The Ancestors of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada: Migrators, Murderous Conquerors and “Settlers”: Violent Colonialists Par Extraordinaire

Migration isn’t a one-dimensional process; it’s a colossal process that has been happening in all directions for thousands of years. Mohsin Hamid[1]

Indigenous rights advocates constantly refer to Canada as a “settler colonial” nation, founded on the commission of crimes against Indigenous peoples, including, but not limited to, the “dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their long-held territories”, the theft of their resources, the decimation of their cultures, and even genocide.

This charge is not true.

France and then Great Britain did in fact conquer the land mass that is now Canada, in the sense of acquiring legal and de facto control over it. Aside from relatively minor skirmishes however, such as the ill-fated, Metis North West Rebellion,  there was never a military conquest. That was never necessary. There was never any forced dispossession of land. There was never anything remotely resembling genocide. The conquest that decidedly happened was an economic and cultural one and it was, relatively speaking, a civil and conscientious conquest.

The French and British people who originally came to Canada were simply doing what humanity has been doing all over the world since man first walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago- migrating, for a host of different reasons, from one place to another.

As historian Peter Heather wrote in his book Empires and Barbarians[2], his study of “migration, development and the birth of Europe”:

The history of mankind is the history of migration…The first farmers of the Stone Age arrived from the east to displace the hunter-gatherers, the copper users did the same for the stone users, the bronzesmiths for the copper users, until eventually we reached the Iron Age and the first millennium A.D.

Throughout history, when these countless, significant migrations occurred, the first substantive contact between a culturally or militarily superior migrating people and a more culturally primitive or weaker people who found themselves in their path, was more often than not characterized by the latter suffering murder, rape, pillage and enslavement, followed by, if they were lucky enough not to be otherwise slaughtered into extinction, absorption and assimilation.

This is a sad norm of human behavior and history- a norm of contact as the result of migration, with ensuing violence and dispossession. Biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his writings in these fields, in his book, The Social Conquest of Earth, called this violence and dispossession human trait – this human behavior – “the pitiless dark angel of human nature”. Professor Wilson elaborated:

It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies. Nor has it been an aberration of history, a result of the growing pains of our species maturation. Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no particular time or culture.

This migration, violence, dispossession and/or assimilation norm – a norm exemplifying the too-often “sheer blood-soaked awfulness of the world”[3]– has shown itself to be a fundamental element of human behavior. It seems to reflect “what we do” as a species – one of our defining, less endearing traits. Not a norm to be proud of – a norm to struggle against – but in any event a norm evidencing a seemingly hard-wired reality of human nature, including, of course, Indigenous human nature.

Writer Zadie Smith:

Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe is entirely innocent…In this world there is only incremental progress.[4]

Importantly in this present discussion, the existence of this norm- this awful reality of humanity’s oppressive “blood-soaked” history- a “history written in letters of blood”[5] demands to be acknowledged as an accepted assumption underlying any fair enquiry into the nature of colonial France and Britain’s treatment of Canadian Indigenous peoples, and how that should be regarded today.

In other words, given that tragically realistic assumption: Humanity, (or rather InHumanity!), has been doing it- has been migrating and colonizing and dispossessing since the beginning of time! – including, on a large scale, the ancestors of Canada’s Indigenous tribes, (see below), and given our duty to view and judge historical events in relative terms, and through a  wide and deep historical lens, rather than through a narrowdecontextualized focus and only with reference to merely abstract standards of perfection-  there should be a lot less guilt felt by non-Indigenous Canadians today and a lot more pride and admiration felt and shown by us for how France, Great Britain and then Canada acted towards Canada’s Indigenous peoples in our country’s formative years. 

It begs the point to criticize the French and the British for acting in a “colonial fashion” and with a “colonialist mentality” towards Indigenous peoples then, as if that was inherently evil in itself. It’s not. As stated, human migration, with its inevitable consequences, was and remains a fundamental part of human history, and the arrival of Europeans into what is now the Canadian land mass is just another example of the operation of that ever present historical process.

As historian Peter Heather wrote in Empires and Barbarians

It is an inescapable conclusion from all the comparative literature that a basic behavioral trait of Homo sapiens sapiens is to consistently use movement- migration- as a strategy for maximizing quality of life, not least for gaining access to richer food supplies and all other forms of wealth.

