(Image Credit: Flikr account ‘Infrogmation of New Orleans’; the image is at this link. Used without alteration under Creative Commons Licence)
One crucial challenge in the debate around the nature of Canada as a country is that the definitions of some key terms are not universally accepted. This ambiguity must be overcome if we are to make any headway in achieving unity.
In a recent Twitter exchange, one good friend wrote that the British had been ‘chased out of India’, and (paraphrasing) that this was of a piece with the kind of anti-white messaging that has become common among certain sections in North America. I had a very different view. However, given the limitations of Twitter, was unable to offer a detailed explanation for my view, so I replied that I may end up writing an article on this.
It is usually a challenge for me to select a topic for my articles from the plethora of developments happening around us. Additionally, I try to remain focused on Canadian issues, so an article on recent Indian history appeared to be out of my normal (self-selected) range. But given my cordial (online) relationship with this friend, I felt a degree of obligation to write on the issue that we had briefly discussed.
Over the following days, it occurred to me that the topic was deeper and wider than I had first thought, as it could be tied to our sense of identity as Canadians. I need to emphasize here that this identity has to be common across the board, applying to all Canadians. This is relevant in the context of calling present-day white Canadians as ‘settlers’ or ‘colonizers’. Both terms are in contrast to the term ‘locals’. Therefore, I see these terms as casting doubt on the connection that their targets have with Canada. Once I understood this, I was able to comprehend the sometimes visceral reaction to the terms from their intended targets.
It appeared to me that starting point in this inquiry should be the definition of ‘local’, because the other two terms can be understood in relation to this one. In this context, my childhood experiences seem to be relevant to me.
One of my childhood friends was named Arif Khan. His grandfather had migrated from Afghanistan to my state of Gujarat when India was still a British colony. Arif spoke Gujarati fluently, but with a distinct influence of his mother tongue Pashto. Naturally, his family had close relations with the other Pashtun families living in my town. Many of these families traced their origins to Afghanistan two or three generations back, but an equal number were descendants of Pashtun soldiers who came to the subcontinent as part of the series of invading armies that were the scourge of the land at the time. They all identified as Gujarati’s.
And so did Barakat Ali, an ethnic Baloch and my classmate. There is a visible population of Balochi people in Gujarat, as the relationship between the two regions, Gujarat and Balochistan, is very old. They may have come to Gujarat as traders, soldiers or for other pursuits. Now the community has grown into two distinct groups, Suleimani and Makrani. I recently discovered a Facebook page for the community. As long as I have been aware of this community, it has identified as Gujarati. One of the most prominent Gujarati poets of the 20th century was Ali Khan Usman Khan Baloch, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Shunya Palanpuri’ (‘Shunya’ means ‘zero’; the word is of Sanskrit origin, and Palanpur is the name of the town in Gujarat where he hailed from.)
A couple of grades behind me in school was Burzin, a Parsi (Zoroastrian). This tiny community with a vastly oversized imprint on the Indian economy, education, science and culture has a longer history in Gujarat compared to some others; after Persia became an Islamic society, they were persecuted and had to flee for their safety. The story of their flight to Gujarat as refugees is well captured in this article. They speak Gujarati in their own distinct dialect that sounds humorous to all the other Gujarati’s. Although they are Persian, Gujarat is their ‘home and native land’ for all intents and purposes, and the place in coastal Gujarat where their ancestors had landed first is of sacred significance to them.
When I was in middle school, a rising star in athletics emerged from Gujarat. His name was Kasam Badshah. My school arranged for him to visit and give a talk to inspire children. When we saw him, we were surprised by his physical appearance – he was African. Our teachers told us that he was a Gujarati, from the Siddi community. The story of their arrival in India from eastern Africa is blurred (apart from Gujarat, they are also present in other coastal states of Maharashtra and Karnataka), but it is commonly believed that different groups of Siddi’s came as soldiers or slaves. We found it funny to hear Kasam Badhshah, a man with an African body, speak in the Gujarati dialect of the Gir region (which is home to the last wild population of the Asiatic lion).
