Introduction: Defining Colonialism

If you’ve ever noticed a blue-green mould on your bread, that’s called a “colony” of bacteria. You’ve no doubt seen, as well, a “colony” of ants. Neither penicillin nor ants (scwicwéye, in Secwepemctsin), however, have a conscious goal, a strategic plan, or an ideological framework to inform what they are doing. Ants and mould are all tactics.

Human colonies share some qualities with those of other animals. They might start as an outpost and will only really succeed when they have the wherewithal to increase their numbers sustainably through natural increase. Norse migrants to Beothuk or Innu territories in the twelfth century included women and men, so the possibility of establishing a biological colony existed. But this was a false start, one that lacked the backward linkages to sustain settlements. Basque and Breton fishing and whaling fleets reached Mi’kmaq waters over a sustained period of time from the early sixteenth century, if not before. These encounters were typical of European efforts to exploit natural resources, to view the Americas as an account from which they could withdraw and into which they would make few deposits. Early Basque visitors consisted entirely of male populations whose goal was not to establish anything other than temporary and seasonal forward positions; they had the advantage of regular return voyages and the possibility of bringing commercial or naval reinforcements, but they had no interest in doing so.

Other missions from Spain developed different ideas about colonization. Encounters with gold-rich civilizations in Mexico and Peru, and with agricultural communities in the Caribbean Basin and along the north and west shores of South America, had three principal consequences for Europe as a whole. First, injections of precious metals charged up all the Western European economies. English rope-makers, for example, refined their skills working on Iberian naval contracts; that expertise enabled the English themselves to build up their shipping and naval capacity. Merchants in coastal towns were the main beneficiaries, and gold began to accumulate in vaults that were owned by someone other than royals. Wealth thus begat a wealth-oriented and hungry class that saw the western Atlantic as a source of still further wealth and influence. This fed the second outcome of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European encounters with the Western Hemisphere: the prospect of getting rich quick. Sixteenth-century French expeditions into the St. Lawrence Valley were tasked with finding a northern “El Dorado,” a city of gold to compare with Cuzco. They were disappointed, of course, and the prospect of a French colony of any kind in the region was deferred for half a century. Similar motives drove English, Swedish, Scottish, and Dutch explorations of the East Coast of North America and farther south, many of which stalled badly.

The third model of European colonialism—one that attracted European investors and empires—was the planter model developed by the Spanish on Caribbean islands. The encomienda was a grant offered by Castille to land seized an ocean away. Conquistadores and holy orders set up plantations that were soon shipping agricultural products to Spain. These depended on Indigenous labour: voluntary, indentured, but most often forced. In Mexico and Peru some of the grantees were Indigenous individuals and communities, but increasingly in the sixteenth century the norm was Europeans of modest status acquiring tenure on land that their families could effectively inherit. This was land—and mineral resources—that, thanks to Indigenous labour, they were able to exploit profitably.

The experience of New Spain established ideas and goals that infected all of Western Europe. European colonialism became inextricably connected to exploitation of Indigenous populations and, very often, their displacement and resettlement. Some of the colonies established in the first two hundred years after contact were highly aggressive in this respect, some less so. The fundamental features, however, could be observed in every instance: the transfer of European humans and associated biota (including animals, plants, seeds, and germs), the establishment of settlements that were distinct and separate from Indigenous communities (and often defined by that very separation), and the exploitation of landscape and ecosystems with an eye to enriching imperial homelands.

In these ways, European colonialist ideals, goals, and strategies occurred on a spectrum. English and Scottish territorial appetites produced a particular kind of colonialism in New England and Pennsylvania. Slavery was limited—not least by the pitched resistance mounted by Indigenous peoples in the region—and the dominant feature was the establishment of towns surrounded by farms on which settler populations grew largely from their own resources. English colonies farther south gradually became land-hungry, too, and when they did, they did so with a vengeance. Plantations spread inland along river systems, devouring landscapes and making extensive use of white indentured servants and, more spectacularly, slave labour: Indigenous and African. Dutch traders established posts at the mouth and along the course of the Hudson River, focusing less on an agrarian frontier than on commerce. This model of colonialism was abandoned as soon as English competitors took over New Netherlands and renamed it New York.

