Febuary 1, 2002 Halifax Herald
Nova Scotia's dark history ignored
Nova Scotia's dark history ignored
DURING the fall of 2000, I acquired and read a copy of a very well-written history book entitled An Unsettled Conquest, The British Campaign Against the Peoples of Acadia, by Geoffrey Plank (2000, PENN). It's a well-researched account of the struggles between two European empires for supremacy in Northeastern North America and the concurrent struggle of the Mi'kmaq for survival. The reason I've waited so long to comment is that I wanted to see if the book's message would be received with some enthusiasm by the media in this area. Seeing as it has been largely ignored, I'll now give it some well-deserved coverage.
The most striking thing about the book is that Plank took off rose-coloured glasses when writing it and recited the actual colonial performance of the British, warts and all. Such a gesture by an Anglo author is very unusual; most of them pen reams of material about England's colonial performance without mentioning the fact that the English were engaged in some very grisly activities, while trying to exterminate indigenous populations in the Americas. It must be added that the effort was very successful; many nations became extinct and the rest were reduced to abject poverty.
During the time I wrote both versions of We Were Not the Savages, 1993 and 2000 (a 2006 edition was published after this column was written), I read reams of material about the colonial era and the only condemnatory statement about the atrocities committed by the English that I recall was the following gem by historian John Stewart McLennan:
"The punishments of the Indians for wrongdoing by the English were, as all punishments of that epoch, harsh and, in addition, they were humiliating and irritated the Indians. The scalp bounties of the colonies included rewards for the killing of women and children. . . . This leads to] the strange conditions, in which we find a benign and devout clergyman praying that the young men who have joined the Mohawks in a scalping expedition against the French and Indians may go in fear of the Lord, and regard the bringing in of French scalps as a good omen."
It's notable that he didn't mention that the clergyman also regarded the bringing in of Amerindian scalps, including those of women and children, as a good omen. Perhaps it was the demonizing stereotype created by English propaganda, that has been instilled so effectively for centuries into the white conscience, that prevented him from doing so; but at least he mentioned it.
The following quote from a Booknews review nicely describes An Unsettled Conquest: "In the early 18th century, settlers in the former French colony of Acadia resisted the occupation of their territory by the British, who renamed it Nova Scotia. They allied with the Mi'kmaq natives in the area, with whom they had long enjoyed intimate relations. Plank (history, U. of Cincinnati) tells the story of the conflict that resulted in British authorities scattering the Acadians through other British North American possessions and decimating the remaining native population." (Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, Ore.; booknews.com)
Canada, Great Britain and the U.S.A. have never made a blanket apology to the descendants of native Americans for the atrocities committed against their ancestors by English colonial governments, but they hypocritically demand that other countries apologize for their past sins. All three were at the forefront in condemning the Japanese for sugarcoating their country's barbaric performance during the Second World War, loudly adding their voices to the demand that Japan rewrite its history to set matters straight; which is understandable when one considers its well-documented mistreatment of the Chinese, Koreans, prisoners of war, etc.
However, the refusal by the three countries to finally lay bare in minute detail the atrocities committed by their ancestors in North America is just as reprehensible. Native people across North America are still being negatively affected by false demonizing propaganda from the past. When the day arrives that these countries rewrite their histories to include the horrors committed against nearly helpless people by their ancestors, then they will have the right to demand full disclosure by others; until then, it would be advisable to walk lightly. To ask others to do what you refuse to do is illogical.
Japan apologized for its past in 1995. The following is quoted from the Aug. 28, 1995, issue of Time: "Finally, a real apology. After years of official hedging, a prime minister acknowledges the country's guilt in WWII. . . . On the morning of the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender, Murayama . . . told an assembly of journalists . . . that 'during a certain period of time in the not too distant past,' Japan followed a 'mistaken national policy' of 'colonialism and aggression' that caused 'tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries.' He expressed his 'heartfelt apology' and promised to eradicate 'self-righteous nationalism'."
If Japan could muster the courage to apologize for its horrific acts, then is it not reasonable to expect Canada to do the same? Native people were slaughtered because of colonial scalp bounties on their heads, dispossessed of sovereign territories without compensation and the means to live comfortably. Acadians were packed into ships like so many animals, had their properties appropriated by the Crown without compensation, and were shipped to far-flung British colonies. Then there was the Chinese exclusion act, etc.
The passage of time does not erase the injustices caused by actions such as the aforementioned, especially so when one race of people still enjoys the benefits gained at the expense of another. Plank's An Unsettled Conquest can help people with a conscience understand why it's time for Canada to apologize to the Mi'kmaq and the Acadians. I recommend Conquest wholeheartedly and hope that some day, it will be mandatory reading in Nova Scotia schools.
Daniel N. Paul