Reordering the World and the Canadian Question

This is the fourth post in our forum on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. Lucian Ashworth is Professor at the Department of Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the author of numerous books including ‘A History of International Thought. From the Origins of the Modern State to Academic International Relations’ (London: Routledge, 2014).

On 1st July 2017 the Canadian government celebrated the 150th anniversary of the coming into force of the British North America Act. This Act, the first of a series of successful attempts to federate the colonies and territories of British North America into one jurisdiction, was interpreted as Canada’s 150th birthday, and across the country both public and private entities found ways to mark the occasion. Although the government orchestration of Canada Day only dates from 1958 (when it was known as Dominion Day, and had a distinctly ‘we are British and not American’ feel to it), the choice of the day has given Canada the same kind of clear benchmark date for its beginning as the US has with the 4th of July. Yet the celebrations have not occurred without significant pushback, especially from Indigenous people. Not only do they dispute the origin date (their own histories are far older than 1867), but the intervening 150 years are seen as a cavalcade of colonization and broken promises.

Reading Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World while the year-long build up to the Canada 150 celebrations gathered steam, I could not but continue to make connections between the book’s discussion of the links between liberalism and settler colonialism, and the ongoing realities of those links in the society that I am living in. The discussions in Bell’s book are the everyday realities of living in Canada. In this sense, I live in the embodiment of what Bell calls ‘a comforting fallacy about the occupation of new lands’ that his built upon ‘a legacy of expropriation and horrific violence.’ (2016: 48) What is even more unsettling is the way that Bell is also able to demonstrate that, rather than settler colonialism being an unfortunate deviation from liberalism, the rise of liberalism (and global liberal orders) is reinterpreted as bound up with the ‘second settler empire’ that emerged after the secession of the American 13 colonies. (2016: 371-2) The settler colonies, along with the United States, were seen by liberals as expressions of the virtues and potential of the Anglo world. Even anti-imperialist British liberals would endorse settler colonialism within the Empire, (2016: 369) as the colonies were ‘reimagined as spaces of virtue and desire.’ (2016: 365)

The development of the settler societies into fully functioning settler states, according to Bell, changed the way that Indigenous resistance to colonization was treated. Before the settler state this resistance was handled from the point of view of diplomatic resolution (and war). The recognition of Indigenous societies as separate ‘nations’ has been explored well in Maya Jasanoff’s discussion of British relations with the loyalist Mohawks under Joseph Brant (2011), although the threat always existed that this relation between de jure equals would turn in to an absorption of the Mohawks into the British Empire. The new settler states did just that, turning a diplomatic relationship into a question of criminal law. Resistance was now a crime against the settler state. (2016: 365)

While Bell’s concern is with how we should approach the problem of liberalism’s past (the need to recognize — or recolonize — its settler links before we can decolonize it), the long after-effects of settler colonialism are a constant presence within Canada that frequently disturbs and troubles its liberal democratic ethos. This is not to say that there has not been recognition of this, and that action has not been taken. On the face of it Canada looks like one of the better and more tolerant societies around the world. Multiculturalism remains a powerful (albeit recent) part of the national self-image. The acceptance of refugees may be tinged with hypocrisy, but is not hypocrisy itself a nod in the direction of virtue? The current Liberal cabinet is, at least in its raw numbers, gender balanced, and LGBTQ rights are protected. When we turn our attention to Indigenous rights there is at the very least a public discourse that recognizes past wrong-doing, and is replete with official apologies. The official government book-length guide to Canada (required reading for the multiple-choice citizenship test) mentions many of the Canadian government’s nastiest acts, followed by the date at which the Canadian government officially apologized (Canada, 2012). At the moment Canada is deeply embroiled in two scandals. The first is over the behaviour of residential schools towards Indigenous peoples, an issue that led to the 2008-15 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The second is the worrying number of missing and murdered indigenous women. Both have received press coverage that has been critical of authorities. As the Canada 150 celebrations drew towards their crescendo Canada’s telegenic Prime Minister publicly declared that reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians needed to be a key theme of the commemoration, adding that the last 150 years have not been as positive for Indigenous people as it has for other Canadians.

Viewed from a distance, and without the addition of Indigenous voices, it might appear that Canadian liberalism was well on the way to doing what Bell had prescribed for liberalism in general – that in order to decolonize liberalism it would be necessary to acknowledge (‘recolonize’) the white settler bias first. Canada’s multiple apologies – and recognition at the highest levels that the past 150 years have not been ‘as positive’ for Indigenous peoples – would suggest that the creation of the idea of a nation-state of Canada (a Liberal Party project through much of the Dominion’s history) is on the way to solving the problem of its white settler origins. The problem is that both raw statistics and Indigenous voices contradict this view.


Statistics Canada data from 2011 and 2012 reveals the extent of inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. In housing 11.4% of all Indigenous people live in overcrowded accommodation (more than one person per room). On-reserve that rises to 27.7%, and amongst the Inuit it stands at 29.9%. For the non-Indigenous population the figure is 4%. 21.7% of Indigenous people lived in homes needing major repairs (42.9% on-reservation), while for non-Indigenous people the figure was 6.8%. In 2011 48% of Indigenous people had some form of post-secondary education, for the non-Indigenous it stood at 65%. 9.8% had a bachelor’s degree or above, while for the non-Indigenous the figure was 26.5%. Inequality in education translates into inequality in employment 62.5% of the Indigenous population of work age were in employment (47% on-reserve), while 75.8 of the non-Indigenous work age population were employed.

