Stanley B. Ryerson’s The Founding of Canada: Beginnings to 1815 is a book that, despite its flaws, I wish I had read 15 years ago when I first became an activist in Canada. The book should be regarded as necessary reading for anyone interested in having a concrete grasp of Canadian history and how that history has impacted contemporary issues including, the relationship between Canadians and the First Nations peoples, especially in light of the colonialism and genocide that has been and is being wrought against First Nations peoples through the process of “primitive accumulation” for the development of the Canadian nation-state; the formation of a Canadian nation-state and identity that is composed of two settler nations; the relationship between Canada and the imperial powers of England and France. Ryerson similarly addresses the Canada-USA relationship as well; the birth of the working-class in Canada; and the development of a Canadian consciousness and culture. As one can see, the book is wide-reaching in its scope.
Stanley Brehaut Ryerson (1911-1998) was a Marxist historian and leading member of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). He joined the CPC in the early 1930’s and quickly became a Central Committee member. While a member of the party, he was regularly commissioned to write histories of Canada, often with contemporary burning political issues in mind (his writings on French Canada, for example, resulted in tensions with CPC General Secretary Tim Buck in 1943 who was opposed to analysing French Canada as an oppressed nation). In 1946, he became president of a series of permanent committees, including the “People’s History” committee, organised by the CPC, that would produce a series of books that would introduce Canada’s history to workers. This commission was particularly important as it produced several key texts of early Canadian Marxist history. The Founding of Canada was supposed to be the first of three volumes that detailed Canada’s history. However, only two volumes were ever produced: The Founding of Canada and Unequal Union (1968). I intend to write a review of Unequal Union a month from now. The Founding of Canada was first published in 1960, and was revised in 1962. In 1971, Ryerson would leave the party. Ryerson was unhappy with the CPC’s policy towards the USSR from 1956 because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the revelations in Khrushchev’s secret speech. But despite disagreements with party policy he stayed in the party until he could stay no longer. His split from the CPC was occasioned by their endorsement of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring. This was in spite of the CPC’s support for the Prague Spring in the months prior. From the 1970’s onwards, Ryerson resumed the academic career that he had left behind.
From the outset it must be pointed out that Ryerson assumes that Canada is an existent reality and belongs to Canadians. He regularly refers to the land as “our land,” and his narrative relies on Left Nationalism. This Left nationalism is something that I will return to in the final section of this review because it cannot be overlooked as it is deeply intertwined with Ryerson’s account of the formation of the Canadian nation-state and its accompanying ideological formation. However, before rushing to modern history, let us start with the beginning, where Ryerson does. Ryerson does not begin with the arrival of European settler-colonialists, but intriguingly with the geological formation of the land mass over the millennia. This geography is something that Ryerson will consistently refer to, especially in respect to the role that it has played in the historical development of the capitalist mode of production in Canada (the cod fisheries which initially attracted Europeans to the shores of Canada, the fur trade which started the process of economic exploitation of the First Nations peoples, and then lumber and iron production), but also in respect to political and cultural development (the particular design of churches in Quebec, for example). Ryerson then dedicates the following five chapters to a discussion of pre-contact First Nations people and their societies. Ryerson’s account of the First Nations peoples is undoubtedly outdated, sometimes paternalistic and colonialist, and needs re-writing given recent scholarship in the field, but overall argues that the First Nations people were not culturally stagnant populations, but were internally constantly developing and had incredibly complicated social formations. The rest of the book, 26 chapters in all, are concerned with contact with European settlers and the subsequent development of the Canadian national project until 1815.
What is noteworthy about Ryerson’s account is the emphasis that he places on studying the exploitative and genocidal relationship with the First Nations peoples, and the role that it played in Canadian identity and state-formation. This may sound like old hat to contemporary readers, especially those on the Left, but was quite innovative in the 1950’s when Ryerson wrote the book. Ryerson’s, as previously mentioned, dedicates several chapters to the thousands of years of First Nations inhabitation of said land mass, their complicated social formations, and culture prior to contact with Europeans. Furthermore, throughout the book he pays attention to how First Nations people were exploited for reasons of commerce, and betrayed in the course of international wars. For Ryerson this is all an integral part of the history of the people of “our land.” This however speaks to a deep ambiguity in Ryerson’s work regarding First Nations peoples.
