Rioux: L’assimilation

All too true in the early days but unclear whether the early largely peaceful environment would have survived if France had remained an imperial power in North America and had evolved from the fur trade to agriculture. After all, the early days of the British empire in Canada were also based on the fur trade and cooperation with Indigenous peoples:

« La civilisation espagnole a écrasé l’Indien ; la civilisation anglaise l’a méprisé et négligé ; la civilisation française l’a étreint et chéri ».

— Francis Parkman

Nous vivons une étrange époque où l’humanité se rêve une et indivisible avec tout ce que cela recèle d’esprit totalitaire. Les Américains ont été esclavagistes, voilà que les Occidentaux se bousculent comme des enfants à la maternelle pour crier : « Moi aussi ! » L’impérialisme américain fait son mea culpa et, dans tous les stades du monde, on met le genou par terre.

Rien de tel pour éradiquer un peuple que de supprimer son histoire propre. Si la citation de l’historien américain Francis Parkman est réductrice, elle a l’avantage de montrer que nous n’avons pas tous eu la même histoire. À l’heure où l’on s’interroge sur les pensionnats autochtones qui ont eu pour mission d’assimiler les Amérindiens du Canada, il n’est pas inutile de donner la parole, non plus aux militants, mais aux historiens. Nombreux sont ceux qui ont estimé que, même si le choc civilisationnel a été partout le même, les colonisateurs français n’ont pas eu le même rapport aux Autochtones que les colonisateurs espagnols et anglais.

C’est la thèse que défend notamment le biographe américain de Champlain David Hackett Fischer. On connaît la célèbre citation du fondateur de Québec rapportée par le jésuite Paul Le Jeune : « Nos garçons se marieront à vos filles, et nous ne ferons plus qu’un seul peuple. » De l’alliance avec le chef montagnais Anadabijou (1603) à la Grande Paix de Montréal à laquelle participèrent une quarantaine de tribus (1701), les Français n’auront eu de cesse de nouer des alliances avec les Amérindiens et d’apprendre leurs langues pour explorer le continent. Exégète de Champlain et responsable de ses œuvres complètes, l’historien français Éric Thierry voit dans celui-ci un humaniste.

D’autres historiens ont souligné que ces alliances étaient une nécessité compte tenu de la faiblesse démographique de la colonisation française. Reste que, contrairement aux colons anglais, les Français se sont alliés aux Amérindiens au point de former au Manitoba une nation métisse, « seule société où Blancs et Amérindiens réussiront à vivre ensemble », écrit Denys Delâge (Le pays renversé, Boréal). Et l’historien de conclure que si « le pouvoir politique canadien » écrasa la société métisse au XIXe siècle, c’est qu’« elle était son antithèse. »

Sans prétendre à une quelconque supériorité morale, des auteurs comme Gilles Havard ont montré que les Français d’Ancien Régime ont cultivé avec les Amérindiens certaines affinités qu’on ne retrouve pas chez le conquérant anglais où le capitalisme était déjà plus avancé et les rapports plus contractuels. Pensons au goût des festins, au sens de l’honneur, du sacrifice, de l’apparat et à l’importance des cadeaux, de la parole et des discours. De Radisson, surnommé l’« Indien blanc », au baron de Saint-Castin, devenu chef Mic Mac, l’histoire unique en Amérique de ces mœurs partagées émaille les récits des voyageurs de l’époque.

« Si tous les Européens partageaient un sentiment de supériorité culturelle vis-à-vis des Indiens et si le désir d’assimilation reposait partout sur la négation de l’Autre […] la Nouvelle-France ne s’en ouvrait pas moins aux Indiens, les intégrait dans son système politico-culturel, quand les colonies anglaises bien souvent les excluaient », écrit Gilles Havard (Histoire de l’Amérique française, Flammarion).

La Conquête aura donc sur eux des conséquences terribles, souligne Denis Vaugeois : « Aussi longtemps que la rivalité anglo-française avait duré en Amérique du Nord, les Indiens […] avaient eu une carte à jouer. En quelque sorte, ils détenaient une forme de balance du pouvoir. Dans les années qui suivirent, ils étaient à la merci du vainqueur. […] Ils sont devenus tout simplement encombrants. » (L’impasse amérindienne, Septentrion).

