The Militarization of Police: But Why?

Since the beginning of the year, several stories in high-profile mainstream media publications have examined the increasing militarization of police forces in North America.

  • In March, The Economist wrote a feature on the phenomenon noting that the use of tactical units, which are often armed with military-style weaponry such as so-called flash-bag grenades and tear gas, has spiked in the United States. Some cities are now using tactical units for routine patrol. The Economist suggested that civil forfeiture laws, under which no criminal conviction is required for people to lose large assets, are actually making it profitable to seize alleged proceeds of crime.
  • In June, The New York Times reported that during the Obama years, police forces in the United States have received “thousands of machine guns” along with”armoured cars and aircraft.” The Times asked whether the events of September 11, 2001 have blurred the lines between soldier and police officer.
  • And on August 15, the Toronto Star published an in-depth look at the militarization of law enforcement both in Canada and in the United States, noting Toronto’s notorious G20 Summit as a domestic example. The story also pulls from a report by the American Civil Liberties Association that claims 62% of tactical deployments were for drug searches and thus, “inappropriate.”

There has been much written about the who, the what, the where and the how of police militarization but little delving into the why. In this post, I explore three possible, and arguably intersecting reasons for the why: (a) Following Giorgio Agamben, that security and the overstepping of the law by governments in order to save the constitution is a long-held practice and is now a paradigm of North American governance. (b) That the state continues to show itself as terrified of marginalized groups and is using violence to coerce co-operation or at least peace from those groups when they express anger. And, (c) That neoliberalism, or the trend of governments toward market solutions and the retreat by the state from social programs is necessarily resulting in the increased use of the state’s security apparatus to quell opposition to such a trend.

This analysis assumes the police are an enforcement arm of the state. 

While Agamben freely admits there is no singular definition of the state of exception, he argues that it constitutes “the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension.”[1] This, he claims, is a modern paradigm of governance. In other words, the state of exception is the situation in which the law is suspended to uphold the constitution of a particular society and that situation has become normalized and institutionalized as a driving pattern of governance. “In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of a state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system”, he tells us.[2] That is, the constitution can be suspended in order to save it. This state of exception has been taking root since the First World War, gained traction through National Socialism and has achieved its largest deployment today.[3] The state must have the tools necessary and at its disposal to continue to govern in a continuous state of exception, and thus, the militarization of the police, which function as its enforcement arm most often in times of crisis and suspension of liberties. The police are often the only coercion agency of the state funded at the local, state/provincial and federal levels of government, allowing multiple states of exception to exist — but also for a co-ordinated police effort during a singular state of exception to be possible. A good example of this cross-jurisdictional state of exception is the use of local[4], provincial[5] and federal[6] police officers during the Toronto G20 summit in 2010, during which the civil liberties of protesters were widely suspended and the largest mass arrest of Canadians occurred.[7]

The state of exception is also clearly being used to perpetuate and reproduce historic racism. But, the state of exception as a paradigm of government cannot be used to explain the cracking down on historically marginalized groups, such as Black North Americans and First Nations people. There is a deeper history there and I see it as being about the devaluing of human life via a structural racism that is woven into the fabric of North American governance. Black Americans and First Nations people have been subject to hyper-exploitation and attempts at genocide to the extent that the experiences of the oppressors — that is, overwhelmingly North Americans of European decent — have, I believe, formed an unfinished project of marginalization that continues to the present day. In situations such as these, and others, the state’s actions are not broadly based and sweeping but target specific groups because of antiquated notions about superiority or merely a depraved indifference to the lives and well-being of those who have endured despite attempts to kill them politically and biologically. The militarization of the police is necessary here for the state insofar as those who have fought and continue to fight against oppression do so while concurrently challenging the racist state’s fundamental legitimacy. As W. E. B. Du Bois puts it in Black Reconstruction in America: “[I]f the poor, unlettered toilers are given no political power, and are kept by exploitation in poverty, they will remain submerged unless rescued by revolution; and a philosophy will prevail, teaching that the submergence of the mass is inevitable and is on the whole best, not only for them, but for the ruling classes.”[8]. The state’s coercive response, as seen in situations such as demonstrations in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of Mike Brown by a police officer in August 2014 and at the Elsipogtog First Nation in October 2013, are both attempts to assert a racist sovereignty and a superiority of the established ruling classes against the respective marginalized groups. Pam Palmater summed up the enforcement by the state of a sovereignty poisoned by racism in a post about the clash between Mi’kmaw activists and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Elsipogtog in a post only days afterward: “This heavy-handed deployment of heavily armed RCMP cops against women and children shows Canada’s complete disregard for our fundamental human rights and freedoms, and their ongoing disdain for Indigenous peoples. One RCMP officer’s comments summarized government position perfectly: ‘Crown land belongs to government, not to fucking natives.'”[9]

Finally, the nature of neoliberalism may be inherently coercive. As I have written here about neoliberalism in Ontario, some scholarly authorities see neoliberalism revealing increased authoritarianism. Concurrent with the neoliberal period generally and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 specifically has been an intensified securitization inside states, York University professor Greg Albo tells us. “In Canada this combination of economic and geopolitical interests has produced an internal realignment of the state, with military and security structures absorbing new funds and resources,” he notes.[10] If the police, again the department most often called to put down opposition to neoliberalism’s goals, are to be successful, they need the tools used to quell chaos. Such tools have been developed and deployed by the West during its ongoing wars on terrorism since 9/11 and logically, the fruits of those labours are spilling down to policing departments as such wars — take Afghanistan and Iraq for examples — wind down and focus shifts to domestic disturbances.

