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Opinion Hawaiian-Canadians and ‘Buffalo’ Canadians: The hidden history of confederation

One hundred and fifty years ago, a disparate collection of peoples, nations, population clusters, companies, outposts and colonies began to cobble themselves together into Canada.

The story of how that awkward colonial jumble turned into today's plural, prosperous, but still half-finished democracy – often in spite of its founders' intentions – is not widely understood. We need to turn away from the Heritage Minutes and look into the forgotten back alleys of our history. Look, for example, at two near-forgotten diasporas that shaped Canada before Confederation, and whose invisibility defines us.

The Hawaiian Canadians:

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Canada is not a simple story of French, British and Indigenous nations. At the point when British Columbia became a colony in 1851, for example, the Pacific coast contained sizable populations of Indigenous nations, a thin scattering of British and U.S. trappers and miners and a well-established community of Hawaiian Canadians.

Indigenous Hawaiians, who crewed transpacific ships, had been settling the Vancouver and Victoria areas since the 1780s, jumping ship to take jobs in the burgeoning fur and later mining and timber industries; in the 19th century, they were recruited and imported by the Hudson's Bay Company.

In the 1830s, Hawaiian Canadians were the single most populous ethnic group employed by the company on the West Coast. By 1851, half the working-age population in Fort Victoria was native Hawaiian. By 1867, according to Tom Koppel's history of their community, the Hawaiians had become farmers, landowners and fishermen, and were known, sometimes derisively, as "Kanaka" (the Pacific Island word for "man"). There was a substantial "Kanaka Row" shack town in Victoria, and sizable districts in Vancouver and on Salt Spring Island. They had their own schools and preachers, and while they taught their children English, some subscribed to Hawaiian-language newspapers.

A good part of B.C.'s population, as a result, today has Hawaiian ancestry. By the end of the 19th century, the Hawaiian settlers numbered around 850 – about as numerous as the filles du roi, the women sent from France who are the ancestors of two-thirds of Quebec's present-day ethnic-French population. A mainly male population, they married into both Indigenous and white families.

Unlike the large populations of Chinese, Japanese and Sikhs who'd settle in the late 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, the Kanaka weren't subject to exclusionary laws, race riots and the restrictive white-nationalist politics that defined Canadian citizenship policy during most of the country's first century. And their experience shows us what Canada could have been if those ideas hadn't emerged in the late 19th century – a more populous, less divided place.

As historian Timothy Stanley wrote in the 1990s, the Kanaka "formed a small but significant group in British Columbia's racially stratified society, falling somewhere in between Anglo-Europeans and the aboriginal population in the colonial hierarchy … They found a society in which identities were fluid, and they shifted identities like everyone else." Their children saw themselves as Canadians and the Hawaiian identity faded away, though it has seen a minor revival among some circles of Kanaka descendants in the past three decades. It would take more than a century for the sort of Canadianism embraced by the Hawaiian diaspora to reach the rest of the country.

The "Buffalo" Canadians:

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Canada is defined even more by the diasporas it creates elsewhere – after all, there is nothing more Canadian than being forced to leave Canada to succeed. Nowhere is this more evident than on the southeast coast of New South Wales, Australia, where an influential Canadian immigrant community reshaped reality in the middle of the 19th century.

The Canadians were not voluntary immigrants. They were political dissidents, 58 francophones and 82 English-speakers, well-educated and influential men who were convicted of fighting for democracy, public education and free trade in the 1837 rebellions. They avoided the executions and dismemberments meted out to others, and instead were shipped to the Australian prison colony aboard the HMS Buffalo.

There, the Canadians proved popular. The Bishop of Sydney sympathized with them and assigned many to serve as free labourers in Sydney, where they played a significant role in building the community physically and politically. Their presence is remembered in the names of Canada Bay, today a major suburb of Sydney, and nearby Exile Bay. And, according to Australian historian Tony Moore, they also proved politically influential, helping advance the causes of labour rights and governance (which, as a result of their defeat in the rebellions, lagged behind in Canada).

Most were eventually freed and returned (though some stayed and started families), but their exile cost Canada many of its best minds. Their lost story is another key to understanding Canada: During the century that followed, the immigrants coming to Canada were usually outnumbered by the Canadians leaving the country permanently in frustration. In seeking to understand our country, we ought to look at what we lost, what we hid and what we gave up.

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