The broad concept of “utopia,” as it was commonly used in European cultures, arrived in Canada with explorers, administrators and settlers. In Europe, it had taken many forms over time, beginning well before the spread of Christianity. Was there a comparable concept in Indigenous cultures in Canada prior to contact? I’d very much like to know the answer to that question.

In European use, a utopia was originally a place that didn’t yet exist but that people could create, occupy, and manage in the interests of living lives they believed would appeal to them more than options currently within their reach. A group may want more fairness, different educational possibilities, better economic opportunities, safety from aggressors and oppressors, and so on. From utopia’s early history, even before the word utopia was coined in 1516, such places were associated with the use of governance arrangements and physical design to generate preferred ways of living for groups of people. Utopias could be fictional, actually built, or both.

This project links utopia with a closely related term, “paradise,” which also denotes a good place to be. Today those terms are used almost interchangeably in general conversation. But that wasn’t always the case. Their early histories are very different. In the early history of paradise its interests were ethereal or metaphysical, associated with the super-natural, with gods including the God of Christianity, and potentially with the material world. Paradise was claimed to already exist in various places — in the heavens above; in people’s imagination which manifested as fantasy; or on earth — such as the Garden of Eden that map-makers speculatively located on explorers’ maps, but no one ever found. Paradise’s history shows it could influence or even define what a good place to be meant in a culture without necessarily needing land, governance systems, aims, or even a group.    

For centuries the concepts of utopia and paradise ran parallel to each other in Euro-Christian cultures. Paradise was more widely known and influential than utopia because it became institutionalized within Christianity. Wherever Christianity was preached, there, too, was paradise, a promise of happiness merely waiting to be encountered whether in one’s thoughts, in the afterlife, or physically on earth.

By contrast, utopias were periodic occurrences. They developed when either key secular or religious/spiritual institutions, or both, failed to create conditions to appease groups of people who had grown restless waiting for better opportunities to materialize. Utopists seek to create opportunities for themselves and others in the face of what they experience as institutional failure. A utopia in this project was an actually built artifact, built on land in real space and time by a group with shared interests. The land under them was an asset used to further the group’s aims. Their aims were in part anti-institutional.

Paradisal hopes and imagery may or may not contribute to why a group forms and decides to build a settlement or to why its participants work so hard to keep it running. But if they do contribute, it doesn’t matter how fervent the paradisal influences are, they cannot convert a built utopia into paradise in the sense the latter term is understood. Ethereal paradise may be part of a utopian endeavour but not a substitute for it. The terms are unique but may overlap in practice.

Scientific discoveries and ever more precise maps of the world from the 15th century onwards led to the gradual “disenchantment of the world.” This project’s time period starts when the slow process of adapting to new scientific understandings of the world had begun to displace religious interpretations, and when religious bodies were occupied with the fall-out from the Catholic Church fracturing into competing off-shoots, particularly between the 15th and 17th centuries. Paradise lost still more of its magic as secularization later spread. Utopia flourishes in times of upheaval when displaced and disillusioned people search for ways to survive and keep body and soul together. After decades of research into the history of paradise, the field’s pre-eminent scholar, Jean Delumeau, concluded in 2000 that all that’s left of paradise now is utopia — the hope of being able to use secular means to create a better place to be.

A premise of this project is that what makes a settlement a utopia depends on its context. Its features are shaped by its location in space and time, by geography and history. Therefore, as the context changes, so do the possibilities for what would be considered utopian. The context in Canada between the 17th and mid-20th centuries was dominated by two imperial states, and their legacies. Both France and England were Christian, respectively Catholic and Protestant. They used their respective powers at different times in concert with Christendom’s institutions to control a vast land mass as if it was their own to do with as they wished. They did so despite the fact that the land was already peopled by functioning Indigenous societies with their own governance and spiritual traditions. This context gave rise to a few hundred utopian settlements in Canada that fall into what I call a Christo-imperialist utopian genre.

That is what this project is about.