We Are Not Guilty of a Colonial Past, But We Are Its Inheritors

Our Inheritance

Conversations on the history and implications of colonialism (specifically the British and French versions inflicted on North America) often filter down, for many people, to one of two equally nonsensical sentiments.

On one end are the people who assign the guilt that is properly due to actors of the past to people of the present. Here is a person that will never leave the conversation unless you know that the nice life you lead comes with the same guilt and shame of the original colonizers that came before you — people who owned slaves, took land from native peoples, etc.

On the other end is another amusing bunch of folks. These are apologists, plain and simple. While admitting that conquests in places like North America came with a lot of “bad stuff,” they will hyper-focus on the benefits brought to the conquered people by imperial activity. Some go as far to claim that colonialism is quite simply one of the best things that could have happened to the conquered, even if there were some bumps along the way. Others suggest that the past is the past and that we should forget about it.

The one thing that these two sides, and many others, erroneously share is the pre-supposition that the same type of guilt and moral weight due to the colonizers of the past is re-assignable to folks in the present — the idea is that today’s generation living in the United States and Canada can be on trial for the actions of the colonists of the past. With the pre-supposition, the rest of the fight is simply down to the prosecution and defense doing their thing, while the jury (i.e., mainstream public opinion) deliberates on whether or not we excuse our conscience from the crimes of the past or we’re proven to be guilty.

As for me, I hold that that trial shouldn’t exist.

Guilt is not hereditary. The idea is as silly as one that would claim my automatic right and qualification to be a rocket scientist if my father was.

What the guilt mongers need to accept is that those who did not personally participate in any colonial acts of the past — which came in many terrible forms, from actual murder to participating in the politics that enabled colonization to progress — simply can’t be assigned any of the guilt or shame that is properly due those actors and their actions.

The apologists have a lot of smartening up to do too. Their initial “HAHA EXACTLY!” reaction to something like the paragraph above is a testament to that.

The natural reaction of taking offense to being directly implicated as a co-conspirator in something like the murder of native American people hundreds of years ago is a just one. However, the extended temper tantrum that tends to immediately follow that initial shock is not.

Here everyone knows what temper tantrum I’m talking about: the anger about why we all can’t just “move on from something that happened so long ago;” the exasperation that comes with “everyone trying to make us feel white guilt,” and so on.

What people like this tend to be out of step with is understanding that although we can be rational and detached observers of North American colonial history and the cast of characters found within it, we can’t be detached from its legacy and aftermath.

In fact, those of us living in North America are the legacy and aftermath. We live with all the costs and benefits of colonialism, and it’s a very messy bundle.

So, although none of us can, in any real way, be assigned the guilt that rightly belongs to someone else because of their actions (although some would like that to be so), we still all share in the inheritance those actions created.

It’s the exact same difference between inheriting the house that your grandfather built himself and the property it sits on, and feeling a sense of personal pride and accomplishment in the house and sense of virtue about yourself as a builder. The former you can do, but the latter you can’t.

What matters the most is what we do with our inheritance. And, what we do or not do is what we’re guilty of. We are responsible for our actions and the most likely effects of our inaction.

So, when it comes to the house you inherit from your grandfather, what do you do when it’s brought to your attention by investigators that a murder occurred there many years before you were born, the body is suspected to have been buried in the backyard, and that they are quite confident your grandfather was responsible for the killing?

Hopefully you don’t and do feel a few things. Firstly, no guilt whatsoever for the murder itself — that would be a little odd if you did since you didn’t kill anyone. Secondly, appalled at the idea that such a terrible thing happened on that property by someone you had a certain perception (until then you’d only heard about the great stories about the property and your grandfather). Thirdly, eager to find out more information about what exactly happened on the property you live on and the details of the murder. Fourthly, a want to be as helpful to the investigators as possible, and in this specific case that may include allowing them access to your property to dig up remains — certainly an inconvenience, but definitely not something that’s going to throw your life completely out of whack.

If you felt personally attacked or offended by someone bringing this to your attention along with refusing to help the investigators and the strong need to defend your grandfather’s legacy and tell everyone they should just move on and let the past be the past, regardless of whether or not he killed someone, that would be an indication of a lack of empathy, willful ignorance, and misplaced sentiments.

That would be the point where people could accuse you of being out of alignment with what’s just and also making the problem you’ve inherited worse.

I’m sure most people would agree with that.

It’s odd to me that when these principles are applied in different forms, however, people tend to lose sight of what would seem to be a reasonable response to facts that are brought to their attention.

Many complain that they feel annoyed, discomforted, and personally attacked when an event with an acknowledgement by a speaker that the venue it’s taking place in sits on what was formerly aboriginal land and was once a host to some sort of atrocity.1 And, some go as far as to say that they would prefer if this stuff wasn’t put to their ears, and if we could just “move on” and not continuously have our attention called to the past — after all, they say, we didn’t have anything to do with it!

