The View From Here – We can’t change history, but we don’t need to be bound to it

Tom Henihan


In a September 1 column in The National Post, Conrad Black writes that Canada and the US are “enduring an assault on their national legitimacy from within.”

Here in Canada, he credits the incessant agitation of the Canadian native community and its targeting of John A. Macdonald as an effort to “delegitimize the entire settlement and political organization of this country” by those who started arriving from Europe in the 17th century.

Black makes a number of facile allusions to history that, with the exception of shedding light on his arrogance and misplaced sense of superiority, are more pedantic than edifying.

“But the Europeans who came to the New World, whatever their behavioural shortcomings, were gentler and more tolerant of the natives than were the Huns, Vandals, Saracens and others who flooded into Western Europe and killed, enslaved, absorbed or assimilated most of the peoples that had preceded them there,” writes Black.

For him, legitimacy belongs exclusively to the Anglo-Celtic establishment and from a posture of superiority he attacks First Nations moral and historical legitimacy as the original occupants of North America.

“As I have written many times before, the natives arrived here approximately 20,000 or more years before the Europeans did, but their civilization in the 16th century was at least 5,000 years behind that of Europe by any reasonable measurement of the maturity of a culture or economy of a society. And the natives were not sufficiently numerous or attached to durable places of residence to be said to occupy the territory of what is now Canada.”

By this reasoning, there are still large territories that are not sufficiently occupied for present day Canada to lay justifiable claim and in case of the Arctic, in a number of instances the Canadian government resettled native communities to the far north to exercise its (Canada’s) claim to sovereignty in that region.

So, while Black contends that First Nations have no moral claim to Canada, the Canadian government moved native communities to the Arctic, using them as pawns in order to assert its own sovereignty. Where is the legitimacy in that?

Black says that the effort to discredit John A. Macdonald is an effort to marginalize all Canadians, applying the reasoning that if the founder of Canada was illegitimate well then we all are.

This trite, oversimplified view suggests that the founding of a country is the act of one man. It also suggests that a country’s identify, institutions and politics are not an evolving process that responds to changing mores and circumstances but instead all its institutions are rooted and fixed in the biases and archaic vision of its founding fathers.

The terms history and culture have now become bywords for those who are alarmed by the changes being instigated by those who refuse to be victimized and marginalized any longer.

During her state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, Queen Elizabeth, speaking of the difficult history as well as the many shared cultural underpinnings between Britain and Ireland emphasised, “the importance of forbearance and conciliation, of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it.”

Conrad Black insists that we are bound to history, a history that favours his cast and kin while refusing to take into account that the same history from a First Nations perspective reads very differently and the term “Canadian legitimacy” is to be found nowhere in those annals.

On an optimistic side, with Canada celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the writing of our history has only just begun. and being such a young country should invigorate our society and our politics.

In a country as young as ours, we should make every effort to redress past injustices and realign ourselves as a compassionate, fair and inclusive society rather than allowing Canada, as Conrad Black would have it, to become unyielding, atrophied and old before its time.

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