APTN National News
Senator Murray Sinclair blasted a major newspaper in Canada over an editorial he said propagated “the racist fallacy” that Canada was a “thinly populated” territory before European contact.
Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, posted a scathing critique of the The Globe and Mail editorial published online Monday. The editorial was written in response to a speech delivered by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould during a trip to South Africa. Wilson-Raybould said South Africa’s struggle with apartheid offered reconciliation lessons for Canada where Indigenous peoples have lived through over “150 years of colonialism.”
The editorial argued South Africa’s experience with apartheid and reconciliation offered few lessons for Canada because of its different history and dynamics.
“(Wilson-Raybould’s) contention in her speech that the post-apartheid era in South Africa offers ‘many important insights’ and ‘parallels’ for Canada should be approached with caution,” said the editorial. “It’s difficult to assess the population of what is now Canada when Europeans first arrived in the 15th century. But most of the Indigenous population were hunters and gatherers, so most of the land was quite thinly populated. The Europeans came to trade and gradually began to settle and colonize as farmers and later, manufacturers—and eventually became the majority. In contrast, black South Africans were the majority when Europeans arrived in their country, and are still the majority by far. This is a critical difference.”
Sinclair, in a Facebook post published Tuesday, called the unsigned The Globe and Mail opinion piece, which generally represents the position of the newspaper, a “colonizer’s editorial.” Sinclair took particular aim at the editorial’s claim that Canada was a thinly populated territory before contact.
“That argument of low numbers is essential to maintain the mythological doctrines of ‘terra nullius’ and ‘discovery.’ There are several expert reports which say that the population of the Americas was higher than the population of Europe at the time of contact, and there are experts who assert, with considerable evidence, that Columbus and his conquistadors (conquerors) were responsible for the genocide of more than 20 million Indigenous people within a very short period of time. Some estimate that number as high as 90 million,” wrote Sinclair. “There is no doubt that such a genocide did happen, and there can be no doubt that it was done solely for the purpose of wiping out the larger numbers of Indigenous people (thinning the population) in order to sustain the fallacy of terra nullius.”
Sinclair also criticized the thrust of the editorial’s argument the majority black population in South Africa versus the minority Indigenous population in Canada made it difficult to transpose the experiences of both countries.
“Excuse me, but apartheid is exactly what happened here. Canada’s apartheid era didn’t start until Confederation, when the population of Indigenous people outside of the original confederating colonies far outnumbered Europeans. Through chicanery, lies, and duplicity (i.e. the Treaties) the government lulled the Indigenous leaders in the West into a false sense of security, and after asserting the extension of Canada’s legal jurisdiction, enacted apartheid laws over them,” wrote Sinclair. “Only after such laws were enacted was Canada able to increase the population of Europeans in the West in order to overcome the much higher Indigenous population. That apartheid system still exists, and it is what we, who are working for reconciliation, are all working to dismantle.”
APTN provided The Globe and Mail editorial page editor Tony Keller with Sinclair’s post. Keller said Sinclair argued against “a lot of things we didn’t say” and that “a lot of his argument is with a straw man, not the editorial.”
Keller conceded the Indigenous population level in Canada pre-contact is a matter of debate and the editorial did not mean to include the whole of the Americas in the assertion.
“Our point in calling Canada relatively thinly populated—and there’s argument over how thinly populated and how much population declined post-contact due to the introduction of new diseases—was that the Europeans’ arrivals were able to surpass the number and become the majority,” said Keller, in an email to APTN. “Whereas in South Africa the colonizers were never the majority and are still far from it. We only brought this up as one way of showing the difference between the history and the present of the two countries, to buttress our suggestion that the minister should not look to South Africa for answers.”
Keller said The Globe and Mail did not believe Canada was “terra nullius” and would “criticize anyone who made that claim.”
He also said the editorial never argued the point of whether apartheid existed or exists in Canada.
“We are cognizant of the sordid history behind the treatment of Canada’s Native peoples. Could anyone not be? We were very clear, in fact, to outline in the editorial some of the major problems faced by Indigenous peoples,” said Keller quoting from the editorial’s mention of residential schools, the 60’s Scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous women and the poverty gripping many First Nations.
“We have also been supporters of the Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada, of the (missing and murdered Indigenous women) commission, of respect for treaties and for Native issues in general,” said Keller. “We have great respect for Mr. Sinclair and understand the need for vigilance on his and everyone’s part to make sure Canada’s history is properly portrayed. But we don’t agree that what we wrote supports Mr. Sinclair’s criticisms.”
Sinclair could not be reached for comment about his Facebook post which ended with list of issues Canada could learn from the South African context.
“And so, colonizer editorialist, next time do your homework. We do have a lot to learn from the South African experience:
- Never trust the colonizer’s history.
- Racism is hard to overcome
- Tribalism after colonization ends can become the new ‘problem.’
- Apartheid is economic as well as political and legal.
- Even with a supportive government, reconciliation will take a long time.
- Without immediate economic and social reform, the legacies of racism easily live on.”