Correlation ≠ causation, even in colonization

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Six flags are pictured beside each other. From top left to bottom right: Canada, Treaty 4, Israel, Palestine, United States of America, and Métis.
If only reconciling could be as simple as lining up the flags for this image.  via Treaty 4 Gathering via Wikipedia and Openclipart-Vectors via Pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

A response to a January 18, 2024 article “It is time to talk about this” in the Carillon

by jack j. nestor, contributor

The fruit which comparative history may bear is tremendous. Perhaps no subject has been more vulnerable to the allure of comparative history than the growing field of settler-colonial studies. However, the pitfalls of such a historiographical approach may impair an accurate rendering and interpretation of the historical record.  

The increasingly common tendency to compare settler colonialism in Canada to settler colonialism in Israel is demonstrative of the errors of such an approach. While some historians have compared the Canadian and American settler-colonial structures to vindicate the former, others have referred to British colonial policy across the empire to illuminate the Canadian experience. In total, these comparative histories have revealed much about the nature of Canadian policy on Indigenous peoples.  

As my critical reading of Mikayla Tallon’s article in the Carillon from Jan 18, 2024 illustrates, the common fact of settler colonialism does not warrant the disregarding of countless differences between the Canadian and Israeli manifestations of settler colonialism. 

The first – and arguably most harmful – error concerns the idea that “treaties or agreements” were at the behest of settlers or the Crown. In the context of Israel and Palestine, the agreement made between Britain and Sharif Husayn in 1915, which included granting control over Palestine to the latter, aligns with this thought given Britain’s initiation of the treaty.  

However, this statement imposes a level of passivity upon First Nations groups and agency upon the Dominion and the Crown which did not exist in Western Canada in the 1870s. Rather than having treaties imposed upon them “at the request of European immigrants or the Crown,” First Nations in the North-West physically obstructed the westward penetration of Canadian settlers and surveyors.  

Consider, for example, the Saulteaux’s resistance under Yellow Quill near Portage la Prairie, threats of violence from First Nations in the Riding Mountain area, and the refusal of the Blackfoot and Plains Cree to permit the work of survey and telegraph line crews. The scholarship that has accumulated since John L. Tobias’ “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885” unequivocally (though not unanimously) proves that Treaties 1-7 were negotiated out of the insistence of First Nations rather than the foresight of the Dominion or the Crown. 

There is also the notion put forward by Tallon that if Canada were to condemn Israel, it “could embolden the Indigenous peoples” (presumably to resist settler colonialism). There are at least two flaws with this reasoning. First, historically and contemporarily Canada has not hesitated to condemn colonialism (and genocide) when the conditions existing in the United States they criticized closely resembled its own.  

Consider Brian Mulroney’s criticism of apartheid South Africa in the 1990s and Justin Trudeau’s castigation of China over the genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Thus, while Canada’s attempted obstruction (and its dubious adoption) of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can be cited as an example of Canada’s distaste towards decolonization, Canada’s support for Israel appears to be motivated more by geopolitics and ambitions than a strategic opposition to decolonization.  

Second, although pan-Indigenism has ebbed and flowed, Indigenous peoples have remained relatively localized (particularly in Western Canada). That is to say that while Harold Cardinal saw the utility of the Indian Association of Alberta, he rejected the “intrusion of left-wing politics” into Indigenous resistance and refused to meet with Fred Hampton when the Black Panther travelled Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1969.  

While Indigenous peoples have exhibited solidarity with each other, they have proven capable of and willing to act in their own interests and of their own accords just as much as any other. If Indigenous peoples in Canada pursue justice with enhanced vigour it will be because it is in their interests to do so – not because Palestinians have done so. 

At least two major deviations of the historical record exist in Tallon’s article. First, the idea that peace prevailed in North America until “people got greedy, they got angry, and they needed someone to take it out on” is plainly false. While instances of acculturation and cultural borrowing did occur – in the French-Indigenous “middle ground” as in the borrowing of Indigenous Palestinian agricultural techniques by early Jewish settlers – parts of North America experienced prolonged warfare prior to, and after, first contacts.   

Indeed, both the French and British merely inserted themselves into pre-existing alliances led by the Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacies, respectively. On the west coast, as in northeastern Turtle Island, warfare and the capturing of slaves were the reality of nations in these regions. Similarly, as nations competed for land and control of commerce in the North-West, alliances formed and collapsed in response to the rise and decline of threats (consider the tumultuous relationship between the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Plains Cree, for example).  

The increased presence of European traders certainly brought about greater violence (the scholarship of John Philip Reid refers to homicide and retribution perpetrated by and against Indigenous Peoples in the fur trade era specifically) but violence was irrefutably a characteristic of North America from the rhetorical “first pages” of the historical record – including archaeological evidence of massacres perpetrated against Indigenous groups by other Indigenous groups.  

The other inaccuracy concerns Tallon’s citation of Suzanne Methot’s Legacy: Trauma, Story and Indigenous Healing. I have read Legacy twice; once in Grade 12 out of personal interest, and again when it was assigned in my first year of university. In neither occasion was I persuaded by its arguments.   

While the reasons to doubt the text’s merits are numerous, I will confine my analysis to the claim that 100 million people inhabited present-day North America prior to contact. I have seen this estimate once before and (like Methot) the author neglected to provide a source in support of such a claim. In the same vein, while Legacy did not undergo the rigours of the peer-review process (and has not been the subject of a book review in any credible academic journal to my knowledge), even the highest credible estimate (made by Henry F. Dobyns in 1966) places the population at 10 million less than Methot’s figure.   

In any event, the economic history referenced by Methot and echoed by Tallon are irrelevant. It matters little how many individuals died in determining whether a genocide has occurred. Instead, what is important is whether there was a deliberate attempt to eliminate a given people. I am inclined to believe that during certain moments (though I believe ‘debilitation’ is a more accurate descriptor at other points), Canadian Indian policy was oriented toward genocide.  

I do not feel that my limited knowledge of the history of Israel and Palestine entitles me to form similar opinions in that context. However, I hope that in spite of my ignorance of the history of Israel and Palestine I have respectfully and successfully argued that the differences between settler colonialism in Canada and settler colonialism in Israel are more pronounced than the similarities. 

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