And here is where people want both ways. They happily comfort themselves with the idea that they couldn’t justly be assigned responsibility for the actions of others — which is true — but have no real interest in understanding the bodies buried underneath their inheritance.

Incidentally, the interest one should take in their inheritance isn’t by any means strictly for the purposes of understanding a distant history a little better — this isn’t just about the lives Canadians and Americans lead today on land that was, in the past, conquered, stolen, and developed.

Canada, specifically, was the creator, and is still the maintainer, of an aboriginal reservation system that hasn’t been working out for the people that are, allegedly, supposed to be reaping the benefits. Along with a bunch of problems with what should be in Canada, the simple task of delivering clean water to residences, poverty is a massive problem on reservations — especially the child poverty rate. According to certain sources and reports, around half of children on reserves live in poverty2.

The fact that so many aboriginal children live in relative poverty is obviously closely tied with many parents and guardians dealing with the deadly combination that is the reservation system itself and various forms of substance abuse.

The problems noted above are not as easily solved by the pull-up-your-bootstraps idea that people could just “get a job” to raise their income, and “get clean” to eliminate addiction (and distance yourself from those around you who suffer from addiction3) from your life. Anyone with a bit of empathy and critical thinking skills can at least try and put themselves in these people’s shoes. Imagine the kind of damaging ripple effect that results from years of pain being inflicted on those who came before you in your family lineage. Suffering can become institutionalized and intergenerational. Dysfunction can be passed down. And, don’t forget that the last residential school for aboriginals (a remnant of a re-education system that has been referred to as cultural genocide) only closed in 1996.

Our Legacy

If there’s one thing that the recent immigrant to Canada or the United States (on the one extreme) shares completely with (on the other extreme) a Canadian or American who can trace their family lineage back to imperial conquest, is their representation in their respective federal government. This, in theory, means that they (along with large groups of people) have influence on the activities of their governments.

After all, what is government but a continuing fiction on paper (kind of like a corporation) that ultimately points in the direction dictated by the people running it and external pressure? This process is heavily influenced by the people who put these representatives in these positions in the first place. The direction of government is by no means a law of nature, but rather the results of human action.

So, along with the inheritance of the legacy of colonialism, Canadians and Americans have another inheritance — systems of governance and sets of institutions set up by people who came many years before them. Grandpa left us his tools and toolbox. There’s a lot to be said about the relatively well-off and well-fed person who is given two slices of bread, peanut butter, and jam, and doesn’t give a single thought to making a sandwich for a starving person.

Ultimately, the question of how to deal with any past and current wrongdoings of the Canadian or American governments should not be something that is looked at as one that cannot be addressed by us.

My sentiment here on government should not be looked at as one of high-idealism: it is actually a realist one. It is not even a question as to whether or not the systems of governance in question are imperfect in their makeup and ongoing operation, and house many deplorable people and their own interests (namely their careers).

However, in two of the richest and most open societies in the world, the situation is far from hopeless. Politicians are ultimately followers and not leaders. They are, more than anything, reflections of popular sentiment and mainstream opinion — how else would they appeal to enough of the population to win elections?

The reality is that the people living today, and the ones that come after us, have the opportunity to learn about the wrongdoing of governments of the past, the baggage that the present carries with it, and the avenues in which small and large changes can be made now and in the future that have real and meaningful effects on the wellbeing of other humans currently dealing with the same realities, but on the other end of the equation.

As I mentioned above, we certainly can’t be held directly accountable for things we never had direct participation in, but we can be held accountable for circumstance, situations, and institutional arrangements that we’ve had the capability to improve but took no action to do so.


1 It shouldn’t go without saying that those who think continually recognizing an event’s or building’s presence on aboriginal territory is sufficient treatment of the legacy of colonialism are also mistaken. It’s interesting to consider who does more damage — someone who is completely ignorant to the history and effects of colonialism, or someone who is relatively aware of the history and thinks that some lip service every now and then (that has the added bonus of making them feel better) is enough.

2It’s important here to note that most measurements of poverty in Canada are measuring relative poverty rather than absolute poverty. This would mean that studies comparing the poverty rate on reservations to the rest of Canada would most likely be using the same measurements.

3What should never be overlooked is how an environment can affect an individual’s decisions and overall attitude towards the future. If you are exposed from a young age to bad behaviour, addiction lifestyles, or weak family ties, you are more likely to step into drug abuse yourself.

Photo from The Guardian:”A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in February 1940.”

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Alex Aragona

About the Author: Alex Aragona

Alex is a business and marketing professional residing in Canada. He also hosts The Curious Task podcast. He is the founder of Speaking Liberally and a contributor.

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