I just returned home from a trip to New York, where everyone I met was very excited to meet a Canadian in real life. “What’s Canada like?” they asked, looking at me with eager, puppy eyes. “I think about moving there sometimes. What’s it like? What do you guys do there? Is it cold? Tell me everything.”
Americans don’t know much about Canada, and I don’t blame them. They live in the greatest country in the universe, apparently. The rest of the world is meant to plan itself around the U.S., rather than the other way around, and often that’s how things tend to go down anyway. Canada and the U.S. share the longest international border in the world, and yet, the average American could probably go their entire life knowing nothing really substantial about their northern neighbor beyond what they glean from Degrassi. When Americans do encounter Canada, it is usually in disguise — in movies and on TV, Toronto plays New York, Vancouver plays California, and presumably something else happens to the big empty space between those two cities (to its credit, Montreal can’t really play anywhere else, and Alberta hosts a lot of Westerns, but that’s about it). So I can forgive Americans for being clueless. I can forgive them their ignorance about this big, cold, confusing place just to the north of them. And that’s why I want to clear something up, once and for all, so I can put your minds at rest and save us all a lot of time and energy.
Here it is: Canada is fake.
Now, declaring a country “fake” is both a bold and boring statement. A lot of countries are fake, really; they all require a sort of collective willful suspension of disbelief. Patriotism feels a lot like being super into astrology — sure, you might not be hurting anyone, but don’t you think it’s a bit odd to be focused on what is essentially an accident of birth? So yes, maybe all countries are fake on some level. To achieve a collective identity among otherwise unaffiliated souls, most nation-states share the sort of commitment to the bit that Benedict Anderson, the scholar of nationalism, once described as an “imagined community.” The state itself is the best evidence we have for the claim that something can be both socially constructed and also terribly consequential — a border is an utterly unnatural thing, something that is so flimsy and nonsensical that states spend billions of dollars maintaining the illusion of their reality every year. Canada, the US, Australia, Belgium, etc. are all obviously unreal and also devastating in their real impact.
Canada is a scam — a pyramid scheme, a ruse, a heist. Canada is a front.
But when I say that Canada is fake, I don’t mean anything so universal or theoretical. Canada is not an accident or a work in progress or a thought experiment. I mean that Canada is a scam — a pyramid scheme, a ruse, a heist. Canada is a front. And it’s a front for a massive network of resource extraction companies, oil barons, and mining magnates.
If you’ve never attended a Canadian history class, here is the short version: European settlers spent their first years in this part of the continent hunting beavers en masse in order to turn their pelts into fancy hats. Founded through the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay company operated as the de facto government in large portions of what is now Canada for nearly 200 years between 1670-1869. Private enterprises like these, with backing from the French and then the British governments, claimed larger and larger swathes of the continent to claim more and more fur, lumber, and ore, often directly stealing from and overpowering Indigenous trading systems that had been sustainably in place for thousands of years. Eventually they spread their land grab all the way to the Pacific Ocean and the northern coastlines in pursuit of gold, silver, iron, copper, nickel, and diamond reserves. The eventual formation of Canada as “Canada” came about in the late 1800s for nakedly economic reasons, primarily to benefit the companies and conglomerates that were trading Canadian natural resources with the British, but also to facilitate railroad construction (using slave labor) in which civic leaders had investments.
On some level, this history closely mirrors that of all colonial states. It’s a pattern that Marx once described as “primitive accumulation,” the principle economic drive of colonialism. Through the enclosure and seizure of resources, for the purposes of their privatization, entire populations and regions are brought into the scope of a ruling class which now owns the means of production and has the power to exploit workers with no choice but to accept the conditions forced upon them. So while Canada is not unique as a colony, it’s done a particularly poor job of adapting to its new status as a “country.” Canada lacks a cohesive identity or sense of itself as anything besides “not the US.” Our population is tiny, spread mostly along the southern border, and in most of the land mass — the parts claimed by “the crown” and private companies, and largely inhabited by Indigenous communities that have lived there since the beginning of human memory — anything resembling state services or essential infrastructure is few and far between. Even the few defining things we can claim as “Canadian,” like socialized medicine or pristine wilderness, are under threat by conservative politicians with an eye for privatization. The pattern of primitive accumulation continues.
This pattern lies at the heart of the shell corporation we call “Canada,” and forms the logic of both domestic and international policy. The mining industry is the most egregious example. Over 75 percent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada. There’s some historical rationale here — the country was literally built on, around, and by the resource extraction industry. Still, this ridiculous preponderance is largely due to intentional moves by Canadian federal and provincial governments to attract mining money. For instance, mining companies can legally lay claim to minerals found underneath the ground basically anywhere in the province of Ontario, and in British Columbia, mining companies can stake claims on land without even having to be physically present.
Most of the physical geography of Canada is used for resource extraction purposes; nearly 90 percent of the land in Canada is “owned” by federal or provincial governments (41 percent and 48 percent, respectively), and most of that land is licensed out for private companies to use largely as they see fit. Maybe that’s why Canada is so reluctant to address its outsized role in global climate catastrophe, even though Canada is warming at twice the global average. And Canada has exported that environmental destruction elsewhere as well, because mining is effectively the basis of Canadian foreign policy. Canadian mining companies have free rein to devastate lands and communities in Central America and throughout Africa, and face virtually no consequences.
In violating Wet’suwet’en territorial sovereignty by pushing the Coastal GasLink pipeline ahead, Canada is continuing its practice of colonialism and primitive accumulation.
The thing is, none of this is new. It’s only recently, though, that this fact has become impossible for Canadians to ignore. In January 2019, Canadian police descended upon the Unist’ot’en camp with snipers and chainsaws. Commanders of the iconically-Canadian Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) gave instructions to use “as much violence” as they want to confront members of the Wet’suwet’en nation — an Indigenous people whose territory lies directly in the path of a planned pipeline carrying natural gas from Alberta to the Pacific coast. The Wet’suwet’en set up the Unist’ot’en camp back in 2009, as a barricade against proposed pipelines set to cut through the region. In recent years, the camp has expanded to meet new threats, including those posed by a company called Coastal GasLink, backed by the RCMP, which aims to bulldoze through the territory to build a pipeline.
The lands in question are technically unceded, meaning that they lie fully outside of the jurisdiction of the Canadian state — this land was never officially incorporated into the Canadian state, and the people there never entered into formal treaties with Canadian colonists. In fact, as a 1997 Supreme Court case established, Indigenous land rights and title have never been extinguished in traditional Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan territory, meaning that the lands rightfully ought to be governed by Indigenous laws, which the courts recognized as far predating any colonial presence in the region. It is, literally, not Canada. Still, Canadian police forced their way onto and through the land, violating Wet’suwet’en sovereignty and the demands of their political leaders, simply to privatize resources for colonial use and abuse.
In violating Wet’suwet’en territorial sovereignty by pushing the Coastal GasLink pipeline ahead, Canada is continuing its practice of colonialism and primitive accumulation. What’s more, Canada is violating international laws around military occupation and around the rights of Indigenous people. Right now, as I write this, members of Wet’suwet’en nation are still resisting, facing mass arrest and state violence, to protect their lands from privatization at the barrel of a gun. But for Canada, this is business as usual. The siege on Wet’suwet’en is a microcosm of what makes Canada “Canada.” The logic of resource extraction, led by private companies and enforced by the state, is what motivates Canadian policy and justifies Canadian national identity. Canada is three mining companies in a trench coat, wearing a stupid hat and carrying a gun.
Scratch the surface, and that’s all that’s underneath it. Canada is fake. But the consequences are real.