On Thursday, I vote to rectify hundreds of years of colonialism. Canadian media is quick to inform that Scotland’s referendum is a matter of great importance to us and our Scottish “cousins,” eager to tell us this process is eerily similar to Quebec’s aspirations of sovereignty.
Less attention, however, has been paid to the concrete relationship between Canada’s indigenous peoples and Scottish self-determination. As a Métis woman — with fur-trade roots that stretch back to 19th- and 20th-century Scotland, England and Ireland — working and studying in Scotland today, I am intensely, viscerally interested in what Scottish independence may mean for decolonization of indigenous peoples’ lives in both Canada and abroad.
It is no secret that Canada is, in many ways, one of the first iterations of Scottish independence. A recent museum exhibit at Aberdeen University explored the Scottish Diaspora to Canada, and the organizers went so far as to mount a Pioneer Day to celebrate the exciting lives that Scots migrants lived once they crossed the Atlantic and settled the Empty West. A conference to be held at the City Chambers in Glasgow in January 2015 plans to explore Sir John A. Macdonald’s role as “Son of Glasgow, Father of Canada.” There is a palpable, proud relationship that many Scots share over the links between Canada and Caledonia in the past and present. Some could even argue the Scots have more than proven their ability to run a country by the very founding of Canada in 1867 by Glasgow’s lost son.
However, the impact of Scottish migration and politics on indigenous people in Canada is quietly left out of these enthusiastic discourses. Nowhere is the genocidal role of Macdonald’s Indian residential schools, designed to kill the Indian in the child, brought up in the heroic tales of Scottish creation of the Canadian state. Nor is Macdonald’s racist Indian Act discussed broadly in contemporary Scottish discourses of Scots-Canada kinship. At a Trudeau Foundation Summer Institute in May 2013, Métis author Maria Campbell reminded us that everything that was practised on indigenous peoples in Canada by the English was first practised on the Scots and the Irish. Hierarchies of dispossession rarely end well. Margaret Atwood explores the unending recycling of colonial violence that spans the North Atlantic in her evocative 1978 poem Four Small Elegies: Beauharnois 1838, 1977. The English sacking of Québécois homes by Scots volunteers (themselves victims of displacement through the Highland Clearances) in Beauharnois in 1838 prompts Atwood to ask: “Those whose houses were burned/burned houses/Whatever else happens once you start?”
Yes, Scots suffered, but they migrated that suffering to Canada and re-enacted it upon other peoples. The omissions of the recirculations of Scottish dispossession upon populations in Canada are all the more glaring as some pundits in Scotland discuss the independence referendum as a means to a) “decolonize” an indigenous Scotland or b) compare Scottish independence with Quebec sovereignty.
I’m all for independence. I plan to vote “yes” with great enthusiasm Thursday, to stymie the impacts of the failing politics of London Rule and Etonian-led austerity on other parts of the United Kingdom. But I also hope to use this fervent local discourse of Scottish decolonization and anti-oppression as a means to insert a conversation about Scottish complicity in the colonization of Canada’s indigenous people into the Scottish zeitgeist.
What is often forgotten in diasporic narratives is that indigenous knowledge, stories, goods and resources flowed back to the U.K. and other colonial centres. Scottish museums are chock-a-block with pelts, furs, sacred items and other material culture brought back to the Isles by Hudson’s Bay men and their families. Scotland, though suffering from the Highland Clearances and other policies which disadvantaged some Scottish peoples, still benefited materially, economically and intellectually from its engagement with indigenous peoples and nations in Canada.
When I mark that “yes” on my ballot, it won’t be for some benevolent or fuzzy feeling of Scottish-Canadian kinship. It will be for my ancestors who bore the brunt of Scottish and English colonialism and survived all these generations to provide me with the means to return to the heart of the colonial empire to heal the pain of what was wrought upon the nations Britain enthusiastically oppressed.
For me, it will be a loving and audacious act of decolonization within and across nations.
Zoe Todd of Edmonton is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Aberdeen and is also a 2011 Trudeau Scholar.