Interviews June 8, 2021

Money and Colonialism in Canada: An Interview with Brian Gettler

On 30 April 2013, live from the International Space Station, the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield unveiled a new $5 banknote. It featured some of Canada’s contribution to space exploration. Here the country is imagined as a modern state, willing to contribute to multilateral scientific endeavours for the common good of humankind.

Earth and the Great Lakes appear in the background, rendered from photographs supplied by the Department of Natural Resources. Having developed its own landmass, the image seems to imply, Canada now projects its knowhow to the confines of space. The twinned themes of internationalism and development are reinforced on the other side of the note. There features Wilfrid Laurier, a prime minister remembered for furthering an independent Canadian foreign policy within the British Empire and as an advocate of state-led Western settlement. If unlikely, Laurier and space exploration appear in the end an effective association for a banknote part of the “Frontier Series.”

Money, we might glean from this anecdote, is far from a commonplace and benign object. It carries political significance and power even beyond the symbols emblazoned upon notes and coins. Yet money and currencies seldom emerge as a focal point in histories of colonialism and empire; normally they are an accessory to express value, a tool of exchange, or a medium of early encounters. In Colonialism’s Currency: Money, State, and First Nations in Canada, 1820–1950, Brian Gettler sets out to correct this narrative. He shows how money, in its materiality and from the practices surrounding it, can be conceived of as a political force that reshapes space, mediates the colonial project, extends sovereignty, and modulates behaviours. It is for him, more precisely, a technology that allows us to trace the emergence of the colonial state in what becomes Canada, as well as its complex and changing relationships with Indigenous peoples.

Brian Gettler is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. He has just published Colonialism’s Currency with McGill-Queen’s University Press. In our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his new book, his historical interests, and how the history of currency in British North America can inform larger conversations about empire and colonialism.

—Martin Crevier, University of Cambridge

MARTIN CREVIER: What was your path to becoming a historian?

BRIAN GETTLER: It’s fairly idiosyncratic, but so is everyone’s story I imagine. I did a year abroad in Warwick, England. All my best friends there were international students and spoke at least another language perfectly. There I was: a clueless American. So that motivated me, but also opened up personal networks. I ended up living a year in Switzerland and doing my masters in France.

As to my move towards Canadian history, that was the result of multiple factors. In my second to last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took a class with Ned Blackhawk on Native American History. Even if I was a history major and particularly interested in the US, I realized that this was the first time I had thought about Native American history in any depth.

I maintained my interest, read voraciously, but ended up working in another field while studying in Europe – I was told at Université Lyon II that Indigenous history would be impossible to study there, even if, as I later discovered, the Society for the Propagation of Faith archives are in Lyon. My master’s thesis, in the end, was about early-modern French professional history.

But then I wanted to do a PhD. My partner was born in France and having heard good things, I applied on a lark to universities in Montreal. My initial impulse was to do US and Native American history, since that’s what I knew best. But now at the Université du Québec à Montréal, a Francophone institution with one of the largest contingents of Canadianists anywhere, and in Quebec, which is an interesting place in and of itself, I found myself surrounded with new and fascinating influences. I took the turn towards the history of Canada and Quebec and never looked back.

MC: And how did currency and monetary history come to fit into this?

BG: Back to my masters. When in France, somebody came in and spoke to us about materialist approaches to history – think Braudel, Annales, and so on. I was blown away! A few years later, speaking with my supervisor Alain Beaulieu, all this came back and I decided to merge and pursue these two new interests. I was really naïve. I thought I’d look at archives, find references to money, and just write a PhD. Obviously, it was more complicated and, fortunately, less boring.

MC: You mention Braudel, but in Colonialism’s Currency you claim that to understand the colonial state, one needs to be attentive to specificity and to context. We are far from the Olympian view associated with Braudel. Was this a conscious methodological pushback?

BG: Yes. It was a conscious decision. I was very fortunate in terms of the cohort of students that was doing the PhD with me. They tended to be very different – some top-down and some bottom-up thinkers in the mix. That got me considering all these questions and I actually came in thinking about writing a long-term history steeped in quantitative method.

But as I set up to write and research, I realized that Indigenous-state relations in Canada were largely interpretated as a normative history; a history where we read and create meaning from legal texts – the Indian Act says this and so the history must look somewhat like that. That bugged me, since it’s taking sources at face value. When we read the history of assimilation, for instance, we read officials saying again and again that they want to assimilate Indigenous peoples. Yet here we are today and there are hundreds of communities that see themselves as distinct societies. They have not been assimilated. So, you start by saying that the top-down rhetoric is inaccurate.

