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Distant Relations: How My Ancestors Colonized North America

by Victoria Freeman

Toronto-based author Victoria Freeman used to be like many Canadians: disconnected from her own history, ignorant about the extent to which her family has contributed to the dispossession of aboriginal people, yet saddled with an amorphous sense of guilt. So she researched her family history, going as far back as the parents of John Wheeler, a barber who emigrated from England in 1634 and settled in the Puritan colonies (her family eventually settled in Upper Canada in the early 19th century).

In the 17th century, Freeman shows, aboriginal people and the first English colonists traded and lived side by side. After King Philip’s War, in which the Puritans fought the Wapanoag and Narragansett nations for the last unceded remnants of aboriginal land, that relatively peaceful co-existence came to a crashing halt. Aboriginal people were forced to fight to survive: in essence, the Puritans forced aboriginal people to become the savages of their own stereotypes, not rational people with legitimate political grievances. Freeman also discusses the fundamental difference in approach to land transfers: aboriginal people believed they signalled an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship, while the colonial government(s) viewed them as one-time business deals. This approach was repeated in Canada.

Unfortunately, Freeman’s excellent analysis is buried among historical minutiae easily found elsewhere. And although one might expect the personal details to enliven the textbook parade of dates and names, the author sticks with Western historical method and commits herself only to those facts that can be “proven.”

Freeman says Canadians think of history in generalities to which they have no connection. History is not of their making, hence, they have no responsibility for it. Distant Relations makes clear that colonialism is an ongoing process started centuries ago by ordinary people, with the benefits passed down to today’s average Canadian.