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A Fascist Take on Canadian History

Portrait of the ‘good, old days’ of Anglo-Saxon white supremacy in Canada fails as scholarship, succeeds as warning.

Crawford Kilian 28 Sep

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

This is a deeply disappointing book by a scholar who should have been able to do much better. But its failures should not encourage complacency in the great majority of Canadians. On the contrary, it implicitly assures us that white racism in Canada is alive, and almost immune to debate.

Duchesne is a professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, where he has been a prolific author of articles and a popular professor for over 20 years. As a retired prof who did standup teaching for 40 years, while writing a lot, I can relate.

The thesis of most of his articles and his two previous books is that Western culture’s historic success is due to its individualist, aristocratic and warlike nature. He shows up a lot on YouTube. He also contributes to a blog called Eurocanadian, where on Sept. 21 he published a post titled “Europeans The Greatest In Everything Since The Beginning.”

OK. But we can’t expect a simple blog post to be tightly reasoned and heavily documented. Such a bold assertion requires book-length proof. I haven’t read his first two books, but Duchesne sent me a PDF of this one, published in August.

He did so because a couple of years ago I argued that scholars like Duchesne are the whole point of academic freedom: to pursue the truth as scholars see it, and to publish their findings whether popular or not. Those may have been the kindest words he’s heard from anyone in academe except his students, so I accepted his offer to look at his new book.

His original email set off alarms, however: “The establishment will try to ignore it, though it has been on some best seller lists at Amazon. It is the only dissenting book by an academic on the most important question of our times.” Terms like “establishment,” plus appeals to popularity, uniqueness and self-defined importance, are the language of the crank who has been identified and rightly ignored.

His publisher, Black House Publishing, set off more alarms. It appears to focus on books about fascism, by fascists — including Benito Mussolini and British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. One of Black House’s most prolific authors is Kerry Bolton, a New Zealander described by Wikipedia as a neo-Nazi.

If Duchesne couldn’t find a Canadian university or commercial publisher to bring out his book, why would he choose such a dubious outlet? The “establishment” argument doesn’t work. Plenty of authors find commercial services to publish their work, or publish it themselves. But Duchesne picked a publisher that would immediately raise suspicions.

I am making such a fuss about his blog posts and publisher because they tell me not that his book is unwelcome to the “establishment,” but that it’s really not much good — whether as scholarship or as polemic.

A parody of scholarship

When we get into his book itself, it looks almost like a parody of a scholarly assault on some ancient orthodoxy. In his “polemical introduction” to Anatomy of Criticism, Canadian scholar Northrop Frye changed literature by attacking earlier forms of literary criticism, and presenting a new approach in a series of enormously erudite essays. Sixty years later, Duchesne’s polemic preface accurately predicts only the failure of his later chapters.

That failure is foretold by Duchesne’s vocabulary: he relies on populist clichés like “establishment,” “elites,” “transnational elites,” and “cultural Marxists.” He never defines them. For that matter, he never defines “race” or “whites.” He smoothly redefines “Indigenous” as any Canadian-born child of European immigrants. The First Nations can’t be nations to Duchesne, only tribes, because nations are a European invention.

The clichés never quit: Duchesne asserts, without evidence, that we are in “a new global order dominated by corporations and human rights concepts concocted by well-off academics and ‘experts’ out of touch with their own people.”

Duchesne is a hard-working researcher, but no analyst of what he finds. He cites Canada’s first census, in 1871, to argue that the new country had just 23,000 natives, barely more than the 21,500 blacks. But an Indigenous population that small wouldn’t have kept the Hudson’s Bay Company in furs for two centuries before Confederation.

The population of First Nations on the B.C. coast alone was estimated at 60,000 in the 1860s — before a disastrous smallpox epidemic wiped out 20,000 of them and shattered their centuries-old societies. The population of the coast before the first arrival of smallpox in the 18th century was likely 100,000 or more. Duchesne takes no notice of the demographic disasters that conveniently depopulated the Americas for the Europeans.

‘An indescribable array...’