But you also start to entertain the idea that maybe it was never meant to be accurate; maybe assimilation was never the goal. To think about that I needed to look at it from the bottom-up and ask what was happening on the ground. You end up realizing that while in the Indian Act, for instance, you read that such and such is how things ought to work, but that there is a gulf between declared intent and reality.

MC: Your book is centred on three communities: the Wendat reservation of Wendake north of Quebec City, the Innu reservation of Mashteuiatsh on the Western shore of Lake Saint-John, and the Moose Cree First Nation on the west side of James Bay. Why these case studies?

BG: The way I chose those communities occurred along two axes. When I first started off, I was thinking of length and intensity of contact with settler society. Wendake is basically constituted through warfare in the 17th century, when some Huron-Wendot moved to the region of Quebec City. The second community, Mashteuiatsh, comes into regular and intense interaction with settler society much later in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. It’s right next to the fairly large town of Roberval, so it’s not at all a remote community and is part of this 19th-century settler socio-economic world. Finally, the Moose Cree First Nation, which is based near what was the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of Moose Factory, is now deeply connected to settler society, but it took a much longer time. It’s where the Hudson’s Bay Company activities were concentrated in James Bay. It has a very rich archive and thus it’s easier to study with more depth than other places might have been.

The second divide is the provincial one. That’s unavoidable in Canada. In francophone Quebec, people tend to write about Quebec, even people who write about Indigenous communities or their relationships with settler society. In the rest of Canada, people write about anywhere but Quebec. My initial idea was to see how important was this provincial difference. This fell out of the project a little but, it’s very much there if you look at elements, such as treaties.

Moose Factory Store, 1918. Photographer: Arthur M. Irvine. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, 2012/1/1-153 Irvine Album 1, 1957/1/14

MC: You start the book in the first third of the nineteenth century. This, of course, does not coincide with the introduction of European currency in the Americas. So, what happens then?

BG: In one sense my opening gambit is classic. The War of 1812 is a moment of rupture. It inaugurates a Canadian state-centric era of settler-Indigenous relations. But it’s important to point out that First Nations are also becoming marginalized in terms of their military importance – they are not involved in large scale warfare after this point and thus not in a position to play imperial powers against one another.

Following imperial conflicts, starting with the Seven Years War when the Department of Indian Affairs is born, to the American Revolution and onto the War of 1812, Britain imposes spending cuts. The later 1810s and into the 1820s is a moment of retrenchment, not unlike the periods of austerity we have seen in our lifetimes.

So-called Indian presents are a main issue. These had been a diplomatic tool, but with the end of imperial wars in North America, British commanders and treasury officials no longer see the use of these relationships. However, officials understand that First Nations are attached presents and that they cannot simply be done away with. In the mid-1820s, instead of giving out traditional presents, they seek to monetize presents instead. Money costs less to ship. The same value can be offered First Nations, while effecting savings for the Treasury.

Colonial officials push against this. Relying on a series of stereotypes, they argue that this will pauperize Indigenous peoples: Indigenous peoples will spend everything on alcohol and the state will have to save them from misery twice over.

From this debate, I argue, emerges a belief in Indigenous improvidence that influences relationships between the state and Indigenous peoples up to this day; essentially that Indigenous peoples cannot be trusted with money.

MC: But you see a discourse of improvidence elsewhere in the British Empire, notably following the New Poor Laws. I am thinking of the urban poor or of convicts bound for Australia. How is this similar or different?

BG: It’s a question of racialisation. The Poor Laws discourse is present in Canada, notably in Toronto, but those settlers, if not themselves, then their descendants, can move out of this category of being “inherently improvident” (as I call it in the book). With respect to Indigenous peoples, improvidence becomes an inescapable trope.

Among those who build this trope is Sir Francis Bond Head – who goes from being assistant Poor Law Commissioner in Kent to Lieutenant Governor of Lower Canada. In Canadian history he is seen as this heartless bureaucrat. In a very Jacksonian Way, he ships First Nations to Manitoulin Island and expects them to die off. He’s also considered extremely incompetent. The colonial secretary asks Head to write a report on the proposal to monetize presents. But rather than take the time to meet with Indigenous communities, he draws on his experience in Kent. His response - “I am busy – but here is what I know” - draws on what he wrote and thought as assistant Poor Law commissioner. He’s thus a key figure if we are trying to see how the colonial state adopts and extends metropolitan ideas and practices.

MC: In the book, you draw on this notion of monetary space. How did it help characterize the areas you were surveying?