These statistics are corroborated and fleshed out by the voices of Indigenous people in Canada. Pamela Palmater points out that, even though the residential school system is gone, more Indigenous children are put into foster care today than were forced into residential schools. In addition, Indigenous people are more frequently incarcerated. Steve Bonspiel criticizes much of what has been done (such as Montreal’s move to add a nod to Indigenous peoples to its flag) as gestures that do not address the issues. Both Palmater and Bonspiel lay the blame for the problems experienced by Indigenous people on the ‘Indian policy’ that was inherited and continued by the Federal government 150 years ago. The confining of Indigenous peoples to reserves where they could not sustain themselves, and instead had to rely on ‘unhealthy and insufficient rations’ from the Federal government, were coupled with other enforced indignities and violence to create the realities that Indigenous people face. ‘We don’t just want money’, Bonspiel writes. ‘We want… title to our land.’

Indigenous observers are clear where the problems lie. For them the Indigenous policy of the Canadian Federal government (and its predecessors before confederation) has been a central part of the Canadian state. Gestures and amendments aside, it has changed little in its substance. The centrepiece of this, the Indian Act of 1876, is still the key document that defines the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. The Act is also behind the continued legal use of the word ‘Indian’, despite the fact that in the wider population (and especially amongst Indigenous peoples), the phrase is insulting. The Act makes Indigenous people on reservations wards of the state, and the infamous residential schools were themselves a result of an 1884 amendment to the Act. Behind the Act was the same logic that Bell discusses in his book: the forced assimilation over time of Indigenous groups into the settler society. While amendments have been made, and assimilation and full ward status have been phased out at different times and to varying degrees, the substance of the Indian Act regime remains in place. While gestures have been made towards reconciliation, the existence of this system of Federal-Indigenous relations is a jarring contradiction to the idea of Canada as a multicultural society of immigrants forged into a bilingual state. Indeed the current Governor General came under fire when he referred to all Canadians as immigrants (including Indigenous peoples). He then compounded his mistake in his apology by referring to ‘our Indigenous peoples’, a sense of ownership that came too close to the spirit of the wardship in the Indian Act.

Attitudes have changed in Canada, and there have been positive developments, including a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that reported in 2015. Often, though, those changing attitudes have exposed the contradiction at the heart of Canadian society. The reaction of many liberal-minded Canadian nationalists is to incorporate this reconciliation into existing liberal institutions and ideas. Indigenous people can be recognized and recompensed, and then will be able to take their place in the broader multicultural Canadian family. This was likely to be the mindset behind the Governor General’s double misspeaking: “we are all equally immigrants, and we belong to Canada”. Yet, this position contradicts Indigenous views of themselves, and of their relationship with the Canadian government. For them Canada was, and still is, a colonial settler state, and reconciliation means nothing unless it involves the return of land taken under unfair treaties, and the resumption of Indigenous sovereignty and control over that land (including its natural resources).

Here, the issues raised by Indigenous peoples bring Canada around to the questions raised by Bell’s discussion of the settler origins of liberalism. Canada is indeed one manifestation of this problem that liberalism faces, yet Canada faces it not as a question of political theory alone, but as a matter of direct public policy. It also raises questions about the nature and existence of Canada itself. Canada is founded as a settler colonial state, linked in and part of a wider mostly Anglophone (despite the French-Canadian presence) and white liberal order. Even Canada’s federalism has its roots in ideas of imperial federation (a topic covered in Bell, 2011). Federal-Indigenous relations were a product of this settler origin, and the Indian Act was about assimilation (or, as Indigenous people and their supporters see it: cultural genocide). Attempts to sidestep the issue by including Indigenous groups in the cultural tropes of the settler society – by recognizing them as fellow immigrants, or including them on flags – goes no way to addressing Indigenous people’s central concerns over land rights and sovereignty.

To a certain extent all nationalisms and acts of nation-building have involved violence, and national narratives are often constructed in order to hide or defuse troubling pasts. Bell’s work, though, shows that white colonial settler pasts like Canada’s have wider ramifications for the history of liberalism and for ideas of world order. The wider liberal western order that Canada has advocated at a global level was mirrored by the imposition of a similar liberal (but also white and settler) western order that it sought to establish within Canada. In this sense there are analogies with how South Africans involved in early international relations and imperial federation (See Thakur, Davis & Vale, 2017). Canada’s white settler past is an issue for studies of international order as well. On this topic at least the separate fields of Canadian politics and international relations collapse in on each other. It is a particular strength of Bell’s work that he leads us to these connections between domestic, imperial, and world order questions.

The great hope of Canadian liberals sympathetic to Indigenous claims is that some sort of restitution can be made that would still preserve what they like about Canada and the Canadian state. As part of the Canada 150 commemorations Universities Canada launched their #MyCanada2067 initiative, which asked people to envision what they would like Canada to look like in fifty years (the bicentenary of confederation). Of course, this begged a very big question over whether Canada (not to mention the system of nation states) should exist at all in 2067. For Indigenous peoples Canada is not something to celebrate, since its foundation is based on settler colonial crimes involving genocide and theft. While for many (but not all) Canada remains a good place to live – and often a force for major reforms globally – this is at odds with its history (and status) as an originally white colonial settler state. Is it capable of reforming into an entity that can escape this past, or is it at its essential core so tainted by its violent past that it cannot survive substantive restitution? The same question facing Canada also faces liberalism.



One thought on “Reordering the World and the Canadian Question

  1. Pingback: On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the Critique of Liberalism | The Disorder Of Things

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