Through An Aboriginal Lens

Colonial History

Indigenous peoples in Canada have endured a long history of colonization and resistance.

Before sustained contact with Europeans, Indigenous peoples were strong in numbers. A widely accepted estimate for the area that would become Canada is 500,000, according to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Many researchers consider this number too low, and other population estimates run into the millions. An estimated one-third of the population lived along the Pacific coast, where a richness of resources allowed for larger permanent settlements.

Varied and sophisticated forms of social and political organization allowed Indigenous people to live in dynamic nations while remaining in balance with nature. Extensive trade networks crossed the continent and played a crucial role in maintaining relations within and between nations.

In the 1500s, Europeans began to create lasting settlements and colonies in North America. The British and French would emerge as the dominant European powers in what is today called Canada. Early relations between the Indigenous peoples and Europeans were reciprocal and based on trade. The Indigenous peoples traded furs for items such as beads, knives, and kettles. They also helped the Europeans to survive in an unfamiliar land by sharing resources and knowledge, such as how to make medicine for scurvy. As trade developed, Indigenous nations established diplomatic relations and military alliances with European countries.

Over time, the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Europeans became one of the oppressed and the oppressor. As the number of European colonizers increased, the Indigenous population decreased. Indigenous people had no immunity to diseases brought by the Europeans, such as smallpox and influenza, and conflict and war further devastated their nations. At the same time, the colonizers increasingly wanted control of the land and resources. Viewing Indigenous people as “savages” in the way of capitalist development, the European powers and the Canadian governments that succeeded them sought to eliminate Indigenous people. What resulted was a genocide.*

* The United Nations defines genocide as the intent to partially or completely destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group by doing any of these five things: (1) killing people in the group, (2) causing serious physical or mental harm to people in the group, (3) inflicting conditions on the group that are meant to destroy them, (4) trying to prevent births within the group, or (5) forcibly taking the group’s children and putting them with another group.

The Royal Proclamation and treaty making

In 1763, King George III of Britain issued the Royal Proclamation, a document that included guidelines for European settlement in North America. It gave ownership of North America to the king, but it also recognized Aboriginal rights to land. Representatives of the king were supposed to negotiate with Indigenous peoples and make agreements, called treaties, to use the land. In return, Indigenous people would receive payments (e.g., money, farm equipment, reserve lands) and certain rights (e.g., hunting, fishing). Until land was ceded through treaty, it was supposed to be considered Aboriginal land, and Europeans were not supposed to settle on it.

Because they saw themselves as partners of the Europeans, many Indigenous nations entered agreements in good faith. But Canadian governments failed to meet the conditions outlined in the treaties. Furthermore, Europeans and then Canadians moved onto Indigenous lands that were not ceded through treaty.

The Indian Act

Canada came into official existence in 1867. From the beginning, the Canadian government sought to subjugate Indigenous peoples (even using tactics such as deliberate starvation). Indigenous culture was seen as an obstacle to civilization, and assimilation was the solution.

In 1876, the government unleashed the Indian Act, “intended to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Aboriginal peoples by absorbing them into mainstream Canadian life and values.” It defined what a First Nations person (an “Indian”) was and gave the government extensive control over the lives of First Nations people. (It did not apply to the Métis and Inuit.)

Under the act, the government outlawed traditional ceremonies, such as the Potlatch and Sun Dance, and prohibited alcohol consumption for Indigenous people, punishing them as criminals if they were intoxicated. The government also imposed the structure of the band council on First Nations, who already had their own systems of governance. Further, the government decided what reserve land that First Nations would be restricted to, and forbade individuals from leaving without the government’s permission.

The Indian Act even regulated identity by defining the rights of people with “Indian status,” which it continues to do today. Under the act, a person with status is considered the responsibility of the state, similar to way a child is the responsibility of a guardian. The government is charged with taking care of matters such as education, health care, and band administration for people with Indian status.

The goal of the Indian Act was eventual assimilation through a process called enfranchisement, where First Nations people would give up their status to become full Canadian citizens. Those with Indian status were not allowed to participate in Canadian elections, under the assumption they would relinquish their Indigenous identities in order to gain the vote. Very few people did. (Not until 1960 did the federal government allow First Nations people to vote.)

But many people lost their status involuntarily. In the past, people would lose their status if they earned a university degree, became a lawyer or doctor, or served overseas in the military. A woman would lose her status if she married a non-status man.

Legislative changes to address the problems of lost status have not resolved all issues. “There are many more ways to lose or be denied Indian status than there are to be so granted. This is not a matter of an identity policy gone wrong—it is, in fact, how the Indian Act was designed,” writes Mi’kmaw professor Pamela Palmater, reflecting widespread concern about looming “legislative extinction.” Depending on the category of an Indigenous person’s status, if that person marries someone without status it is possible for families to completely lose their status within two generations, regardless of whether they are raised in their Indigenous culture, speak the language or know the customs. The criteria for Indian status remain complex and discriminatory, but the existence of status is an acknowledgment of Indigenous rights by the Canadian state, and thus is crucial for First Nations people.