The size of the migration unit, balance of motivation, type of destination, and other detailed mechanisms, will all vary according to circumstance, but the basic phenomenon is itself highly prevalent.

So how else were France and Great Britain or any other country supposed to act here but in a “colonialist” fashion? How else were they to think? The French and British were human beings and as such, it being a part of every human being’s character to move and migrate, they were wanderers, migrators and colonizers!

Just as, long ago, the ancestors of today’s Indigenous bands migrated and then conquered and displaced other Indigenous groups, becoming “settlers” themselves, who, in addition to displacing the vanquished, often exterminated them in the process.

Just like Europeans- just like all other human groups the world over- pre-contact and post-contact Indigenous peoples were constantly at war with one another, for all the same reasons that humans have always gone to war:  land, a blood feud, natural resources, trade disputes, self-defense, booty, male restlessness, or the seizure of women and children for population replenishment.

Where and when in history has it ever been different? The answer is nowhere and never!

The following are examples of the ancestors of some of today’s Indigenous peoples engaging in the same kind of behavior their spokespersons accuse our French, British and Canadian ancestors of engaging in, only their conduct, (subject to the Beothuk exception referred to below), was worse!

In the Historical Atlas of Canada,[6] it is written:

The Thule migrations after AD 1000 which gave way to the present-day Inuit quickly displaced the Paleo-Eskimos…” and, “… The conquest (ca 1300) of the Glen Meyer people by the Pickering created a relatively homogenous culture in Ontario known as the Uren-Middleport.

In August 2014, as reported in the Toronto Star,[7] the prestigious science journal, Science, published a “paleogenomic study” concluding that a series of Paleo-Eskimo cultures known as the Pre-Dorset and Dorset:

…lived with great success in the eastern Arctic for 4,000 years- until disappearing suddenly a couple of generations after the ancestors of the modern Inuit appeared, around 1200 AD. There is no evidence the two groups interbred… The Inuit took over the best hunting camps and displaced the conflict averse Tuniit. Soon enough these strange people disappeared from the land.

Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature[8], demonstrating that the Inuit[9] retained their colonialist, genocidal practices over the succeeding centuries, recounts the 1965 reminiscence of Robert Nasruk Cleveland, an Inupiaq Inuit:

The next morning the raiders attacked the camp and killed all the women and children there. After shoving sheefish into the vaginas of all the Indian women they had killed, the Noatakers took Kititigaagvaat and her baby, and retreated toward the upper Noatak River…Finally, when they had almost reached home, the Noatakers gang raped Kititigaagvaat and left her with her baby to die.

Some weeks later the Kobuk caribou hunters returned home to find the rotting remains of their wives and children and vowed revenge. A year or two after that, they headed north to the upper Noatak to seek it. They soon located a large body of Nuataagmiut and secretly followed them. One morning in the Nuataagmiut camp spotted a large band of caribou and went off in pursuit. While they were gone, the Kobuk raiders killed every woman in the camp. Then they cut off their vulvas, strung them on a line, and headed quickly home.

 This horrific excerpt, and other descriptions of Indigenous  peoples’ migrations and subsequent wholesale dispossessions and/or slaughters of other Indigenous peoples, (below), make it so sadly and richly ironic today to hear shallow, unchallenged accusations of “genocide” and “colonialism and dispossession” so recklessly and wrongfully levelled by Inuit and other Indigenous groups against their fellow non-Indigenous Canadians.

In fact, from what we know of Canadian history, and, as evidenced by this Inuit example above, and some of the examples below, our non-Indigenous Canadian ancestors never perpetrated any violence against Indigenous peoples anything near as bad as Indigenous peoples perpetrated against each other.

In 1500 the Cheyenne were not yet the feared Great Plains warriors who later became the iconic Indian foe in countless Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s. Settled in villages in Minnesota, they farmed and hunted. They migrated westward in the mid-1700’s, abandoning farming and becoming nomadic, warlike Plains horsemen dependent on the buffalo.[10]

There are no Hurons today in the vicinity of Lake Huron.

