The Age of Alliance
In eastern Canada the continuing dominance of strategic considerations meant that Aboriginal nations remained desirable as allies from the War of the American Revolution to the 1820s. Throughout this period the British tried to maintain alliances with interior nations who could provide a makeweight to the more numerous Anglo-Americans, while most Aboriginal peoples found alliance with the British more attractive than either neutrality or support for the Americans. Why this was so can be seen most clearly in the brief career of the OTTAWA chief PONTIAC, who forged a common front of FIRST NATIONS of the southern interior that laid the frontier waste after the SEVEN YEARS' WAR. Pontiac's forces sought to resist the expansion of Anglo-American agricultural settlement from the seaboard colonies. This strategy remained a constant in the thinking of many Aboriginal groups, down to and including the Shawnee leaders TECUMSEH and his brother The Prophet, who supported the British during the early stages of the WAR OF 1812. What motivated both Tecumseh and Pontiac was a desire to defend Aboriginal lands from American expansion; their chosen means was alliance with the British; the result, alas, failure.
A lasting consequence of the age of alliance was the ROYAL PROCLAMATION OF 1763. Issued by the imperial government to delineate the boundaries and stipulate the governance of its new colony, Quebec, the Proclamation also attempted to quell the unrest in the interior, of which Pontiac was only the most famous example. The Royal Proclamation pacified the interior by forbidding settlement and regulating trade there, but it also created a permanent regime concerning Aboriginal lands. The Proclamation recognized interior lands as Aboriginal "hunting grounds" and specified that only the Crown could take surrenders for such lands. This requirement laid the basis for the system of land-surrender TREATIES that was pioneered in Ontario in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and was replicated on the prairies after Confederation and in the north in the 20th century.
The other major relationship inherited from the French regime, commercial partnership, would move westward and northward after the 1760s. In the lands granted to the HUDSON'S BAY CO in 1670, an influential new type of relationship would develop after the HBC began to move inland and establish posts from the 1770s onward. Down to 1821, when the HBC and the Montreal-based NORTH WEST CO amalgamated under the name of the former, commerce in the western interior was beneficial to Aboriginal groups such as the CREE, ASSINIBOINE and Saulteaux, although the abuse of alcohol and the use of violence combined with EPIDEMIC disease to create severe losses as well.
A vitally important social consequence of the western trade was the emergence of the mixed-blood peoples, or MÉTIS. The Métis resulted from unions between European traders and Aboriginal women, relationships that benefited both newcomers and Aboriginal people at first. Two subdivisions were present: the countryborn were offspring of English or Scottish traders and Aboriginal women; the Métis, the result of marriages of Francophones and Aboriginal women. This mixed-blood community found its centre of gravity near present-day Winnipeg, where they lived harmoniously with Aboriginal people and Europeans. As HBC's trade increasingly emphasized the northwestern Athabaska District after 1821, the Métis shifted into the provisioning trade that supplied PEMMICAN, a food product of the buffalo, to distant posts. Although the period to the 1850s was the golden age of the Métis, it also marked the beginning of serious decline in the buffalo herds on which the Plains economy was built.
Further west, on the Pacific, the HBC would also emerge as the dominant partner in the fur trade. Beginning in the 1770s with Spanish landfalls and accelerating after voyages by British mariners, the Pacific became the site of a vigorous trade in furs, especially sea otter pelts. As in more easterly regions, on the Pacific Aboriginal groups such as the Nuu-Chah-Nulth (NOOTKA) of Vancouver Island emerged as intermediaries between other First Nations and Europeans and Americans. Even after a land-based trade replaced Maritime commerce in the early 19th century, the familiar pattern of economic partnership that had typified the early stages of fur commerce in more easterly areas was replicated in British Columbia. The final Aboriginal community to come into contact with European newcomers was the Inuit, a distinctive linguistic group dwelling north of the treeline in the Arctic regions of Canada. Their exposure to Europeans began in the 19th-century WHALING trade, which declined early in the 20th century. By the middle of the 20th century most Inuit had become integrated into the federal government's administrative services.