S’instaura alors une forme d’apartheid où l’Indien deviendra un être inférieur, pupille de l’État colonial britannique. Dès le rapport Darling (1828), les pensionnats sont promus dans le but de sédentariser, « civiliser » et assimiler les Autochtones qui sont alors encore semi-nomades. Avant d’être reprise par la Loi sur les Indiens, trois commissions d’enquête viendront confirmer cette véritable politique d’assimilation dont l’esprit est identique à celle que Lord Durham avait préconisée pour les Canadiens français.

Est-ce un hasard si ces pensionnats furent si peu nombreux au Québec où, à deux exceptions, ils n’apparurent que dans les années 1950 ? Les conditions matérielles y seront donc bien meilleures et leur durée de vie très courte. Ce qui n’exonère évidemment personne, notamment les Oblats actifs ailleurs au Canada, des sévices qui purent y être commis. Les 38 morts recensés au Québec semblent sans commune mesure avec les 4134 recensés au Canada Anglais. Dans son livre Histoire des pensionnats indiens catholiques au Québec (PUM), Henri Goulet offre un portrait beaucoup plus nuancé que ce qu’on peut lire dans les médias. L’histoire de cette époque reste pourtant largement à écrire.

Mais, ce serait se leurrer que de s’imaginer que cette politique d’assimilation inscrite dans l’ADN du Canada est chose du passé. La détresse des peuples autochtones ainsi que l’assimilation florissante des jeunes Québécois dans les cégeps anglais en sont la preuve éloquente. Des pensionnats autochtones à l’Université Concordia, le résultat est le même : l’assimilation !

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How imperial hopes for the Commonwealth led to British citizenship being redefined along racial lines

Interesting history of the policies and policy objectives:

It’s just over a year since the government released the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, an attempt to come to terms with the Windrush scandal. Recommendation six of the Review states among other things that Home Office staff should ‘learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world’. Meanwhile, recommendation eleven states that the Home Office should make sure its staff ‘understand the history of immigration legislation’. Policy reviews don’t usually redirect to history in such a definite way, and we should pay attention to the fact that this one does.

As it turns out, the connections and correlations between immigration laws and Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world in the post-war era are many and strong. The legal architecture (a mix of immigration law and nationality law) at stake in the Windrush scandal did not begin with the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts. Nor did it begin with Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary. The story is much bigger and more intrinsic to Britain’s gambit in the post-war world. This story began in 1948 and was largely complete by 1971 (a year mentioned 35 times in the Review). Fifty years ago this year, the 1971 Immigration Act was the legislative culmination of Britain’s struggle against its own nationality law, and began Britain’s modern immigration system.

The 1948 British Nationality Act set the tone for post-war Britain. It was greeted by a New York Times headline that declared ‘British empire gets new nationality act’. In other words, the act might have been named the British Imperial Citizenship Act. The 1948 act created a single, non-national citizenship around the territories of the British Isles and the crown colonies. It was momentous because it gave rights of entry and residence in Britain to millions of non-white people around the world on the basis of their connection to existing crown colonies or independent Commonwealth states. These citizenship rights were given to  ‘citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ – the forerunner to what is now called British citizenship – and to ‘Commonwealth citizens’.

The true motivations behind the 1948 Act were squarely imperial – namely, keeping the colonies and Commonwealth unified at the level of nationality, and keeping a soon-to-be-republican India in the Commonwealth. Yet, despite the fact that Britain’s formal empire was all but over by 1965, successive governments refused to dismantle these imperial structures of British nationality and citizenship, instead passing immigration laws as so many bandages on nativist wounds as the imperial heartland became home to more and more non-white migrants.

There was something strange going on here: immigration laws were targeting citizenship rights provided in British nationality law. Bizarrely, it was the post-war immigration laws (in 1962, 1968, 1971), not British nationality law itself, that dictated who ‘belonged’ in Britain, both politically and legally. At the level of British nationality and citizenship, decolonisation did not begin in Britain until 1981 and the British Nationality Act of that year. In other words, British nationality and citizenship remained imperial throughout the age of decolonisation.