That’s because, in the mid-1600’s the Iroquois conquered and exterminated them, along with the Eries, Neutrals, Nipissings and Petuns, and then reduced the Algonquins to tribute-bearing vassals. As related in The Historical Atlas of Canada:

The Great Dispersions, 1648-1653– Co-ordinated planning and the effective use of muskets enabled the Iroquois confederacy to disperse the Huron tribes in 1647-9, the Petun in 1649-50, the Nipissing in 1649-51, and the Neutral in 1651-2. Fearing a similar fate, most of the Eastern Great Lakes native groups, together with some Huron, Petun and Nipissing refugees, fled west and north. Other refugees, mainly Christian converts, settled near Quebec, (Hurons) and Trois Rivieres (Algonquin and Nipissing). The bulk of the surviving Huron, Petun and Neutral joined the Iroquois, and were gradually absorbed.

In these wars, kidnapping, enslavement, torture, mutilation and the mass murder- genocide– by Indigenous peoples of other Indigenous men, women and children was common.

“As many as 8000 Huron starved to death: the rest were dispersed…. Huronia, all but emptied of inhabitants, had become a private preserve of the Iroquois.”[11]

The Iroquois could capture these areas but couldn’t hold them. In the late 1700’s the Ojibwa from Northwestern Ontario, (many had earlier fled to that area from the Georgian Bay area to avoid being killed by the Iroquois), who themselves had originated 1500 years before from a region on the Atlantic coast and had, over the succeeding centuries, migrated westward to the Central Great Lakes region,[12] invaded the Iroquois’ recently conquered territory, comprised of the north shore areas of Lakes Ontario and Erie, and drove them out. These Ojibwa became known there as the Mississauga.

Coincidentally, and giving the lie to the general Indigenous assertion that Indigenous peoples have all been where they are now since “time immemorial”, the Ojibwa migrated there and settled at about the same time as the first white settlers did.[13]

At about the same time, other groups of Ojibwas, in pursuit of new commercial opportunities to the West and Southwest of Lake Superior created by the French fur trade, migrated to parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, becoming known as Chippewa there. They migrated to Southern Manitoba, becoming “Plains Ojibwe” and the “Saulteaux”, meaning “the people of the rapids”, referring to the rapids (sault in French), at Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, their place of origin. These migrations brought them into conflict with the Assiniboine and the Sioux, who were pushed westward out of their traditional territories- dispossessed.

By 1800 the Ojibwa, now the Saulteaux, had migrated as far west as Saskatchewan and northern Montana, and as far north as Trout Lake, Ontario.

Author Michael G. Johnson, in Ojibwa: People of Forests and Prairies,[14]writes:

At the zenith of their geographical expansion about 1810 the Ojibwa people claimed an estate probably greater than any other Native American people north of the Rio Grande with the possible exception of the Cree.[15]

In his book, Clearing the Plains, James Daschuk describes the Anishinaabe’s (another word for Ojibwe) migration from Ontario into southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan (as stated, becoming the “Saulteaux” there), and their “imperialist” military conquest and dispossession of the local Dakota Sioux/Assiniboine peoples. He writes:

As the Anishinaabe expanded their trapping grounds, they displaced local groups, often with a combination of psychological and physical intimidation. Even their allies were intimidated by them. (Italics added)

Historian Beth LaDow, in The Medicine Line: Life and Death on a North American Borderland61(referring to the 49th parallel), describes the imperialistic, dispossessing, colonizing expansionism of the Cree:

The Northern Plains world of the mid-nineteenth century was not only complex, but of recent origin. Along with whites, the Plains Cree and the Western Sioux were relative newcomers to the more established communities of Crow, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Blackfeet.

The Cree and Sioux were migrating branches of Eastern Woodland tribes that became powerful on the northern plains during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Shrewd and adaptable traders, The Cree became middlemen in the English fur trade by the 1690’s and began to spread north and west of Lake Superior. About this time, they formed alliances with the Assiniboine…Economic and cultural exchange cemented the Cree-Assiniboine relationship. The horse, which the Spanish brought to mainland America in 1519, diffused northward up the plains during the eighteenth century, drawing the Assiniboine westward from the Great Lakes woodland-plains borderland by 1750. The Cree gave the Assiniboine guns, the Assiniboine gave the Cree horses and introduced them to plains life; the result was considerable intermarriage and a powerful alliance.

The Cree then pushed further west and south in search of furs for their profitable trade, driving the Gros Ventre and Blackfoot, (both Algonkian speaking), and even the Assiniboine against their advance.