Whatever the “why”, and this analysis does not purport to be the final word, the militarization of the police is an ongoing phenomenon. Here, I have attempted to explore the state of exception, structural racism and neoliberalism as three possibilities for why the police in North America have become increasingly militarized. Any society that permits the expansion of the state’s coercion will inevitably have to deal with the counter pressure of civil rights activists. What is crucial to consider is the difference between a real crisis for the state and one that is a fictitious crisis in which civil and social rights are trumped so that the constitution may remain in place. What is left then, if the constitution survives such a battering by the state itself?

[1] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Trans. Kevin Attell, (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 86-87.

[4] Graham Slaughter, “45-day jail sentence for Toronto police officer who beat G20 protester,” Toronto Star, December 9, 2013, (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[5] Adrian Morrow and Daniel Leblanc, “Toronto police, OPP called the shots on G20 response, report says,” The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2012, (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[6] Josh Visser, “RCMP abandoned policy when it participated in G20 ‘kettling,’ report says,” National Post, May 14, 2012, (accessed on August 24, 2014).

[7] Canadian Civil Liberties Association, What Happened During the G20?, (accessed August 24, 2014).

[8] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America,, 206 (accessed August 24, 2014).

[9] Pam Palmater, Feathers verus Guns: The Throne Speech and Canada’s War with the Mi’kmaw Nation at Elsipogtog, (accessed August 24, 2014).

[10] Greg Albo, “Fewer Illusions: Canadian Foreign Policy since 2001,” Empire’s Ally: Canada and the Afghanistan War, eds. G. Albo and J. Klassen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 253.


Needed: A Real Deal For Cities

Over at NinetyTwoPointEight, I have written a post about the need for substantive discussion during the ongoing Toronto municipal election about freeing up the city from the paternalism of its relationship with and dependance on the province of Ontario.

Here is the link: Election 2014: A Lost Opportunity To Push For A Real Deal For Cities

Why I Stopped Calling Myself A Progressive

Progress can mean a lot of things.

The achievement by marginalized people of social citizenship. Collective movement toward big goals that make life better on a societal scale. State intervention with the aim of lessening the burden caused by the market. Smoke from an oil field and tailing ponds as the economy chugs along.

Progressivism is typically identified as a synonym for activist liberal and is often associated with the types of things talked about in the first three examples above.

But the conflation of the economic, as seen in the fourth example above, with the political leads to a conflict that I can’t resolve.

When former Conservative Party operative and Progressive Conservative Party leader John Tory is identified as a “progressive” due to his support for expanding the island airport ─ something I heard twice this morning in the span of 30 minutes on Twitter and in a conversation ─ the conflation of the economic with the political leads to a conflict that I can’t resolve.

When a government responsible for passing secretive legislation that aided in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history dubs a crypto-austerity budget “progressive“, the conflation of the economic with the political leads to a conflict that I can’t resolve.

These conflicts, I put to you, are inherent in activist liberalism and reveal a division of loyalties between the economic and the political. This division may be called “balance” by liberals but the truth of the matter, as I see it, is that when the economic is granted preference, the market does disproportionate damage to the political.

Thus, I cannot in good conscience call myself a Progressive.

Ontario’s Early Economic Development: A Political Economic Analysis

When writing about her adopted home of Ontario in Roughing it in the Bush, settler Susanna Moodie recalls penning a letter to Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur requesting that he continue her husband’s service in the militia in the aftermath of the Upper Canada Rebellion, so that the family could pay off their debts.[1] Debt was a significant social technology in Ontario’s early days. Inspired by the work of Albert Schrauwers, I contend here that the early economic development of Ontario was not primarily steered by the competitive forces of a mythical free market but by elites, who controlled much of the economic social relations through the extension of credit (debt). In northern Ontario, this meant attempting to indebt First Nations fur traders to European merchants in an attempt to get them to conform to a European-style work ethos in which they could be controlled via the purchase of consumer goods. Concurrently, elites in what would become southern Ontario, an oligarchic group of men known as the Family Compact, worked to ensure that capital and power came together as one and did so by leveraging the power they had by virtue of their seats in both the houses of government and the Bank of Upper Canada. The Compact and those they chose to empower ─ such as credit-extending merchants ─ exploited farmers, millers, journeymen and labourers via severe legal punishments for debt and ultimately controlled the means of production. Examined here is the nature of economic development in Ontario between the 18th Century and the period just before Confederation. I will first theoretically examine the economic forces at work through a Marxian paradigm. I will then trace Ontario’s economic development through three lenses: first, the fur trade, during which Europeans relied upon the Cree, in what would become Northern Ontario, to provide animal pelts for sale in Europe; second, the importance of agriculture and the production of timber in southern Ontario, known at the time as Upper Canada, which fuelled the export market; and finally, the development of mills, around which a burgeoning labour class was constructed. I will then trace an analysis of the class relations that formed around the economic development and finally analyze the implications of those interconnected economic and political relations.

