In the mirror of history: a reflection of colonialism

Posted on January 28, 2017

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220px-frankensteins_monster_boris_karloffNine months ago, I finally understood that I am one of the Adams of our planet’s colonial history. The penny dropped when I realized, thanks to an Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that the English first perfected the tricks of their colonial trade in Ireland long before they plagued the shores and lands of Turtle Island. Colonialism, I realized, defined and disfigured the lives of my ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the warp and woof of my identity too.

Today, I’m reflecting on this new self-understanding at the Rosemount Public Library in Hintonburg, a gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. I sit at the very same worktable where, twenty-eight years ago, I did my homework or read one of the very many books I borrowed from these shelves. The cozy children’s section seems to me to be almost unchanged. The front desk, the adult fiction and nonfiction stacks, and the worktables are located exactly where I remember them too. There are computers now instead of card catalogs and a few other concessions to the latest technologies, but the geography of this place is exactly as I remember it.  

From the age of ten to sixteen, Rosemount Public Library was my land and territory. It was in these book stacks that I found the words, ideas, and culture with which I would compose myself. I started in the children’s section, moved on to the young adult section, and eventually found myself, perhaps a little too quickly, in the adult section. I easily remember The Great Brain series, everything by Gordon Korman and Judy Bloom, the Dragonlance series, David Eddings, Michael Moorcock, Alan Dean Foster, The Chocolate Wars, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Not Wanted on the Voyage, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut. There are a host of other books and authors lost to my memory, but they are all preserved somewhere in the thicket of my identity.

Growing up, I thought of myself proudly as the “Great Canadian Mutt” because I was an uncertain mix of Irish, French, Algonquian, and, possibly, Scottish. Canadians, as any Canadian will tell you, don’t have much of anything like an assertive national identity. We have a few positive totems, like hockey, universal healthcare, and peacekeeping, but, for the most part, Canadians define themselves through negation. Not-American. Not-European. Not-as-bad. Not-as-radical. In a way, I thought of myself as the prototypical Canadian because I had no ties to any culture or history. I was a not-anything.

My pride evaporated and my identity was turned on its head when I read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a book I stumbled across during an online catalog search at the Rosemount Public Library. Thanks to that book, I realized that my white-washed, ahistorical, acultural, and English-speaking identity is the very aim of English colonialism and has been ever since Henry II first asked the Pope for permission to conquer the pagans of Ireland. The colonial wave that swelled in Ireland surged westward across an ocean and engulfed Turtle Island, clearing the lands of its peoples, languages, cultures, and communities.

Raised in the thick cultural vacuum of colonialism, I had thought of myself as the high watermark of our progressive liberal democracy because, despite being raised on welfare by a single and very unwell mother, I am well-educated and unencumbered by any particular culture or history. Now, I realize, thanks to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that I am, in fact, the nadir of our colonial history. I have a language, a culture, and a history, but they tie me to no one and no one to me.

I am, nevertheless, white and assimilated, as the colonizer intended. I’m also a heterosexual cis male. The perks and privileges that come of my skin, gender, sexual orientation, and assimilated identity are tangible but, ultimately, empty — a sugary substitute for that which the colonizer has always intended to take from people like me. The ties of community that bind us — land, language, and a shared identity — also empower us to stand against those who are driven by domination and exploitation. Once the ties of community are severed, the acultural human is isolated, vulnerable, and, at best, a complacent and easily replaced cog in the colonial machine.

It’s fitting, I think, that I came to understand the true nature of my colonized identity through a history of the United States. Canadians have long resisted, cherished, and exploited the kid brother persona we have adopted for our national identity. We like to define Canada against our swaggering sibling to the south because it allows us to characterize ourselves as a peaceful middle power that took a less assertive and destructive path on our long colonial march from ocean to ocean to ocean. Admittedly, Canada’s genocidal habits have been slightly more subtle, but they have been as destructive, devastating, and detestable. Our collective capacity to ignore our shared colonial history is almost too much for me to believe, but I then remind myself that I was only able to see my own place in that history when I caught a glimpse of it reflected in the broken mirror of America’s colonial history. Some truths, it seems, can only be caught out of the corner of one’s eye.

I can’t overstate my gratitude to the Rosemount Public Library. It was and remains vital to the slow and steady excavation and reconstruction of my identity. I’m also certain, nevertheless, that it was and remains vital to my identity only because my family, broken by hundreds of years of colonial history, had no land, language, stories, or culture of their own to share with me. I also suspect that I am not the only person, young or old, who has found refuge, identity, and hope in the cultural commons of a public library like Rosemount. It is my hope, I guess, that some of them, after this glimpse into the broken mirror of my colonial history, might catch — out of the corner of their eye — a glimpse of the truth of their own place in our colonial history.

Posted in: Colonialism, Identity