Colonial baggage: Canada considers a colony in Armenia

armenia cartoonWhen Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently declared that Canada lacked the “baggage” of a colonial past, he was taking a step beyond his predecessor Stephen Harper’s claim that Canada had “no history of colonialism.” Trudeau conceded that the Canadian government had acted in colonial ways towards Indigenous peoples, but that it had not done so outside its borders.

As Christo Aivalis has recently written on activehistory.ca, there is plenty of baggage in Canada’s history in the British Empire and its colonial-style relationships with the global South. In fact, Canada once debated obtaining a colony, coming close to ruling over Armenia after the First World War. This was a time when several countries grabbed new colonies under a “mandate” from the League of Nations: Britain took Palestine, Iraq, Tanganyika, and other African territories; France took Syria, Cameroon, Togo, and more; Japan grabbed some Pacific islands. The British dominions got in on the act as well, carving up piece of the former German colonial empire: Australia took a slice of New Guinea; New Zealand took Samoa; and South Africa grabbed Namibia. There were no German colonies near Canada, but policymakers in Ottawa speculated about taking over some British-ruled pieces of the West Indies, perhaps even the Falkland Islands.

Canada’s colonial gaze fell most directly, however, on Turkish-ruled Armenia. This part of the former Ottoman Empire experienced a brutal genocide during the First World War. Genocide in Armenia engaged Canadian church and public sympathy, and considerable Canadian charitable aid. Armenia had been slated for a potential League of Nations mandate administered by the United States. When the United States remained outside the League, the search was on for other possible mandatory powers. First-choice Norway proving unwilling, British delegate Lord Curzon informed a League meeting that Canada would take the mandate. The news came as a surprise in Ottawa, which issued a swift denial that any such proposal was under consideration.

There is more to the story, however. As Aram Adjemian recounts, the fact that Canada could be announced as committed was the result of extensive campaigning by missionaries and The Globe newspaper for relief aid to Armenians facing mass killings. The relief campaign drew on images of Turkish cruelty and the persecution of Armenian Christians. George Munro Grant and other stalwarts of Canadian imperialism had raised $30,000 for Armenian relief in the 1890s; a campaign in The Globe in the early months of 1920 raised $300,000. As Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa assumed colonial mandates under League of Nations auspices, it was natural that some Canadians considered taking on the same “duty.” The Globe, for instance, ran a front-page cartoon suggesting that Canadian troops might have to accompany Canadian relief supplies.

Elite voices in Canada called for the country to take up the “duty” of a mandate. Canada, argued H. F. Angus in The University Magazine, had the qualities needed for a mandatory power: strength adequate to the task, disinterestedness, enterprise, responsibility, idealism, and reasonableness. The Canadian cabinet fuelled expectations that it might take on the mandate by noting that it was “absolutely opposed to return of any Armenian provinces of Turkey to Turkish rule.” (This and other Canadian documents are available in the print editions of the marvellous series Documents on Canadian External Relations.) That month (April 1920), Curzon made his claim that Canada stood ready to take on a mandate. In November, the League passed a resolution calling for an armed force to halt hostilities in Turkish Armenia and invited Canada among others to take part; in a one-sentence telegram, Prime Minister Arthur Meighen’s government refused to do so. Meighen was soon out of power, but Mackenzie King was no keener to deploy troops to Turkey. Meighen’s government did respond to public sympathy for the Armenians by voting (with just seven others, and in opposition to Britain and the other Dominions) to admit Armenia to the League of Nations in December 1920.

Advocacy of the Canadian mandate proposal continued. A mandate would be “a fine thing,” in the words of one typical appeal from 1921, penned by L.P. Chambers in The Globe:

Such an act would put Canada “on the map” in international affairs; would give Canada a new sense of nationhood arising out of the assumption of a new responsibility; would place on Canada her share of the “white man’s burden” and thus serve to justify the fast-waning confidence of the Armenian people in the humanitarian idealism of the Anglo-Saxons, and finally would give Canadian enterprise, political, industrial and commercial, a fine field for effort and adventure.

Canadian debates over the possibility of taking on a colonial mandate over a Third World territory underlined the link between empire and an emerging Canadian diplomatic self-image as an advocate of justice. Only the conclusion of a new treaty more favourable to Turkey ended talk of a mandate for Armenia once and for all. Canada, however, had very definitely considered becoming a colonial power overseas. The pressure to do so had drawn on images of a backward and barbaric Turk and on the duties that fell to noble humanitarian Anglo-Saxons—Canada as much as other colonial powers.

(An earlier version of this post appears in my chapter in the book Canada and the Third World: Overlapping Histories. Thanks for research assistance go to Jessica Morais.)

