Colonial Canada: Making the Familiar Dis/Comfortingly Strange

Daniel Samson

In my introductory colonial Canadian survey course, students sometimes complain that I spend “all” of my time on Nova Scotia. That’s not actually true, but I understand their point. It may be true that I talk about Nova Scotia more than others might, but for the most part I follow the broad conventions of the story and spend much of the course discussing rebellions, state and cultural formation, and Indigenous dimensions of the colonial world – and the literature (and most textbooks) mean that that is primarily a story of the Canadas, with asides on Maritime and western stories. But Nova Scotia’s older different history allows me to stray from those broad conventions, and thus it’s a good example of the problem I want to discuss here. Nova Scotia illustrates well the messy religious, ethnic, national, and imperial complexities of the early modern North Atlantic: the land of Mi’kma’ki, their sometimes uneasy co-existence with French Acadian settlers, the Wabanaki federation and its contestation of Northern New England, the first plural moment of Acadian-Mi’kmaw populations occupied by British colonial troops, of a global war that expelled the French population and brought in New Englanders and Germans, of Mi’kmaw representatives at Niagara, of a globe-shattering revolution that saw local republicans thwarted and “Loyalists” (white and black, plus their human property) instated, of trade routes that linked Nova Scotia ships, George’s Bank fish, Caribbean sugar and rum, and enslaved African bodies. The story may be centred in Nova Scotia, but it extends to the corners of the Atlantic World, its peoples’ worldviews astonishingly broad.

The course is called “Colonial Canada”; it’s half of what we routinely refer to as “the Canadian survey”. That name is part of the problem we face. Following the transnational impulse, we can critique the notion of Canada as a suitable framing for the messy and broad-ranging subject at hand. As I suggest above, I get that. Even looking only at my tiny little corner, the spillovers are enormous, and in an introductory course much mopping needs to be done. Most of that stems from the fact that the assumed place of Nova Scotia emerged from a colonial past where the lines (spatial, political, affective) were blurry to begin with and then redrawn, and redrawn, again and again. These imagined – “fictive” in Jeffers Lennox’s terminology – lines sharply delineate, but they also obscure older stories.

What then is the relationship between the people and places we study and the place we now call Canada? We can pause on what (and when) was “colonial” Canada? Though problematic, it’s far better than “Pre-Confederation”, which is confusing even within the political boundaries of Canada. As a time period – and thus as a conceptual framework – it still offers innumerable ambiguities: does “colonial” end in 1848? 1867? 1870? 1885? 1905? 1931? 1939? 1949? Or has it even ended? And just what do we mean by “colonial”? Is it Arthur Lower’s “colonial” – the one on the path to “the nation”? Or it is one espoused by Indigenous activists and post-colonial theorists – one that sees continental theft and genocide at its core? Or is it a complex bundle of both that needs careful exposition? I would maintain the latter – that it needs to be all of these things. But how do we do this?

In teaching about Canada, I want my students to see something that is both familiar and strange – something they recognise as their country, but often in ways that they had not previously imagined. In the colonial survey, I often begin with the map on our header, Nicolas Bellin’s 1744 map of Isle Royale (Cape Breton/U’nama’kik). It looks like Cape Breton, but it also introduces us to this strange island off the coast of Acadie/Mi’kmaki/Nova Scotia (in 1744, it was very much all three of these!). In this one image, we see the familiar (the simple outline of what is normally today called Cape Breton), places we’re coming to know (like that fortress along the coast named for the French king), and places we can’t see any more like Port Toulouse/Quescouminigan, Moulagash, and le grand lac Bideauboch “rectifee … sur l’orginal des sauvages”.

Detail from Carte de l’Isle Royale, Nicholas Bellin 1744, updating Jacques L’Hermite, 1717, Bibliothèque nationale de France.


Seeing the familiar de-familiarised – place-names whose connection to other histories have been over-written – helps us to think about the multiple stories embedded in places we once imagined in simple and linear Eurocentric manners. Those older histories sometimes acknowledged Indigenous presences, but most often as foils for our advancing greatness: those “Indians” were here in their rude state, but we came and gave them order, and history. There were some messy bumps caused by the French – enough to add some adventure to an otherwise admirable but dull tale of exported British constitutionalism – but here we are: secure liberal-capitalists with universal healthcare.