These confusions intensified in the late 1960s. Worried about South Asian British citizens in East Africa migrating to Britain, a Commonwealth Office official wrote to his colleagues in 1967 that ‘we had obviously made a big mistake’ in passing the 1948 Act, which was equivalent to ‘handing out British citizenship to large numbers… Having made this mistake, we have somehow now got to pay for it’. Most of the South Asians in Kenya facing majoritarian policies in the late 1960s held an identical citizenship to Labour prime minister Harold Wilson himself and an unrestricted legal right of entry to Britain. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act was designed to block their entry and left them with ‘the husk of citizenship’, as the home secretary put it in a key Cabinet meeting. This was the first time that an immigration law had been levelled at British citizens per se, and left them stateless in reality, despite their still being described as British citizens in law.

Three years later, the 1971 Immigration Act was an attempt to bring order to Britain’s immigration system. By placing the administrative burden of proof on individuals themselves, it also laid the foundation for the Windrush scandal. The 1971 Act created a peculiar new concept – a ‘patrial’, a term that referred primarily to a person’s birth in or ancestral connection to the territories of the British Isles. The home secretary himself admitted that he was not quite sure how to pronounce the archaic word. It was the patrial who now commanded the right of entry (now called ‘right of abode’) in Britain. Because patriality now served to grant rights of citizenship (entry and residence), this effectively detached citizenship rights from both citizenship of the UK and Colonies and Commonwealth citizenship. Being a patrial meant that you ‘belonged’ in Britain. As Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of Henry Asquith and grandmother of Helena Bonham Carter, put it in a House of Lords debate during this period, ‘a belonger usually has a white face’. The Economist, meanwhile, described the word patrial as ‘a nasty piece of tribal jargon’.

This was indirectly a tiering of British citizenship (citizenship of the UK and Colonies) and Commonwealth citizenship along racial lines, allowing in practice white settlers to ‘return’ to Britain but keeping out non-white migrants. Tanzania’s prime minister, Julius Nyerere described British immigration policies as ‘decadent racism’. Swaran Singh, India’s minister of external affairs, lambasted the ‘racial overtones’ of the proposed 1971 Act in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, adding that it ‘introduces the concept of “patrials” as a privileged category’. In Port of Spain, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, subsequently condemned Britain’s ‘open unadulterated and ambiguous racialisms’. But the most devastating criticism came from the veteran Indian diplomat, Apa Pant, then the Indian high commissioner to the UK. Pant intervened with home secretary Reginald Maudling, telling him that the ‘concept of “patrials”’ was ‘unmistakably racialist’ and ‘breaks up the Commonwealth into white and non-white’. Its provisions on police registration would make ‘the already tense police-immigrant relation more tense and intolerable’, while those on employment turned the working migrant into ‘virtually a “brown/black” slave labourer’. This was to say nothing of the executive powers of deportation attendant on the 1971 Act.

Britain suffered a significant reputational cost at the hands of its exclusivist immigration laws, including at the European Court of Human Rights in 1973. Why did Britain create such laws without dismantling the imperial structures of the 1948 British Nationality Act? The answer is that the 1948 Act was a constitutional pillar of what various officials, diplomats, and politicians hoped would be a British-led imperial Commonwealth – a vehicle by which to contend in the making of the post-war world. To dismantle the 1948 Act was to give up on the imperial promise of the post-war Commonwealth.

‘There is in the Commonwealth a complex of links, not only political, but economic, educational, administrative and professional’, wrote Commonwealth Office officials in 1967. The Commonwealth was ‘a special asset which could give Britain a position of central importance in the world in, say, the last two decades of this century, out of proportion to her comparative economic and military strength’. Britain wanted to have it both ways: a grand Commonwealth based on a perceived ‘Anglocentricity’ abroad and exclusivist immigration laws at home.

Source: How imperial hopes for the Commonwealth led to British citizenship being redefined along racial lines

Why the British empire cannot explain the politics of the present

Interesting reflections on the empire and the complex identities many of us have:

This review is the product of empire, and not just because the two books in question take empire as their topic. I am here today because my grandmother, the South African descendant of white British colonists – who erected a complex system of racial apartheid in order to continue minority rule – met and had a child with a descendant of the enslaved Javanese population, who were brought to South Africa by the Dutch empire. Heavily pregnant, my grandmother exercised her right as a Commonwealth citizen to come to the United Kingdom. There she met my grandfather, the descendant of eastern European Jews who fled the anti-Semitic persecution of the Russian empire to come to Britain in the 19th century. Years later, while working at the Africa Centre in London, my mother met a British Zimbabwean, himself only here because his ancestors, like many Commonwealth citizens, were encouraged to come to the UK to top up the labour force.

