Taber Hill, Toronto. Photo: YouTube Taber Hill, Toronto. Photo: YouTube

John Clarke reflects on the legacy of capitalism and the genocidal dispossession of indigenous peoples in Canada

As someone who emigrated to Canada from the UK, it took me several years to appreciate something very different about the history and reality of capitalism here. In this country, there was no feudal aristocracy to overthrow and no peasantry to put off the land in order to create a class of wage workers. Capitalism arrived in North America on ships and was established through the genocidal dispossession of the Indigenous nations that occupied this land. Colonialism has, of course, always rested on a constructed racial hierarchy and, in the case of the Indigenous peoples, one form that this has taken has been a relentless effort to deny or downplay the scale and level of development of the societies that existed before the arrival of European settlers.

US President, Theodore Roosevelt, expressed this with jarring crudity when he said that,

“The settler and pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages.”

“Indian Mound”

This past week, I happened to come across a striking example of how the societies that existed on the land that was stolen to create Canada have been disregarded. Out walking in Scarborough, an eastern suburb of Toronto where I live, I came across a street sign marking ‘Indian Mound Crescent.’ This road surrounds a public park containing an example of the kind of Indigenous earthworks that I knew existed in Manitoba and Ohio. I’m somewhat ashamed to confess that I had no idea that such a mound existed in this area.

There is something deeply disturbing about the fact that this incredible burial site, in which some 523 people were laid to rest, can exist in Canada’s largest city in such a state of obscurity. It is protected as an official site but, beyond a couple of modest plaques, there is nothing to identify it for what it is. Local children use it as a tobogganing hill in the winter time. Yet, it reveals so much about the past. You have to marvel that a pre-industrial people would allocate vast labour time to such a project. It speaks clearly to a sophisticated culture with a highly developed belief system. Nothing at all like the ‘squalid savages’ of Roosevelt’s hate-filled imagination. This mound was constructed between 1250 and 1300, around two hundred years before Columbus landed and more than three hundred before the first European set foot in what is now the Toronto area.

The site was discovered in 1956, as farmland was being turned into a housing development. A steam shovel was brought in to remove what had been assumed to be a natural hill and human remains were soon uncovered. A representative of the Royal Ontario Museum declared it an Iroquois burial site. A plaque was put up in 1961 informing anyone who wandered by that ‘approximately 472’ members of the ‘Iroquois nation’ are buried there. The Iroquois (properly called the Haudenosaunee) are not actually a nation but a confederacy of nations (that Marx and Engels were familiar with) and, in any event, it has now been established that those buried there were actually Wyandot (Huron) people. Fifty nine years later, however, no one has ever bothered to correct the mistaken record.

It is highly instructive to compare the insulting disregard for this incredible window into the Indigenous past with the resources and attention devoted to the ‘Pioneer Village’ on the other side of the city. This reconstruction of a 19th Century European settler community, is served by its own subway station and vast public resources are allocated to promoting this celebration of ‘our heritage.’ It’s not likely that anyone has had to make concrete decisions or formally set any priorities in order for this discrepancy to exist in the attention that is devoted to each of these sites. It can be fully explained by colonial arrogance and casual racism.

Comparison to Israel

Though the colonial process is much further advanced and far more secure in Canada, the obvious comparison is to that other settler state, Israel. There, the ethnic cleansing process was undertaken on a massive scale in 1948, with the driving out of the inhabitants of over 500 Palestinian villages. A determined effort was made to conceal the evidence of the war crimes and prevent the return of the displaced Palestinians, by razing the villages and planting forests over them. This process of erasure was, of course, continued following the 1967 war. Indeed, the Canadian branch of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) funded a so called ‘Canada Park’ on the site of two obliterated West Bank villages.

In Canada, the process of colonial dispossession, though it was achieved and is maintained with considerable brutality, is far enough advanced and well established that the contemptuously misnamed ‘Indian Mound’ can be left standing in a suburban park and a shoddy ‘historical plaque’ can even be tolerated. Still, considerable differences notwithstanding, the fundamental driving forces of settler colonialism are at work here too. Just this past week, it has been revealed that, as Canada’s federal police force, the RCMP, made its plans for ‘a militarized raid on the ancestral lands of the Wet’suwet’en nation,’ to clear away land defenders blocking construction of a natural gas pipeline in British Columbia, they felt that “lethal overwatch is req’d” – a term for the deployment of snipers. The 21st Century has seen the rise of a ‘resource colonialism’ resting upon the same racism that manifests itself in shocking disrespect for the Wyandot dead in a suburban Toronto park.

Justin Trudeau’s tearful apologies and appeals for ‘reconciliation’ between Canada and the Indigenous peoples are only an attempt to divert attention from a colonial reality his government is as fully devoted to maintaining on this stolen land. I said at the outset that the capitalism that was created here was an imported model that involved the dispossession of the Indigenous nations from coast to coast. That means that the struggle for a socialism in Canada is, at one and the same time, a fight for a post colonial society that respects Indigenous sovereignty. When that is won, I have no doubt that the Wyandot burial site I stumbled across the other day will be as well known as Stonehenge and that the rich and wonderful history of the Indigenous Peoples will be eagerly studied and given the respect it so fully deserves.

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.