These realignments were often horrible and bloody…Sometime before 1838…a combined force of Cree and Assiniboine massacred thirty lodges of the Gros Ventre while all but a few of the men were gone hunting. They killed about 130 women and children, including roasting some of the children alive by driving sharp sticks through their bodies and planting them before a hot fire…

With the passing of a few decades the old borders and balance of power along the Missouri were in shambles. Sioux and Cree conquests had redistributed power and territory among native peoples. Between 1780 and 1820 a new order on the Northern Plains emerged.” (Italics added)

Things were no different in eastern Canada. The present-day Mi’kmaw Indians are much in the news today over matters relating to their purported Aboriginal right to flout Canada’s lobster fishing conservation laws. Part of their argument is the usual charge that they were the innocent victims of wrongful, colonial dispossession. But they too, in their past, were no pre-Edenic angels. The reknowned Canadian Anthropologist Diamond Jenness writes in his seminal textbook, The Indians of Canada, (Sixth edition):[16]

The Micmac united with the French and English settlers to exterminate the unhappy Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland.

Two more examples of Indigenous-on-Indigenous wanton cruelty and violence:

In 1769 the great Ottawa warrior chief Pontiac was shot in the back by a Peoria Indian.

In 1832, following a battle on the banks of the Mississippi River in present-day Illinois between American militia and the Sauk and Fox Indians, the latter lead by the great warrior Black Hawk, two hundred defeated Sauk and Foxes “somehow managed to thrash their way across the river only to be scalped or taken prisoner by hostile Sioux, who awaited them on the other side.” [17]

As stated, man’s inhumanity to man is universal and knows no racial bounds or distinctions. It’s the way of the world, including the entire Indigenous world, past and present.

Europeans cannot be blamed for the simple fact that they migrated here and eventually achieved a state of total dominance. That would be blaming history for merely being history or blaming water for running downhill or the sun for rising and setting.

On a world historical level, the perpetual omnipresence of migration and eventual assimilation means that it has to be regarded as essentially a neutral, mainly unconscious, collective human phenomenon – one that is a fundamental and unchangeable part of simply being human. To migrate, to set the process of assimilation in motion, is as natural as breathing. It’s definitely not always to participate in an inherently blameworthy process!

There are moral issues in history of course and, in this area of history a main moral issue is how the successful migrators behaved towards the peoples they achieved dominance over. That’s where the concepts of blame and shame arise. Were they cruel? Did they kill, rape and plunder as a matter of seeming policy, and with the blessing of authority?  Did they sell their victims into slavery? To what degree did they let the usual historical norm of violence and dispossession merely play out? How did they act relative to this ineluctable historical norm, even assuming that morally wrongful acts inevitably occur in every situation where different cultural worlds collide?

Viewed with this issue and these types of crucial questions in mind the behavior of France and Great Britain and then Canada towards Canada’s Indigenous peoples, overall, has to be regarded positively and with great admiration.  They committed relatively very, very few of these horrific acts.

The current default assumptions and starting points in this area – that France and Great Britain, followed by Canada, were malign, unjust colonialist destroyers and that Indigenous peoples were all virtuous, innocent victims, cruelly and against their will ripped out of their pre-contact Eden – should be discarded as a false and shallow narrative construct – a construct with no proper, reflective regard for either the realities of the human condition or historical truth.

France, Great Britain, and Canada, its successor, should be lauded for the relatively civil and decent manner in which they interacted with the Indigenous peoples of Canada – for the relatively benevolent, historically-atypical way in which they have dealt with them.

Tom Flanagan, in First Nations? Second Thoughts, (above), after reviewing the historical evidence, concludes that:

 “There must have been three or even more major waves of immigration from Siberia to America: the Amerind, perhaps earlier, or even much earlier, but certainly by 12,000 years BP (before the present); the Athabaskan, perhaps 5000-10,000 BP; and the Inuit, from about 4000 BP onward (if Paleo-Eskimos and Dorset people were Inuit”).

He wisely opines about humanity’s migratory impulse as it relates to Canada:

 Why not consider the coming of the Europeans as a fourth migration, a new set of tribes pushing others in front of them? Should we hesitate to do so because the European colonists had lighter-colored skin, hair and eyes than the older inhabitants? At bottom, the assertion of an inherent right of self-government is a kind of racism. It contends that the only legitimate inhabitants of the Americas have been the Indians and the Inuit. According to this view, they had the right to drive each other from different territories as much as they liked, even to the point of destroying whole peoples and taking over their land, but Europeans had no similar right to push their way in.

