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)