8. TAKING A LONGER VIEW OF TIME

It was left to the genial Irish prelate James Ussher, while he was bishop of Armagh, to fix the date with absolute precision. According to his workings, which he managed to convince his colleagues were impeccably accurate, God had created the world and all its creatures in one swift and uninterrupted process of divine mechanics that began on the dot of the all-too-decent hour of 9 a.m. on a Monday, October 23rd, 4004 B.C. -Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology1

We still inhabit the prehistory of our race, and have not caught up with the immense discoveries about our own nature and about the nature of the universe. The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawking have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos. But how much more addictive is the familiar old garbage about tribe and nation… -Christopher Hitchens 2

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.- Goethe

Indian elites argue that Indians have inhabited the lands of Canada since the beginning of time- since “time immemorial”- and have thusly acquired something like an indefeasible title to them- a title fundamentally unalterable and immovable through all the millenia ahead.

This is a flawed argument on many counts, particularly the temporal one. Time is what it is – and what it is is long. And, if we take an appropriately long view of it, then we must conclude that all Canadians, Indian and non-Indian alike, arrived in Canada at essentially the same time.

Consider that North America was last colonized by Asian migrants about 12000 BC. In terms of geologic time and the age of the earth that’s an extremely recent event- certainly not an event which dates back to actual “time immemorial”. Consider further that the earth was formed about four and one-half billion years ago, and that life only first emerged from primordial waters between 400 and 500 million years ago. Amazingly then, for about 90% of the earth’s existence there has been no life on dry-land earth whatsoever!

The first anatomically modern humans evolved only about 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. And the African beginnings of the migration and spread of humans over the world occurred only during this period. The “cognitive revolution”, where Homo Sapiens hit his stride with the development of language, group cooperation and myth-generation-e.g. gods- happened 100,000 to 70,000 years ago. (See Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, above. These time estimates are subject to change with constant new discoveries!)  Europe and Asia were only first populated by modern humans a mere 35,000 to 40,000 years ago!

Up until about 10,000 BC, when the Neolithic period began, as stated, characterized by the beginning of farming and the domestication of animals, which, having regard to the incomprehensibly vast stretches of time just described, is a mere split-second of geologic time ago, all human societies throughout the world were basically stone-age (Paleolithic) hunter-gatherer societies. Going back to Professor Terborgh’s comment in this regardall humans up to that time – all of present-day humanity’s antecedents – were living the “aboriginal” culture.

It was only at the beginning of the Neolithic period, that geologic split-second ago, that our era of modern “civilization” began, when human societies began to branch out and develop, albeit at different rates, culturally and technologically.

In terms of true earth time then, all of humanity, as a species, is in its’ early infancy. Our egocentric human minds  have a hard time grasping that, struggling as we do to comprehend the reality of the relative temporal insignificance of our brief era of civilization in the context of the Earth’s long history.

The great author and New Yorker essayist John McPhee, in his book Basin and Range,3 a haunting and humbling study of earth’s geology, and of the vast, incomprehensible expanses of time  underlying the thin skin of civilization we have laid down over too much of the surface of the natural world, used a striking analogy to attempt to come to grips with this struggle of the imagination.

He compares the earth’s entire history to his outstretched arm, going from his shoulder to the end of his fingertips.

The starting point – the formation of the earth four and a half billion years ago – is his shoulder. In terms of life forms on earth, nothing happens during the entire time represented by the distance from his shoulder down to the top of his hand, where, finally, unicellular life starts.

His hand and fingers are, temporally, where life evolved- the formation of mountains, the rise of fishes, amphibians and trees, coal forests, the formation of the continents, the rise of reptiles, dinosaurs, the establishment of plants, birds and animals, the extinction of dinosaurs. The 200,000- to 300,000 year era of man only starts at the ends of his fingertips.

And amazingly, our approximately 12,000 year era of Neolithic/modern human civilization is represented as just the epithelial cells at the very tip of his fingertips, invisible to anyone looking at his outstretched arm!

This “longue duree” way of thinking about history and time is relevant and worthwhile when considering policies that focus on race or special status. Thinking this way is to reflect more realistically and wisely. It encourages us to consider the situation of Canadian Indians in a more informed, humble, broad and dispassionate context- one not so bound up and befogged by the ephemera – the jumble – of our ego-blinkered present.