New Euro-Canadian Imperatives
What succeeded the commercial and military phases was the coming of the settlement-mining frontier. Beginning as early as the 1770s in Maritime Canada, the arrival of increasing numbers of Europeans whose purpose in the New World was farming or mining dramatically altered the nature of relations with indigenous populations. Whereas the fur trade, military alliance and even evangelism had required a minimum of co-operation between Aboriginal people and newcomers, farming and mining made them competitors. Now the First Nations, especially the majority who lived by hunting-gathering, were viewed as obstacles to Europeans' economic objectives and extensive Aboriginal use of arable lands as a barrier to economic development. The consequence of this change was a shift by the newcomers to policies that aimed at the dispossession and removal of the First Nations from the territories the strangers coveted. In practice these new Euro-Canadian imperatives translated as land-surrender treaties and policies of attempted assimilation and control.
Treaty-making, which was founded on the Royal Proclamation and developed in Upper Canada in the first half of the 19th century, had its fullest application in the western interior. Between 1871 and 1877 Canada negotiated seven agreements, the "numbered treaties," covering a region from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains, and from the international border to a line halfway up the prairie provinces. Although not all Aboriginal groups wanted to negotiate treaties, a majority of them, particularly the Plains nations, saw treaty as a less repugnant alternative to war and starvation. What pushed most western groups to make treaty was awareness that the buffalo on whom they depended were rapidly dwindling in number while the pale-skinned strangers who wanted to farm were increasing. Western chiefs saw treaty as a means of establishing a formal link with the newcomers through the Crown, a relationship from which they could draw assistance in an era of transition. Aboriginal objectives explain why it was they, not government representatives, who insisted that the numbered treaties provide farming implements and schooling.
Although the 1870s treaties set a pattern that would be followed in the north in the early 20th century, the numbered treaties were fatally flawed. The most serious problem was the different interpretations that Aboriginal people and governments put on the agreements. Aboriginal groups emphasized the relationship that treaties established and viewed them as living, evolving pacts that could be amended and expanded as need arose. Government, especially after the collapse of the buffalo economy, viewed the treaties legalistically, as contracts specifying the minimum it was obligated to do.
Ottawa's legalistic approach to treaties unfortunately was only part of a larger shift in attitudes. The move towards intrusive and coercive policies is explained by various forces. First, economic and demographic factors in the late 19th century reduced Ottawa's fear of Aboriginal peoples. The collapse of the buffalo economy, devastating losses of life to epidemic disease throughout the west and north, and substantial increase in non-Aboriginal population through immigration combined to weaken Aboriginal communities (see NATIVE PEOPLE, URBAN MIGRATION). The failed Métis resistance led by Louis RIEL in Saskatchewan in 1885 provided Ottawa with a pretext to attack Plains communities through the courts, even though the Aboriginal nations had not supported Riel's rebellion. The result was decapitation of Plains Cree political leadership and intimidation of other communities. Finally, by the late 19th century, thanks in no small part to the growth of scientific RACISM, negative attitudes towards non-Caucasian peoples were well entrenched in Canada.
The result of these factors was the development in the 1880s of a series of federal programs known collectively as "the policy of the Bible and the plough." What these measures aimed to do was confine Aboriginal people territorially, weaken them politically and convert them culturally in order to make them conform to Euro-Canadian ways. In the prairie west, for example, ill-advised agricultural policies during the 1890s frustrated attempts by reserve farmers to adjust to an agricultural economy after the disappearance of the buffalo. The result was that western reserves became economically stagnant, a condition that government would later use to justify taking reserve lands from bands for settlement by immigrants. Throughout the 20th century federal economic policies towards Aboriginal communities remained ineffective (see NATIVE PEOPLE, GOVERNMENT POLICY).
