Whose Land Am I On?

The following is a continuation of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology. This is probably the most personal section.

At a G20 meeting on September 25, 2009 the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, stated that Canada has no history of colonialism; that it was a highly developed country without the baggage other countries carry.[1] While one can see what he meant – Canada has not gone overseas to conquer, exploit, and colonise other lands, like Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, the Russian Empire (and the USSR), and the USA[2] -it is demonstrably a colony that just happened to have quietly gained its independence. That said, the main languages spoken, French and English, are those of its old colonial masters. It maintains a monarchy that is resides in the capital of the old British Empire. The system of government is based on the Hoses of parliament in Westminster. The colonies and dominion took land from the indigenous population, drove them into poorly supported reserves, and sought to assimilate them. Canada is a former colony from which the colonists never left, and they will likely never leave. As the Chief Justice of Canada Antonio Lamer said, “After all, we are all here to stay”.[3]


Flag of Newfoundland and Labrador

One of the pre-judgements of this work is that one must keep in mind past history. Canada was not a blank slate on which a highly developed country was erected. The current situation is grounded in a history of colonialism that continued past independence in 1931.[4] Canada used a red ensign with the Union Jack in the upper left corner until 1965, when the Maple Leaf flag came into use. Four provinces continue to use the Union Jack in the design of their provincial flags; Alberta’s flag incorporates the English flag of St. George, Nova Scotia the blue St. Andrew’s cross of Scotland, and Quebec uses the Fleurdelisé, a variation on the old French Royal flag.


Flag of British Columbia

Up until recently all of the main ferry ships in the BC Ferries System were called “The Queen of . . . ”. The colonial legacy is everywhere and most Canadians are largely unconscious of it, leading to statements like the former Prime Minister.

It is therefore important to remind ourselves of this history. One way to do this is by remembering whose land we are on.

It is normal in British Columbia and in other parts of Canada to preface any lecture, sermon, speech, and address by acknowledging whose land one is standing on. For example, living in the city of Victoria British Columbia I might begin by saying, “I wish to acknowledged that we have gathered on the traditional and unceded territory of the Lekwungen, also known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, of the Coast Salish Peoples.” Someone from Calgary Alberta might say, “I grew up on Treaty 7 land, the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy.” While I live on the west coast of Canada, I grew up in a pulp-and-paper town on the St. Maurice River in Quebec, north of the St. Lawrence River. I had no idea whose land it had been, or what had happened to the indigenous people who lived there at contact.

I am the descendant of poor, pious Presbyterians who made their way from the border lands of Scotland and Protestant settlements in Ireland to the colonies of New Brunswick and Canada East[5], where they obtained the freeholds on farm land of varying quality. Those on marginal land also worked felling timber. After four generations some of my forebears were obtaining university degrees and moving into manufacturing and management, mirroring the gradual movement of Canada from farming and resource extraction to industrialization.

Grand-Mere Rock

The Grand-Mère Rock. Originally on a small island in the St. Maurice River (a tributary of the St. Lawrence), it was disassembled and moved to a park when a hydro-electric dam was built in 1916.

As a child in the 1960s and 1970s the “Indians” were a distant reality. The town in which I grew up, Grand-Mère, was named after a rock formation that looked like an old woman, supposedly an Indian woman who became old waiting by some waterfalls for her Indian brave to return. Who she was, what her name was, what language she spoke – these were all unasked and unanswered questions. The next door city, Shawinigan, where I was born, was named after an Indian name for the waterfalls on that part of the Riviere St. Maurice, but there was no context in terms of the indigenous peoples.[6]

In retrospect it is now clear to me that land had been part the original territory of a people whom later historians termed “St. Laurence Iroquoians”. It is thought that these people came into the St. Lawrence valley below Lake Ontario sometime around 1000 CE. They developed fortified villages within which they lived in the longhouses typical of Iroquoians. Their culture was based on corn, and every few years they would move their fields as the land became exhausted; their food was also supplemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering from the wild. In the 16th century, in 1535 and 1537 the French explorer encountered these people in the fortified villages of Stadacona (present day Quebec City) and Hochelaga (Montreal). The word “Canada” was the Laurentian term for “village” and Cartier applied it to both the land and the river. Cartier sought to establish a fort at Stadacona in 1541, but because the harshness of the winter, scurvy, and the hostility of the local St. Lawrence Iroquoians, the effort was abandoned.