Simply because the entirety of the earth’s past, by custom, is rarely appreciated or used as a temporal yardstick, and is difficult and uncomfortable to contemplate (it makes one feel so insignificant),  these are not valid reasons for ignoring it or pretending that it is something less real, relevant and applicable  than it is. Time immemorial is four and a half billion years, or, perhaps, having regard to the longest time humans have been on earth, 200,000 to 300,000  years. It’s definitely not a mere 12,000 years, a time span that is merely within John McPhee’s fingertip epithelial cells.

Indians have not been here since time immemorial!  Realistically, during almost all of that notional period, no one has inhabited Canada!

To the extent then that, based on the false notion of “time immemorial,” Indians claim race-based special rights and entitlements now and into the “immemorial” future, that claim should be rejected. In the final analysis the phrase time immemorial is more of a political term, used to advance political and legal claims, than it is a valid historical term.

We should acknowledge and embrace the positive, inclusive fact that relatively speaking, viewing time realistically, Indians and non-Indians arrived in the Americas more or less at the same time. The 13,500 year difference in arrival times (Indians, 12000 BC, Europeans, 1500 AD), is insignificant in terms of the earth’s vast history and infinite future, and in terms of humanity’s relatively brief  tenure on it. It’s certainly too insignificant in any event to justify different laws for different Canadians forever into the future.

This point is made even stronger by having regard to the Inuit, who, according to Science magazine, only arrived here in 1200 A.D, a mere 300 years before the Europeans (See Pre-contact Indian Culture and the Shock of the New, above).

The inherently contemporaneous nature of all human cultures that one is forced to acknowledge if one adopts this long view of history is well evidenced in a recent study of European history covering the period 9000 BC to 1000 AD, Europe Between the Oceans by Professor Barry Cunliffe,4 who in this great book reminds us that Europe, which discovered and began to systematically colonize  the Americas about 1500 AD, only finally and fully explored and understood itself, in the  geographic sense, a mere 500 years before that, around 1000 AD.

To the Greeks, Great Britain – the “Tin Islands” – were unexplored, visited only by foreign traders at the end of a long trading chain. Scandinavia was the stuff of legends. The vast, uncut forests of Northern Europe were places of mystery, rumour and dread. The first Greek to sail around the British Isles, one Pytheus (320 BC), wrote an account of his journey, but nobody believed him, so fantastical did it seem!

Julius Caesar, in 56 BC, was the first Mediterranean European to build a bridge across the Rhine River. He wrote that no one knew where the vast, eastward-stretching forests of Germany ended. For centuries after that only a few Roman traders ventured beyond the Rhine-Danube frontier of the empire, trading for furs, wild animals and amber. But beyond their tales of these wild eastern and northern lands little was known by southern Europeans about the numerous, fierce, hunter–gatherer tribes inhabiting them.  (This ignorance came to a rather abrupt and upsetting end in the 4th and 5th centuries AD when these tribes, in a spectacular example of the migration, dispossession and assimilation norm, discussed below, poured into the empire and caused it to collapse.)

As Professor Cunliffe describes it, it was the Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries who were the first Europeans to sail on all of Europe’s oceans, thereby finally enabling Europeans to fully and properly understand the size and contours of their own continent. And as historian Tom Holland, in his book, Millenium,5 demonstrated, Europe as we know it today only finally gelled politically and came into being about 1000 AD.

Between the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire until then it was a fractious, uncivilized, forest-covered place of great personal danger, where, much like increasingly larger parts of Africa and the Middle East today, different forms of essentially tribal warfare reigned supreme. It was only by about 1000 AD that the pagan, “indigenous” tribes of northern and eastern Europe were finally brought under the joint rule and sway of a somewhat monolithic Catholic Church and the kings and aristocrats of the finally-gelling and emerging nation-states that formed the basis of today’s European state system

Even so, even by 1000 AD, Europeans were still not regarded as paragons of modern civilization by their more “civilized” world contemporaries. Exemplifying the truth that every nationality, religion, ethnicity and race has suffered the commonplace indignity of being cheaply stereotyped- a sad, universal, constant of human nature and human affairs-a famous Arab geographer at the time described northern Europeans as follows:

The warm humour is lacking among them; their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull, and their tongues heavy…The further they are to the north the more stupid, gross and brutish they are. 6

Startlingly then, up to this time, much of Europe itself still existed in a pre-contact, culturally indigenous or “aboriginal” state!

