By Zoe Todd
What does it mean to be a child of Empire? I’m not quite sure, but the complex roots of my ancestors stretch across small prairie towns and all the way back to Ireland, Scotland and England. I am Metis: an offspring of the fur trade and all of its complexities, paradoxes and rich histories. Today I study Indigenous issues from the cozy offices of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and the irony of coming back to the United Kingdom — the former colonial Empire — to study Indigenous realities in my own country is not lost on me.
Whatever drew me back here to the place where the contemporary experience of suffering of Canada’s Indigenous people began, I’m here now. And I am watching the Scottish Independence debate with great interest.
At a Trudeau Foundation event in May, Metis scholar, writer and playwright Maria Campbell — author of the seminal personal memoir Halfbreed — urged us to remember that everything that happened to Indigenous Canada at the hands of the British was practiced on the Scots and Irish first. It was with horror that I first learned in 2010 about the Clearances and the devastating impact they had – and continue to have – on Scottish life. These parallel or shared sufferings weave our collective experiences together, as groups who were repressed by the English in the name of Empire. Though, I admit I hesitate when Scottish Independence campaigners assert their “Indigenous” rights to self-determination. It seems a jarring notion, this Indigeneity, given the extent to which Scottish actors were complicit in the oppression of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Perhaps this is what drew me into querying the relationships between Scotland’s plight and that of Indigenous peoples across Canada.
What I realize, now, from living and working in Scotland, is just how deep the relationship between Canada and Scotland runs. From the Scottish place-names that litter my childhood, to the tartans and pipes that narrate so many of our public events: Canada is, in the historical sense at least, a very quintessential Scottish product. Until I moved abroad, I did not understand the extent to which Canada was administered into existence by Scottish clerks, traders and labourers — though they are hardly the only people to have shaped Canada into what it is today. These men, recruited from the Orkneys and the Highlands and other parts of Scotland, worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and other fur-trade enterprises, allying themselves with Canada’s Indigenous peoples in order to send beaver pelts back to an insatiable (and chilly) European market. John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and architect of the sinister Victorian-era policies to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ and the racist Indian Act, was himself born in Glasgow in 1815.
The oppression of the Scots, namely the dispossession and exploitation of certain groups of Scottish peoples and their lands, was re-created with startling fidelity on French and Aboriginal populations across the territories that today make up Canada. Fellow ex-pat colleague Koreen Reece points out that Margaret Atwood illustrates this in the 1978 poem “Four Small Elegies: 1838, 1977” – which explores the repression of Beauharnois by the English in 1838. The line “Those whose houses were burned/burned houses/Whatever else happens once you start?” illustrates how recriminations against French people were carried out in part by Scottish men who had themselves lost homes in the Clearances.
In recent months, evidence has emerged that illustrates just how Canada’s anti-Aboriginal policies, championed by Macdonald, led to reprehensible practices. This confirms what many Indigenous people have been saying all along. Ian Mosby details in his May 2013 article in Histoire Sociale/Social History how starvation studies were carried out on Aboriginal children in care, and we now have evidence of multiple different drug experiments on Indigenous children removed from their families to attend residential schools. Many, including former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, argue that these actions meet the criteria of genocide. However, I have watched with incredulity as Canada’s new Human Rights Museum refuses to label an exhibit on residential schools as such, offering meekly instead to allow the public to ‘come to their own conclusions’.
It is of course dangerous for me, as an outsider, to over-simplify Scottish identity, nationalism and history. Not all Scottish peoples experienced the same traumas, nor do all agree on how to address or acknowledge oppression within Scotland. As David Zylberberg pointed out in his recent post, there is no cohesive or uniform Scottish ‘nation’ at this time. In my chats with folks in the north-east it is apparent that rifts in the national fabric exist. More than one Aberdonian taxi driver has summed up their thoughts on independence by saying “Edinburgh is no better than Westminster”, and many people in Aberdeen and Dundee do share a healthy skepticism of both Scottish and English politics. Further, life on the Mainland is different than life in the Isles, and the resultant internal disparities between central Scotland and more remote areas may or may not be addressed by a sovereign government. Similarly, it is also difficult to sum up Metis nationalism in one swift statement, as different histories shape unique Metis experiences across Canada. So, my comparison of Indigenous and Scottish oppression is at very best a simple one, and requires a great deal of nuance and caution.
Despite these complexities in the narrative of Scottish nationalism, I still see a reconciliation of Scottish oppression as an invitation to a dialogue on healing of Indigenous Nations in Canada. I look upon Scottish Independence as a fascinating opportunity for an Indigenous population to reconcile the roots of its own oppression. What was practiced upon both Scottish and Aboriginal peoples was borne of the political, sociological and religious views of the time. A hierarchy of suffering emerged in which some Scottish people dispossessed of their own lands came to our country, and some re-created the horrors of their own experiences on Indigenous communities. This was reinforced by British policies that repeated the dispossession experienced by Scottish and Irish peoples upon our own Indigenous population.
As a Metis woman living in Scotland, I view the upcoming independence vote as an invitation to a broader dialogue about the reverberations of colonialism within and outside of the United Kingdom. I hope that, as part of its pursuit of self-determination, Scotland can also reflect on the role its people have had on marginalized and oppressed peoples elsewhere. My ‘yes’ vote in the upcoming referendum is an act of healing – I vote for Scottish sovereignty with audacity and resolve. I can only hope that my own people, the Metis, can some day experience the meaningful self-determination and reconciliation that Scotland strives for, so that we all have the dignity to heal and move forward in the spirit of love and strength.