Wednesday, January 9, 2013

History Lessons

"You're involving yourself in centuries-old conflicts without sufficient regard for history."
-Lord John Marbury of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing

Canada has a rich and varied history that it shares quite well with its renegade older brother to the south. It takes only a cursory examination of our politics to realize there are really only five factions in the country, in terms of people.

  • "Old Clan" whites with history in Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, etc;
  • "Ancien Famille" whites with history in France;
  • "Wang ming guo wai zhe" Chinese-Canadians whose family lines came over during the expansion of the railways;
  • "De Novo" immigrants in their third, fourth, or fifth generations;
  • "First Nations" aboriginals who have been on this continent for longer than anyone else.
A look at current-running tensions felt in the first and second groups to everyone else (including each other, and often in mutual ways) can usually be summed up as simple xenophobia or racism, with only a cursory examination, but in truth, the matter runs far deeper. Things were not always at peace between the British and French colonies, and in fact the only reason why Quebec is a part of Canada at all was that it was under British rule basically from the end of the 18th century onwards - by the time of confederation in 1867, Britain had ruled over the Province of Quebec for nearly a century and defended it against revolutionary forces in the American Revolutionary War. The resentment is still felt in the Quebecois desire to have as much freedom and independence as possible in both real and cultural terms, and the insistence in many English communities that the Quebecois should embrace the same bilingualism that they must.

To be fair, I live in the only formally bilingual province in Canada (historical note: most of the province used to be the French colony of Acadia), and speak very little functional French - something I'm hoping to rectify.

The animosity felt between the Quebecois and the Anglophone community is largely of a deep-rooted, resignation-type feeling, with no good reason for it other than "that's what we've always done". It is still nothing, however, compared to the relationship between Old Clan and Ancien Famille whites and the First Nations.

Our history with the First Nations is no better than the history to the south - the current situation was preceded by centuries of war, ranging from skirmishes over land, to outright conquering and through on to full-on genocide. The image we have in our minds of the First Nations being far-flung, primitive, and sparsely-populated tribes is somewhat belied by modern archaeological understanding of the situation. While they might not have build such wonders as Tiahuanaco or Machu Pichu, the First Nations of North America are generally thought to be on a par, technologically speaking, with the Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, and other aboriginal peoples of the South American continent.

To be fair, much of the early slaughter was unavoidable - in spite of relatively peaceable and open first-contact, the First Nations simply could not resist our European pathogens. Whoops.

But it's the memory of that conquering and pillaging that moves on. We displaced huge populations onto reserves, and backed the people into treaties while we imposed upon them our culture and belief systems. Even to this day, many First Nations don't have formalized treaties with Canada, meaning we're either there as a de facto occupying force, or our maps are wrong. Reservations appear not unlike third-world countries, lacking proper infrastructure, and as I reported a year or so ago, even proper housing.

There's a genuine class- and race-war not terribly far in the offing if the current trends in rising tensions continue. We cannot ignore so rich a piece of history for long. History is like a time-bomb - if you don't study it and diffuse it, it's going to blow up in your face.

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