Still, even 500 years later, such was the state of European ignorance about the world that when Columbus first made landfall in the Caribbean he thought he’d reached the outer islands of China! And still, in 1534, when Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence to Montreal but could go no further because of rapids, he named those rapids Lachine, because he too thought China was on the other side of them!

We should also acknowledge, celebrate and make use of the fact that our common and relatively recent African roots make us much more closely related to one another than we realize. As Sir David Cannadine wrote in The Undivided Past:

All modern humans, regardless of their skin colour, form an entity united by physical bonds of descent from a recent African root, which embraces the idea of common humanity… the reality of human unity is no idle political slogan or tenet of mushy romanticism.

All of the immediately above highlights humanity’s overall civilizational infancy at the time of contact between Europe and Canada’s Indian peoples, and  shows that Europe was not as far ahead of the Americas, culturally, as we traditionally think.

By viewing history and time, and each other, in this honest and humble way, we can then easier acknowledge the fact that all human societies, regardless of their relative state of cultural and technological development, are basically contemporaneous, are all very young and are all related, being at the very least nascent cousins in the extended, universal human family.

Thus we must even more readily conclude that it makes no sense, in these early days of man’s recorded history – in these still early days of human civilization – in these very early days of our own country’s brief history – given that we are all, Indians and non-Indians alike, being swept down this perpetual change-ridden river of time and history together – to permanently lock us all into the quasi-segregationist, race-based social and legal strait-jacket we are creating for ourselves.

It’s like decreeing to a one-year-old child that he has to live the rest of his life a predetermined, fixed way, before he’s even walking – with no knowledge of his long-term character, abilities or aptitudes – with no option for him to choose or go down a different path as his long life unexpectedly unfolds – with nothing built in for his free will or for the inevitable contingencies of life which will certainly befall him – with no consideration for the changing circumstances of society – with no regard for what’s around the next bend in his or her particular journey down the  river of history and time.

The brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, a Chicago-raised, strictly-educated Jew, embodied this humanistic and autonomous refusal to be defined, and thus limited, by his origins:

I will not be wholly dependent on my own history and culture. That kind of full dependency must mean that I am done for. 7

The idea that the happenstance of one’s birth should determine one’s fate in life is fundamentally feudal. Non-Indian Canadians, like Saul Bellow, (Canadian born!),  would never accept such a debilitating concept as being applicable to themselves. Yet our courts, governments and elites, Indian and non-Indian, inexplicably and wrongly, fundamentally  embrace it and endorse it for our Indian population!

We condemn those societies which ascribe to women a different legal and social status merely because they are born female. Canada was in Afghanistan  partially to fight against that vile notion. We should be taking the same active and idealistic approach to the different legal status given to Indians in Canada, who are only given that different legal status (which so demonstrably results in inferior social and economic status for them), merely because they are born “Indian.”

The status quo in this area of Canadian life is inconsistent with the way history naturally unfolds and with the value system of an enlightened society. It denies our common and related humanity. It’s backward, stifling, dispiriting and wrong for Canadian Indians and for Canadian society in general.

Instead, Canadians should be civically conducting ourselves on the basis that we are equal and contemporaneous members of the same human family being swept down time’s river together- not as if we are members of different species each originating from disparate beginnings, doomed by outdated, backward and uncivilized laws to live separate and apart forever.

The great river-courses which have shaped the lives of men have hardly changed; and those other streams, the life currents that ebb and flow in human hearts, pulsate to the same great needs, the same great loves and terrors.  As our thought follows close in the slow wake of dawn, we are impressed with the broad sameness of the human lot, which never alters in the main headings of its history- hunger and labour, seed-time and harvest, love and death. 8

  1. Simon Winchester. The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. Harper Collins, 2001.
  2. Letters to a Young Contrarian, (above)
  3. Douglas & McIntyre, 1984.
  4. Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC – AD 1000. Yale University Press, 2008.
  5. Abacus Books, 2009
  6. Quoted in Ideas, A History From Fire to Freud, by Peter Watson, Phoenix Paperback, 2006
  7. From his Forewordto his friend Allan Bloom’s 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, 25th Anniversary Edition, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012, (quote slightly, grammatically, altered)
  8. George Eliot, from the “Proem” ofRomola, Penguin Books, 1988, (italics added)

By: Peter Best