Schooling and Cultural Policies
Compounding the economic damage were misguided social programs such as schooling. From 1883 until the 1950s the federal government emphasized educating status Indian children in RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS, primarily because it believed custodial institutions were more effective pedagogically and assimilatively. The resulting 80 residential schools did enormous damage to children by providing inadequate academic instruction and skills training, denigrating their culture and often subjecting them to abuse. Residential schools were phased out in the 1960s, but their ill effects continued for many more decades (see NATIVE PEOPLE, EDUCATION; NATIVE PEOPLE, GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS).
Residential schooling was closely related to cultural policies that also were racist in inspiration and assimilative in purpose. Christian bodies established missions in a large number of Aboriginal communities to convert as well as school and, in some cases, provide medical care as well. Missionaries also pressed Ottawa to attack Aboriginal customs such as the POTLATCH on the North West Coast and Plains ceremonials such as the Thirst Dance and SUN DANCE by amending the Indian Act (1876) to forbid the practices. These astonishing attempts at cultural re-engineering remained part of the Indian Act until 1951.
With even less success than it experienced with its economic and social policies, Ottawa also attempted to shape the political behaviour of status Indians by foisting elective institutions on them. By and large these efforts failed, as long-running resistance by many bands to Ottawa's dictation demonstrated. Although attempts to impose Euro-Canadian political institutions often failed in the short run, they encouraged political organization by Aboriginal people that would flourish in the second half of the 20th century (see NATIVE PEOPLE, POLITICAL ORGANIZATION AND ACTIVISM).
Improved Aboriginal Status
The emergence and increased exposure of effective Aboriginal political organizations, along with LAND CLAIMS and constitutional talks, brought Aboriginal peoples and issues back to a central position in the public life of Canada from the 1960s onward. Ottawa's ill-advised White Paper initiative of 1969 provided the fledgling National Indian Brotherhood (now called ASSEMBLY OF FIRST NATIONS) with an issue on which to rally support. In 1971 the INUIT formed a national body, the INUIT TAPIRISAT OF CANADA, as well. During the 1970s, issues such as land claims, ABORIGINAL SELF-GOVERNMENT and attempted constitutional renewal placed Aboriginal political leaders front and centre in public life. The increased status of the Aboriginal community could be gauged most easily by the constitutional talks of the Trudeau and Mulroney years. While first ministers found it both expedient and feasible to ignore Aboriginal issues in the 11th-hour bargaining that formed part of the backdrop to the 1982 constitutional settlement, by the time of the negotiations that produced the CHARLOTTETOWN CONSTITUTIONAL ACCORD in 1992 it was considered essential to have all the major Aboriginal political organizations at the table.
Political involvement is only one measure of the prominence of Aboriginal peoples in their relations with non-Aboriginal Canadians at the beginning of the 21st century. Another is the creation of the Inuit-dominated territory of NUNAVUT, which will come into existence in the eastern Arctic in 1999. Other measures are the rapid Aboriginal population growth and artistic expression and success (see NATIVE ART). By the 1990s Aboriginal populations were numerically strong again, though they continued to suffer from economic weakness and social problems (see NATIVE PEOPLE, ECONOMIC CONDITIONS; NATIVE PEOPLE, SOCIAL CONDITIONS). Equally emblematic of their success was the large number of Aboriginal performers, such as artists, singers, and playwrights, who were a prominent part of Canada's cultural life.
Author JAMES R. MILLER
Olive P. Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times (1992); J.R. Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada (1989, rev 1991); E. Palmer Patterson, The Canadian Indian: A History Since 1500 (1972).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
The website for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, an investigation into the history and operation of residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada.
Statement of Apology
See the full text of the "Statement of Apology" to former students of Indian Residential Schools on behalf of the Government of Canada that was delivered by the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper in the House of Commons on Wednesday on June 11, 2008.