The Reception of Amerindian-European History in Canadian Historical Science and its Impact on National Reconciliation

Term Paper, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0




Introductory Part
Theoretical Background
Historical Background

Main Part
Fur Trade
Land Rights



Introductory Part


Canada is a country that is well-known for its “multicultural” approach in national politics and for its international engagement for human rights and international peace. This image is founded on a political culture which highlights the importance of upholding different ethnical and cultural backgrounds. The policy measures which particularly exemplify this political culture evolved slowly after the Second World War and have since then influenced politicians’ speeches, people’s self-understanding as well as academics’ writings. Officially, Native Peoples possess a “citizenship plus”, i.e. special rights apart from their citizenship. However, this is only true of the “status Indians”, those whose stand is codified, encompassing around one half of today’s Indian population. [cf. Braun/Klooß, 1994: 70] But although we have witnessed more than thirty years of officially “multicultural politics” in Canada, the social and cultural situation of the indigenous peoples stays far behind the national social and economic average. [cf. Herberg, 1989: 276; Braun/Klooß, 1994: 71f.] Thus, the attempt to politically create a multicultural society seems not to have been able to improve the native peoples’ economic situation and social inclusion in Canadian society. The question must be why this is so.

A hint to answer this important question gives us the literature about historical injustice. The basic assumption of this literature is that unresolved historical injustice often continues to effect the present day and that a process of societal reconciliation must take place in addition to political attempts to remedy social inequalities. This seems to be highly relevant for the situation of the native-majority relations in Canada, because this relation is undoubtedly marked by the historical injustice committed against the Native Peoples. The assumptions put forward in this essay are that the work of social historians is of great importance to prepare the grounds for such reconciliation processes and, moreover, that their work mirrors the ability of a society to confront itself with its own history. This is where historiography comes in: their presentation of the historic facts is the basis of how a society constructs its own history. Without a thorough historical examination of the historical injustice, this injustice will not exist in the minds of the population and therefore cannot even enter the discourse. Historians’ work serves as the starting point for a societal awareness which will ideally lead to the reconciliation or even compensation of the historical injustice done to Canada’s Native Peoples.

From this follows the structure of this essay: I will firstly discuss some theoretical core ideas about historical injustice and shortly present the historical setting for the empirical analysis. The following empirical part encompasses an examination of Canadian historian writings about the Native Peoples. More specifically, I will compare older literature from the late 1960s with more recent literature, from the late 1980s onwards, to examine whether the presentation of native Canadians in historical writing has changed and to discuss the extent to which this literature contributes to reconciliation.

Theoretical Background

The theoretical starting point of the literature on historical injustice is Kant’s principle that anyone has the right to travel other countries for the purposes of trade, but not to settle there against the will of the indigenous peoples. [Kant: 158 (6: 352), cited in Waldron, forthc.: 1] Insofar, Kant opposes Locke’s argument that a more efficient land usage by civilized peoples yields the right of these peoples to occupy less developed peoples’ land. Kant also says that if different peoples with different cultures and common understandings live on the same land, then they still have to come to terms with each other and have to form a civil union where all peoples are valued with regard to distributional justice (Proximity Principle).

From Kant’s principles arises the problem what to do if those principles were infringed in the past, i.e. that historical injustice was committed by illegal land seizure, and if the descendants of culprits and victims still live on the same territory today. I follow Jeremy Waldron’s (forthc.) arguments here: The territory has become the home of both groups, so the descendants of the former culprits cannot be expelled from the land; therefore, a solution has to be found on the land itself. Kant’s proximity principle demands both parties to form a political community, even though they might be unwilling to come to terms with each other. [cf. Waldron in Meyer, forthc.: 3] This moral point is clearly opposed to communitarian theories, which ask for cultural and political similarity as a prerequisite for a political community. [cf. Waldron in Meyer, forthc.: 4] Waldron is especially concerned with land rights and here he states that today’s property system must correspond to the historical injustice. Moral philosophy cannot give way to the factual, arbitrary, power-driven distribution of land.[1] On the contrary, one needs to measure the effects of historical injustice on today’s life of victims’ and culprits’ descendants. One way would be a comparison of the status quo ante (before the historical injustice) and the status quo (today’s situation). However, as Waldron clearly shows, the concrete calculating of those effects is a very difficult and vague undertaking.[2] [cf. Waldron in Meyer, forthc.: 8ff]

