Resurgence or revelation? White nationalist legacies in Canada
Illustration by Canadian Encyclopedia
There has been a great deal of discussion and debate around iconic Canadian symbols like Sir John A. Macdonald who, on the one hand, is a symbol of confederation, yet on the other hand was responsible for genocide against Indigenous peoples. The idea has people of all backgrounds grappling with the dissonance between Canadian pride and nostalgia related to the settlement and creation of the Canadian state versus the inter-generational pain and trauma experienced by many Indigenous peoples from the very brutal, and often lethal, colonization process that accompanied settlement. The question really is: How do we address this clash of values in an age of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples?
That question has led to many heated debates — most of them playing out quite publically on mainstream and social media — not unlike the very public and spirited debate happening in the United States over symbols of American nationalism tied to racist and violent policies of the past. The election of President Donald Trump saw a wave of very public support for the new president from alt-right groups including white nationalists, Neo-Nazis and the KKK. Trump’s racist comments about Mexicans and his failure to categorically distance himself from the alt-right has put racism and white nationalism at the fore of political debate in the U.S. and, in turn, Canada.
However, these issues soon turned from heated debates to protests centered on commemorative statues of controversial figures in U.S. and Canadian history. It is ironic how these national statues, which have long symbolized the racist and violent origins of these two countries, can inspire similar kinds of racism and violence today — just at the thought of their removal. Logically, one might think that the removal of such painful symbols of the past would help societies heal and move forward together in a more just future — yet we have seen the very opposite reaction.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, violence broke out after white supremacist groups protested the city’s plans to remove the confederate statue of General Lee — a symbol, many say, of a pro-slavery rebellion movement. Here in Canada, a group of white supremacist members of the Canadian military aggressively interrupted Indigenous people engaged in a peaceful ceremony at the site of a statue of Governor Cornwallis — the man who had issued scalping bounties against Mi’kmaw peoples. While some would consider these to be examples of a resurgence of white nationalist thought, in reality, it is more of an unveiling of the white nationalist thought upon which both Canadian and American governments and societies were built.
While most Canadians seem to have little trouble acknowledging our shameful pasts and fully support apologies and efforts at a new relationship, for some, their compassion ends there.
When it comes to actually DOING something about addressing Canada’s genocidal past or its modernday representations in statues or the names of streets and buildings — the buck stops there. You see, for some, reconciliation is only tolerable if it remains at the symbolic and doesn’t cause any discomfort or changes in the status quo structures of power and wealth. True reconciliation however, must go beyond nice words, eloquent apologies and the inclusion of native artwork on twenty-dollar bills. For true reconciliation to take place, we must confront all of the histories, symbols, laws, policies and social structures that were created on a colonial foundation of racism and dispossession. This may mean the removal of statues that stand as painful reminders of the brutal acts committed upon Indigenous peoples — like the statue of Governor Cornwallis in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It may mean that other statues, like those of Sir John A. Macdonald, have plaques added to their bases, which highlight his racist and genocidal actions.
For me however, the debate over reconciliation must move beyond symbolism and be grounded in the substantive. For example, I believe it’s long past time to stop giving land acknowledgements and simply give the land back. Canada’s racist foundations and modern-day structures continue to have a lethal impact on Indigenous peoples — this is a fact — and it must be addressed, or no amount of statute removals and street-name changes will make any difference.
If we don’t feel uncomfortable, then we are not in reconciliation. Reconciliation was never intended to be a feel-good process. The acknowledgement of historical atrocities, the revelation of Canada’s white nationalist and racist foundations, and the transfer of wealth and power back to Indigenous peoples are going to make lots of people very uncomfortable and maybe even angry. But imagine how Indigenous peoples have felt all these decades, going to schools named after those who tried to kill us off.
It’s time we moved reconciliation out of comfort zone and into a place where we all have the right to live the good life in safety — like the original treaties envisioned. If that means some statute heads have to roll — so be it.
Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She has been a practicing lawyer for 18 years and is currently an Associate Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.