These approaches were not a reflection of ethnic predilection. There wasn’t something inherent to the English that led them to colonize in this way or that. The variety of colonial strategies reflects changing circumstances and attitudes.

Contrast this image of Hochelaga—which was in all likelihood drawn up by the cartographer Giacomo de Gastaldi after Cartier’s visit—with the maquette, pictured below. Source: La Terra de Hochelaga Nella Nova Francia, 1565, drawing, MIKAN No. 3810432, Library and Archives of Canada.
Model of the Iroquoian village of Hochelaga, from the descriptions of Jacques Cartier and other Quebec archaeological sites. Source: Travail Personnel, Maquette du Village d’Hochelaga, January 6, 2018, model by Michel Cadieux, Wikipedia. Photo by Pierre5018 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Colonialism 1.0

At a Gaspé fishing station in 1534, Donnacona (the leader of Stadacona, the largest of a multitude of Iroquoian villages or kanata in the St. Lawrence valley) encountered a French expedition. Upbraiding the foreigners for erecting a cross on his territory, Donnacona narrowly avoided being abducted. Instead, he agreed to send his sons to France for a year. Taignoagny and Domagaya were thus the first Iroquoians to visit Europe.

Donnacona’s purpose in this arrangement can be guessed as twofold: to build goodwill with and gather intelligence on the visitors. The following year the young men returned, fluent in French and wary of their erstwhile “hosts.” Stadacona itself (subsequently the site of Québec City) received the 1535 French expedition and permitted the Europeans to proceed farther upriver to the height of navigation. Taignoagny and Domagaya persuaded the French that they were on the brink of a northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean; swallowing this disinformation, the French called the rapids that blocked their way “Lachine,” as in “China.” The kanata nearby—Hochelaga—was a heavily fortified town of some three thousand, surrounded by cornfields. The French were invited in for a tour and then headed back downriver. Stadacona was closer to the sea and therefore more attractive to the little French fleet, so it was on Donnacona’s hospitality that they had to rely. The river froze up around their vessels, and the French—comprised of 110 men—had little plan beyond survival through the winter of 1535–36. By December, however, the French were already crippled with scurvy; twenty-five of their number perished, and the rest were spared only because the Stadaconans provided a cure. The Stadaconans themselves were not so lucky. Some fifty died over the winter from an unidentified disease. It is unlikely that it was smallpox, because the disease usually takes a heavier toll and it does not stay dormant in human carriers very long (the French had been at sea for nearly eight months). But it was certainly a foretaste of one aspect of the Columbian Exchange in North America.

The French found nothing in the way of riches in this visit, and they managed to alienate the Iroquoians everywhere they went. They doubled down on kidnapping and sailed home in May 1536 with ten unwilling Stadaconans, including Donnacona himself. None of them lived long enough to return to Iroquoia. The French, however, inflated whatever hints and tales of mineral wealth and a passage to China that they had heard from the Iroquoians in order to get funding for a third visit to the region. In 1541–42, they proved even more intolerable than before. Gathering up what they mistook for samples of gold and diamonds, they returned home to unimpressed sponsors.[1] Religious wars and other concerns put further French forays on hold for the rest of the sixteenth century.

These, then, were additional “false starts.” No trading, religious, or diplomatic colonies were established, let alone settlements with an eye to permanence or biological sustainability. The French in the sixteenth century were simply concerned to loot the locals. This matters to our study because the longer relationship between Indigenous peoples and the French took a different turn: practically, philosophically, and territorially.

The Columbian Exchange in the Northeast

Broadly speaking, the “Columbian Exchange” refers to the transfer of technologies, manufactured and processed goods, raw materials, biota (plants, animals, bacteria, viruses), and ideas. If we think of the process hemispherically, by far the greatest impacts on Europe came from Mesoamerica: corn, tomatoes, cocoa, squash, beans, gold, and silver, etc. The Northeast principally provided pelts, which may seem like a real step down from precious metals, but the long-term impact of direct mercantile involvement and the building of processing capacity in Europe necessary to turn furs into hats all contributed to the rise of a middle class, democratic ideals, and manufacturing.

What did the Northeast get in return? Metal products—copper pots, iron and steel tools, sewing needles—and new technologies, including swords, knives, and guns; manufactured cloth and clothing; new aesthetics of dress; distinctive spiritual ideas; bacteria and death.