If one is tempted to think of these communities as ‘foreigners’, ‘settlers’ or late arrivals in Gujarat that already existed, one should resist that temptation. The name ‘Gujarat’ itself is derived from the name of the ‘Gurjar’ (also spelled ‘Gujjar’) community that is supposed to have arrived in the area in the 8th and 9th centuries C.E. (see this article in the Encyclopedia Britannica for details). They were a nomadic people who settled down when they found a favorable environment. In our terminology, they were either ‘economic migrants’ or ‘colonizers’ depending on how each individual episode unfolded. This community exists in other areas of the subcontinent to this very day. In addition, there is a city named Gujrat in Pakistan (in the Punjab province); it is the capital of a district by the same name.
This tells us that until the arrival of ‘Gujaratis’ in Gujarat, there were people there who didn’t identify as ‘Gujarati’ – but today their descendants are of the ‘Gujarati’ ethnicity. One person from those communities was our house-servant during my childhood. His name was Chhagan, and he was from the Doobla tribe of (what is now) southern Gujarat. His mother-tongue would be incomprehensible to other Gujarati’s, but he was also fluent in Gujarati language – although he had an accent.
The net result of all this was that in the classrooms in my school, the student body included descendants of colonizers, economic migrants, invaders, refugees and slaves – plus, of course, ‘first nations’ students. Viewed through this lens, that society was composed exactly like our Canadian society is. The difference between the two that is becoming more visible with time is in the way we view people’s identity in Canada. In those classrooms of my childhood, regardless of ethnic background, religious affiliation or the story of how their ancestors arrived in the land, everyone had the same PRIMARY identity. Among children, the secondary identity was relevant only in terms of providing opportunities to poke well-meaning fun at how someone pronounced a word (this was because there is a multitude of dialects of the language); this was usually followed by the elders grabbing the opportunity of a ‘teaching moment’ to emphasize the need for tolerance and pluralism. This was by no means unique to Gujarat – every region in the subcontinent has similar stories and background, and allowing for regional variations, the sense of primary identity permeates pretty much everywhere.
This is where my view – that the British were not ‘chased out of India’ in the sense that my friend had meant – comes from.
The British East India Company first arrived in the subcontinent in the early 1600’s and started establishing its political control from 1757 onwards, culminating with the takeover of the Punjab in 1849. Following the near-disaster of an uprising among its Indian soldiers, this political control was taken over directly by the Crown, which remained until Independence in 1947.
Throughout this period, British officials at all levels of seniority, from the very top (as Governors of the Company and later as Viceroys of the British monarch) all the way down the hierarchy never thought of themselves as ‘Indian’. Specifically, most of them rotated in and out of India serving short terms of ‘serving the Empire’. So if the people of British India saw the British as foreigners, this was because the British did not believe themselves to be locals. This was despite the fact that as late as 1943, the ‘received wisdom’ in the government of Britain was that it was the destiny of Britain to rule over India. In other words, they were aiming to rule over a land in perpetuity without developing a sense of belonging to that land.
Another crucial point is that right to the end, the objective of the British Empire was to plunder the colony and channelize that plundered wealth to enrich the colonizing country. British rule was, thus, but a mechanism to impoverish the Indian population to the benefit of the British population.
Lastly, the exit of Britain from the subcontinent was formally conducted under the Indian Independence Act of 1947, an act of the British parliament which received Royal Assent on 18 July 1947. It is therefore possible to contend that leaving India was a decision of British people that had been arrived at democratically. The British exit was not so much a case of being ‘chased out’ as it was of their time as colonizers / plunderers finally coming to a natural terminal point.
When it comes to Canada, our circumstances are vastly different.
Like most every Canadian, I believed that Confederation in 1867 marks the independence of Canada. Then a Facebook friend pointed me to the Statute of Westminster, 1931, which, according to many, marks the real independence of Canada from Britain. I have come across some other people contending that Canada became truly independent in 1982, when the Constitution was repatriated.
Leaving that difference of opinion aside, it cannot be disputed that in the present, Canada is decoupled from Britain in every material aspect, especially in matters that are purely of internal significance. The vestigial connection with the Crown is symbolic, and it is a matter of time before that connection disappears as well. Most importantly, the objective of running things in Canada is not to enrich Britain, and the people who run the affairs of the State aren’t sent from there.
All this is to say that Canada is no longer a colonial project, and hasn’t been for quite a while.
