Here’s an impossible question: is life especially hard for you because you don’t have access to technologies you’ve never even conceived of?
An early episode of CBC’s Canada: The Story of Us included some Canadian celebrities talking about how hard life was hundreds of years ago. The examples cited were that “we’re very lucky… because we can get on a plane” and “I can’t leave my house without my phone.” This is an easy and common fallacy; it’s very tempting to apply our own “beliefs and experiences” to people from the past, and assume we can understand what it was like to be them.
In reality, the culture and context of people who lived centuries ago were different enough that it takes a lot of work to even begin to understand what their lives were like. For starters, people who lived in the land now called Canada hundreds of years ago had all sorts of problems, but a lack of mobile internet ain’t one. Hundreds of years from now human descendants, if there are any, will be tempted to think I suffered because unlike them, I was bound to one physical body, didn’t have a networked mind, and lived in a world that hadn’t yet unlocked the secrets of faster-than-light travel. They would be just as wrong.
Of course, this assumes that life is always getting better, and that if you could live at any time in history, you’d want to live now, if not in the future. Some critics of this idea call it “the myth of progress.” In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes that the cultural idea that things are getting better is a relatively recent one in human history, beginning in Europe around the time of that continent’s conquest of the Americas, about a hundred years before the dawn of Canadian colonialism.
Before that, most Europeans believed that history was static, and that if anything life had gotten worse since the time of a lost “golden age.” As Europeans began to colonize and conquer the Americas, the modern idea of progress was a nascent, experimental theory.
In Sapiens, Harari also argues that while new technologies have been good for the species, they have often been bad for individuals. Ancient foragers, he writes, were “as fit as marathon runners” and “had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve.” One way to learn what forager life was like in the distant past is to look at hunter-gathers living today. “Even in the most inhospitable of habitats such as the Kalahari Desert,” today’s hunter-gatherers work an average 35-45 hours a week, less on average than non-foragers in either the developing or affluent world.
If the foraging life of earlier humans meant people were healthier and had more leisure time, why is the development of agriculture considered an improvement? The agricultural revolution was biologically good for the species because it allowed for an increase in population. From a biological perspective, more copies of a species’ DNA is a good thing even if the individuals carrying around that DNA are working harder and getting less in return. This is why Harari calls the agriculture revolution “history’s greatest fraud.”
The point, in the context of early Canadian history, is to be skeptical of the assumptions we might have about what kinds of societies are valuable for what reasons, and about how life does or doesn’t improve for individuals over time.
If you want to understand what life was like in pre-contact North America or early colonial Canada, and you do so primarily through a lens that views past people and their lives as primitive or lacking, your understanding will be very limited, in part because that’s not how they saw themselves. They, like us, could only ever compare their situation to what was possible and normal in their time. Additionally, even if they could compare their society with today’s, there’s no guarantee they’d prefer ours. The theory that people from the past or people with less advanced technology are always worse-off is hardly nuke-proof.
For example, in the 16th century southwestern Ontario was home to The Wendat Confederacy, and they, writes Bruce Trigger, “knew of no culture that they had reason to believe was materially more successful than their own.” They traveled and traded over today’s provincial and international borders, and remained secure in this belief. And when the French arrived after thousands of years, they still didn’t really change their minds.
This was going to be a post about the Wendat, but again I got lost in the preamble, because I think the context is so important. So I’ve copy-and-pasted the next 1800 words over to another draft for another day.
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