It had done much good in its time; it had behaved with courtesy as well as brutality, rapaciously and generously, rightly and in error: good and bad had been allied in this, one of the most truly astonishing of human enterprises… the arrogance of this Empire, its greed and its brutality was energy gone to waste; but the good in the adventure, the courage, the idealism, the diligence had contributed their quota of truth towards the universal fulfillment.” – Historian Jan Morris, on the British Empire, in Farewell the Trumpets1

It was if a new and better armed tribe had pushed its way in, seizing some land for itself and touching off a round of warfare and relocation among the earlier tribes. The new tribe claimed sovereign authority over all the other tribes, but in practice it dealt with the Indians more through diplomacy than conquest. -Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts

 The degree to which Great Britain showed restraint and civility towards the Indians of Canada in its’ colonial dealings with them was an unprecedented departure from the historical norm of violence and dispossession.

This norm, being a norm, was of course still operative. But the usual excessive effects of it- genocide, murder, pillage, rape and enslavement- were, in colonial Canada, minimized to the extent so as to be almost non-existent.

Instead of regarding and treating Indians as the sub-human “other”, the usual mental approach consciously or not adopted by conquerors since the beginning of history to justify their bloody deeds, the French, and then later the British, acknowledging to a remarkable degree the humanity of the Indians, dealt with them, in relative historical terms, in a benevolent and respectful manner.

Most astonishingly, and probably never in history before, the British deemed the Indians to have legal rights, a purely European concept, and dealt with them accordingly.

There’s no doubt that by 1759, the year of France’s defeat in Canada, Europeans had achieved cultural and economic dominance over the territories they had migrated to. The physical and cultural remains of the scattered Indian tribes of eastern Canada, their populations reduced by European diseases, wars and cultural dislocation, were no match for British arms, British mercantilism and the ever-increasing numbers of British migrants arriving yearly.

There was nothing in the circumstances of the times, in terms of power relationships or power politics, that compelled Britain to treat fairly and honourably with Canadian Indians. That was mainly voluntary on Britain’s part. The British were clearly in the position at that time to deal with the Indians in accordance with one variation or another of the violence and dispossession norm. They were clearly in the dominant position where they could have acted  completely “unjustly” towards Canada’s Indians and totally got away with it- where they could have easily let play out the typical cold, merciless precept followed by conquerors throughout history: i.e. that the “question of justice arises only between parties of equal strength, and the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.”2

But, to their enduring credit, they didn’t. That approach rarely crossed British minds.

Why not?

Chance and luck play a big part in history, as in life generally. Canadian Indians were very lucky that Britain became their ultimate social and economic conquerors, the colonial power that found itself in the position of deciding their ultimate directions and fate. For Great Britain, alone amongst the migrating, imperialist, colonizing powers of the era, was the sole exponent and exemplar of somewhat enlightened, modern, rationalist values. They weren’t perfect, but they were miles ahead of any other country.

Britain alone was a country with a developing political philosophy that increasingly focused on representative government and the rights of the individual, and with a growing social, political, economic and intellectual infrastructure that permitted these philosophical ideas to be slowly but surely implemented.

On the home front Britain was the only country in the world at the time that was a genuine constitutional monarchy, a country increasingly more tended to be ruled by laws than men. It was a country whose consciousness had been widened and raised over the preceding 150 years by great humanist thinkers like Shakespeare, John Milton, Edmund Burke and countless other vibrant, enlightened, intellectual seekers.

Thus, despite its’ class-ridden bigotries and inefficiencies, despite the fact that it was still heavily involved in such morally repugnant activities as the slave trade, (which it at least had the sense to be the first to begin to get out of-see immediately below), and despite the fact that in its’ essence, on the world stage, like all the other European powers at the time, it was an imperial power engaging in imperialist undertakings, Britain had, or at least it was developing, a civic conscience- a sense of public/government morality. This behavioral duality exhibited by Great Britain in its imperialist undertakings is well illustrated by the following statement about the workings of the British justice system towards the “locals” in its South African colony:

The quality of justice being dispensed in Durban was a paradoxical mixture of rank prejudice and British fairness. 3

A remarkable, prescient essay, Observations on the State of Affairs,4 written in 1756 by Samuel Johnson, the brilliant humanist and moralist, is indicative of British awareness that there were indeed moral issues relating to indigenous peoples arising from the dominating presence of Britain and France in North America.