Whatever became of the Laurentian Iroquois, we know with certainty that the Wendat, Pequot, Wabanaki, Haudenosaunee, and all their neighbours suffered terribly from introduced epidemics. In 1610, a French Jesuit recorded the thoughts of Chief Membertou, who stated that Mi’kmaq and Wabanaki numbers had collapsed in his lifetime; as a youth, he saw people:

. . . as thickly planted there as the hairs upon his head. It is maintained that they have thus diminished since the French have begun to frequent their country . . . During this year alone sixty have died at [indistinct], which is the greater part of those who lived there.[2]

Speculation as to whether diseases were introduced on purpose is moot: one cannot command smallpox into action. What is more, Europeans had no idea how it worked, at least not until long after the worst damage had been done. It is worth noting that no disease from Turtle Island had any comparable impact on Europe. The deck was, in this respect, stacked.

This is a point that could be reiterated and repeated endlessly, so keep it in mind: whatever else was going on in the histories of Indigenous peoples from 1492 to the present, there was always the background noise of epidemics, huge death rates, and persistent illness and fear. Whether it’s smallpox or measles or tuberculosis, it’s always part of the story. Life may have been nasty, brutish, and short for the European intruders as well, but nothing so apocalyptic pursued their every step, and nothing destabilized their societies and economies in the same way.

Colonialism 2.0

What the French attempted in the sixteenth century—or rather, what they hoped to attempt—is sometimes called classic, classical, or metropole colonialism. The goal is plunder, often won at the point of a sword and with forced labour provided by the locals. “Settler colonialism,” however, quickly came to define the European approach to northeastern North America, and it has cast a long shadow on the history of Indigenous peoples as a result. Settler colonialism can be said to have three principal features:

First, settler colonisers “come to stay”: unlike colonial agents such as traders, soldiers, or governors, settler collectives intend to permanently occupy and assert sovereignty over indigenous lands. Second, settler colonial invasion is a structure, not an event: settler colonialism persists in the ongoing elimination of indigenous populations, and the assertion of state sovereignty and juridical control over their lands. Despite notions of post-coloniality, settler colonial societies do not stop being colonial when political allegiance to the founding metropole is severed. Third, settler colonialism seeks its own end: unlike other types of colonialism in which the goal is to maintain colonial structures and imbalances in power between colonizer and colonized, settler colonization trends towards the ending of colonial difference in the form of a supreme and unchallenged settler state and people. However, this is not a drive to decolonize, but rather an attempt to eliminate the challenges posed to settler sovereignty by indigenous peoples’ claims to land by eliminating indigenous peoples themselves and asserting false narratives and structures of settler belonging.[3]

European toeholds were established along the Atlantic seaboard, and settler colonialism got fully underway in the seventeenth century. The French encountered two different environments: Wabanahkik and the St. Lawrence Valley. The former was heavily populated by members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, particularly the Mi’kmaq. Settlement proceeded tentatively and was never aggressively focused on displacement. The Laurentian lands, however, presented different opportunities. For starters, the Iroquoian peoples who built Hochelaga, Stadacona, and other kanata were gone. Whether extirpated by imported disease, raided by the Haudenosaunee and/or Algonquin/Wendat neighbours, disrupted by climate change, or a combination of these and other factors, the Laurentian Iroquois effectively vacated the region. This left it more or less open to European settlement. It is certainly the case that Indigenous occupants and regular visitors to the region have been written out of Canadian history. Presented with a “vacant” land, the French very slowly filled it up.

The functionalist model introduced in what the French called “Canada” saw the establishment of commercial colonies that soon required settlement in order to provision the trading posts and merchant ships. By the late seventeenth century, these colonies were generating their own growth. They lacked, however, sufficient immigration to enable territorial aggrandizement: the old saying that the French were more modest or even humane in their colonialism really derives from the fact that they were scarcely able to hold on to what little they had. Within Acadia and Canada, however, the French regularly attempted to impose their authority, spiritual beliefs, laws, and culture. These efforts met with mixed results.