York, Upper Canada

York, Upper Canada

An analysis of Marxian economic theory is helpful to understand the forces at work during the early economic development of Ontario. This section will also examine the so-called fictitious commodities of land, labour and capital, which are often intertwined and, during Ontario’s early days, all controlled by the same people. What is of particular relevance to the economic development of Upper Canada is what Marx would identify as the fallacy of the concept of a free market. Instead of an invisible hand that guides market relations, he argues it is property relations ─ the social relations ─ that gave rise to revenues.[2] It is property that permits capital to physically create workplaces but capital must first gain access to the property. When land began to be sold to farmers in Upper Canada, it was, consciously or not, assigned a use-value. As Karl Marx put it, “a use-value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it.”[3]

It will be shown that the state, that is, the colonial government of Upper Canada, controlled capital’s access to property in the colony. Geoffrey Ingham interprets Marx’s critique of political economy as positing that the state exists to “ensure the dominance of capital and the subordination of labour.”[4] In Upper Canada, the state’s control over capital via the extension of credit alters the strict paradigm of the capital-labour relationship but not to the extent that it no longer exists. We will see that state-sanctioned corporations which dealt with supplying money and the control of property were administered by the very same men, the Family Compact, who ruled over the colony in the houses of government. Ingham tells us that in modern capitalism, the money, and capital markets are typically examined separately. The money market, he notes, is the “institutional creditor-debtor links between the state, the central bank and the banking system which co-ordinate the supply and demand for money.”[5] The capital market, meanwhile, encompasses the investment banks and stock markets, which convert the supply of money into “money-capital to meet the demand from producers for the financing of the productions of goods and services.”[6] These two markets create the necessary money supply to fuel a capitalist enterprise by turning a profit after money is invested into a commodity. In Upper Canada, the Family Compact had control over both the money and capital markets as well as the state.

Meanwhile, Schrauwers will tell us that the use of debt by the elites who controlled both the money supply and the land created a class conflict between this landed aristocracy ─ many of whom received grants of land from the Crown and did not have to plunge into debt to obtain it ─ and an “industrious class” of millers, printers, carpenters and others. This industrious class attempted to reproduce itself through the traditional master-journeyman relationship but the Family Compact used its influence to permit general contracting to undermine that relationship. Harsh penalties for debt also bound labourers to contractors. Meanwhile, it was the same on the farm, where farmers were bound to those who extended credit and expected a profitable return. This exploitation of those in debt and expected to reduce costs in the production process will be shown to be a harbinger of the development of a modern capitalist economy in Ontario, in which profit originates in production, as industrialization was just beginning.

Also of importance to this discussion is to understand the mercantilist nature of the European fur trade with the First Nations. The primary European fur trader discussed here is the Hudson’s Bay Company, a company chartered by English King Charles II in 1670.[7] The company’s posts facilitated the trade of fur trapped by the First Nations (The West Main Cree of northern Ontario in this discussion) for European goods such as metal tools. The fur was sent back to Europe where it was sold at a price greater than what it was valued at in the North America. This system enabled profit to be made by merchants taking advantage of the different modes of production.

The Colonial Economy: A profile

That the fur trade was important and prevalent in Lower Canada, or what is now Quebec, during the development of Canada’s early economy in the 1700s is well established.[8] And, in the northern regions of what would eventually become Ontario, the West Main Cree of the James and Hudson bays area worked closely with Europeans. The Europeans, through the Hudson Bay Company aimed to profit by trading manufactured goods, including metal tools, for furs[9], which would be sold in Europe. Despite encroachment by Europeans intending to do their own trapping, the fur trade with the West Main Cree continued into the 20th Century but “crashed” by the 1920s.[10] Further south in Upper Canada however, the consensus suggests that the fur trade was of negligible importance. By the late 1700s, the northwest fur trade was still expanding but supply routes moved via the Ottawa River ─ not through the settled areas of Upper Canada.[11] “The fur trade was an activity in which Montreal was dominant, and Upper Canada was largely irrelevant,” Kenneth Norrie, Douglas Owram and J.C. Herbert Emery note in A History of the Canadian Economy.[12] Even Upper Canada Governor John Graves Simcoe derided the fur trade in 1792: “I consider the fur trade on its present foundation to be of no use whatever to Upper Canada.”[13]