Ryerson, on the one hand, is particularly prescient in regards to the settler-colonial relationship between both the feudal landlords and merchant-capitalists with the First Nations peoples, and between the nascent Canadian working-class and the First Nations peoples. For example, regarding the relationship between the merchant-capitalists and the First Nations peoples, Ryerson writes, “The labor from which this first Canadian monopoly [the North-West fur trade] drew its fabulous profits was primarily that of the native Indian tribes of the Northwest.” (246) However, the conditions of the First Nations peoples themselves was of utter destitution. “Reduced to dependence for their survival on European trade goods, the tribes were not only fleeced by the Company, but also were incited to fratricidal strife.” (246) Unfortunately this also resulted in the First Nations being incapable of mounting an effective resistance. “Rarely were the tribes able to offer effective resistance to their exploiters. There was one instance in 1780 when a band of Eagle Hills north of the Saskatchewan revolted and attacked the traders, putting them to flight.”
On the other hand, while Ryerson does use the word ‘settlers’ to describe the New French (subsequently Canadians and finally French Canadians; Canadians only became a synonym for Anglo-Canadians after the British conquest), it is meant to demarcate settlers from the fur traders who had no interest in the land or living in what is now Canada, but simply exploiting First Nations people’s as quickly as possible to enrich themselves. Thus, the term ‘settler’ here has two aspects: 1) a demarcation between purely parasitic fur traders who are exploiting the land and the First Nations people for their own economic advantage and a settler population that wants to develop a domestic economy and live on the land; and 2) a demarcation between those who settled on the land i.e. a seigneurial class of feudal landlords and a small nascent working class, and the First Nations people. This second aspect of settler-life is something that Ryerson, as mentioned above, does pay attention to, but insufficiently. Furthermore, Ryerson reserves the term “colonial” for relations between Canadians and the imperialist metropolises. Thus, Ryerson has a blindspot in respect to the concept of ‘internal colonies,’ which directly results in him being unable to think through the national contradiction. While Ryerson argues that there are two sets of national contradictions in Canada i.e. the first is the national contradictions between the First Nations and Canada, and the second is between Anglo-Canadians and French Canadians, he does not pay sufficient attention to the first national contradiction. Rather, he, and again Ryerson is not alone in this, predominately focuses on the second set of national contradictions between the French and Anglo-Canadians, which he believes has slowed down the development of a national Canadian consciousness.
Finally, on the level of a national consciousness Ryerson correctly argues that the slavery of Afro-Caribbeans and First Nations peoples helped foster “the bestial prejudices of “white chauvinism” and deep-rooted delusions of racist superiority.” (238) Yet, again one can see the tensions in Ryerson’s account when he later describes the formation of a Canadian national consciousness in the wake of the Anglo-American war. Here Ryerson only emphasises a deep-rooted anti-Americanism caused due to the Anglo-American war; a British loyalism also product of said war; and democratic tendencies that emphasised self-rule. Gone is the deep-rooted delusion of racist superiority and white chauvinism, which in fact are a vital part of Canadian identity, especially in respect to the continuing process of primitive accumulation that goes on even today. Thus, whilst Ryerson’s account of the relations between the First Nations peoples and Canadians is useful, it is unnecessarily limited by a number of theoretical and conceptual blindspots, which weaken his analysis. I think that Ryerson’s analysis necessarily needs to be supplemented by the framework that K. proffers: “i find the framework “colonized” and “suffering national oppression” to have a wider scope of application, and to be more generally germane. They don’t replace or “trump” the framework of Indigeneity, but they relate more directly to the social contradictions that drive society forward. National oppression in particular relates directly and neatly to class, in a way that Indigeneity does not necessarily do.” It also needs to be supplemented by a lot of contemporary scholarship like that of Glen Coulthard.