Indian Residential Schools

In the 1880s Prime Minister John A. Macdonald initiated the system of Indian Residential Schools, which would operate for over a century. Indigenous children were forcibly taken from families and put in state-funded, church-run schools, often located far from their homes. Parents who resisted the removal of their children could face arrest.

The purpose of the schools was “to kill the Indian in the child” by breaking family bonds, alienating children from their culture, and indoctrinating them in Euro-Canadian norms and values. The assault on Aboriginal identity usually began the moment the child took the first step across the school’s threshold. Braided hair (which often had spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples) was cut, homemade traditional clothing was exchanged for a school uniform, Aboriginal names were replaced with Euro-Canadian names and a number, and the freedom of life they had experienced in their own communities was replaced with the regimen of an institution in which every activity from morning to night was scheduled.

Children were not allowed to speak in their own languages, and they were punished harshly if they did so. They had little contact with their families. Many children were regularly abused—physically, emotionally, sexually, intellectually and spiritually—by the people charged with educating them.

They also did not get enough food, and some of them starved to death. Living in overcrowded conditions with substandard ventilation, others died from diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough. Thousands of children died at the residential schools—the exact number is unknown, because many students were buried in school cemeteries and no records were kept.

At least 150 residential schools ran at different times, and more than 150,000 Indigenous children were put into the system. The last residential school closed in 1996.

Sixties Scoop

The federal government began to recognize the failure of the residential school system in the 1950s. Slowly, over the next few decades, students were moved to public schools. But Indigenous children continued to be torn from their families and communities in what became known as the Sixties Scoop.

Because public schools were the responsibility of provincial governments, the provinces gained expanded jurisdiction to deal with Indigenous people, including in the area of child welfare. For roughly two decades, beginning in the 1960s, social services took Indigenous children from their homes. Yet again, families faced arrest if they resisted.

Social workers were not required to have specialized training in Indigenous culture, and many had no knowledge of Indigenous life or history. They often misinterpreted cultural differences as negligence, failing to recognize the Indigenous custom of having extended family and community members help raise children, or the way traditional subsistence diets meant fridges and cupboards were not full. Not until 1980 did social workers even have to give notice to the band council that they would be removing a child from a home.

Children were placed in mainly white and middle-class families that had no understanding of Indigenous culture or values. While there were some good homes, too often that wasn’t the case. Indigenous children in foster or adoptive homes experienced racism, sexual abuse, physical assault, and emotional trauma. Many were moved from one home to another. In one well-known case, a four-year-old Métis child from Alberta was moved 28 times. Children were expected to disregard their Indigenous heritage and instead act and think like their white families. In some cases, they were even told they were white and not Indigenous. Connections between the children and their originating community were sometimes lost, so that the children grew up not knowing where they came from.

An estimated 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their homes over the period of the Sixties Scoop. Today Indigenous children continue to be removed from their homes, and they still make up a disproportionate portion of those in government funded care.

White Paper

Canada’s relationship with First Nations needed to change. The government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau commissioned research and held consultations on the place of Indigenous peoples in Canada. At these meetings, First Nations people discussed issues such as treaty rights, Aboriginal land title, and self-determination.

In 1969 the government presented its policy report, which is commonly referred to as the white paper. It proposed to abolish the Indian Act—along with Indian status, reserve land, and the Department of Indian Affairs—in order to make all Canadians equal. The white paper appeared to be the next step in Canada’s long drive to assimilate the Indigenous population. First Nations expressed shock and outrage that their concerns had been completely unheeded.

Cree leader Harold Cardinal, then just 24 years old, channelled this outrage into a best-selling book called The Unjust Society, a response to Trudeau’s vision of a “Just Society”:

The history of Canada is a shameful chronicle of the white man’s disinterest, his deliberate trampling of Indian rights and his repeated betrayal of our trust. Generations of Indians have grown up behind a buckskin curtain of indifference, ignorance and, all too often, plain bigotry. Now, at a time when our fellow Canadians consider the promise of a Just Society, once more the Indians are betrayed by a programme which offers nothing better than cultural genocide.

Cardinal also helped write the Red Paper, a response from the Indian Association of Alberta that became the guiding position for First Nations. “Under the guise of land ownership, the government has devised a scheme whereby within a generation or shortly after the proposed Indian Lands Act expires our people would be left with no land and consequently the future generation would be condemned to the despair and ugly spectre of urban poverty in ghettos,” it states. It calls for the government to uphold treaties and make improvements in the Indian Act and the Department of Indian Affairs.

In the face of overwhelming Indigenous opposition and political organization, the government rejected the white paper. The Indian Act remains the official policy of the government regarding Canada’s Indigenous population to this day.