Because of these problems, the focus must be on today’s distributional justice with a view to the historical injustice committed. [ibid.: 18ff] This means that one does not compare status quo ante and status quo, but that one departs from the status quo (distributional justice) and herein takes into account the historical injustice. This approach asks for a general will of the whole society to reconcile with their indigenous peoples. “In the face of all this, only the deliberate enterprise of recollection (the enterprise we call history), coupled with the most determined sense that there is a difference between what happened and what we would like to think happened, can sustain the moral and cultural reality of self and community.” [Waldron in Meyer, forthc.: 21] Without such a will, historical injustice cannot be made up for and today’s distributional justice cannot be achieved. Historiography has a big share in preparing such a reconciliation process.

Historical Background

The ‘native peoples’[3] ; as the focus group in this paper, are the sum of different tribes of Asian peoples who came into Canada allegedly some 100,000 years ago [Herberg 1989: Chapter 2]. Inuit peoples are not included in this essay because their case is dissimilar with regard to land questions and European cultural and religious imperialism; their geographical seclusion, in short, helped them exert their cultural and spiritual traditions comparatively undisturbed until the beginning 20th century.

While the autochthonous population is believed to have comprised between 220,000 and 300,000 people at the time of European conquest, their number decreased continually in the following decades due to contagious diseases, alcohol and deprive of their lands. Within a century, Canada’s original peoples were almost eclipsed [Herberg 1989: 35]. Some believe that the indigenous population[4] was lessened by 95 percent in the aftermath of the Europeans’ arrival [cf. Braun/Klooß, 1994: 70], while the white population – after some ‘starting problems’ - rapidly increased through immigration. In the mid 19th century, only 23,000 of them were left, averaging around 0.5 percent of the total population. In the 20th century, their number grew to an average of 1.5 percent, raising to 2.0 percent of the overall population in the census of 1981 [Herberg 1989: 42]. Today, their numbers make up for 3.7 percent of the overall Canadian population, equalling around one million people. [cf. Braun/Klooß, 1994: 69f.] Already this near extinction of the first peoples in numbers must be considered a historical injustice. At the very time when they had to adapt to radically new social and economic conditions, their numbers were being sharply decreased by Europeans’ intervention, both intentionally by taking their lands and carelessly by introducing diseases Indian people could not combat.


[1] This, however, is the argument of David Hume in Treaties of Human Nature, Book III, Part II, sect. ii, 489.

[2] This is mainly because of the contingency problem: it is nearly impossible to calculate the factual and thus the moral impact of the fact that so many Native peoples lost their lives due to European contagious diseases. Another problem is the freedom of choice, which makes it impracticable to estimate the causal relationship between status quo ante and status quo. For example, a Native could have chosen to continue living in the wilderness, although he could have earned a lot more in the city. Even in disadvantageous, unjust conditions, there always exists a certain amount of choice.

[3] In this essay, the terms ‘Indians’, ‘First People’, ‘First Nation’ and ‘Native Peoples’ are used interchangeably, referring to the Native peoples’ tribes on Canadian land only.

[4] Included here are the numbers of Inuit peoples.

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The Reception of Amerindian-European History in Canadian Historical Science and its Impact on National Reconciliation
University of Bremen
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Reception, Amerindian-European, History, Canadian, Historical, Science, Impact, National, Reconciliation
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Anonymous, 2004, The Reception of Amerindian-European History in Canadian Historical Science and its Impact on National Reconciliation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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