Canadian Exceptionalism is about Land and Resources

Rachel Bryant

Canadian exceptionalism has emerged (or re-emerged) in the Trump/Brexit/Canada 150 era as a useful concept for scholars and journalists seeking to understand how Canadians and their institutions are (or are not) unique in hemispheric and global contexts. But exceptionalism is about more than the ways in which vast geopolitical entities relate to one another.

Exceptionalism is the code system Settler peoples have used across centuries to signify their cultural preeminence. It is the vocabulary through which they articulate themselves and their self-defined national subjectivities onto a plane positioned high above any perceived cultural or economic rivals. But exceptionalism is also the fundamental justification and motivation for the so-called civilizing mission: the compulsive logic through which Settlers from multiple states and across centuries have come to imagine themselves as deserving of the great material bounties that were supposedly bequeathed to them as they aggressively seized control of Indigenous lands. Exceptionalism is asserted whenever settler states wish to impose their will at home or on the world stage. The US invokes its exceptionalism when it authorizes drone strikes in Pakistan. Canada invokes its exceptionalism when it wants to fracture and endanger lands and waterways with another oil pipeline, or when it wants to build another hydroelectric dam in Labrador that will flood and distort Innu or Inuit hunting grounds.

In this sense, exceptionalism tells us more about the similarities between Canadian and US settler societies than the differences. In one of its best known articulations, the Puritan lawyer John Winthrop voiced the belief, in staunch Lockean terms, that America’s democratic vision and destiny had been bestowed upon a chosen people by the God of Israel. The Protestant Reformation had failed to reveal God’s true church in Europe, and according to Winthrop, that true church would be built by a congregation of godly souls in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which would then be as a shining city upon a hill, an example for the rest of the world to follow. Like its “American” counterpart, Canadian exceptionalism is another Euro-Western removal, but this removal is a willful separation from the United States. In the discourse of Canadian exceptionalism, America has failed in its democratic vision, just as Europe once failed in its holy reformation, and the world’s chosen people have removed themselves to Canada where they might yet take up the iconic mission of the Puritans and develop a nobler idea of what a Western nation can or should be.

Exceptionalism is premised on this fundamental if sometimes unspoken or secularized belief that the God of Israel gave the world to industrious Western peoples so they could do with it as they pleased. In Canada, this vision was officially consecrated into statehood with the adoption of Psalm 72:8 as the basis of the national motto in 1867: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” This is the same essential idea that John Locke so carefully developed in his second treatise on government, where we find what is generally treated as the definitive argument in defense of the supposedly natural rights of English colonists to conquer and acquire the world. According to Locke, the seizure of land and paranoid control of resources is not a “prejudice to any other man,” and even if “God gave the world to men in common… it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational.”[1]

The creation of Canada was another aggressive consolidation of this self-aggrandizing mythology against “the common pot” of Turtle Island – the Indigenous perspective of land as a shared territory capable of equally sustaining all kinds of beings across generations.[2] By adopting “A Mari Usque Ad Mare” as their unifying motto, the founders of Canada expressed their conventional belief in the right of “exceptional” people like themselves to acquire and dominate the world, signaling, too, a belief in their own principal and essential place in what was, to their minds, a predestined but unfinished tale of Western deliverance. If, decades earlier, the American Revolution had robbed the world’s most exceptional people of their supposedly “natural” right to dominance over the lands and resources that some now call the United States, those exiles had persevered in their search for the so-called promised land, casting their gaze upon the Canadian “wilderness” and on the great material bounties that were waiting in its depths.

In a 1783 letter written to a friend, the Mohegan writer Samson Occom dismissed rumors of “Peace” between the Loyalists and the Patriots in the Revolutionary War, describing “great Confusion among the White People yet, between Royalests, Whigs, and Tories, but this is none of my Business, For Indians are neither Whigs nor Tories.”[3] For Occom, the Settlers’ struggles to clarify the spheres of Euro-Western dominance on Turtle Island was nothing new. Like other Indigenous writers, he understood that colonized/settled and Indigenous environments occupy the same geographical coordinates even while existing in distinct epistemological worlds. In this moment of renewed self-reflection, Settler Canadians can continue to obsess over what it is that makes this country “exceptional,” or we can think about how exceptionalism itself continues to circumscribe relationships between Indigenous peoples and Settler Canadian power structures.

Rachel Bryant is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. Her book, The Homing Place, is scheduled to be published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press this summer.


[1] John Locke, The Works of John Locke, Esq., vol. 2. London: Arthur Bettesworth, 1727. 176.

[2] This is a reference to Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008). For more on the displacement of Indigenous epistemologies by Euro-Western peoples and institutions, see Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Women and Sky Woman Go on a European World Tour!”) Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 2, no. 1 (2013): 20-34. See also Leanne Simpson, “Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa: Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships.” In Native Historians Write Back: Decolonizing American Indian History, edited by Susan A. Miller and James Riding, 93–102. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011.

[3] Samson Occom, “To John Bailey.” In The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth Century Native America, edited by Joanna Brooks, 118–20. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Featured Image: Progress of America (1875), by Domenico Tojetti. Oakland Museum of California, via Wikimedia Commons.

Latest Comments

  1. Taylor Spence says:

    I am enjoying this conversation on exceptionalism, which I very rarely see in the US/Canada dominion space. Check out my article on Early US exceptionalism in At History, winter 2016.

    • Borealia Editor (@earlycanada) says:

      Ed.: Thanks for the comment, Taylor. Readers may want to follow up and read Taylor’s article, “The Canada Thistle: The Pestilence of American Colonialisms and the Emergence of and Exceptionalist Identity, 1783—1839,” Agricultural History, 90, no. 4, (2016): 511-544. Abstract: “This research demonstrates how a European plant, Cirsium arvense, common to North America since the sixteenth century and commonly considered a weed, became “Canadian” when Early National Americans labeled it the Canada thistle in the years leading up to the War of 1812. This naming comprised part of a host of actions citizens of the new United States took to differentiate themselves from their imperial progenitor, and thus, the Canada thistle might be considered an early origin-point of an American exceptionalist identity.”

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