For a significant period of time, wheat was acknowledged as the core ─ and in some cases, the exclusive ─ cash-producing export staple of Upper Canada’s colonial economy. In her 1935 analysis of Canada’s economic development, Mary Quayle Innis goes as far as to note that “the settlers who crowded into the upper province were producing more what than they could use, and they were eager for a market.”[14] It is not to be denied that the production of wheat and timber was substantial. Statistics from the colonial period show the production of wheat increased significantly over more than a decade: from 7.5 million bushels in 1848 to 12.7 million bushels in 1851 and 24.6 million bushels in 1860.[15] Timber and other commodities pulled out of the forests meanwhile, “probably accounted for at least half of all the province’s export earnings between 1815 and 1840.”[16]

And while wheat and timber were both of clear importance to the economy of Upper Canada, recently, the contention that Upper Canada was reliant on a staple economy has come under scrutiny. Norrie and the other authors admit that “at least in its earliest phase, Upper Canada did not have a staple-based (or commodity-based) economy.”[17] Douglas McCalla, meanwhile, argues that claiming Upper Canada was a staples economy based solely around wheat and timber “yields a an oversimplified and fundamentally inaccurate view of the process of economic development” in the region.[18] Reliable census data about wheat output in Upper Canada was not available until 1842[19] but even still, McCalla argues that based an analysis of more than a dozen country merchants, Upper Canada “shows that from its earliest days, the provincial economy produced and exchanged many more commodities besides wheat.”[20] To that end, mixed farming was always important. Among the important commodities produced other than wheat was dairy products.[21] By the 1860s, barley and rye were also being exported in significant amounts from Ontario.[22]

The key for McCalla is that four other aspects of the early Ontario economy have not been given enough consideration: “1. there were other external influences besides the exports of wheat and timber, 2. the spending in the colony by both the British and Upper Canadian governments was significant, 3. local markets were important, and 4. exports other than wheat and timber should be emphasized.”[23] Wheat prices would collapse in Great Britain in the 1830s.[24] Norrie, Owram and Emery also argue that settlers who came to Upper Canada with money to buy tools were able to obtain credit to start farms kick-started other businesses such as mills ─ firstly, saw mills, then grist mills and flour mills.[25] The authors also identify a large amount of direct British investment into Upper Canada between 1800 and 1812, when war broke out with the United States.

The genesis of Ontario’s transition to capitalism can be seen as early as before the 1820s.[26] Financial infrastructure such, the Bank of Upper Canada, was chartered as early as 1821[27] and provided credit.[28] Through the 1830s, banks began opening across the colony in communities such as Kingston, the Midland District and The Gore.[29] Business was booming, McCalla tells us: “Invested capital in the province’s chartered banks increased over six-fold in the period from the beginning of 1830 to 1837.”[30] The promise of available credit drove the hopes and dreams of municipal leaders who were responding to demands for growth by residents.[31] As well, “by the 1830s, there was an emerging class of entrepreneurs who, through ties to the political elite of the colony, were forces in their own right.”[32] This merchant-capitalist class “was directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture exports.”[33]

The Bank of Upper Canada

The Bank of Upper Canada

Merchant millers set up shop along the Humber River in what is now the Greater Toronto Area in the early to mid-19th Century to sell flour and other commodities to Britain via the colonial pipeline in Montreal. With them came “blacksmiths, wheelwrights, wagon-makers and other craftsmen, who while not part of the permanent labour force of the mill, would settle near one merchant-mill circulating freely round the countryside plying their trades where needed.”[34] Grist mills, in particular, produced products in great volume for the export market.[35] By the 1850s, apprentices, journeymen and masters of smithing, carpentry, tailoring and shoemaking also worked in the colony in great numbers.[36] This period is an arguably significant turning point, during which free wage workers with technology sold their labour into the market. Capitalistic elements emerge in the mercantilism of British North America due to the decentralized British economic and political culture, relative to that of France.