It seems that for present-day Indigenous spokespersons, it was okay for their Indigenous ancestors to engage in the conquest, displacement, dispossession, and murder of other Indigenous peoples, but not okay for European migrators to engage in similar but much milder and less murderous forms and versions of the same migration and dispossession historical norm.

This current Indigenous hypocrisy and engaging in double standards about “colonialism” and “stolen lands” should be called out. It’s intellectually childish. It should stop.

Present-day, non-Indigenous Canadians have as much moral, legal and historical right to be in Canada as do present-day Indigenous Canadians.

An honest view of Canada’s past does not give present-day Indigenous Canadians the right to claim any kind of moral high ground over other Canadians, from which to, through false allegations employed as a form of moral blackmail, gain material advantages for themselves at the expense of present-day, non-Indigenous Canadians.

All Canadians need to focus less on the past generally, and more on moving forward together into the future on the basis of mutual understanding and forgiveness for that contentious past, and on the basis of embracing, for the future, the basic Enlightenment principle of equality under the law and equality in each other’s eyes and hearts.

Peter Best

May 13, 2022

[1] Pakistani-British novelist. Quoted in Migration, Lapham’s Quarterly, April/May, 2022

[2] Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Pan Books, 2010

[3] From Robert Hughes essay, Driving into Goya, contained in The Spectacle of Skill-Selected Writings of Robert Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015

[4] From On Optimism and Despair, a talk given in Berlin on November 10, 2016, on receiving the Welt Literature Prize- The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016

[5] From Tony Judt’s The Burden of Responsibility- Blum, Camus, Aron and the Twentieth Century, The University of Chicago Press, 1998

[6] University of Toronto Press, 1987

[7] Kate Allen, When Science Meets Aboriginal Oral History, the Toronto Star, August 31, 2014

[8] The Better Angels of our Nature- Why Violence has Declined, Penguin Books, Toronto, 2012, at page 45

[9] Our Governor General, Mary Simon, is an Inuit. Instead of representing the best aspects of her boss, the Queen, she traipses around Canada at the Queen’s expense, peddling the “colonialism =genocide/intergenerational trauma” line, essentially, by dissing her boss and everything the Queen represents, dividing instead of uniting Canadians.  She should be fired for crossing the line into politics. And, if she would learn a little of the Inuit’s own violent, colonialist history, she might not be so irritatingly sanctimonious.

[10] From North American Indian, Eyewitness Books, DK Publishing, 2005

[11] From Bernard De Voto, The Course of Empire, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1952, at page 98

[12] The writer wonders how many now vanished, unknown Indigenous tribes along the way of this migration were displaced and dispossessed by this inexorable Ojibwa migration.

[13] Political Science Professor Tom Flanagan, in his brave and ground-breaking work, First Nations? Second Thoughts, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), after reciting all the migrations and movements of the various Indigenous tribes of Canada in their various pursuits relating to fur trade, as partially related herein, writes at page 19: “Whatever the remote ancestry of aboriginal peoples may be, their current presence in most parts of Canada is quite recent, historically speaking.” This observation should call into question the literal truth of the content of many of the Indigenous Land Acknowledgments that non-Indigenous Canadians are frequently forced to suffer through.

[14] Firefly Books Ltd, Richmond Hill, 2016

[15] A comparable American Indian empire at the time was the Comanche empire, which extended from present-day Kansas to Northern Mexico. As recounted in the amazing, jaw-dropping book, S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon- Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Tribe in American History, (Scribner, New York, 2010), “the Comanche held sway over some twenty different tribes who had either been conquered, driven off or reduced to vassal status. In North America their only peers in terms of acreage controlled, were the western Sioux, who dominated the northern plains. Such imperial dominance was no accident of geography. It was the product of more than 150 years of deliberate, sustained combat against a series of enemies over a singular piece of land that contained the countries largest buffalo herds.”

[16] Published by the National Museum of Canada, 1972, at page 267.

[17] From Indian Wars, by Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb E. Washburn, First Mariner Books, 2002.

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