My own teaching has been very much influenced by post-colonial writers, particularly Dipesh Chakrabarty. His work on Bengal workers took me beyond Thompsonian class cultures to the inability of Western/liberal national histories to convey subaltern stories. Though the subaltern people I was studying bore a very different relationship to colonialism, I recall well the revelation his work offered me in understanding that not only was the British colonial state exploiting the miserable Highland immigrants and Acadians I was examining, but also that historians, even good leftist historians sympathetic to the condition of the oppressed, were condemning them to a history that could seldom comprehend their difference. The condition – be that cultural, economic, political – of Bengali peasant-workers was not the same as that of Catholic Highland settlers nor that of Mi’kmaw villagers, but they shared dimensions of a relationship to power and a place in a universalising history of progress and improvement. They were “other”, and their history – their motive to action – was incomprehensible in the western liberal imagination. In this sense, we also need what Chakrabarty calls affective histories – distinctly pre-national histories of disparate peoples and their humanity emerging from and in different contexts. Chakrabarty taught me that bridging material and affective histories offered a sense of patterned differences.

So, should we also remain attentive to the local and national frames? Yes, because (a) those frameworks remained powerful in refashioning subaltern lives, and (b) our students need to understand their country’s place in that broader story. And I think the importance of the particularity of colonial history has become ever more significant in the past three years. Godwin’s law says that all political internet conversations eventually arrive at Hitler. In Canada, in 2018, we arrive at Trump, Ford, and the clear sense that a many of our fellow citizens don’t see the reasons our democracy is different (if also very similar!) than the republics of America and France, don’t know, or care, why the Cree, the Mi’kmaq and the Metis matter, nor the 18th-century constitutional framing of states, don’t acknowledge the fraught immigration history of the country, the powerful role of civil society in building institutions and relations that support the common weal, no longer see the benefit of the welfare state, nor the struggles and accommodations that have allowed us to become a pluralist democracy, and much, much more. That means that for all our deep-seated troubles – for all the very real imbalances of wealth and power, the still reduced place of women in families and seats of power, and the very real nativist, antiqueer, and racist forces that emerge on an everyday basis – that we have institutions and ideals that remain worth fighting to protect – and to improve. As historians, the best way we can do that is to also remain attentive to the basic political and social questions that have defined our national history and to understand that the broad trans-Atlantic movement of goods and people, free and unfree, conquerors and the conquered, and to see ourselves as products of that massively complex tale.

 To teach those layers, those dimensions, of historical background, we need to avoid the ahistorical traps fostered by of our nation state – the kind of complacent neo-Whig history espoused by figures as different as Jason Kenney and John Ralston Saul. But to understand our profound connectedness to that past, to fully understand how colonialism produced our current position, Canadian students need to see that their lives – their Canadian lives – are implicated in the story of settler colonialism, that the peculiar continued presence of French nations is the product of a century and a half of French colonialism and then two and a half centuries of national struggle, that the legacy of Highlanders is much more interesting than the increasingly curious spectacle of kilts and caber-tossing. And so on.

 Canadian students need to understand affective difference and the historical development of their own state; they need to see that people like them, people in whom they can see themselves, made Canada. Assuming that high schools teach such a history will fail our students. I can’t speak for all of Ontario, much less the country, but Canadian history is barely taught in Niagara high schools. We should, as university-based academics, be working to encourage a stronger place for Canadian history in our high schools. But in the era of STEM, and Ford, it’s hard to be optimistic about much changing – witness the recent cancellation of efforts to rewrite the Indigenous high-school curriculum – and if it does change one fears little more than a sad re-hashing of 1812 and Vimy Ridge. There are fine history teachers out there doing great work, but their role is diminished year-by-year. Every autumn in my colonial history course I get 150 to 200 second-year students. Most of them are Education students, most of them destined to teach in Niagara high schools. It is highly likely that this is the only opportunity they will have to explore the colonial world. I think it’s crucial that they be given a chance to connect that messy colonial history to the society their students will inherit.

Daniel Samson, an Associate Professor at Brock University, is an historian of rural 18th and 19th-century Nova Scotia. He is most interested in the political and social processes that forged modernity in the colonial countryside. He is writing a book-length biography of 19th-century Nova Scotia miller James Barry, building a web-based research tool with Keith Grant called the Colonial Bookshelf, and developing online courses that employ digital tools to enhance critical reading skills. You can find him on Twitter at @ruralcolonialNS.

Featured image: Carte de l’Isle Royale, Nicholas Bellin 1744, updating Jacques L’Hermite, 1717, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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