Canada marked its founding on July 1 and the US did so on July 4. This year, both societies are facing painful political conversations about their histories.
The US has been wracked with an upsurge of controversy owing to a conspiracy theory known as Critical Race Theory. Canadians are confronted with the recent discovery of unmarked mass graves containing the remains of First Nations children that were ripped away from their parents and sent to sadistic, racist Catholic “boarding schools,” which in practical terms were little more than Yukon concentration camps. But while the two countries share a continent, a colonial British ancestry, a settler colonial mandate and population demographics, the similarities end there.
The Canadian reaction is more somber and reflective. By contrast, in the US the discourse elicits violent denial.
I spoke to two major scholars of settler colonialism about this. Their responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Gerald Horne is a longtime friend of Washington Babylon. He points out that Canada has a much stronger welfare state, a more progressive political spectrum, and a Socialist movement that has yielded many more victories than any US Left party over the past century: Part of the problem in the USA is the inflated sense of the importance of 1776, which leads to downplaying, if not ignoring altogether, the obvious liabilities — slavery increasing exponentially, indigenous dispossession skyrocketing. There is a desperate need south of Canada for more national humility. We should infer that we must be doing something that is not working. Speaking of the beleaguered U.S. Left: voter suppression, virtually making illegal frank discussion of national ills in the classroom, immunizing drivers who hit protesters, more threats to women’s reproductive rights, the list is long. More people I know are considering exile — in Canada, which has many social democratic features that we only dream about.
In other words, contra the claims of some radicals, who say that designating the US as settler colonial makes human solidarity impossible, Horne says the direct opposite is the case and that, in fact, denial of this matter is hindering class solidarity, made manifest in our current decline of living standards.
Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of numerous books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Here are her thoughts on the matter.
Brutal genocidal settler-colonialism took place almost exactly alike in the Anglo colonies of North America (what became the US and Canada), as well as Australia and New Zealand, each of them ethnically cleansed by the time they became nation-states. Like the US, independent Canada also successfully pursued continental imperialism from sea to shining sea and north and south. The difference in their settler-democracies making the US unique is first, the other three Anglo colonies, when they became independent, remained in the British Commonwealth. Second, highly developed capitalistic and legalized chattel slavery occurred only in the US. The Commonwealth countries were part of a far flung empire and capitalist system, but not the sole creators of it. US capitalism was plantation capitalism, with the Cotton Kingdom the engine of growth, with the African body (not just unpaid labor) the most valuable commodity bought and sold in the open market. When slavery ended, the black body was without value. The third key difference was the US Constitution, practically written in stone and fetishized, still now if not more than in the past, as well as the inclusion of the right of citizens to bear arms and form militias. These were initially for killing Indians and taking their land, and in the late 1600s for slave patrols.
As for Canada, native nations there have a lot more political power than in the US. Ninety-nine percent of settlers and immigrants in Canada live within a hundred miles of the US border and the rest of Canadian claimed territory is Indigenous, plus the percentage of the Native population is much higher. They also can and do go to the Commonwealth and even to the monarch to file complaints. Plus, Canada has signed every human rights covenant and takes its adherence seriously, whereas the US has signed few and the ones it has signed, like the Genocide Convent of 1948, which it signed only in 1988, it makes exceptions. Canadian Native nations are a large presence at UN human rights fora. Native nations in the US also are present at UN fora, but have little leg to stand on without the US adhering to treaties and it also immune to embarrassment.
It’s not the goodness of the Canadian government, rather its international standing that it cares about maintaining. Native nations are also involved in general politics in Canada to a far greater extent than in the US, because they have a parliamentary system and can achieve representation, although they haven’t formed their own party. They have to fight like hell, but have won far more victories than is possible in the US no matter how hard the people fight.