I know from my own research on B.C.’s black pioneers that blacks were here, and a political power, well before Confederation, and Western Canada was full of not only Indigenous peoples but Chinese, Hawaiians, South Americans and countless others. As one 1858 gold rush observer put it, they were “an indescribable array of Polish Jews, Italian fishermen, French cooks, jobbers, speculators of every kind...”

When he does stick to facts, Duchesne competently summarizes a lot of Canadian history and immigration policy. He’s certainly correct that our founders and subsequent governments intended this to be a “white man’s country” for most of our first century, and their policies reflected that intent — from the head tax to the residential schools and the deportation of Japanese-Canadians in 1942. The non-Anglo-Saxons recruited to populate the West — Ukrainians, Doukhoubors, and others — were expected to grow a lot of food and show due respect to their betters.

Orientals no, seances yes

But he takes 19th-century Anglo-Saxon racism as a sound and still-relevant analysis of the Canadian situation, with no suggestion that it might have been mistaken or self-serving. Sure, Mackenzie King didn’t want “Orientals” in Canada; he also held seances to communicate with his dead mother.

That racism was still in full throat in the 1920s, when Anglo-Saxon Canadian novelists were writing about the First World War and its aftermath, and fretting about the “mongrels” who would soon be filling Canadian as well as American streets.

While lamenting the decay of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, Duchesne really doesn’t say what was so great about it. We were no race of individualist, warlike aristocrats. (In the First World War, however, the Brits considered our proletarian soldiers a mob of dangerous and insubordinate louts.)

Supremacy brought no golden age of industry and culture. Our literature was abjectly colonial, rising to its peak with the humour of Stephen Leacock. For all the immigrants we recruited, we suffered a net loss to the mongrel U.S. We didn’t really emerge from British domination until the 1930s, and immediately sought protection as an American satellite.

Our present economic and social catastrophe

For reasons Duchesne never explains, this ruling class of Anglo-Saxon mediocrities somehow lost its nerve and let things go to hell: the Chinese got the vote, the First Nations got the vote, immigration was opened to the whole world. Pierre Trudeau proclaimed multiculturalism, and now his son, with “the mind of a 12-year-old,” is in power.

That pretty well finished us, Duchesne thinks. We went from tolerable bilingual biculturalism to evil multiculturalism, which resulted in the economic and social catastrophe we see around us every day: a US$1.5 trillion GNP, 35 million highly educated people and a ranking as second-best country in the world to live in, after Switzerland. (Not to mention a University of New Brunswick where Dr. Duchesne has wowed his students, on the multicultural taxpayers’ dollar, for 20 years.)

Granted, we could and should do better in the art of yodelling and production of cuckoo clocks. But events and numbers suggest that Canada began to pull itself together precisely when Anglo-Saxon white supremacy began to fail.

Now, here is why Ricardo Duchesne’s book deeply disappoints me: not that it’s racist, but that it’s nonsense, a parody of scholarly argument. It’s close to what Northrop Frye called “anatomy,” a satire on real scholarship.

An attitude is not enough

All his vast research and meticulous footnotes make Duchesne the leading intellectual of an aspiring Canadian fascism. But as the British historian Tony Judt observed before he died, “The fascists don't really have concepts. They have attitudes.”

You can’t debate an attitude, because attitudes are fact-free. Ricardo Duchesne has an attitude, not a thesis, that life was better under European rule because Europeans are (indefinably) superior. Other white Canadians may adopt the same attitude, just as some white Americans have adopted the attitudes of Donald Trump. They will be deaf to reason and fact just as Duchesne clearly is.

And in that case, when Canadian fascists emerge in our classrooms or boardrooms or legislatures, we won’t be able to debate them. As Jean-Paul Sartre noted about anti-Semites, they think debate itself is a joke. Instead, we will just have to let them speak, and keep track of them and those who follow them.

I say this because over 50 years ago, the U.S. Army taught me a valuable political lesson: when your enemy is out there in the dark, you can’t tell where he is. But if he so much as sneezes, or coughs, you know he’s there. Let him go on making noise, while you unlock your safety and get his range.  [Tyee]

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