The Colonial Politics: A profile

A class relations analysis of Ontario’s early development is useful to explore the politics of production and appropriation. Initially, Europeans and First Nations traders appear to have worked fairly closely and equally, at least in economic terms during the fur trade. Indeed, alliances appear to have been sealed by blood as well as trade, with Europeans (primarily English and Scottish) marrying Cree “country wives” as early as the 18th Century.[37] The Cree trappers of northern Ontario carried just enough fur to trade for what they needed.[38] Credit flowed easily to the Cree, who used it to purchase necessary goods from the Europeans for the hunt but not much more. This approach created tension with the Europeans, who noticed the lack of interest the Cree had in becoming more reliant on consumer goods. This, it appears was a political position by the Cree. “‘We are poor, tis true, but we shall not be slaves’ expresses the stability-seeking ethic held by some ─ probably most ─ Cree,” Peter J. George and Richard J. Preston, tell us in “Going in Between”: The Impact of European Technology on the Work Patterns of the West Main Cree of Northern Ontario.[39] At one stage, the beginning of the 1900s, Cree trappers working with the Hudson’s Bay Company, appeared to have the upper hand in trade, when “free traders” and another company, The Revillon Frères Co., moved into the north.[40] “The Cree responded to the new situation by seeking the best price and spreading their favors as a precaution against the uncertain outcome of the competition.”[41]  Much, much later, once the fur market collapsed in the 1920s and 30s, the symbiotic business relationship between Europeans and the First Nations would not to extend to feeling of social responsibility and some Cree would starve.[42]

Perhaps most striking class relationship was that between Upper Canada’s elite, The Family Compact, and that of the farmers, millers and other Ontarians. The Family Compact was an oligarchic[43] group of men who controlled Upper Canada’s governance from 1791 to 1841, when Upper and Lower Canada were united. They were as W. Stewart Wallace puts it: “a governing clique, prone to administer the affairs of the province at its own pleasure, and sometimes in its own interest.”[44] But some, such as Schrauwers, argue the control exercised by the Family Compact was not simply political but economic as well. Schrauwers asserts that in the run-up to the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, a confrontation between classes ─ “law sanctioned privilege” and “the power of honest industry”[45] ─ had come to a head. “Gentlemanly capitalists”, epitomized by the members of the Family Compact “had engineered the commodification of land, labour and money”[46] in Upper Canada. The class conflict did not pit master versus journeyman but rather those who were industrious versus those who controlled the credit and debt, he tells us.

Three companies: The Bank of Upper Canada (“which controlled the colony’s paper money), The Canada Company and the Clergy Company (which both sold land) were closely affiliated with members of the Family Compact,[47] so much so that several individuals who sat in Upper Canada’s houses of government also sat on the boards of the corporations.[48] “These corporations exercised an economic domination propped up by the legal authority of the state; together they regulated the politics of production in Upper Canada, applying a capitalist discipline to nominally independent farmers and tradesmen.”[49] They accomplished this several ways: one mechanism involved the Bank of Canada earned profit through interest on notes it leant out to clients favourable (ostensibly, both economically and politically) to the bank’s board.[50] Another involved the Bank of Canada lending to local retailers who extended credit to farms so long as those farms produced “salable wheat” as cheaply as possible.[51] Also of importance is that many members of the Family Compact were granted land in Upper Canada before sales of land were common and took control of reserve land for sale when it was placed in the trust of the Canada Company and Clergy Corporation.[52] The debt required to be taken on by farmers who settled in Upper Canada as a result of the transition to land sales in the colony is linked by Schrauwers to a phenomenon known as “wheat mining”[53] during which the land was exhausted by farmers trying to pay off loans. “In other words, although these farmers controlled the labour process, the larger politics of production, including debt formation for the ‘fictitious commodity’ of land, was used to entrap them in a commodity chain that applied a capitalist discipline their maximizing yields of that commodity,” Schrauwers tells us. “The land market created by the change in government policy and the land companies was a critical tool in the creation of a disciplined workforce ‘mass producing’ wheat.”[54]

Similarly, in the city, the master and journeyman worked together under the thumb of the elites, he notes. The development of general contracting allowed the contractor to hire both “masters and journeymen as labour only”[55] and employ workers without official qualifications, thus throwing a wrench into the journeyman –master system of reproduction of craftspeople and permitting the contractor to pay less in wages. Debt was also employed by contractors to bind labour via tardy wage payment.[56] Strikes by workers agitating for payment became more common. Meanwhile, the government of Upper Canada introduced a bill that established Houses of Industry in November 1836 ─ about one year before the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 ─ under the guise of a social program for the able-bodied unemployed. The Houses were modelled on a British relief system, which Schrauwers tells us was designed to create a labour class “by limiting relief to those who entered a workhouse.” The legislation was envisioned by Upper Canada Lieutenant-Governor Sir Frances Bond Head, who was involved in the drafting of amendments to the Poor Laws in England.[57] A section of the legislation allowed two magistrates to “commit” any unemployed person spending their time in a public house ─ where many trade associations met ─ to the Houses of Industry.[58] “This draconian measure allowed for the indefinite imprisonment of the unemployed ‘vagrant’ or striker in state institutions with no appeal and no jury.”[59]


