Friday, January 02, 2009

To the Nines -- reviewing the centuries

This science-fictional date 2009 has me rolling back through the centuries of Canadian history.

In 1509 a few Europeans were already beginning to fish, hunt whales, and trade in a very small way with the native inhabitants of "Canada." At this time, "Canada" means "town," more or less, in the Iroquoian languages, and the "Canadians" are the town-dwellers who live in agricultural settlements in the area around what is now Quebec City (Quebec = "the narrows," in the Algonkian languages).

From 1509 to 1609 the Europeans made remarkably little progress in Canada. In 1609 a few handfuls of fishermen sometimes winter in Newfoundland. Champlain has just founded a fortified trading post at Quebec, and his fight against a Mohawk army near Lake Champlain seals the great alliance with the Hurons and Algonkians north of the St Lawrence/Great Lakes line that initiates New France's near-hundred-year war against the Iroquois Confederacy south of the lakes.

In 1709 New France, a colony of about 15000 people, is growing rapidly along the St Lawrence, in Acadia, and in the fur trade upcountry, but the colony is caught up in the European dynastic war that pits France's empire against Britain's. French forces harry Newfoundland, raid New England, and occupy all the Hudson's Bay Company posts in the north.

In 1809 the situation has changed enormously. New France is gone, and all of European-settled parts of the future "Canada" are now absolutely controlled by British governors, who are beginning to battle with the democratic claims of elected legislatures. The United States has been born in hostility to British Canada. They'll be invading Canada in a couple of years. Europeans are caught up in the rise and fall of Napoleon's empire.

In 1909 it's all completely different again. Wilfrid Laurier is prime minister of the self-governing nation of Canada -- where'd that come from? The really huge changes are in the way Canadians live: industrialization, railroads, factories, intercontinental telegrapy, mass literacy, democratic government.

In 2009... well, a lot has happened in the century, but 2009 might seem more recognizable to 1909 than 1909 was to 1809, or 1809 to 1709. Canada is still here, we are still defined by our technology and industry....

Course, we could reverse all this, and look not from the newcomers' point-of-view, but from the point of view of Canada, of people who have always been here.

1509 might as well have been 1491 for Canada. As of yet, there is practically no serious contact between Canadian First Nations and Europeans. Across what is now Canada, First Nations pursue their historical development oblivious to the presence of Europe. How many in Canada would have heard rumours of what was happening in the Caribbean? Not many. At this time the Spanish are not yet even in Mexico.

By 1609 there had been enormous changes across eastern and central Canada. The Huron and Iroquois confederacies have coalesced into compact, powerful, large-in-population, and mutually hostile societies. The St Lawrence Iroquoians -- those "Canadians" of 1509 -- had been dispersed entirely even before the French settle the St Lawrence valley. There is already mass depopulation among eastern First Nations, such as the ancestral Mikmaw.

1709 is a period of relative power for Canadian First Nations vis-a-vis the newcomers. They have adjusted to first contact, built alliances, become central in the fur trade out of both Montreal and Hudson's Bay. The Metis are an emerging people. Pacific Coast nations and far northern people remain largely out of contact with Europeans (and Asians), though surely aware of and part of Europe-linked trade networks. The Pacific Coast nations may still be rebuilding from the magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami of 1700.

1809 sees the heyday of the plains equestrian culture and the buffalo-hunting societies. The fur trade has now crossed the entire continent, and control of it is beginning to shift from native hands to European corporate control. Eastern and central first nations are reeling under population pressure from the newcomers.

1909 is pretty close to the nadir for Canadian first nations: continued population decline, the land base lost, their societies under explicitly hostile colonial control, culture and rights denied and derided.

2009.... Again we might wonder, has so much changed in a century? Yeah, some has. Maybe the last couple of decades suggest 2009 might eventually be seen as lying near the start of a First Nations renaissance.

2109? Haven't a clue, not a clue.
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