In a passage which covers virtually every moral and legal issue ever raised on this topic up to the present day, and which, had it been brought to the court’s attention in any of the numerous, recent lawsuits seeking to establish new or recognize old Indian rights, would certainly have been quoted approvingly by the court in establishing or recognizing those rights, he wrote:

It may indeed be alleged, that the Indians have granted large tracts of land both to the one and to the other; but these grants can add little to the validity of our titles, till it be experienced how they were obtained: for if they were extorted by violence, or induced by fraud; by threat, which the miseries of other nations had shewn not to be in vain, or by promises of which  no performance was ever intended, what are they but new modes of usurpation, but new instances of cruelty and treachery?

And indeed what but false hope, or resistless terror can prevail upon a weaker nation to invite a stronger into their country, to give their lands to strangers whom no affinity of manners, or similitude of opinion can be said to recommend, to permit them to build towns from which the natives are to be excluded, to raise fortresses by which they are intimidated, to settle themselves with such strength, that they cannot afterwards be expelled, but are forever to remain the masters of the original inhabitants, the dictators of their conduct, and the arbiters of their fate?

When we see men thus acting against the precepts of reason, and the instincts of nature, we cannot hesitate to determine, that by some means or other they were debarred from choice; that they were lured or frighted into compliance; that they either granted only what they found impossible to keep, or expected advantages upon the faith of their new inmates, which there was no purpose to confer upon them. It cannot be said, that the Indians originally invited us to their coasts; we went uncalled and unexpected to nations who had no imagination that the earth contained any inhabitants so distant and so different from themselves. We astonished them with our ships, with our arms, and with our general superiority. They yielded to us as to beings of another and higher race, sent among them from some unknown regions, with power which naked Indians could not resist, and which they were therefore, by every act of humility, to propitiate, that they, who could so easily destroy, might be induced to spare.

To this influence, and to this only, are to be attributed all the cessions and submissions of the Indian princes, if indeed any such cessions were ever made, of which we have no witness but those who claim from them, and there is no great malignity in suspecting that those who have robbed have also lied.

Samuel Johnson’s  acidic/compassionate essay, despite being received mainly indifferently by his readers, especially his readers, (if any), in the rising mercantile classes whose fortunes were tied to the exploitation of the new economic opportunities in North America, represents part of that philosophical and moral infrastructure that existed in Britain at the time, and that carried on into and through the nineteenth century, to the great and good fortune (very relatively speaking) of Canada’s Indians, that formed part of the ideological foundation of Britain’s  relatively  civil and generous dealings with them. 5

Britain’s relatively moral, principled and compassionate attitude and behavior towards Canada’s Indians at that time should be regarded as even more singular and praiseworthy when one considers that at that time in the history of “civilization”,  human bondage, in one form or another, was the principle means by which the work of the world was getting done, and when one further considers that that tragic reality- that prevailing oppressive milieu- was in no large way allowed to affect British-Canadian Indian relations.

In Bury the Chains,6 the great historian and moralist Adam Hochschild wrote thusly of the principle “labour relations” model prevalent in the world at the time of the Royal Proclamation  of 1763 (in relation to which see immediately below):

…this was the world- our world- just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise. At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to eighty thousand chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons. The same was true in parts of Africa, and it was from these million of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent’s coasts. African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well.

In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farmworkers were in outright slavery, and others were peasants in debt bondage that tied them and their labour to a particular landlord as harshly as any slave was bound to a plantation owner in South Carolina or Georgia.

Native Americans turned prisoners of war into slaves and sold them, both to neighboring tribes and to Europeans now pushing their way across the continent.
In Russia the majority of the population were serfs, often bought, sold, whipped, or sent to the army at the will of their owners.

The era was one when, as the historian Seymour Drescher puts it, “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution”.(most italicizing mine)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, described by Harold Bloom as “the mind of America”, (at least for his era), grimly put it this way:

Tis the day of the chattel,

Web to weave and corn to grind;

Things are in the saddle,

And ride mankind. 7

Yet despite this, Britain, and seemingly only Britain at the time, (with its nascent anti-slavery movement that finally, in 1833, would bring about the complete abolition throughout the British possessions of that not-at-all peculiar institution), never considered any kind of forced servitude regime for Canada’s Indians.

In fact the opposite happened. Britain bucked history’s nasty trend in this regard.

This is a part of our heritage to be proud of.

Britain’s atypical approach in this regard is further highlighted by comparison with Spain’s more historically conventional, uncivilized treatment of the indigenous populations of its’ colonies in the Americas.