Settler metanarratives of North American history in the years before 1816 focus on competition between colonies: Dutch, English (after 1707, British), Spanish, and French. In the Northeast and around the Great Lakes, these were almost entirely conflicts with Indigenous roots. The Dutch fought the French through their Haudenosaunee clients, whose own ambitions had little to do with either of the European parties. The English followed suit and also took on the French in Acadia—motivated principally by Wabanakiak resistance to British settler colonialism. British assaults on Acadian settlements—culminating in le grand dérangement in the 1740s, ’50s, and ’60s—were provoked by effective Mi’kmaq guerrilla raids. These are examples of what Indigenous histories look like under settler colonialism: invisible. They are rendered so because the discourse becomes ossified into conflicts between “great powers”—that is, European empires.

Colonialism 3.0

The eighteenth century saw rapid colonial expansion along the Eastern coastline, but every now and again the advance of settler colonies was slowed. The dam finally broke at the end of the Napoleonic Wars generally and the War of 1812 specifically. Settlers and their armies rapidly devoured everything from the Canadian Shield south and from the Atlantic to the hundredth meridian. British North Americans and Mexicans might bridle at the professed “manifest destiny” of the United States of America, but their own commitment to annexation and transformation of Indigenous worlds was similarly driven.

Imperial governments sponsored their colonies against Indigenous communities, but London and Paris were not at the sharp edge of the settlers’ frontier. It was possible for France and Britain to demonstrate—in documents and deeds—a commitment to diplomatic relationships. The Proclamation Act of 1763 is frequently cited as the key document in the historic relationship between colonizers and Indigenous people insofar as it lays out principles by which colonist societies could—and could not—extend their reach. These principles were quickly rejected by most of settler society (in the form of the thirteen British colonies that coalesced into the United States). Governments and citizens in what was called, after 1783, “British North America,” however, were nominally bound to the Proclamation Act. The treaties that arose subsequently reflect this fact, whether honoured or breached.

By the late nineteenth century, settlers were advancing across the Great Plains and Prairies of the West and slithering up the fjords, valleys, and canyons on the Pacific coast. Their progress was marked by occasional outbreaks of violence. The British made use of gunboat diplomacy on the West Coast. Two emergent nation-states—the US and Canada—deployed armed troops to subdue Indigenous resistance. Indigenous leaders confronted this more hostile approach with a variety of responses, one of which was to seek (or in some cases acquiesce in) treaties. In the West and the Pacific Northwest, treaties bore similarities but also important differences. Even the annexation of all these regions (and the North and subsequently Newfoundland) under Confederation did not result in a standardization of practices or a uniform understanding of treaties’ meanings. Nor, for that matter, were treaties negotiated in all the territories that became Canada.

Armed conflict and formal agreements were only two facets of nineteenth-century colonialism. Cultural assaults were every bit as profound in their impact. Some cultural change was seized upon and directed by Indigenous peoples themselves. But these are topics dealt with in Part 3. The focus here is on the diplomatic confrontation between sovereign Indigenous societies and the growing settler colonial state.

Indigenous strategies for resistance to colonialism and control of the pace and character of change are many. The chapters that follow examine Indigenous perspectives on “colonial wars,” armed resistance to the settler frontier, and the litany and implications of treaty relationships.

Additional Resources

The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this section:

Alvarez, Alex. Native America and the Question of Genocide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. See esp. chap. 4.

Belshaw, John. Canadian History: Pre-Confederation. Vancouver: BCcampus, 2015. See esp. chap. 3, 4, 5, 6.9–10, 7, 13.1–13.5, 11.15.

Dickason, Olive, and David McNab. Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 4th ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009. See esp. pp. 160–82.

Madley, Benjamin. “Reexamining the American Genocide Debate: Meaning, Historiography, and New Methods.” American Historical Review 120, no. 1 (2015): 98–139.

  1. Barbara A. Mann, “Cartier, Jacques (French), c. 1492–1557,” Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), eds. Bruce Elliot Johansen and Barbara A. Mann (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000), 45–9.
  2. Quoted in Olive Dickason, “Louisbourg and The Indians: A Study in Imperial Race Relations, 1713–1760,” unpublished Master’s Thesis, Ottawa University, 1971, 45.
  3. Adam Barker and Emma Battell Lowman, “Settler Colonialism,” Global Social Theory, accessed March 12, 2018,


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada by John Belshaw, Sarah Nickel, and Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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