BG: This is drawn from Eric Helleiner’s work. He’s making an argument about the rise of the nation state in parallel to Benedict Anderson, arguing there are other things happening than public spaces and newspaper circulation, among them currency.

In Canada, in the early 19th century, you see a heterogenous mix of currencies in areas that are relatively densely populated. I am therefore suspicious of the categories devised by economists: tokens, coins, merchant scripts, paper currency, etc. I see actors using them in ways that are largely indistinct. When you look at what is happening on the ground, people are making payment with whatever they have – that can be a button from a British military uniform. Most people are happy to accept it as such. That’s the world they live in.

Of course, there is another monetary space: fur trading country. This is really where the notion is particularly useful. Monopolistic fur trade corporations are trading with their own in-house currency though this currency adopts a common referent. The Hudson’s Bay Company has “the made beaver” and competing compagnies, such as the Northwest Company, are speaking of currency in very much the same terms (as the “beaver” or “castor”). In Moose Cree, the Cree dialect spoken around what is today Moose Factory, the word for dollar still means skin or beaver. The same goes for Innu language in the Saguenay, there is a clear connection between the word for money and the fur trade. You see this system of exchange, which historians have traditionally avoided calling money, that’s complex and respected by a wide range of individuals and communities. A strength of history as a discipline is pointing out the problems with theory.

There are these spaces where settler currencies are accepted, and there are these spaces where fur trade currencies are accepted. They evolve over time and at times overlap. In certain places, they continue to use the beaver well into the 20th century. In these places “Canada” is elsewhere. And this is what I try to play with – the way in which currency and the use of money shapes sentiments about political belonging and, to a large extent, what we would term sovereignty.

Eventually, these heterogenous spaces get cleaned up by actions of the state, as well as by the banks. This processes of monetary homogenisation, which is brought about on the ground in large part by Indigenous communities, is an important part of nation building in Canada.

The Dominion’s first paperback (1870). 

MC: How did this, along with notions of Indigenous improvidence, translate in practice?

BG: The Bastien family is a great example. If you read the major texts on Indigenous history and state-Indigenous relations in Canada, you’ll learn that there are these people called Indian agents, that they acted as intermediaries, that they surveilled while also acting as advocates for Indigenous communities, and reported back to Ottawa. You also read that none of these people are Indigenous.

Yet, in Wendake (or Jeune-Lorette) that’s just not true. From the moment the first Indian Agent is appointed, he is always a member of the Huron-Wendat community.

In these histories, you also read that the agents are prohibited from trading on reserves. But from the moment Antoine-Oscar Bastien is named in the 1880s, through the mid-20th century, he and his nephew, who eventually takes overs as agent, operate stores, something that is explicitly not allowed under the Indian Act. Nobody in Ottawa seems to notice, even though they aren’t trying to hide it: they are sending notes and receipts for reimbursement on store stationary to their superiors in Ottawa. This is a case where the state is certainly not all seeing and powerful.

Eventually, Ottawa finds out, but a decade or two later the Bastiens are back at it and controlling the local economy in a whole set of interesting and interlocked ways. They own the major moccasin factory. We think of moccasins as an artisanal object or even as a curio, but this is industry. They sell 150,000 pairs to the Yukon during the gold rush in 1898. Their production nears 10 percent of the largest footwear maker in Montreal, the centre of the Canadian economy. That’s huge. As jobs disappeared in the 1930s, community members overwhelmingly spent their Indian Affairs relief vouchers – a form of state-controlled money – at the Bastien’s store rather than with their competitors who charged lower prices. This was not improvidence. It was cagey since they hoped loyalty would be rewarded with work when the Depression was finally over.

The point here is that under the state’s system, much of this economic activity would be theoretically impossible. It’s an example of how looking at spaces through a monetary lens, focusing on exchanges, and on the various forms monetary relationships can take gives us a truly complex story.  

MC: Settler currencies are common in Wendake for all of the period you study. How does it compare to fur trade country, where the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) operates well into the 20th century?

BG: What happens in James Bay is interesting in a number of respects. The Canadian state comes in with Treaty 9 (1905-1906). From that point, the fur trade has to accept official currency since the state comes in with cash payment through its treaty obligations.

Following the First World War, veteran payments are made to Indigenous men and to their dependents in the case of Indigenous soldiers who died overseas. What is interesting is that every other Canadian veteran receives these payments via check. This is not assistance, but recognition of service.

