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On this Canada Day, Canadians face calls for change — and economic historians have been trying to adjust

This week’s deadly heat wave, with its new record temperatures, is just one example of how the country’s economy seems to be embroiled in change this Canada Day.

Urgent plans to speed the switch to electric cars and the painful process of moving away from Canada’s dependence on carbon-producing fuels are part of a longer list of economic earthquakes.

The country is currently adapting to a string of extraordinary events:

  • A recession caused by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
  • The return of inflation after a decades-long absence that some expect will lead to a rise in interest rates.
  • Government intervention in the economy not seen since the decades after World War II. 

But as difficult as it is to be sure of the country’s economic future in such changing times, historians are struggling to re-examine Canada’s economic past.

As former economic heroes, such as Henry Dundas, Egerton Ryerson and John A. Macdonald, are knocked off their pedestals, the discovery of Indigenous children’s unmarked graves and the past year’s Black Lives Matter movement are opening people’s eyes to long-standing economic injustices.

The founding narrative

One of the leaders of that re-examination is Angela Redish, an economic historian and a professor at the University of British Columbia, who, like most who studied Canada’s economic history in past decades, was educated almost exclusively on “the founding narrative” of the European extraction of Canada’s resources through the St. Lawrence and its role in creating a powerful industrial economy. 

But as Redish began doing her own research, she also began to realize what the economic history texts had left out.

“Everybody knew about the Treaty of Paris and what that meant for the Canadian economy,” said Redish, referring to the 1763 agreement that turned a big chunk of North America over to Britain.

“All the treaties of the Indigenous nations weren’t even in the books,” she said.

The deaths of children at Canada’s residential school is a tragic reminder of another side of Canada’s economic history. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Canadians weaned on the heroic narrative of explorers discovering abundant empty lands and building a rich country from sea to sea to sea may have been shocked by recent revelations that Indigenous children were abused and died here.

But the brutal displacement of the land’s original people by European settlers is well known to historians. It is a process now being described by the Canadian Historical Society as genocide. 

That simply hasn’t been the focus of the traditional story, said Kris Inwood, an economic historian at the University of Guelph.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes the kind of spectacular spectacle of unmarked graves being discovered to bring it to people’s attention,” Inwood said in an interview this week. “But it’s clearly a good thing for people to have their awareness drawn to, by our standards today, how horribly people behaved in the past.”

In 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, author Charles Mann describes a densely populated Indigenous North America devastated by the spread of European diseases first introduced by Spanish colonizers, leaving the continent appearing far less populated than it had once been.

The extent of that disease effect, though, is still being disputed by economic historians.

As Inwood points out, death rates in Canada were high for everyone in the 1800s and children suffered the most, but no one began collecting mortality data until the 1920s.

Recent research by University of Victoria economic historians Donna Feir and Rob Gillezeau disputes the idea that Indigenous people were weakened before Europeans came to the Great Plains and killed off the bison.

World’s tallest people

“Once the tallest people in the world, the generations of bison-reliant people born after the slaughter were among the shortest,” wrote Feir and Gillezeau in a much-quoted paper on the plains inhabitants.

Not only that, but being deprived of the means of their economic success had a long-lasting effect.

“Today, formerly bison-reliant societies have between 20 to 40 per cent less income per capita than the average Native American nation,” says the paper.

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 alter the understanding Canadians have about their economic history.

“The stories we tell are about the importance of property rights and legal systems to ensure an efficient and successful capitalist economy,” said Emery in an email. “The blind spot is in the initial expropriation.”

Before Europeans came and killed off the bison, the Indigenous people of the Great Plains were among the tallest in the world. After the slaughter, they were the shortest. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

As Feir points out, while the system of declaring ownership may have been different and was sometimes disputed in border conflicts, Indigenous groups had well-established title to agricultural or hunting lands. When the Europeans arrived with their much celebrated property rights, they simply ignored the existing property rights.

“So to talk about an abundance of land is bizarre,” she said.

In fact, as Gillezeau points out, the ejection from their traditional lands that provided a good living cannot be separated from Indigenous peoples’ ability to fight off European diseases.

Right up to today, poverty leads to negative health outcomes.

As shown with the plains bison hunters, Gillezeau said, the loss of the things that made them economically successful can have a lingering effect that’s been shown to last generations.

Improving the lives of many Indigenous people and other people of colour can be expensive and difficult.

Finding a shared narrative

While economists may differ on which events are most important, Gillezeau said he has not seen a backlash in Canada against the idea of expanding our concept of economic history. But the fact that the revisions are almost entirely being made by settler scholars may skew those 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,” said Gillezeau. “Having more Black economists is going to change the profession.” 

Redish has the same concern about the lack of Indigenous students in economics, something she is trying to rectify at UBC.

Contrary to the popular idea of history being a single and unchanging narrative, the economic historians I spoke to described it as a dynamic process that must take account of new developments, like climate change, new historical understandings and changing public values. It is a process that takes time.

“We should be working on a shared narrative,” said Redish. “I think that’s what we have to do. But it’s very challenging.”

Follow Don on Twitter: @don_pittis

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