If any of those three empires had not existed – if just one of them had collapsed due to internal strife or external defeat a little earlier – then I would not exist and you would not be reading this sentence. (I leave the question of whether this fact goes in the “pros” or “cons” column of those empires up to you.)

The legacy of Europe’s empires is so bound into our society that trying to remove their influence upon us is as futile a task as attempting to remove the egg from a baked cake, to borrow an analogy that the author and Times writer Sathnam Sanghera uses in Empireland. As he superbly chronicles, the legacy of the British empire is everywhere you look. Perhaps most fittingly of all, the word “loot” is itself appropriated from the Hindi word “lut”: the spoils of war.

Although Empireland is the product of wide reading rather than original research, it is a fantastic introduction for anyone who wants to learn more about the British empire. Sanghera shares his knowledge without pretension or affectation.

He also has a peerless eye for a killer fact and a great story. My favourite is that of Sake Dean Mahomed, who in the course of just one life managed to become the first Indian author to be published in English, the founder in 1810 of the UK’s first curry house and the man who established the first dodgy massage parlour – though not in the same building.

My time with Sanghera’s book was so enjoyable that it feels almost churlish to admit that I found its overarching argument wholly unconvincing. Nevertheless, I am churlish, so here goes.

Sanghera suggests that greater awareness of our imperial past would reshape our understanding of our post-imperial present. He argues that Brexit is, in part, “an exercise in empire nostalgia”. There is, to my eyes, an obvious problem here: it’s hard to claim that the Netherlands has fully come to terms with the Dutch empire, which left its mark on my family history as much as the British empire did. “Blacking up”, now rightly considered to be a shameful practice in the UK, is still widely tolerated in the Netherlands. Tony Blair apologised for Britain’s role in the slave trade in 2007; the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, is still resisting making a similar apology in 2021. Yet it is unlikely that the Netherlands will follow the UK out of the European Union any time soon.

And what about France? As Robert Gildea details in his peerless 2019 book Empires of the Mind, France and Britain’s attachments to their empires were so great that, even when their struggle against Nazi Germany was at its bleakest, the French government-in-exile and the British government spent precious time squabbling over the future of their imperial possessions. France is an essential component of the modern EU, and yet like the UK struggles to confront its imperial legacy. Sanghera is right that we can no more disentangle the UK of today from the imperial power of time gone by than we can remove the egg from a cake – but if we’re comparing it to other countries we do need to be sure that they don’t have the same problem.

Sanghera puts far too much faith in the power of historical education to change minds and thus change the present. If only people were taught that so many of Britain’s “black and Asian people had been made citizens through the imperial project”, then the debate over multiculturalism would be “instantly transformed”.

This is obviously untrue. To take the system of apartheid in South Africa: it was not erected because its architects were ignorant of their imperial legacy but because they feared terrible retribution in the event of black majority rule. Nor would anyone sensible be reassured by the idea that immigration and multiculturalism are simply “colonizin’ in reverse”, as the poet Louise Bennett puts it. Colonisation was a violent, disruptive and sometimes extinction-level event for the colonised people. Anyone who thought that immigration was the same process via a different means would be mad not to resist it.

There is much to agree with in Sanghera’s book – his case for the restitution of stolen treasures is very powerful indeed – but I struggle to understand how someone who has read so much imperial history could think that a better public understanding of that past would in itself “instantly transform” our shared understanding of the world today. Even historians don’t agree on what the empire tells us about either the Britain of 1821 or the Britain of 2021.

In the UK, an improved understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust has not made our politics any more tolerant or welcoming to refugees and victims of genocide today. Since the Holocaust moved the world to recognise and define the crime of genocide, neither the United Nations nor the UK has ever managed to declare that one is taking place until after the crime has happened. Improved understanding of the past is a good thing, but it is not a substitute for winning political arguments in the present.

One person who would agree with my assessment is Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. He also agrees with Sanghera that you cannot remove the legacy of empire from the present economic and global order.