 

How to show (and yet hide at the same time) linguistic diversity

There’s a great graphic making the rounds online:

Infographic: The Countries With The Most Spoken Languages | Statista

Which is fascinating: linguistic diversity lives in Papua New Guinea more than anywhere else in the world. Indonesia (boosted by West Papuan numbers as well as its own vast store of languages) holds down second spot. Nigeria, India, the USA and China are also leaders.

The graphic (and its source web page) shows something important: linguistic diversity. But it also conceals which are the most linguistically diverse regions by simply adding up the number of “living languages” spoken in each country. So the top countries, other than PNG, are mostly just the world’s largest countries (minus Japan, a country rarely accused of linguistic diversity).

Credit for the source data goes to Ethnologue‘s table of “living languages.” But scroll down and there’s a better measure of linguistic diversity that considers number of languages relative to the country’s size. PNG is still tops, cramming more than 10% of the world’s spoken languages into one country that takes up half of the incredibly diverse island of New Guinea. (The other half of the island is swallowed up in high-population Indonesia, though West Papua is also remarkably diverse – a factor that boosts its movement for independence from Indonesia.) But languages compared to total population? The most diverse list runs like this:

  1. Papua New Guinea
  2. Cameroon
  3. Vanuatu
  4. Solomon Islands
  5. Central African Republic

Run down the list further for many more African countries in high spots. Africa and the Pacific – and especially Melanesia, the “African Pacific” – dominate. The USA and China are well back, though India, Nigeria and Indonesia still display a high degree of diversity. In other words, the map like so many makes the world’s most powerful countries look more important on this measure than they really are. And of course it masks the dominance of a dominant majority language in both China and the USA.

Among “Western” countries, Canada is ranked with the highest linguistic diversity. Which raises another issue with the graphic: an erasing of Indigenous languages in the global North. The definition of “living language” is a language with at least one person speaking it as their first language. That, too, could begin to erase First Nations languages in Canada from the statistics even if they live on as the second language of significant numbers of people.

Ironically, Wikipedia maps it better (though small countries are still hard to see: Timor-Leste with a million people and at least 20 languages is invisible, for instance). Here’s their image of global linguistic diversity based on the same index used by Ethnologue:

Ethnologue_18_linguistic_diversity_index_BlankMap-World6.svg

Appealing to the League of Nations

The League of Nations can’t get no respect. Among academics this is changing, as researchers tell redemptive stories about the League and the end of empires or the emergence of international society in this period, for instance. But the League’s image, for those who think about it, still tends to be mostly that of the useless talking shop that could not prevent military aggressions leading up to the Second World War.

Back in the League’s day, though, it was the chosen court of appeal for people seeking independence during a “Wilsonian moment” of self-determination. That’s true even for people living in territories ruled by such “non-colonial” powers as Canada, New Zealand, and Turkey. A quick skim of League of Nations archival materials in Geneva reveals appeals to the League for justice from places as diverse as Korea (seeking freedom from Japan), the Grand River Territory of the Six Nations Confederacy (1924), the Maori of Aotearoa / New Zealand (1925), Turkish-controlled Kurdistan (1925), Scotland (1928), the Vietnamese community exiled in Thailand (1930), and Baluchistan (1933) from whence came the assertion that the Baluch people had always been independent, never part of India.

Documents can help tell these stories, and show that these claims for independence are far from new, that claims to be free from British imperial control pre-date the foundation of post-British states like Canada and New Zealand. (Thanks to Bishop’s University undergrad Matthew Robinson for research assistance in finding these documents in Geneva.)

6N

Some of the documents related to the appeal of the Six Nations Confederacy to the League in the early 1920s,  appear at a special blogspot site on the Six Nations Appeal that I created to support a forthcoming book chapter. This one shares documents from three archives on  how the Six Nations used images of ‘picturesque Indians’ to win European sympathy and the backing of the governments of Estonia, Ireland, Panama and Persia (a collection of countries without much in common other than a sympathy for the Six Nations cause and an unimpressed attitude towards Canada’s actions at the League).

drummondThere are many more.

When a Maori delegation arrived in Geneva in 1924 asking to see League Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond, he dodged the group and asked a subordinate to deliver the bad news that the League could not help them – but not before noting the case was “very similar to that of the Chief of the ‘Six Peoples'” in its nature.

One that resonates the most may be from a group of Kurds in Baghdad, then controlled by the British Empire. The Kurdish appeal speaks of terrors committed by the Turkish government upon Kurds living in Turkey. The petitioners to the League felt the “national existence” of the Kurdish people was in threat from “ignoble killings” and asked “the civilized world” to help end “the bloody violence of the Turks against our oppressed nation.”

kurdistanTime heals no wounds: these are mostly ongoing struggles, whether non-violent (Six Nations or Scotland) or all too violent (as in the case of the Kurds in Turkey). If the League had been able to provide justice, or even a hearing, might these disputes have been less visceral today?