrisjohn warns,

By accepting this genetic determinism for race, look at what we do to ourselves. There are all kinds of First Nations people or Indigenous people that we deny a relationship to on the basis that well, they haven’t met some other kind of race-based litmus test for inclusion as one of us. “Oh, the Métis? Well, you know the Métis they’re not really Indians.”

According to Bear Nicholas, neocolonialism is assimilation.

There are aspects of colonialism that people will talk about as very overt, open kinds of colonial behaviour on the part of say, provincial governors or people in control, but they don’t realize that when our own people have accepted jobs, have become part of their system, there’s this sense that somehow we’re doing the best in an impossible situation as prisoners in a jail might react. We need to get the best for each other by cooperating, by working with them, by doing their bidding and perhaps, if a few of us can “get ahead” then maybe that will spread to the rest of us and we’ll be better off; we’ll be fed, we’ll have houses, we’ll be taking care of our basic needs. But in fact, one of our biggest struggles today is the issue of our own people accepting jobs and basically working with the opposition.

HH narrates “plenty of examples of genocide against Aboriginal people by the Canadian state; from bounties for scalps to the forced sterilization of Native women. Residential schooling is a poignant example of assimilation as a form of genocide.”

According to HH, this genocide remains concealed

because Canadians and the Canadian state benefit from it.

The Canadian government and the churches have been evading responsibility for their crimes, focusing instead on healing Native people rather than providing justice. Somehow, it is the victims of genocide who are the sick ones, not the perpetrators. When genocide is brought up, it’s denied.

Laments Chrisjohn, “The crime of genocide is being covered up. Now it’s a double crime. People who didn’t commit the first crime are committing the second.”

Schools are complicit in the assimilation of Original Peoples. Bear Nicholas says,

The public schools are being run according to an ideology based in capitalism. An ideology that is actually alien to our own way of life, our own forms of life -- it’s very blatant that education is being used in this direction. So that, when we say that sending our children to school is harmless and benign, we as aboriginal people don’t even realize how seriously not benign that school program is. The subtle things (of teaching such things as entrepreneurialism) are actually antithetical and destructive of our way of life and there is a sense that all people, in order to survive in the modern world need to not only know that entrepreneurialism is good and is useful and is fine, but that our people need to understand how much of an assault on our form of life, if our children are being taught to think of number one, themselves only… Where’s our community?

While the capitalist ideology of possessive individualism was alien to the Original Peoples, that is not to say that they did not engage in trade. [3] Concomitant with capitalist indoctrination is cultural extinction. In particular, the death of Indigenous languages: linguicide -- a term coined by University of Roskilde linguist Tove Skuttnab-Kangas.

According to Bear Nicholas, “Linguicide … carries with it the idea that the languages that we speak, indigenous peoples around the world, are not just dying out by some sort of natural force that happens to every minority language, but that there’s an actual deliberateness, there’s actually agency involved.

Bear Nicholas argues that to preserve Indigenous languages, the Original Peoples must receive their education in their own tongue.

Churchill argues,

You have the right to save yourself from an impending doom. You have not only the right, but perhaps the obligation as human beings in this world to act with other human beings, your relatives in this world to preclude this future from occurring for you and us alike.

“I am hoping,” says Chrisjohn, “hoping against hope, that the average Canadian will read what their Government did in their name to human beings… what their churches did to human beings in their name, because their churches are not telling them. The government is not telling them. They will not allow the word genocide to come up in discussion.”

Kim Petersen, Co-Editor of Dissident Voice, lives in southern Korea. He can be reached at: This article is an expanded version of an article published earlier at The Dominion.


[1] Arthur J. Ray, I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2005), 50-51.

[2] David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (London: Oxford University Press, 1992). “The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.” (p. x) After 1492, 95 percent of the Indigenous people were wiped out; maybe 100 million (p. 151).

[3] Both Ray and Stannard describe extensive trading practices and networks in their books.

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