Colonialism can be characterised as a process whereby one nation incorporates through war, conquest, or other forceful means the lands, resources, and even the peoples of other territories to the benefit of the colonizing nation. Sometimes colonialism focuses mainly on exploiting the natural resources or other sources of wealth from an asserted colony to the benefit of the colonizing country. This is sometimes referred to as extractive or classical colonialism. Other times, colonialism also involves the settlement of the lands in question through the large scale migration of populations from the colonizing nation and the implantation of its institutions, laws, and culture in the newly acquired territory.
Canada is an example of this latter type of colonialism, referred to as settler colonialism. Through the colonial process, the colonizing nation implicitly or explicitly views itself as superior, and consequently, views those being colonized as inferior. This serves to more effectively undermine the status of the Indigenous populations found in the territories in question and to legitimate their subordination and supplantation, the theft of their lands and resources, and/or their use as heavily exploitable or slave labour. Many myths have been put forth in order to justify these ends, including eugenic notions of racial difference.
Colonialism has been carried out in different parts of the globe throughout history. Over the last few hundred years, Western European nations have been centrally involved in colonizing many areas of the world and colonial possessions have been asserted in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and many smaller islands and geographical areas. In each case, the process takes place in its own unique historical, social, political, and economic context. However, in all of these instances, colonialism has played an integral role in the expansion of capitalism and the accumulation of wealth by some at the expense of others.
Colonialism has served as a stimulus to industry and production in the colonizing nation by introducing new lands and raw materials from which to draw wealth, potentially new sources of easily exploitable labour, and new market opportunities. Acquiring new territories has also been one way for a nation to show its superiority; additionally, colonies also become areas where the “surplus” population from the colonizing country can be exported. Under colonial conditions, the Indigenous populations of the lands in question are viewed as a threat to the colonizer and many racialized and other myths are employed to justify their dispossession.
In Africa, for instance, where by 1902 ninety percent of all lands making up the continent were under the control of European nations, and where eugenics was given different levels of prominence depending on the region, myths of European superiority and the racialized inferiority of the Indigenous populations allowed for their marginalization, segregation, and/or exploitation as slave labour. In South Africa, a segregationist policy was pursued through the apartheid regime and operated from 1948 to 1994. Here, the Indigenous populations were separated from the minority British and Dutch colonizers who settled on the land. Although they never reached a majority status, settlers helped ensure colonial access to, and the management of, resources, while African peoples were marginalized and forced to work for little gain. This form of segregation could arguably be viewed as an undeclared form of eugenics, but racial hierarchies were already so thoroughly internalized and enforced through the history of slavery that eugenic ideas were not of primary importance. However, they did inform fears about African sexuality and potential miscegenation; formal birth control and sterilization practices, loosely based on eugenic notions, were implemented. In contrast, in Senegal West Africa, an active policy of assimilation of the Indigenous population was pursued by the French in order to colonize the lands in question, and members of the colonized were encouraged to work for and become part of the colonial state apparatus. Eugenics does not appear to have played a role in the treatment of the Indigenous population who, after slavery was abolished, were considered full citizens of this French colony. However, implicitly or explicitly, notions of racial or cultural inferiority did justify the assimilation of the Senegalese population.
In Australia, the myth of terra nullius, or the idea that the lands sought after and to be colonized by the British were uninhabited, or were only being made use of in a primitive way, by less evolved Indigenous populations, was promulgated in order to justify colonial possession through occupation and settlement. Here, eugenic notions were said to be everywhere and nowhere because although they were often discussed in relation to heredity and disease, particularly mental deficiency, and how to ensure the health of the settler colonial population being established through restrictive immigration control, the Australian eugenics movement did not enjoy the same level of legislative success in relation to the segregation and sterilization of the unfit as did some other colonial countries. Instead, the Absorption Policy in Australia, which sought the full assimilation, at the very least, of “half caste” Indigenous populations, overrode strict eugenic methods of ensuring racial purity. Here too, however, ideas about race and the superiority of Western civilization were put forward to explain the “uplifting” influence that assimilation would have on its colonial subjects.
Eugenic ideologies and interventions also played a role in and helped cement Canada as a settler colonial nation. Much of the territory now called Canada came under competing claims early on in the colonial process. Following the end of a colonial war fought with the French, the British became the sole nation to engage with Indigenous peoples here. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a nation to nation relationship with the Indigenous populations by recognizing Aboriginal title to land and outlining how these could be acquired by the Crown. However, the colonization and settlement of land proceeded in spite of this and subsequent treaty agreements established with Indigenous nations. Over the next hundred years, white settlers were encouraged to migrate to the colony and as this population expanded, Indigenous peoples were increasingly displaced.
What initially was characterized as an “open door” approach to immigration to populate and settle the land changed substantially in the late 19th century as eugenics gained prominence and restrictive measures that discriminated based on race and ethnicity, national origin, or political affiliation became cornerstones of Canadian immigration. Race based immigration controls were meant to control both the quantity and quality of the immigrant stock, as concerns with race suicide, or of non- white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant populations surpassing the British in numbers gained prominence. At the same time, while some were encouraged to enter into the newly founded settler nation in Canada, others were excluded under pretence of degeneracy, illegitimacy, and mental deficiency. Individuals of African, Indian, Asian, or Jewish descent faced barriers in immigrating, as did those deemed “enemy aliens” or members of certain religious, socialist, or anarchist groups. Discriminatory immigration measures largely based on racial categories remained in effect until the 1970s when Canada formally adopted a multicultural approach and skill and education arguably became the main criteria for determining entrance into the country. However, racism continues to inform immigration policy and the detention and treatment of, and rights accorded to, immigrants.
Indigenous peoples were excluded from nation-building partly based on notions of racial inferiority and the fear that miscegenation with newcomers would cause racial deterioration in the settler population. Racialized discourses also readily explained the negative impacts the colonial process was having on Aboriginal societies, whose disproportionate rates of ill health rose steadily through the introduction of disease and placement on reserves or in residential schools. Aboriginal ill health was often explained as resulting from an innate biological or hereditary taint on the part of Aboriginal peoples, rather than the deplorable conditions in which they were (are) forced to live, which were created by the colonial process. Although these forms of segregation could arguably be considered eugenic, Indigenous peoples were also subject to other interventions that were overtly racist or eugenic, like coerced sterilization, whereby Aboriginal women were sterilized under the Alberta Sexual Sterilization and in some other areas of Canada where no legislation was enacted, or the imposition of race based definitions of Indigeneity whereby Indian status is determined based on the percentage of Indian blood one has. These measures have been implemented in conjunction with an explicitly stated assimilation agenda and serve, first and foremost, to undermine Indigenous connections to their lands and resources and to reinforce the legitimacy of Canada as a settler colonial nation.
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