If all societies are made of people with different backgrounds and ideologies, how does a dominant culture form? Throughout history, the most salient examples of forming a dominant culture have centered around race and colonialism, which refers to the practice of obtaining political control over a physical area or group of people. Such examples include the relationship between Indigenous peoples and white Europeans in Canada, and apartheid in South Africa. Often, colonialism involves forcing a dominant culture’s values and language upon the colonized group. Colonialism has been practiced since antiquity, by empires such as Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. Modern colonialism began in the 15th century during the Age of Discovery, when European nations set out to explore and obtain other regions.1
In 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery was applied to the Americas, which was essentially a legal doctrine that justified European settler colonialism. In other words, the doctrine sought to replace Indigenous populations with a new society of settlers. Having occupied the land now called North America for thousands of years before European explorers arrived in the 1500s, an informal trade system was developed with First Nations peoples, exchanging European goods for furs. As the British and French became the dominant political and economic powers in North America, several colonies were established in the early 1600s. Both powers used their alliances with the First Nations peoples to support their commercial needs for furs. However, conflicts arose as the British and French struggled to obtain more power over North American lands, ultimately resulting in Britain becoming the primary European power.
Once British administrators realized that the success of North American colonies depended on relations with First Nations peoples, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued, establishing a western boundary for the colonies. Any lands past this boundary became “Indian Territories,” where no settlement or trade could occur without permission from the Indian Department. The Royal Proclamation intended to slow down the western expansion of colonies, and to control the relationship with First Nations peoples. Such alliances continued into the War of 1812, a war the First Nations and the British fought against the American invasion. However, new immigrants and colonists started to settle in Canada, to the point that they outnumbered First Nations peoples. As settlers demanded more property, First Nations lands were surrendered for settlement. First Nations peoples were seen as an impediment to growth and prosperity.
The 1820s saw an emergence of new attitudes: British culture was perceived as superior and Indigenous peoples were thought to lack civility. First Nations peoples were forced to abandon their traditional lifestyles and adopt lifestyles aligned with British and Christian society. Assimilation efforts became forced and stripped Indigenous peoples of their identities, including the development of residential schools in Canada. At these schools, Indigenous children were forced to practice Christianity, were restricted from speaking traditional Indigenous languages, and were frequently abused. Driven by the desire for political and economic power, British colonists settled on and displaced Indigenous peoples from their lands, enforcing assimilation efforts that resulted in intergenerational trauma, ongoing today. Through these acts of settler colonialism, the dominant culture in Canada formed to be one of European and Christian descent.2
While the history of Canadian settler colonialism resulted in a dominant culture aligned with the physical majority, this is not always the case. Apartheid in South Africa, for example, was a system of institutionalized racial segregation developed in 1948. Although South Africa’s white population was a physical minority at the time, apartheid ensured that this minority population became the dominant culture in the political, economic, and social spheres. Apartheid was also based in colonialism and resulted in not only a dominant white culture, but also the specific discrimination of black Africans, not unlike that of the Canadian Indigenous peoples.3