Americans might think we are nice

Untangling Canada’s colonial reputation

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Recently, I travelled to Guatemala and Mexico. During my time there, I met a number of individuals who told me I was “a very nice Canadian girl,” who expressed concern for my safety and who asked why I didn’t have a Canadian flag on my backpack.

Debunking skewed perceptions of Canada is a daunting task that I attempted only about half the times I had the opportunity.

I flew to Guatemala on Feb. 11, only a few days after Gerald Stanley, the farmer from Saskatchewan charged with the murder of a young Indigenous man, Colten Boushie, was acquitted of all charges.

I spent most of my time on my first layover scanning different social media platforms for reactions on the verdict, then made my way through a number of articles discussing the murder and the trial in great detail.

I was most disturbed by my discovery that the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) voted, in their 2017 annual convention, “for expanded ‘rights and justification’ for concerned property owners dealing with ‘out of control’ rural crime,” a vote indicative of the intensifying rhetoric in Canada that says you should be able to shoot a gun to protect your property.

Postmedia columnist Doug Cuthland wrote last summer, “In Saskatchewan, rural crime is a dog-whistle term that means aboriginal people.”

Many people I know commended my choice not to travel in the United States ("It’s just not the kind of place I’d want to be right now, with the political climate like that … good choice”) before I left, but after a day of reading too many comments sections on articles about Stanley’s acquittal, I was hit, not for the first time, with the number of similarities between Canada and the States.

Sometimes it’s easy to allow perceptions of American social and political instability to translate into a false sense of safety in Canada. However, as exemplified by Stanley’s trial, Canadian legal systems tend to value property and ownership over the lives of minority groups, just like in the States.

When I landed in Guatemala, I was forced to confront not only my privilege, but also a number of conversations that threw my internal monologue for a serious loop. I began to notice how terms like “vibes” and “chill” and “nice” were frequently used in conversations about Canada, and how when people started to talk about the United States, things almost always became heated, and dialogue turned political.

In Winnipeg, working in North Point Douglas at a non-profit, living downtown and generally existing in spaces where the impact of residential schools, systemic abuse and poverty are visibly apparent, I am forced, daily, to confront the ways that the Canadian government is failing Indigenous people.

Events like the conclusion of the Tina Fontaine trial a few weeks after Stanley's,  and, more recently, Brian Pallister’s rejection of the Hydro deal with the Manitoba Metis Federation are indicators that Canadian political and judicial systems are organized to cater to rich, white, male capitalist bodies. They show that the concerns of minority groups (particularly Indigenous women and youth) and concerns about the environment will continue to be ignored while these systems prevail.

But how is an outsider, for whom Canada is a week-long stint in Montreal’s Mile End or Toronto’s Kensington Market supposed to have any idea about its “darker side?”

The perceptions I encountered did not only imply that there is a lot of misinformation about what goes on “back home,” but also that Canada’s neocolonial role in the global economy is being seriously overlooked.

Canada has a very bloody history in Guatemala, which can be traced back to the Guatemalan Civil War, when the Canadian International Nickel Company (INCO) negotiated with the Guatemalan government for the creation and control of El Estor Nickel Mine, a project that resulted in the forcible eviction of Indigenous people from the region, with death rates somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 people.

Canadian companies make up about 50 to 70 per cent of the mining activities in Guatemala, and currently there are a number of active charges of human rights violations against these companies associated with the dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ land.

In Guatemala, when talking about Canada with travellers I met, I often found myself sitting there, exasperated, thinking that they would probably get a much more informative answer about “Canadian ethics” if they went and talked to some locals.

Canada has continued the tradition of seizing control of Indigenous land for capital gain well into the 21st century, both domestically and internationally, and continues to espouse reconciliation and decolonization on a conditional basis – that is, only when it is convenient for capitalist purposes.

Why is it, then, that in conversations between settlers from different countries (like the United States and Australia) Canada is so often framed as the harmless, socialist, younger sibling of other settler colonial states?   

One of the strangest encounters I had on this trip was with a man from Ohio. I approached him during the last layover on my way home, in Atlanta, to ask if he would wake me up for my flight, since I had lost my phone in Mexico.

After agreeing to wake me up, he engaged me in an uncomfortably personal and political questionnaire.

The most memorable part of this interview was when he asked me what it was like “to live in a socialist country.” (“I mean, ’cause here, in America, we own the land. It’s ours. But up there, the queen owns your house, right? Nothing’s really yours. I just wonder, how does that make you feel?”), and chalked my fumbled response up to be related to some sort of national disposition (“Canadians are so nice, I guess you guys don’t really care. In America, it’s really important to us that we conquered this place and that it’s ours").

I’m not quoting him here to draw attention to the absurdity of his statements. What he said to me is probably indicative of some larger cultural narrative about Canada: Canadians are nice.

Canadians are seen as English and French (Indigenous people are usually absent in this narrative). Canada isn’t really colonial like the United States, because it didn’t monopolize the slave trade the same way, and we don’t have gun rights.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a cute Instagram where he makes “happy pride” posts. We don’t hate Mexico. In fact, we let our daughters travel there. We have free healthcare. How nice.

When, and how, can we begin to complicate this narrative? When can the Canadian nation state begin to be held internationally responsible, both politically and culturally, for its actions?

How can critical conversations that question the foundations of settler-nationhood and identity begin to materialize, so instead of asking Canadians what it’s like to “be so nice,” people begin to ask (and Canadians begin to ask themselves): what does it mean to be internationally recognized as ‘Canadian?’ What does this assume? And whom does this exclude?

Haley Pauls is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg Honours English Program. Accordingly, she currently has three jobs, two of which are completely unrelated to her area of study. For better or worse, she has given in and is heading back into academia in the fall.

Published in Volume 72, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 5, 2018)

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