The economic legacy of the early economic development of Ontario is that of a class of legally entitled appropriators wielding disproportionate power over a producing class. That legacy began with Europeans trading goods with the Cree in Northern Ontario and continued until the fur trade collapsed. At that stage, the wealth generated by the mercantilism of the Europeans, who appropriated Cree-trapped furs and sold them at a profit to Europeans, left the First Nations in the cold and starving when European demand dropped. It is exploitative in the extreme in the sense that the profits were not shared with the Cree, whose lives had become dependent on the fur trade. A fair price was never considered for the labour of the Cree, who were kept in the dark about the obviously high exchange value of the fur they were collecting for the Europeans. It was only after the market for the furs collected by the Cree in northern Ontario crashed that the Cree were cast aside like a used food can or a broken fork. The human labour of the Cree was the most exploited of resources during the fur trade as Ontario’s economy developed. It was a truly dehumanizing process ─ and one that left them undercompensated and undervalued by European merchants who knew the market and refused to share that insider information with those on whom they depended for the very products they needed to reproduce themselves. Despite this toxic business relationship, George and Preston, tell us that the Cree were not de-skilled. Instead, those skills were adapted, using European technology to improve “the efficiency of the hunt and the trapline.”[60]

Meanwhile, the nature of the Family Compact’s control over both the political and the financial in Upper Canada arguably allowed the group to function in a proto-capitalist role, with ultimate control over the means of production via the extension of credit. Its ability to wage war on both these fronts consolidated a tremendous amount of social relations power in their hands. The Family Compact also served as capitalist in the rural areas in that farmers were beholden to the debt they owed to the country financiers backed by the Bank of Upper Canada, which was controlled by the Compact. The farmers needed to produce surplus product beyond the product necessary to reproduce them in order to pay off their property debts. This surplus product was claimed by the financiers, who were backed by the Bank of Upper Canada, and in essence, served as the Compact’s hegemony enforcers.

The state’s role in disrupting the traditional journeyman-master system of reproduction in the urban areas is similarly exploitative. As previously mentioned, general contractor for large works were empowered by the Crown itself via the Lieutenant-Governor to weaken and “de-skill”[61] the journeyman through the hiring of cheaper workers. This worked to weaken a labour class that was in the initial stages of becoming politically conscious of itself in Upper Canada.  The consequences of introducing general contracting and the subsequent withholding of wages to the workers who faced increased labour competition, created a debt bondage system in which the general contractor held increasing control over the means of production ─ not physically but via the power of the state legal apparatus to institutionalize debtors and striking workers.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx tells us that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”[62] And, indeed, those in charge of Upper Canada, including Family Compact men such as Bishop John Strachan, helped develop a class system in which landed gentry assumed the ranks of bourgeoisie and aristocratic legislator at once by the force of law. By contrast, legal punishments awaiting debtors both in the country and in the city who were unable to pay off their credit masters tipped the social relations scales to the great detriment of what Schrauwers called the “industrious class.” This was not a case of a classic labour versus capitalist paradigm, as if workers were streaming into a sweltering factory and working 18 hours a day but reproducing themselves in a mere eight or 10. In Upper Canada, the state, which was guided by bourgeoisie/aristocrats, played a much more direct and intertwined role in the economy ─ a schema likely the product of older European practices in which firms often conducted business only at the pleasure of the Crown. The state in Upper Canada not only functioned to serve the interests of capital in the colony ─ that being primarily financial capital ─ but, with the houses of government sharing directors with the Bank of Upper Canada, it was the interests of capital.


It can only be concluded from these facts that the stratified social structure that evolved in Ontario was directly related to its economic development, and vice versa. The type of social relations that governed the fur trade and later agriculture laid an exploitative groundwork to create a debt-bonded working class. There was no free market in the days of Ontario. The market was always controlled and, in many cases, coerced, by a few elites through the extension of credit (debt).  Fears of punishment for defaulting on that debt drove Ontarians to produce surpluses that were claimed by these wealthy elites. Changes by the state which interfered in the master-journeyman relationship and the debt labourers faced when their wages were held back also helped to undermine the ability of those we would now recognize as a working class to not only reproduce but also empower themselves, just as that class was getting off the ground in Upper Canada. Ultimately, as Schrauwers tells us, the social control exerted by debt gave those in charge of issuing it supreme control over the means of production, even if those means of production remained physically in the hands of the fur traders, farmers and labourers.

[1] Susanna Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush, (1871; Gravenhurst: Breller Books, 2011): 297.

[2] Geoffrey Ingham, Capitalism, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008): 57.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Friedrich Engels, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (1906; Minola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2011): 45.

[4] Ingham, Capitalism, 59.

[5] Ibid., 148.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hudson’s Bay Company, The Royal Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company, (Accessed on November 23, 2013).

[8] Carolyn Podruchny, “Unfair Masters and Rascally Servants? Labour Relations among Bourgeois, Clerks and Voyageurs in the Montréal Fur Trade, 1780-1821,” Labour/Le Travail, 43 (Spring, 1999): 44.

[9] Peter J. George and Richard J. Preston, “’Going in Between’”: The Impact of European Technology on the Work Patterns of the West Main Cree of Northern Ontario,” The Journal of Economic History, 47, no. 2, (June 1987): 449.