In the case of the Cree in James Bay, the Department of Indian Affairs manages to get a hold over the administration of these payments and starts to ration them. Everywhere else, the amount is recognized and seen as a right. In James Bay, Cree men and women receive a percentage not in cash but in credit at the HBC. These smaller monthly amounts are then distributed over a period of years, stretching the pension beyond its original lifetime. This control, which is decided in secret, is tied to notions of improvidence and relief. There are also punctual attempts at policing the way in which the money is spent, even after payment had been made.

Finally, in James Bay, in the 1940s the state gets involved in direct fur purchasing. It starts its own buying operations and Cree benefiting from official fur conservation were required to sell to Indian Affairs. This program paid less than what any one had ever gotten from the HBC and what the Cree might have earned from private fur buyers at the time.

Essentially, through these different monetary interventions, the James Bay Cree are much more affected than Southern populations in places like Wendake or Mashteuiatsh, where though the impulse for surveillance and power that comes with monetization is the same, there remains a possibility to escape into the market.

MC: What do the case studies tell us about empire and colonialism, broadly conceived?

BG: They help us understand how the colonial state builds itself. Of course, this is a particular colonial state in particular circumstances, but one of the books’ contributions is that through a very mundane object we see how the state publicizes itself and expands its reach. Iconography is a good example. One of my favourite archival items is a bill in the first series of Canadian notes. There is a map of the world and a cherub is pointing at Canada. The Dominion is advertising itself, as well as its own mission.

Bank-issued currencies literally mark the space by conveying a marker of sovereignty, not only through their physicality, but through the stories the words and images they carry tell.

On the cover of the book, you see an Indigenous man watching, looking on, as the Canadian state and progress rolls out. That is a piece of the story that we can look at in different parts of the world. If you think it looks like classic US iconography of Manifest Destiny, you wouldn’t be wrong. Many of the bills in Canada in fact come from either the US and Britain. The images they feature are pulled from a standard catalogue. You therefore end up with this vocabulary of empire that spreads in different ways, coming out of companies based in the UK and the US that print money for different entities, states, and colonies around the world.

Another element that goes beyond the borders of what becomes Canada is the dynamic surrounding the company-state. The historiography on this developed largely from the East India Company, but the Hudson’s Bay Company is quite different. It does not have investment and infrastructure on the same scale. Of course, that is part of its strategy – it wants to remain invisible in Britain. But it does have a flag, a small bureaucracy, money, and a similar way of acting to the EIC. All these speak to its ability to pay and control employees and collaborators that formed part of its success. It can profit on every exchange. It profits on the sale of furs and profits on the sale of goods, since it controls the money and the stores where Indigenous fur traders spend that money.

More broadly, the book speaks to conversations about settler colonialism. It shows that Indigenous peoples play a crucial role in the creation of the nation state. This is not always obvious. In this case, Indigenous peoples use money that carries symbols of nation and empire. They don’t do so naïvely. Rather, they use currency to get out from under the thumb of the HBC and to exercise a modicum of autonomy in the colonial economy even if doing so also circulates the claims to the land of the nation state. I think we would see similar stories in other parts of the world if we studied money from a comparable angle.

MC: Is settler colonialism and the theory that has stemmed from the notion useful in your case? Were you in a way writing with or away settler colonial studies?

BG: First of all, it took me a long time to write this book. When I started, although Patrick Wolfe had published what would become a foundational text, it had yet to take over the field. The origins of the project don’t lie in the current moment, when settler colonialism is the dominant idiom for thinking about these questions.

Settler colonialism centres the settler – and my work might fall into that trap. Of course, we need to understand capitalism and we need to understand the state because these things have profound effects on colonized populations. But I think we can also push back against that too. We cannot say that we are opening our analysis to marginalized groups, while reinscribing the centrality of the settler through our theoretical apparatus.  

Settler colonialism, like many other of these broad theoretical projects, risks flattening; making everywhere and every period the same. As historians, we are very good at recreating what happened even if, or especially if, the results of our analyses diverge from theory. This is why we rely on archives and the multiple rich ways of reading and challenging them.

As I say in the book, if you are in Moose Factory at the close of the nineteenth century, is Ottawa really fundamentally different than London? It isn’t exactly clear what the difference is, how the relationship changes, and how settler colonial theory explains what it is we are looking at. I am sceptical, though I don’t reject it outright. I’ve written about it on occasion, but I am not making a big theoretical statement on settler colonialism in the book.

MC: Any closing thoughts?  

BG: One thing that I often mention is what the book isn’t. It’s not an accounting history. It has nothing to do with the financial benefits of colonialism. It isn’t necessarily about dispossession, the monetization of land, and the subsequent creation of institutions - that’s my next project!

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