Seventy-five years passed before another explorer came, this time Samuel Champlain, who, like Cartier, came from France. In between there had been limited contact between the native population and Basque fishermen, but apart from the drying of fish on the mainland and the obtaining of fresh water there was no attempt at landing. Champlain, after previous efforts in the Bay of Fundy, established the Habitation at the site of Stadacona in 1635, which eventually grew to become Quebec City. When Champlain came there was no village at the site, and indeed no sign whatsoever of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians; they had all disappeared. In their place the Haudenosaunee of the Five Nations (known by the French and English as the Iroquois) came from the south, from what is now present day New York. Also present were the Algonquins from the north and east were using the St. Lawrence River Valley. Both the Haudenosaunee and the Algonquians were using the St. Lawrence Valley as hunting grounds, and only gradually moving in to settle. There was no clear explanation at the time as to what had happened to the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Later historians believed that in the intervening years they had been in conflict with the Iroquois of the Haudenosaunee and had been decimated and assimilated, but it seems to me that this assumption was based on a retro-projection of historical conflicts in the 17th and 18th century (the Huron and the Iroquois, mainly). In all likelihood they were destroyed by diseases from the “Old World” for which they had no acquired immunity. In other parts of the Americas there were mortality rates of 90%, and it is not hard to imagine something similar happening in the valley. What few survivors there were would have been assimilated into their neighbours. In the 1950s historians and philologists, examining Cartier’s records, determined that the peoples spoke a language related to those of the Haudenosaunee, but quite different in many respects. The word Canada, meaning “village” in St. Lawrence Iroquoian, has survived them. The river was renamed the Fleuve Saint-Laurent, but the land was still called Canada.[7] Shawinigan, where I was born and went to school, is an Abenaki name referring to a portage around waterfalls,[8] but the Abenaki only came into the St. Lawrence Valley from further south in the 17th century, at the urging of the French colonists. Likewise Grand-Mère is a translation for kokemesna, an Abenaki word for old woman.[9] The land I grew up on was the traditional and unceded territory of a people that were inadvertently wiped out by contact with Europeans, and ironically gave a name to the nation that came after them.

So, now I know what to say. I am a Canadian of British heritage who was born and raised on the traditional territories of the St. Lawrence Iroquois, who disappeared and were replaced by the Haudenosaunee, Abenaki, and Algonkians.

All of this may seem strange to a non-Canadian, and, indeed, it is not universal to do this the further east one goes in the country. However, it is important to say these things, because it acknowledges the colonial reality of modern day Canada. We are a colony from which the colonists never left. While the formal ties of government between Canada and the United Kingdom were severed in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster, culturally those ties remained strong until the 1970s. The official story taught children in elementary schools was that Canada was had two founding nations of the Britain and France. Multiculturalism, a policy of the federal government starting in the 1970s and enshrined in the Constitution in 1982, built upon the official bilingual and bicultural nature of the country, and was made concrete by significant immigration from countries other than the UK or France. That story now needs to be rewritten.

[1] Dwight Ljunggren, “Every G20 nation wants to be Canada, insists PM” from http://www.reuters.com/article/columns-us-g20-canada-advantages-idUSTRE58P05Z20090926 accessed June 7, 2017.

[2] Although it has sent troops overseas to South Africa in the Boer War, to France in WW I, Europe and Asia in WW II, Korea in 1950-53, the Gulf War in 1990-1991, and Afghanistan in 2001-2014.

[3] Chief Justice Antonio Lamer, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia 1997, para. 186 at https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/1569/index.do accessed June 7, 2017.

[4] The cutting of colonial ties has been long process. Canada as a dominion of the British Empire was formed by an act of the UK Parliament, namely the British North America Act 1867 out of older colonies, each of which had a degree of autonomy in internal affairs. Other colonies and territories were added to create the current geographic entity. The Statute of Westminster of 1931 recognized the legislative independence of the British dominions – the Irish Free State, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Newfoundland (not yet a part of Canada). Appeals from the Supreme Court of Canada to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London ceased in 1949. Canada created its own citizenship in 1947, but Canadian passports continued to identify Canadians as British subjects up until the late 1970s. Canada never introduced an amending formula into its constitution, so changes had to be rubber-stamped by the UK parliament. Canada “repatriated” its constitution in 1982 when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau forced through an agreement with nine out of ten provinces which the legislatures in London passed; this incorporated an amending formula, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Article 35 which stated “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed” and that the “aboriginal peoples of Canada” includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” I like to joke that growing up as an Anglophone of British decent in Quebec I was not aware that the British Empire was over.

[5] In 1867 the Province of Canada, consisting of Canada East and Canada West, became part of the Dominion of Canada, and were renamed the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario, respectively; the colonies of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia at this time confederated with Canada, and became provinces.

[6] Grand-Mère was absorbed into Shawinigan in 2002. Both cities, unusually late for Quebec, were founded at the turn of the 20th century; they were both situated to take advantage of waterfalls on the river to produce hydro-electricity. In addition to pulp and paper mills producing newsprint, the greater Shawinigan area was the first place in Canada to produce aluminum. Because it was anglophone Canadian and American interests that financed the industrialization, it was actually known as Shawinigan Falls until 1958 despite being 90% French speaking. The Prime Minister of Canada from 1993-2004, Jean Chretien OM (1934 – ), comes from Shawinigan.

[7] The term was extended in the late 18th century to include the land between the Great Lakes of Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and after 1867 it included everything within the new Dominion. The toponymn ultimately covered everything to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.

[8] Commission de Toponymie de Québec, “Shawinigan” from http://www.toponymie.gouv.qc.ca/ct/ToposWeb/Fiche.aspx?no_seq=348209 accessed June 5, 2017.

[9] Commission de Toponymie de Québec, “Grand-Mère” from http://www.toponymie.gouv.qc.ca/ct/ToposWeb/Fiche.aspx?no_seq=179512 accessed June 5, 2017.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
This entry was posted in Canadian Issues, Random Personal Notes, Unsettling Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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