As for the term ‘settler’, my understanding of it tells me that in the context of North America, it denotes a person who arrives in a foreign land for a long term and makes structural changes to the place, including to the local society. Some of these changes may make life better for everyone, such as modern industry, technology and civic infrastructure. However, the settler’s primary priority is to maintain dominance over the local population, and therefore all systems will be skewed in the settler’s favor. This would inevitably result in developments that qualify as ‘injustice’ now, although at the time, they would have been par for the course for the settler.
The key factor underpinning the term ‘settler’ is that it is a fundamentally transient state; the ‘title’ of settler cannot be passed down the generations in perpetuity. This is because once the ‘settling’ is done, there isn’t anything to ‘settle’ anymore.
Therefore, I am of the opinion that the current white population of Canada isn’t ‘settling’ anything – and this has been the case for a while.
Given these realities, there is no one in Canada at whom terms such as ‘colonialist’ and ‘settler’ can be tossed. Just as is the case with every other Canadian, the land was colonized and settled long before they were even born. Just as the identity as a ‘refugee’ ceases to exist for a person and their descendants over time and generations, the identities of ‘colonizer’ and ‘settler’ have ceased to exist.
Finally, there is the argument that the use of these terms is justified because white Canadians are still benefiting from ‘colonial structures’ that were erected by the ‘settlers’. In some contexts, this benefit is called ‘privilege’.
What the argument does not pause to consider is this: Is there no one else benefiting from these structures? The answer is an unequivocal ‘No’.
If one looks at the ‘marketing literature’ abroad for attracting immigrants to Canada, it unfailingly paints a picture of Canada as a place where everyone stands the same chance of achieving a good life – perhaps even their dreams. Within Canada, however, we are supposed to believe – if we subscribe to the notion of ‘white privilege’ – that only white people have access to these opportunities.
To the degree that the notion is true, it mainly applies to the very same people who decry ‘white privilege’ at every opportunity that they can get – or conjure up. This is especially true in politics, where we see people who aren’t remotely qualified for any position at all being able to climb very high up the ladder of power. Had they been non-white, their lives would have floundered perpetually. But barring these exceptions, the vast bulk of the white population of Canada is largely in the same place as everyone else, and to the degree that the latter are at a disadvantage, it is not a product of ‘colonial structures’ or ‘white privilege’ etc. (The reasons for this disparity deserve a separate exploration).
All this is to say that non-stop harping on the secondary identity of Canadians – even ones that don’t apply to them and have never applied in generations – has the end result where the secondary identity becomes the primary one. This applies not just to the so-called ‘settlers’ but also to recent arrivals who are promptly classified and assigned a secondary-as-primary identity according to their religion, ethnicity, skin color or other factors.
Why is this important?
In order to have, and continue to have, a country called Canada, the first prerequisite is that the people living here need to be Canadians. That has to be the primary identity. Unfortunately, while it has become fashionable to say that ‘A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’ in respect of some Canadians, the people who fall afoul of the dominant narrative are often called ‘un-Canadian’ and even told that ‘There is no place in Canada for people like you’. Just as the extreme Right does, the extreme Left (and increasingly the mainstream Left as well) makes the mistake of making it appear that some people are more Canadian than others, by virtue of their secondary identity, and therefore have more of a right to be here. Over the years, I have observed that our secondary identities have begun to eclipse the primary one. I fear that one day, the secondary identity may usurp the place of our primary identity as Canadians.
This erosion of primary identity – and its eventual (possible) replacement – by our various (can I say ‘diverse’?) secondary identities will yield us a fractured, fragmented society that cannot, by rules that are timeless, sustain itself as a country.
REFEREE For a long time, I have not visited Gujarat (or anywhere in India, for that matter) for any meaningful length of time. It is possible that the kind of society that I witnessed as a child no longer exists, and that divisions have cropped up. It is also possible that as a child, my perception of unity – in terms of the primary identity – was wrong to a significant degree, as children’s perceptions often are. Any such shortcomings in my views notwithstanding, I believe that the image that I carry in mind of what I saw in those years offers a desirable ideal that we should strive for. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we must strive to achieve that ideal, lest Canada become just a geographical expression rather than the name of an existing, thriving country. The first step in the direction of achieving this ideal would be to stop referring to Canadians in terms of their secondary identity, be it ‘settler’ or anything else. Every Canadian is a local, and must be recognized as such.