This week’s deadly heatwave, with new record temperatures, is just one example of how the country’s economy looks set to change on Canada Day.
Urgent plans to speed up the transition to electric cars and the painful process of moving away from Canada’s reliance on carbon-producing fuels are part of a longer list of economic earthquakes.
The country is currently coping with a series of unusual events:
The recession caused by a pandemic happens once in a lifetime. The return of inflation after decades of absence that some expect will lead to higher interest rates. Government intervention in the economy has not been witnessed in decades after World War II.
But although it is difficult to ascertain the country’s economic future in such changing times, historians struggle to re-examine Canada’s economic past.
As former economic champions Henry Dundas, Egerton Ryerson and John A. MacDonald have their bases scrapped, the discovery of unmarked Aboriginal children’s graves and last year’s Black Lives Matter movement open people’s eyes to long-standing economic injustice.
One of the leaders of this re-examination was Angela Reddish, an economic historian and professor at the University of British Columbia who, like most who have studied the economic history of Canada in the past decades, was educated almost exclusively on the “foundational narrative” of European extraction of Canada’s resources through the St. River Lawrence and her role in creating a strong industrial economy.
But when Reddish began doing her own research, she also began to realize what economic history texts had left.
“Everyone was aware of the Treaty of Paris and what that meant for the Canadian economy,” Reddish said, referring to the 1763 agreement that transferred much of North America to Britain.
“All the indigenous treaties were not even in the books,” she said.
The deaths of children in a Canadian residential school are a tragic reminder of another aspect of Canada’s economic history. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Weaning on the heroic account of explorers who discovered abundant empty lands and built a rich nation from sea to sea to sea, Canadians may have been shocked by the recent revelation that Aboriginal children were abused and died here.
But the brutal deportation of the indigenous people of the land by European settlers is well known to historians. It is a process that the Canadian Historical Society now describes as genocide.
This simply wasn’t the focus of the traditional story, said Chris Inwood, an economic historian at the University of Guelph.
“It’s unfortunate that this kind of stunning sighting of unmarked graves has been discovered to get people’s attention,” Einwood said in an interview this week. “But it is clearly a good thing that people’s consciousness, by our standards today, is drawn to how terrible people’s actions were in the past.”
In 1493: Columbus’ New World Unearthed, author Charles Mann describes the densely populated indigenous peoples of North America who were devastated by the spread of European diseases first introduced by Spanish colonists, making the continent appear less densely populated than it was before.
However, economic historians still dispute the extent of the impact of this disease.
As Inwood points out, death rates in Canada were high for everyone in the 19th century and children suffered the most, but no one started collecting mortality data until the 1920s.
Recent research by Victoria University economic historians Donna Fair and Rob Gilzo disputes the idea that indigenous peoples were debilitated before Europeans came to the Great Plains and killed the bison.
The tallest people in the world
“The generations of bison dependent people born after the massacre were once the tallest people in the world, were among the shortest,” Vier and Gillizo wrote in a much-quoted paper on the plains dwellers.
Not only that, but depriving them of the means to their economic success had a long-lasting effect.
“Today, communities that were previously dependent on bison have incomes 20 to 40 percent lower than the median per capita income of the Native American nation,” the paper says.
As one of the authors of the popular textbook A History of the Canadian Economy, Herb Emery has an intimate view of how changing perspectives can change Canadians’ understanding of their economic history.
“The stories we tell are about the importance of property rights and legal systems to ensuring an efficient and successful capitalist economy,” Emery said in an email. “The Blind Spot in Primary Confiscation”.
Before Europeans came and killed the bison, the natives of the Great Plains were among the longest in the world. After the massacre they were Luxor. (Three Lions/Getty Images)
As Fair points out, while the system of declaring property may have been different and was at times contested in border disputes, indigenous groups had a well-established title to agricultural or hunting lands. When the Europeans arrived with the famous property rights, they simply ignored the existing property rights.
“So talking about the abundance of the Earth is weird,” she said.
Indeed, as Gelsow points out, the expulsion from their traditional lands that provided them with a decent living cannot be separated from the indigenous peoples’ ability to fight European diseases.
To this day, poverty leads to negative health outcomes.
As shown with bison hunters on the plains, Gilzo said, the loss of the things that made them economically successful could have a long-term impact that has been seen for past generations.
Improving the lives of many Indigenous peoples and other people of color can be both expensive and difficult.
Finding a common narrative
While economists may disagree on the more significant events, Gilzo said he has not seen a backlash in Canada against the idea of broadening our understanding of economic history. But the fact that reviews are made almost entirely by settler scholars may skew these decisions.
“The profession is not as diverse as it should be, and if you don’t have voices at the table, the conversation goes a lot more slowly,” Gilzow said. “Having more black economists will change the profession.”
Reddish has the same concern about the shortage of Indigenous students in the economy, something she is trying to correct at UBC.
Contrary to the popular notion that history is a single, unchanging narrative, economic historians I spoke to have described it as a dynamic process that must take into account new developments, such as climate change, new historical understandings and changing public values. It’s a process that takes time.
“We have to work on a common narrative,” Reddish said. “I think that’s what we have to do. But it’s very difficult.”
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