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The colonial history behind the Governor General’s “quote-Indigenous-people-unquote” comments

When David Johnston called Indigenous people immigrants from “10, 12, 14,000 years ago,” he waded into a longstanding debate over when, and how, Indigenous peoples arrived in North America
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA

When the Governor of General of Canada decided to refer to Indigenous people as “immigrants as well” last week, he stepped into a deluge of criticism, for which he promptly apologized on Monday.

But the glib remarks from David Johnston, who represents the Crown in Canada — and thus holds a special role in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples — hit at a much deeper issue.

Deeper than the poorly-phrased remark is the established narrative on how the original populations of this continent first got here.


It’s a 10,000 year old question.

“We’re a country based on immigration,” Johnston said, in an interview with CBC radio. “Going right back to our quote-Indigenous-people-unquote who were immigrants as well, going back 10, 12, 14,000 years ago.”

The reaction to the interview was swift.

“Unreal,” tweeted comedian, prominent Indigenous voice, and VICE contributor Ryan McMahon. “Save your Crown/Settler myth for your late-night bedtime stories that allow your colonial mindset to rest at night.”

It was a reaction that echoed around Indigenous circles on social media all weekend, and throughout Monday, even as Johnston tweeted that it was all a “miscommunication,” adding: “Our Indigenous peoples are not immigrants.” (The use of “our” in his apology was, similarly, met with a strong reaction, including a simple “nope” from Métis writer Chelsea Vowel.)

Deeper than the poorly-phrased remark — which was, in context, about Canada’s inherent acceptance of immigration — is the established narrative on how the original populations of this continent first got here.

It’s a narrative that many Indigenous peoples have been pushing back against for years — and it’s a narrative that, increasingly, is being abandoned in scientific and anthropological circles.

The theory goes that during the last ice age, roughly 14,000 years ago, lower sea levels exposed a land bridge from what is now Alaska to Chukotka, Russia — the span of ocean we now call the Bering Strait. It was on that bridge, dubbed Beringia, that thousands of humans crossed, making their way south throughout the previously-unpopulated continents and forming the early populations to settle what is now North and South America.


This theory has been the most common explanation for the origin of Indigenous peoples, and fits into a narrative that original populations of the continent had simply wandered off from previously-identified populations of humans, who had been hunting buffalo or other food. To that end, the contentious theory goes that the early settlers were merely Asian or European, who had migrated to become the early incidental inhabitants of the land — to become, as the Governor General phrased it, “quote-Indigenous-people-unquote.”

The studies do open up a broader question of when — perhaps even if — populations travelled to the continent, and how.

But it isn’t the only theory.

A 2016 paper, published in August of that year by the peer-reviewed Science journal, contends Beringia couldn’t have brought over the first peoples of the continent. At least, not how we imagined.

The paper, entitled “Postglacial Viability and Colonization in North America’s Ice-Free Corridor,” concluded that while some humans may have crossed the land bridge some 12,600 years ago — significantly after evidence places the first humans here — there is no way it was passable before then.

“If this is true, then it means that the first Americans, who were present south of the ice sheets long before 12,600 years ago, must have made the journey south by another route,” according to a press release from the University of Copenhagen, who participated in the groundbreaking and expansive study. “The study’s authors suggest that they probably migrated along the Pacific coast.”


It’s possible that those early settlers travelled down the coast by boat.

That idea blows apart the existing narrative that Indigenous people walked across a land bridge fairly recently (at least in terms of ancient history) because they were incapable of sailing — which has always fit into a particularly colonialist historical perspective.

“The main point is we originated HERE. We became nations here, our origins are here,” says Vowel, the Métis writer who goes by Âpihtawikosisân. “The English didn’t even exist as a people for thousands of years when First Nations arose, but they don’t constantly get invalidated as coming from elsewhere.”

She adds: “The science IS bunk.”

Quick tip for Jesse Wente: No, you haven’t “been here forever.” Unless you deny evolution, cosmology, and basic anthropology/archaeology.

The 2016 paper is part of a small, but growing, body of research to undercut the Beringia theory — DNA tests on bison support the idea that the ice-free corridor opened later than originally thought, while new encampments discovered in South America suggest habitation goes back further than originally believed, and long before Beringia. These sorts of papers have been cropping up in journals for more than two decades, but have only recently broken into the mainstream scientific and anthropological community.

The new studies are not enough to conclude that the land bridge theory, which remains arguably the most popular theory on how the continent first became inhabited, is outright wrong. But it certainly suggests it.


The studies do open up a broader question of when — perhaps even if — populations travelled to the continent, and how.

“This may at first seem like a pretty arcane matter,” writes Western University history professor Alan MacEachern after the studies were released. “But of course it speaks fundamentally to when and how First Nations populated this land, and even whether they have been here since time immemorial.”

MacEachern notes that the new research doesn’t necessarily destroy the Bering Strait theory, but instead improves it — reconciling the theory with evidence the continent may have been populated anywhere from 14,500 to 20,000 years ago.

Not, exactly, the Governor General’s “10, 12, 14,000 years ago.”

The belief that Indigenous peoples couldn’t have figured out how to cross an ocean underpins a core fallacy in a bulk of academia: Western superiority.

In April of this year, Alexander Ewen published The Bering Strait Theory, a book aimed at deconstructing the myths and theories that went into the Beringia and the origin story of Indigenous peoples across the continent. Specifically, the idea that Indigenous peoples are direct descendants of ancient Asians or Europeans.

Ewen, a historian and member of the Purepecha nation, from a region in what is now central Mexico, concludes that “the archaeological record of ancient Indians in the Americas is sparse, but that does not mean that Indians were not here in the deep past.” He goes through the available research on blood types and the evolution of language to conclude that there is simply no strong connection between Europe and Asia and Indigenous peoples.


In the book, he notes that the historical underpinning of the Bering Strait theory rests on the idea that the only way Indigenous peoples could have arrived on the continent was on foot.

“The use of boats had always been rejected by the Bering Strait advocates, because it opened up other possible routes of migration, such as Europe or Polynesia,” he notes. And if those peoples have managed sailing, navigation, and even inter-civilization contact, that would “undercut the contention that ‘primitive people’ could not cross the oceans.”

The concept of traversing the ocean can also be found in the origin and creation myths of numerous Indigenous peoples from across the continent.

The belief that Indigenous peoples couldn’t have figured out how to cross an ocean underpins a core fallacy in a bulk of academia: Western superiority. After all, Europeans didn’t cross an ocean until the 16th century, writes Ewen.

And if the Europeans couldn’t do it, Ewen writes sarcastically, “no one else should have been able to do so earlier.”