[10] Ibid., 451

[11] Kenneth Norrie, Douglas Owram and J.C. Emery, A History of the Canadian Economy, 4th ed. (Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd., 2008), 100.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mary Quayle Innis, An Economic History of Canada, 5th ed. (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1935): 146.

[15] Douglas McCalla, Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993): 267.

[16] Ibid., 64.

[17] Norrie, Owram and Emery, A History of the Canadian Economy, 101.

[18] McCalla, Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870: 73.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 77.

[21] Ibid., 88.

[22] Ibid., 223.

[23] Bill Marr, “Review: Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870,” Canadian Journal of Regional Science, 16, no. 3, (Fall 1993): 526.

[24] Norrie, Owram and Emery, A History of the Canadian Economy, 116.

[25] Ibid., 101.

[26] Ibid., 112.

[27] Ibid.

[28] McCalla, Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870, 150.

[29] Ibid., 151.

[30] Ibid., 152.

[31] Ibid., 154.

[32] Norrie, Owram and Emery, A History of the Canadian Economy, 112.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Sidney Thomson Fisher, The Merchant-Millers of the Humber Valley (Toronto: NC Press Ltd., 1985): Introduction xiv.

[35] McCalla, Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870, 93.

[36] Ibid., 104.

[37] Jennifer S. H. Brown, “Métis, Halfbreeds, and Other Real People: Challenging Cultures and Categories,” The History Teacher 27, no. 1 (November, 1993): 20.

[38] George and Preston, “’Going in Between’”: The Impact of European Technology on the Work Patterns of the West Main Cree of Northern Ontario,” 451.

[39] Ibid., 454.

[40] Ibid. 451.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] W. Stewart Wallace, The Family Compact: A Chronicle of the Rebellion in Upper Canada (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915): 1.

[44] Ibid., 2.

[45] Albert Schrauwers, “The Gentlemanly Order & the Politics of Production in the Transition to Capitalism in the Home District, Upper Canada,” Labour/Le Travail, 65 (Spring 2010): 43.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 22.

[48] Ibid., 23.

[49] Ibid., 22.

[50] Ibid., 25.

[51] Ibid., 26.

[52] Ibid., 28.

[53] Ibid., 31.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 36.

[56] Ibid., 37.

[57] Ibid., 40.

[58] Ibid., 41.

[59] Ibid., 41.

[60] George and Preston, “’Going in Between’”: The Impact of European Technology on the Work Patterns of the West Main Cree of Northern Ontario”: 459.

[61] Ibid., 33.

[62] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx: Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (1848; Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994): 161.

The Political Economy of Canada’s Role in the Atlantic Slave Triangle

Upper Canada Gazette, July 4, 1793.

I think it is crucial to remember the role of both Upper Canada and British North America in the Atlantic Slave Triangle, one of history’s most hyper-exploitative economies. The following paper is based on a series of lectures delivered by Political Science Professor Greg Albo of York University:

History typically does not record colonial Canada as one of the notorious slaving areas of the world. And while Canada never developed a slave mode of production in the vein of the southern United States, it did participate in the Atlantic Slave Triangle through its relationship with the slaving power Britain and its proximity to slave plantations in the United States. I contend that Canada’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Triangle via Great Britain and the southern United States assisted in pushing it toward the centre of the world economy. I also argue that while Canada did not utilize slavery to the extent that the United States and Britain did, other forms of unfree labour dominated the Canadian economy during the same period. This analysis will explore the history of the slave mode of production, examine the dynamics and geography of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, explore the various forms of unfree labour used in Canada and finally examine its place in Britain’s economic control, known as Pax Britannia I.

To fully understand the Atlantic Slave Triangle, it would be helpful to first examine the slave mode of production, as an economic agenda. Increasing demand by the European elite for luxury goods — especially sugar — in the 1500s resulted in a struggle to control commodity production and pushed the West toward the slave mode of production. The slave mode of production relied on hyper-exploited and racialized labour — that is, free and typically forcibly removed from Africa — to produce commodities sold in Europe at higher prices.[1] A slave produced both necessary and surplus product. The slave was owned as chattel, in the same vein as a master would own a cow and was considered part of the means of production. A master claimed the surplus commodity produced by slaves for sale in the market. The master was not a capitalist per se but a merchant given power by mercantilism via the European state system.[2] There were some differences in the execution of the slave mode of production but the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Americans all employed it at one time or another. Slavery, as practiced by the West as early as the mid-1400s by the Venetians, differed from slavery in the classical era, which generally emerged from war and was non-racial.[3] The slave mode of production was explored between 1450 and 1650 and was generalized by Spain and Portugal, becoming the predominant economic system used throughout the world for 300 years (until the 1880s)[4] Through the 1500s, the trade in slaves reached such a volume that capture expeditions were no longer adequate to fill demand. The Portuguese were the first to develop commercialized relations with African kingdoms and began to specialize in slavery in the New World.[5] The Spanish initially attempted to force First Nations people into slavery. However, their agenda resulted in First Nations societies being wiped out or marginalized.[6] The English, meanwhile, originally intended to enslave the Irish but moved systematically to enslaving Africans, copying what the Dutch had done before, in order to displace the Dutch in the world economy.[7]