In The New Age of Empire Andrews argues that two of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, “provided the universal and scientific framework of knowledge that maintained colonial logic”, and that their own racism and bigotry was built into their thinking. In turn, the systems of thought that we have built on their ideas also bear the indelible stain of that prejudice. As the formal structures of empire have been abandoned, new and more insidious ones, in the shape of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have taken their place. They, too, are irretrievably tainted by the imperial ambitions of their founders.

Modern ideas of racial tolerance and unity do, unquestionably, have a racist ancestor. But the germ theory of disease can also trace its development through a number of discredited ideas: the miasma theory that illnesses are spread by “bad air”; and the idea that the mere act of smelling food could eventually contribute to fattening you up. Yet our modern understanding of how disease spreads is not doomed to failure because of its ancestry in what we now know to be flawed thinking.

Andrews derides what he calls the “white left” and its narrow focus. He dismisses the “Preston model” beloved by many Corbynite thinkers. “One of the cooperatives so praised in Preston is a coffee shop,” he writes, “and while we celebrate the benefits to the worker in Britain, the shop’s success is only possible because of the racial exploitation of the poor people farming the coffee beans it uses for next to nothing.” The new British left actually wants not a social democracy, but a return to the old “imperial democracy”.

His solution is to throw the whole cake into the dustbin of history. His focus is on “uniting Africa and the African diaspora to create a true revolution, which remains the only solution to the problem of racism”, and for the African diaspora to return to a “promised land” in Africa. This seems to me to be a little more difficult than simply getting the Preston café to pay a fair and equitable price for its coffee.

But it is central to Andrews’ belief system that it is easier to persuade the African diaspora that their aspirations are best realised back in Africa – and to persuade Africans to abandon both the borders inherited from colonialism and the dream of new borders for each of the continent’s many different peoples – than it is to get a northern English café to sell lattes at a fair price. As he writes at the conclusion of the book, “if you have come this far and believe that White people offering a meaningful hand of friendship is the solution then you have missed the point”.

I have to declare an interest here: I am the product of several generations’ worth of belief that enduring relationships can be struck across racial divides: a white South African can fall in love with a Cape Malay South African. A white British woman and a Jewish man can raise a family together. And, hell, a British-African man can father a child and disappear into the sunset without causing too much undue damage to the child in question. I have skin in the game: literally, my skin, the tone of which sits somewhere between my father’s and my mother’s.

It’s never made precisely clear in The New Age of Empire what the vision for people like me is in this united diaspora: do we get to return to Africa, or not? Is there a place for my white partner in the pan-African promised land? Do I ever get to see my mother and grandmother again? Would I have to reconcile with my father in the promised land? Would I be able to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle, who are Jewish? I’m not saying that all of these questions are deal-breakers for me, but I would certainly like to know the answers.

And if we are to discredit and discard the Enlightenment thinkers, how can pan-Africanism be the answer? Pan-Africanism is itself a product of the empire. The movement wasn’t dreamed up in Africa but by its displaced descendants in the West. The most influential and successful African supporter of the movement and a key force in the creation of what is now the African Union, Kwame Nkrumah, was likewise educated in the West, and was influenced by Marxism – which is, in turn, informed by the very ideas and philosophies that Andrews regards as irreversibly contaminated by their own imperial legacy.

Sanghera and Andrews share a common blindspot: while modern Britain is shaped by the empire, the British empire should not itself be seen as the starting point for British history. The empire was shaped by its pre-imperial past, and the Britain of today is shaped by both. The transatlantic slave trade, which undoubtedly still has an influence on the world today, can trace its roots to the slave trade within Africa, as the historian Marcus Rediker describes in his 2007 book The Slave Ship.

The empire cannot plausibly be the cause of what Sanghera considers to be a unique brand of racism, not least because that would account for neither the West’s pre-imperial anti-Semitism nor its pre-imperial racism. (As Sanghera recounts, long before empire, Elizabeth I was complaining that London’s Moorish population had grown too large.)

There is a similar problem in Andrews’ approach: my African ancestors, who sold the luckless members of other tribes, were not motivated by white supremacy but by a far older and universal sin: greed, and a desire to treat the perceived “other” – whether they look like us or not – as less than themselves.

History can illuminate the present. But it is only by confronting our shared and continued capacity for brutality against those we perceive as being unlike us – for profit or convenience – that we can build a better future.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Source: Why the British empire cannot explain the politics of the present