As reported in the Vancouver Sun (though you heard it from us first), at the recent CIC forum on Canada – Latin American relations, Neil Reeder, Director General, Latin America, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (and so one of Canada’s most senior diplomats to the Americas), who is also the former Canadian ambassador to Costa Rica, declared that Canada had “no colonial baggage.”
No colonial baggage?!
This is a quite astonishing claim, as it was when Stephen Harper said much the same thing at the G20 two years ago. In fact, it is pure bunk.
Reeder even repeated this bizarre assertion, with the strange qualification that he meant that Canada had no colonial baggage “in the Americas.” But where else was he thinking that Canada’s imperial history lay: in Sub-Saharan Africa? Of course not: Canada’s colonial baggage concerns its settlement and the settlers’ treatment of indigenous peoples and cultures right here in the Americas.
(He also told us his statement was covered by the Chatham House rule, which a) was not true and b) shows a worrying misunderstanding of the rule, which is designed to give politicians and civil servants the freedom for self-criticism, not to allow them to get away with nonsense.)
The history of Canadian settler-native relations is long and complex, and not always pretty, as are the similar histories of encounters with the indigenous in Argentina, Peru, the USA, and throughout the hemisphere. There have been bright spots as well as low , and there have been valiant efforts to recognize the validity of indigenous rights and customs. Nobody would claim that Canada’s record is the worst in the Americas. The point is that it has a record, that it has a history. And more to the point still, that this history is unfinished: it remains an open sore, as can be seen by the fact that the Canadian government refused to sign the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (The declaration was signed by every country in Latin America bar Colombia, which abstained.) This still matters.
And it is colonial baggage, which Canada continues to carry into the twenty-first century. To refuse to admit this is simply another colonial tic. But with the rise of indigenous movements throughout the hemisphere (in Bolivia, for instance), and with Canadian mining companies often running up against local indigenous opposition (such as at Goldcorp’s Marlin mine in Guatemala), it’s no wonder that Canada’s imperial history should be under increased scrutiny.
Ignorance and denial, as manifested by Neil Reeder or Stephen Harper, are no way to advance Canada’s interests in the region.