The Rise of the Canadian Working-Class
In this section I thought I would address my comrade K. Kersplebedeb because while reading Ryerson I was struck by the fact that settler-colonialists, who need to be differentiated from mercantile capitalist fur traders who apparently had little interest in the settler-colonial project, had begun to identify as Canadian as early as 1651. 364 years is a long time. This provoked me to ask K., “after how many years/generations do new settlers become Indigenous to a land? So, for example, are the Boers descendants today in S. Africa, African?” You can find K.’s initial thoughtful response to my email here: Settlers, Oppressed Nations, Indigeneity. I will try to respond to K.’s very generous and well-thought out response, whilst discussing Ryerson’s understanding of the colonial relationship between Canadians and the First Nations, especially in respect to the Canadian working-class.
The exploitation and expropriation of the First Nations was simultaneously accompanied by the exploitation of white wage labour of the nascent Canadian working class, Ryerson argeues. As Ryerson writes, “If exploitation of the Indian peoples through swindling and extortion was the main foundation of the trade in furs, the exploitation of wage-labor in the work of transport between Montreal and the “pays d’en haut,” or Upper Country, was an essential part of the business.” (247) Ryerson thus reveals the conditions under which the early Canadian working class arrived and lived, and thus wishes to valorise their labour and struggle. Ryerson points out that much of the labour that worked in the early fisheries and settlements was in fact European indentured labour i.e. workers legally tied to one employer for a period of several years, after which they would gain their freedom (this resulted in many running away from their masters and living with First Nations peoples). Furthermore, the development of early settlements by French settlers was accompanied by the enormous amount of labour that it took to actually construct said settlements, including the clearing of forests, no easy task. These labourers and craftspeople were those who were lucky to survive the trip from France, and upon arriving lived in squalid conditions for incredibly little pay. Ryerson throughout his account, mentions different strikes, mutinies etc, by the nascent Canadian working-class against the mercantile capitalists and feudal lords. One such struggle was for the right to have popular assemblies, which both the French and subsequently the British were not keen to afford. The former because they were a feudal absolutist state, the latter because of fears about Canada breaking from the Empire in a manner similar to that of the Americans. Thus, Ryerson simultaneously emphasises that the Canadian working class and the First Nations have in common is the struggle against the feudal aristocracy and the merchant-capitalists, who were exploiting them both, albeit to different degrees. Subsequently Ryerson argues that the Canadian working-class and the First Nations by working together were able to defeat the American invasion of 1812. It is difficult to not think here that Ryerson is articulating both a historical analytical point and a contemporary strategic orientation. I have yet to read Ryerson’s sequel, Unequal Union, but am interested to see whether he will continue to emphasis this.
What is particularly noteworthy about Ryerson’s account about the Canadian working-class and sets his analysis apart is his description of the impact that settler-colonialism had on the Canadian working-class struggle. Earlier in his account, having explained that in France because of the contradictions in the absolutist state there was “repeated waves of peasant revolt and risings of the urban poor [which] were battering the foundations of feudal role”, Ryerson writes:
In New France, the conditions of frontier life, the scattered pattern of settlement, the constant threat of Indian resistance, and the extent to which the economy rested on exploitation of the native peoples – all this tended to limit and blunt the edge of class struggle. But it did not by any means remove it. The idyllic patriarchal picture of theses times that has become traditional, is a piece of flagrant deception (162).