Unfortunately for all, particularly the indigenous peoples under its control, the Renaissance largely skipped Spain. Renaissance values were unable to take firm root there. With the exception of history’s first novel, Don Quixote, the average person is hard-pressed to point to anything that happened in Spain during the Renaissance period in Europe that represented an intellectually awakened, generally accepted, humanist ethos.

Throughout the Renaissance period and beyond Spain was stuck in the gloomy, dual grip of an absolute monarchy and a reactionary Catholic Church. Just before the time of Spain’s first substantive contacts with the Americas the Spanish monarchy had finally finished the long, grim business of ending all Muslim occupation and control in Spain, re-taking it in its entirety for “Holy Christendom.”

Along the same dark, ethnically and religiously purifying lines, it had also just completed the shameful business of expropriating all the lands and other wealth of its Jewish population and expelling it from the country- an undertaking carried out with the enthusiastic assistance of the Catholic Church.

By the time of its arrival in the Americas Spain had developed well that hardened, narrow cast of mind, that predilection for regarding peoples of different creeds, colours and cultures as subhuman, both so necessary to be able to , with a “clear conscience,” (there was after all, clear precedent for it in the Bible), murder, rape, rob and enslave them. They had also developed well, at home, the practices of murder, dispossession and expropriation which they readily employed in their ventures abroad. For Spain these were normal, everyday tools of state policy.

From the first day Spaniards set foot on the shores of the Americas, up to the early 1800’s,  these violent, divinely authorized, greed-inspired predilections and practices were on regular, full display.

The story of Pizarro’s small band of courageous, fanatical, gold-lusting conquistadors who traumatized, betrayed and conquered the Incas, is a fantastic, amazing adventure tale. It takes your breath away, when, as a younger mind, from your unconsciously exceptionalist, “Eurocentric” perspective, you read it and think about the magnitude of what they pulled off. But when you re-visit it as an older person who has lived and thought about life a little, you realize that, boiled down to its essence, it’s a still-amazing but now sordid story of shameful, dishonourable murder and theft, a story of a people, in Samuel Johnson’s words, “easily destroyed,” instead of spared.

The conquest of the Aztecs by Cortez was equally merciless, sordid and bloody amazing. No quarter was given. Like the Incas, the Aztecs were a superstitious, passive people, all authority over which lay in a Divine Head, and they almost immediately fell apart and were destroyed as a people when that head was lopped off by the ferocious and desperate Spaniards.

Within a generation or two of the establishment of Spanish rule in the Americas whole indigenous empires, tribes and cultures had been destroyed, either by Spanish arms or Spanish diseases. Many of the indigenous persons who survived moved to the higher and further reaches of their old, dispossessed lands. Many were made slaves and put to work in Spanish mines or on plantations.

Throughout the over 300 year period of Spanish rule in the Americas Spain’s policy towards their indigenous peoples was, at its highest, simple neglect and assimilation, and at its lowest, slavery, murder and extermination. (Harrowingly and sickeningly described in 1542 by priest Bartolome de Las Casas in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,8 his plea to the Spanish king to intercede and stop the genocidal murder of the Indians of the Spanish colonies in the “new world”.)

There were no reserves set aside for anyone in these Spanish colonies. 9There were no treaties entered into. There were no legal rights or protections even conceptualized for, much less granted to, these unfortunate peoples. No, these peoples suffered much the same kind of brutal behaviour at the hands of Spain as the Jebusites did at the hands of the Jews, as the Gauls, Helvetii and Jews did at the hands of Rome, as Spain itself, North Africa and the Middle East did at the hands of the Arabs.

And, as but one example of many from aboriginal history, as the Hurons, Eries, Petuns, Nipissings and Neutrals did at the hands of the Iroquois!

They suffered from a cruelly harsh application of the violence and dispossession norm, a norm that has always evidenced a depressingly low standard of human behaviour, where the bar of virtuous conduct is set just barely off the ground, if at all.