The Atlantic Slave Triangle itself was a trading network that typically involved the forcible movement of slaves from Africa to the southern United States, Caribbean and Latin America, where staple commodities would be produced and destined for (northern) European ports. The triangle would be completed with the movement of commodities such as guns and rum to Africa.[8] The Atlantic Slave Triangle left Africa deliberately underdeveloped, distorted and its leadership decapitated, while centralizing the world economy in northern Europe, specifically in Britain, France and the United Provinces (the Netherlands).[9] All powerful European nations were implicated in the slave trade.[10] The slave triangle also pooled wealth in Europe, enhancing the purchasing power of Europeans.[11] Meanwhile, due to increased European colonial activity, many Asian economies were forced to cross a European military trade blockade. Asia, which had previously enjoyed a high rate of profitable trade with Europe, was disrupted and frozen by the Atlantic Slave Triangle. While it would be inaccurate to explicitly claim that slavery led to capitalism or vice versa, capitalism did intensify slavery, especially in the period between 1601 and 1810.[12] Between 1500 and 1900, approximately 18 million Africans were forced into the slave trade. Of that 18 million, 67% (12 million) were forced into the Atlantic economy. The mortality rate during the passage by boat to America was 10-15%.[13] Canada, which moved staple commodities such as fish, fur, timber and grains to Britain, was on the periphery of the Atlantic Slave Trade by virtue of its relationship with the United Kingdom.

While what is now Canada did not develop a slave mode of production, there was slavery on the lands and it was implicated in the Atlantic Slave Triangle.[14] Slaving of First Nations people began in the 1500s by the Portuguese. As early as 1628, there were slaves in New France who were subject to governance under the French Code Noir. During the age of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, there were an estimated 4,200 slaves in Canada — 50% were of African descent and 50% were First Nations people.[15] In Anglo Canada, the legal foundation for slavery was found in British law. Slaves could be found on the docks in Halifax and a large number of slaves entered into Upper Canada with the United Empire Loyalists after the American War of Independence. Slavery was a part of life for the Upper Canada elite. Several of the governors of Upper Canada were slave-owners.[16]

Upper Canada Gazette, August 19, 1795

That slavery did not become a mode of production in Canada is significant. Other forms of unfree labour came to dominate the Canadian economy, specifically indentured servitude, convict labour and the wide-spread use of contract labour, specifically that which employed Asian and South Asian workers and eventually Italians when anti-Asian legislation was passed.[17] Across the Americas, but especially in Canada, indentured labour was employed and many indentured servants in Canada were Irish and Scottish.[18] The movement to abolish slavery, which had presences in the United Kingdom and the United States by the turn of the 1800s, initially did little to reduce dependence on other forms of unfree labour. In the later half of the 19th Century, as indentured labour rates began to fall, many such workers were Chinese, Punjabi and southern Italian — all of who enjoyed only limited rights.[19] Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery ended in 1837 across the Empire — including in Canada.[20] France abolished slavery in 1815[21] and the United States in 1865. Slavery would continue in some areas of South America (Brazil) and the Caribbean until the late 19th Century.

Meanwhile, colonial Canada did have a place in the trading scheme of the British slave trade between 1650 and the 1850s — a period known as Pax Britannia I. Slavery enabled Britain to become an economic player. It also helped push Canada and the northern United States into the centre of the world economy.[22] Canada and the northeastern American colonies developed an economic culture of exporting agricultural commodities. Through its production of staples such as fish, grain and other foodstuffs, Canada specifically participated in the slave triangle directly by feeding people enslaved in the southern American colonies, the Caribbean and Latin America. Its contribution as a colony of Britain to the development of wealth in that nation, also indirectly contributed to the pooling of capital that could be used to protect and enhance Britain’s global economic agenda — especially after the United States achieved independence.

Canada’s role in the Atlantic Slave Triangle was peripheral but not inconsequential. By feeding slaves with its foodstuff staples, Canadian colonies ensured that the slaves could continue to be forced to be part of the means of production in the southern United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. Canada’s role as a reliable colonial outpost for British economic dominance, especially after the independence of the United States, meanwhile, also arguably lengthened Pax Brittania I. While colonial Canada never did develop a slave mode of production, it nevertheless played a noteworthy role in the normalization of unfree labour through the widespread use of indentured servitude, contract labour and other forms of exploitative economic and social relations.

[1] Greg Albo, November 18, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Greg Albo, November 11, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Greg Albo, November 18, 2013.

[14] Greg Albo, November 11, 2013.

[15] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Albo, November 11, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Albo, November 18, 2013.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.