Racist Ideologies that Contributed to Colonialism and the Residential School System
Many Eurocentric and colonial ideologies inspired, facilitated and justified colonial structural and institutionalized violence against Aboriginal peoples (including but not limited to the residential school system). Some settlers and Euro-Canadians pitied Aboriginals as inherently inferior, deficient beings in need of European guidance and governance, while others held a more hateful view. Both views lead to policies and actions that disempowered and dispossessed Indigenous nations. Europeans in the 19th century referred to Indigenous peoples as “creatures,” and “the most hideous beings imaginable.” Captain George Vancouver (for whom the city of Vancouver is named) referred to ‘Indians’ as “The nastiest race of people under the sun.”
Euro-Canadians used biblical justifications for the theft of Indigenous lands as well as the writings of Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas More, John Locke and Vattel, all who advocated the dispossession of lands held by hunting societies for agricultural ones. Because Indigenous Nations were comprised of people who were not perceived to be human beings in the eyes of Europeans, land theft was justified by Terra Nullis and the ‘doctrine of discovery.’ Terra Nullis and the ‘doctrine of discovery’ essentially meant that even though at the time of contact there were millions of Indigenous people in North America (and indeed millions more than the entire population of Europe), the land was deemed empty and thus could be claimed by any European nation who ‘discovered’ it. Even today, Canadian political scientist and former professor and advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Thomas Flanagan advocates theses ideas and also for the general superiority of European culture over Indigenous ones. He said, “Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation… call it whatever you want, it has to happen.”
In the late 19th century, many Western European and North American thinkers began to adopt race theory and social Darwinism which had been adapted from Charles Darwin’s work of “Origin of the Species” (1859), regarding the concept of evolution. Europeans, the British in particular, erroneously applied Darwin’s theory to humans, placing themselves at the top of the hierarchy of races. Many Europeans used social Darwinism to assert that Indigenous peoples were biologically inferior.
Clifford Sifton Minister of the Interior and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs stated in the House of Commons in 1904, “I have no hesitation in saying – we may as well be frank – that the Indian cannot go out from school, making his own way and compete with the white man. He has not the physical, mental or moral get-up to enable him to compete. He cannot do it.”
Editor Reverend William H. Withrow wrote in the February 1875 issue of Canadian Methodist Magazine, “We believe every supplanting of a weaker by a stronger race to be a step towards a higher and nobler human development… We in Canada are in the positions of wardens to those weak and dying races.” Methodist Reverend Alexander Sutherland believed in the inferior status of Indigenous peoples and in 1904, as general secretary of the Methodist Missionary Society he wrote, “It is better that Indians should be under the care of white men.”
Policies and Events that Characterized the Increasingly Colonial Relationship
At the end of the Seven Years War, The British defeated the French and in 1763, the British issued the Royal Proclamation which articulated the relationship between the British and the Indigenous nations. The Royal Proclamation established that land would only be acquired by the Crown by treaty and acknowledged that Indigenous nations were politically autonomous.
The Treaty at Niagara followed in the summer of 1764 where approximately two thousand chiefs and official representatives were in attendance. It was regarded as ‘the most widely representative gathering of Indigenous peoples ever assembled.’ The principles affirmed through the Treaty of Niagara include but are not limited to Indigenous right to self-governance, respect for Aboriginal land holdings, freedom of migration, free trade, affirmation of Aboriginal consent in treaty matters, military alliance, respect for fishing and hunting rights and strict adherence to principles of peace and friendship. Two row Wampum belts were exchanged at the meeting symbolizing and entrenching the spirit of friendship, peaceful coexistence and political noninterference.
The late 1700s and early 1800s showed a shift in the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal peoples. Rapid growth in non-Aboriginal populations due to immigration and an influx of post American Revolution Loyalists resulted in encroachment and illegal occupation of Indigenous lands. During the early days of settlement, Europeans extracted Indigenous botanical knowledge and shipped plants from the Americas back to Europe. This improved the nutritional quality of food in Europe which contributed toward a population explosion thereby creating the numbers that facilitated a stronger desire for colonization.
The spread of European diseases among Indigenous populations resulting in many deaths exasperated Indigenous efforts to maintain their autonomous nations. After the war of 1812, Indigenous nations were no longer needed as allies and in 1821, Indigenous people began to be excluded from the fur trade which marked the end of a period of cooperation.
In 1830, civil authorities assumed control over relations with Indigenous peoples and soon they began to execute schemes to assimilate Indigenous populations. In 1846, in a government meeting in Orillia, Ontario the plan for funding and administration of residential schools had been finalized. It was agreed by church and state that together they would seek to eradicate the ‘Indian problem.’
The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 were merged together to form the Indian Act of 1876. The motivation of the Indian Act was and remains assimilation. The Indian Act determined who was ‘Indian’ and also regulated many aspects of reserve life and still does today.
In 1867, following the confederation of Canada, the British North American Act unilaterally established federal authority over First Nations people. This is significant because First Nations never gave consent to be governed, nor have they ever been conquered. It is also a violation the international law that no nation may govern another without its consent. Under section 24.14 of the BNA Act, Indians became wards of the Government; and so they transitioned from being sovereign nations with sovereign powers to having powers equal to children and the mentally incompetent. Thus, the department of Indian Affairs was established in 1876 to administrate the lives of the ‘Indians.’ Two of the most significant mandates of the department were treaty signing for the purpose of acquiring Indigenous territory for European settlement and the establishment of residential schools. The first federally funded residential school was opened in 1879.