(Canada, 49 min.)
Dir. Michelle St. John
Canada’s record of settlement and exploitation is no laughing matter, but it’s a terrible joke that Stephen Harper denied the nation’s history of colonialism during his tenure as Prime Minister. Michelle St. John’s Colonization Road opens with a disturbing piece of footage in which Harper makes this statement while speaking at an event. Indigenous Canadians get the last laugh, though, as Anishinaabe comedian and activist Ryan McMahon takes to the streets to prove Harper’s mistake. Canada’s history of colonialism, if anything, remains a struggle.
Colonization Road asks how Harper, and Canadians more broadly, can be so ignorant about the nation’s history of colonialism when there are markers devoted to this legacy scattered around the country. McMahon begins his inquiry à la Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans” sketch, taking to the streets of Toronto where he polls Canadians to see who might be behind the quote saying that Canada has no history of colonialism. The most frequent answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that former US President George W. Bush is behind the line, while other Canucks wager on previous Prime Ministers. McMahon flabbergasts his interviewees by informing them that the answer is Canada’s then-sitting Prime Minister.
What’s more interesting, however, are McMahon’s follow-up questions. He asks the interviewees and people around the country—academics, historians, and members of Indigenous communities—if Canada has a history of colonialism. The answer is a clear ‘yes’, but the respondents display varying degrees of confidence with which they acknowledge it.
The academics and Indigenous leaders insist that the foundation of Canada sits upon exploitation, bad deals, and broken promises. One expert introduces the role of the Wampum Belt, showing how this beaded garment is an historically significant tool and metaphor for the original agreements between Indigenous people and settlers. She explains how the two row Wampum and its pattern of parallel lines illustrate the treaty of mutual respect and cohabitation on which both parties made this pact. No group, presumably, would force its beliefs or laws upon the other community.
St. John and McMahon illustrate how Canadian history charts its own set of paths that do not run side by side. The doc sifts through stories and archival material to unpack the history of the Residential Schools and the systemic power play against Indigenous people as one rule of law quickly dominated Canada. Familiar photographs appear, literally some of the same archival images of children in Residential Schools that grace the screen in Alanis Obomsawin’s We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, and bring a chill with the sight of Indigenous children dressed and reared to forget their heritage. The doc leaves little doubt that Canada’s history has some dark chapters regardless of what Harper says.
The doc pulls off a little more than it can process in 49 minutes as the central metaphor of the roadways and the expansion of the land doesn’t come together as forcefully as it should. Colonization Road finds a great image in the network of train tracks, a legacy of national unity in the Canadian Pacific Railway, that is a problematic high point in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, that image yields to repetitive shots of talking heads, but the film nevertheless acknowledges the physical markers of empire that exist despite the holes in the history books.
St. John uses McMahon’s comic chops to the film’s advantage, too, as he’s a likable character. The doc frequently cuts to a stand-up comedy routine in which McMahon riffs “Indian jokes,” and the stifled laughter from the audience is more effective than uproarious laugher could be. The dead air and awkward reaction shots of the audience speak to the discomfort that Canadians have in recognising their past. But does laughing at the joke of Canadian colonialism not at least acknowledge it?