Ryerson here argues that the colonial relationship to the First Nations, especially in their exploitation by the whole economy including the workers themselves, results in the weakening of the working class struggle. Ryerson’s account is sophisticated inasmuch that his analysis does not absolutise this weakening of the class struggle, as Third Worldist accounts do, but admits that it is structurally “blunted” by it. In this respect I think that there is a very nice confluence between K.’s account and Ryerson’s. K. argues that the oppressed First Nations and a multi-national working class with admittedly an undetermined number of white workers (by “national” here I mean hyphenated e.g. Indian-Canadian, Portuguese-Canadian etc.; they do not have a right to national self-determination in the territory of Canada, except as Canadian workers) – ought to be regarded as being structurally distinct from settlers. Settlers, for K., seem to approximate the bourgeoisie, the petit bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy i.e. the exploitative classes. This is something that I in principle agree with. K. and Ryerson both suggest that there is a Canadian non-settler population (settler here is being used in K.’s reformulation and not Ryerson’s definition) that is defined on the basis of their relative exploitation by the very same settlers who nationally oppress the First Nations peoples. However, I think the problem with the use of the term “settler” per se is that, whilst useful is unsettling Canadian identity as a whole – settler and/or non-settler – it also carries with it a connotation of alienness that is not descriptive of the vast majority of the Canadian population inasmuch that they are formally indigenous to this land i.e. there is no colonial metropole or other paternal/maternal home to return to, and any hyphenated identification for the majority of people as English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Chinese etc, is simply a marker of multi-cultural difference. Thus, perhaps it would be better to emphasise the “colonial” relationship between the existent Canadian nation and the internal colonies, rather than their “settler-colonialism,” which suggests an alienness of the Canadian nation-state to any of these lands and described the earlier phases of Canadian history (I fully believe that large sections of this land should be returned to the First Nations peoples). This is especially important as to demarcate between the settler-colonial project of Israel, for example, which actively brings new immigrants to settle new lands in their war against the Palestinians; and that of Canadian new immigrants, who in the main tend to “settle” in pre-existing urban metropoles. Although we need to acknowledge of course that the Israeli’s learned about how to treat Palestinians from the Canadian reserve system for First Nations peoples.
Finally, in the last section of this review I wanted to turn to Ryerson’s Left Nationalism. I was recently listening to one of my favourite folk musicians, Pete Seeger, and was struck by a line in his song, “Bring ’em Home.” Seeger, in the context of a song that demands that American soldiers be brought home from Vietnam as a sign of love for their Uncle Sam and respect for the armed forces, sings, “Now there is one thing I will confess/I am not really a pacifist/If an army invaded this land of mine/You’d find me out on the firing line.” Seeger’s lyrics here are emblematic of Left Nationalism, and neatly represents Ryerson’s own politics in this regard. Indeed, one theme that runs throughout Ryerson’s book is the unequal treatment of the Canadian population at the hands of the colonial metropolises in all aspects of the social formation, including the economy and political life. In doing so, Ryerson consistently emphasises the need for Canada to be independent from France, Britain and the United States. Ryerson grounds his Left nationalism in his admiration of the French and American revolutions and the supposed sympathies by the Canadian working-class for them, which become evident in the struggle for popular democratic assemblies under British rule. Ryerson’s Left nationalism maps out three unequal colonial relationships that all played a central role in the development of Canada: 1) the economic imbalance between New France and France; 2) the British invasion, which resulted in the rise of a Anglo-Canadian ruling class that discriminated against the majority French Canadian working-class and gave birth to the two nations that constituted Canada; and 3) the Anglo-American war, which in turn resulted in, as aforementioned, Canadian identity being shaped by an anti-Americanism and British loyalism and the birth of domestic capitalism.
Ryerson argues that the relations between New France and France were strained because the latter wanted to ensure that a Canadian economy did not emerge, especially in sectors that directly competed with the French economy (159). Indeed, the Canadian economy was supposed to only provide raw materials (largely wheat and fur) that the French economy needed, and Paris consistently refused to permit the development of basic industrial production (161). Simultaneously the French government wanted to exercise the same taxes on the people in New France that they would have if they resided in France, which caused further friction (163). All of this resulted in a stultification of the domestic economy in New France. Ryerson thus suggests, very controversially it must be noted given that Ryerson has already argued that the impact of the First Nations was devastating, that the fur trade helped to start breaking down the French feudal system because of its mercantilist capitalist aspect. Furthermore, given the feudal character of the monarchy there was no possibility of any democratic rights within New France, which only empowered the seigneurial class.