Even subjects of British colonial rule elsewhere have acknowledged the partial good that came from it, as the following extracts from Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century reveal:

“The writer V.S. Naipaul, from Trinidad, and of Indian Hindu origin, rather reluctantly acknowledged that India’s entry into the broader world- “mentally as well as physically-was brought about by foreign rulers, and yet how vital is was.” He described the British imperial record as “pretty terrific, It would be churlish to say otherwise, It would be foolish to say otherwise, It would be unhistorical to say otherwise.” …Similarly, Nirad Chaudhuri, veteran critic of both Britain and India,  dedicates his book The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, to the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: “Civis Brittanicus Sum” because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule. .(Heart of Darkness is based on Joseph Conrad’s experiences in the Congo, where fearful chaos and misery and death had resulted under Belgian rule- writer)…Conrad specifically attacked the Belgian experience, and also that of the Spanish in the Philippines and the Dutch in Indonesia, and commented on the latter’s Boer offshoot that it “was a fact that they have no idea of liberty, which can only be found under the British flag all over the world.” (italics added)

Finally, Mr. Conquest writes:

A statistical analysis by Seymour Martin  Lipset…recently found that the variable having a higher relation to democracy than any other the world over was “having been a British colony.” They-none of them of British origin incidentally-attribute this fact that many of the old British colonies had had “elections, parties and the rule of law before independence.” so that, unlike the French, Dutch, Soviet and other empires, “out groups” were gradually incorporated into the polity.

Therefore, by properly and necessarily taking a deeper, longer, more informed, reflective and relative historical point of view, by considering Canadian Indian issues today not with reference to a blindly naïve, never-attained standard of human perfection, but rather with reference to “the human norm, not with Utopia”10-with reference to how man has actually behaved in similar circumstances throughout history- we can justly say that, after its victory over France in 1759, Great Britain did indeed act in a unique and superior fashion- in a manner way above the moral standards and regular practices of the times- in its subsequent dealings with the Indians of Canada.

Aboriginal writer Calvin Helin, in Dances With Dependency, (above), while in back-hand fashion, acknowledges this. He wrote:

While the intentions of subsequent generations of colonial and Canadian governments may have been good, Aboriginal people know, from several hundred years of bad experience, the place to which the road paved with good intentions has led.

Finally, history is filled with “what if?” speculations. The world in the sixteenth century, the beginning of the “age of discovery”; an age characterized and driven by the development of ships that could cross oceans, the rise of the nation-state, a new dynamic form of globally-integrated capitalism, messianic religious zeal, new civil and military technologies and bigger and better armed forces, meant that some country, some empire– a country or empire way more technically advanced than the small, mainly paleolithic tribes then thinly occupying this vast land,  was going to “discover”, settle and dominate what is now Canada. That, looking back, is a certainty. It was just a question of which country or which empire. What if, instead of Great Britain, it had been Spain, Portugal, Holland or Russia that ended up as “colonial masters” of Canada? What if France had defeated Great Britain in the Seven Years War, and the 1763 Treaty of Paris had ceded all of Canada, as it then was, to the politically  backward, “l’etat est moi”, absolute monarchy that that country then was? In all of these “what if” scenarios and any other similar scenario, the outcome for the Indigenous peoples of Canada would have been  far worse than what unfolded under the relatively enlightened British, and, without the benefit of British law, the present situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada would be far less to the liking of Indigenous elites than the powerful situation enjoyed by them in Canada today.



  1. Jan Morris. Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat. London: The Folio Society, 1992.
  2. From Lewis Lapham’s essay, The Demonstration Effect, in Age of Folly, America Abandons its Democracy, above, quoting from Plutarch’s Lives, (I think) the Athenians’ message to the populace of the island of Melos, who, in 416 B.C, having first butchered their leaders, made them choose between abandoning their loyalty to Sparta or accepting the sentence of death.

“As practical men”, said the Athenian heralds, “you know and we know that the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.”

  1. From Charles R. Di Salvo,K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law-the Man Before Mahatma, University of California Press Ltd., London, 2013
  2. Selected Essays. Penguin Books, 2003.
  3. On the other hand, so as not to seem to stretch this point, these relativelycivil dealings, given the realities of that European imperialist time and those class-ridden bigotries, never extended to the point where either Johnson  or anyone else thought of giving the land back to the Indians! Alas for us all, individually and collectively, history moves in only one direction-forward.
  4. Mariner Books, 2006.
  5. From the poem Ode, Inscribed to W.H. Channing, contained in The Best Poems of the English Language- From Chaucer Through Frost, Selected and with Commentary by Harold Bloom,Harper Collins Publishers Inc.  2004
  6. Bartolome de Las Casas. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Penguin Books, 1992.
  7. Which, in the long term has turned out to be a present advantage for Mexico, compared to Canada. See chapter 44, The Amygdala Factor etc.
  8. It is always necessary to stipulate, though of course it should be assumed, (that there should be) comparison with the human norm, not with Utopia…Distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse.

– Marilyn Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, above.

By: Peter Best