Decolonizing History

Decolonizing History

I am very struck, in studying the history of empire-building in Canada, how long-lasting its effects are.

Consider the residential schools, whose explicit goal was to force the assimilation of younger generations of Aboriginals, by striking at the root of their knowledge systems, driving them away from the land, tearing parents from their children, then raising those 150,000 children to see their own language, culture and origins as foreign.

The residential schools are the best-known example of colonization, particularly since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada brought out its final report in 2015, but there have been many other examples.

The exploration of Canada, the fur trade, the enslavement of Aboriginals, whaling, kidnapping Aboriginals in order to cage them and expose them in human zoos in Europe … in many fields of endeavour, the colonization of Canada dehumanized, degraded, and even desecrated Aboriginal people.

Fortunately, the record of contact is not just about the domination of one group by another. The record of contact offers many examples of positive interactions as well. Métissage itself – the spirit of sharing and mutual respect – is a powerful alternative to domination.

Rudyard Kipling, the poet of empire

There was, there has been, an ideology driving the colonizing spirit, with its racial hierarchies. Consider the words of Rudyard Kipling, the British poet of empire and Nobel laureate, who wrote The White Man’s Burden in 1899:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

In reading Kipling, I thought perhaps I had misunderstood. He presents imperialists with their civilizing mission, altruism and self-sacrifice as standing somehow Christ-like above “new-caught [newly-conquered] sullen peoples.” Why Christ-like? Because these agents of empire are carrying a burden for humanity, in exile, like Christ bearing the Cross; they face the hostility of the conquered, of these savage, silent peoples who wilfully reject all the benefits bound to stream from a state of subservience.

If ever there was a poem with mixed messages, this is the one! But what if I had misunderstood?

So I read the French translation, to be absolutely sure. And the last line casts the conquered as “moitié démon et moitié enfant.”

How grotesque to call colonized peoples “half devil and half child” … as if they were demonic and threatening simply because they did not automatically rush to obey their new masters. They have no value in themselves – they are only defined in relation to the grasping, self-righteous agents of civilization.

What a contrast with Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792: “All the sacred rights of humanity are violated by insisting on blind obedience.”

And how refreshing to see, in Roald Amundsen’s case, that he had a totally non-racist and non-imperial understanding of Inuit people. He saw them neither as demons nor children, neither as auxiliaries nor subjects. He saw them as fellow human beings. He admired the breadth and originality of their knowledge system.

As I show in The Blinding Sea, Amundsen upheld the advantages of knowledge, and acknowledged that Inuit traditional knowledge, coming from outside of the European scientific tradition, has enormous value.

The question of who is in the centre in Canada, and who on the periphery, is still very much with us to this day.

Baker Dinomic – Fusion – joins the Mercator and a specially derived projection at ±45° (courtesy of NASA)



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