The British conquest of Canada resulted in three significant impacts: 1) “The existence in Britain of such democratic rights as were won in the 17th century English revolution made it difficult for authorities to their Canadian subjects (both “new” and “old”) the right to assemble, petition and conduct political agitation: rights that had not existed in a like degree under the French regime”; 2) given the advanced stage of development of capitalism in Britain as compared to France, “the potentialities for economic and industrial growth in the colony were enhanced”; and 3) [the] British conquest created a new national question. European rule over the aboriginal population was the first such problem; now there was added the domination of European nationality over another. The French Canadians had come under British rule” (200-201). Ryerson however is quick to tell his reader that the first impact of British rule was not granted because of British largesse, but was first granted in 1775 in Quebec due to popular agitation on the part of the popular classes. Indeed, there was widespread political agitation and opposition to enrolment in the British armed forces, petitions, and even support from the loyalist immigration (225). It was similarly won in 1791 in Upper and Lower Canada. (226-227) Ryerson is also quick to remind his readers that all of these democratic assemblies ought to be understood within a colonial context i.e. these were assemblies in the colonies. These assemblies were kept in check by unelected officials representative of the Crown, like the Governor-General, and were not answerable to Canadians. Ryerson notes, “Any divergence between Canadian interest and imperial policy would inevitably lead to a collision.” (228) The outbreak of the French revolution immediately sparked interest in Canada, and popular pamphlets calling for independence were distributed calling for Canadian independence from the British empire (230).
The Anglo-American war is the third case that Ryerson points to which simultaneously demonstrates the benefits of the war for Canada, but also is a cause for concern due to American expansionism (Ryerson calls it “Americanisation”). Ryerson argues that the Anglo-American war was between two bourgeois national states over two issues: America’s expanding commercial interests which had come into conflict with the economic interests of Britain, and the limitation of American sovereignty by British naval and military power (313). Ryerson is clear that the British were trying to enact a counter-revolution against the American bourgeois-democratic revolution, and that the aims of the British ruling class was predatory and colonialist (313-314). The American invasion however has a more ambivalent character for Ryerson. Indeed, he notes that on the one hand, there was a national-democratic aspect to the war because of the British attempts to militarily cause a counter-revolution, but on the other, “it expressed the new expansionist drive of the ruling classes in the United States (the coalition of emergent industrial capitalists and entrenched slave-owners), the character of the was predatory and aggressive.” (313) Thus, it is important to not regard the Americans as having waged a “revolutionary, anti-colonial “liberation effort””. (313) The Canadians and the First Nations, who had formed a military alliance against the Americans, were waging a war of “strategic defensive” that was able to achieve stunning military victories against the Americans in spite of uneven odds. The First Nations had decided to support the Canadians and the British as they considered the Americans a relatively worse option. Unfortunately, the British would trade away First Nations lands and people, completely betraying them, in order to arrive at a peace with the Americans (310). The outcomes of the Anglo-American war on the formation of the Canadian nation-state was that Canadian consciousness came to be defined by “[invasion], the threat of conquest, defense of country, loyalty to British monarchy, attachment to parliamentary institutions as against American republicanism”. (319) Again, as was mentioned before, this overlooks the fact that the betrayal of First Nations people also was constitutive of Canadian consciousness; and it relies on a Left nationalist self-construction of Canada of dubious value and validity. Finally, the other outcome of the Anglo-American war was that the subsequent economic re-construction finally helped give rise to a domestic economy in Canada, which led to its own capitalist development (321-323).
In sum, Ryerson’s book is important to read despite all of its flaws. Indeed, like any text it needs to be read with a critical eye. It was written with political purposes in mind and should be read that way as well. I have learned more about First Nations and Canadian history from this book than the last 15 years of my political activism. Indeed, I have gained a greater appreciation of the contours of Canadian consciousness and its state-formation, and am better able to see how these themes are consistently reinvoked in both mainstream media narratives and progressive civil society. However, as this review also makes clear, I am going to have to seek out other resources to get a better understanding of First Nations histories and analyses of national self-determination.