Sex Discrimination STILL remains in the Indian Act. Too many Indigenous people remain on the outside looking in. Too many are being denied treaty rights, services and meaningful relationships with their relatives and nation. This has to change.
Pamela Palmater’s book ‘Beyond Blood Rethinking Indigenous Identity’ is in my view, required reading for anyone interested in examining how the Indian Act has warped Indigenous nationhood, divided families and for many, caused a crippling sense of isolation.
I am a new status ‘Indian’ and I know all too well what it feels like to not belong. I did not have the opportunity to be raised with a sense of my Indigenous nationhood, despite knowing and feeling that I was Anishinaabe, I was always on the outside looking in. But why is that? What is it about status that we have internalized? ‘Beyond Blood, Rethinking Indigenous Identity’ offers insight.
Why is it that non-Indigenous people have the power to determine who belongs to our Indigenous nations and who doesn’t? Why do they have the power to shape and control our nations? Why do they have the power to divide our families? To take away our sense of belonging? Why do they have the power to legislate our nations out of existence? And they will if we let them! Assimilation has always been the goal.
For all people, feeling a sense of belonging is important for mental, emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing – the Indian Act took that from us. ‘Beyond Blood Rethinking Indigenous Identity,’ really spoke to my sense of disconnection as a mixed blood Indigenous woman. Thomas King reflected in ‘The Truth About Stories’ that most of those he has known who have committed suicide were mixed bloods. I also know that sociologically speaking, Durkheim correlates low levels of social solidarity with suicide. Being aware of where that sense of disconnection comes from is absolutely key to overcoming it, so I must thank Pamela Palmater for sharing her experience.
I had the opportunity to offer my thanks and praise for her work in person in my own dorky way, when she spoke at Ryerson University during the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Proclamation. “You’re like my hero Pam! You are like a rock star to me!” I said. Not my most scholarly moment, but it was genuine.
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.
A Closer Look at Apologies
In 1986, the United Church officially apologized for its role in the residential school system and the harm it caused. The Anglican Church apologized in 1993, the Presbyterian Church apologized in 1994, the RCMP apologized for its role in 2004, the Federal government apologized in 2008 and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI didn’t apologize for the Catholic church’s role but instead, expressed “sorrow” for the abuses that occurred at the Roman Catholic run residential schools.
There has been skepticism regarding the sincerity of the federal government’s apology and speculation that Stephen Harper merely apologized for the sake of Canada’s self-image and international reputation. Furthermore, The Indian Act’s continuing legislated extermination leading to the assimilation of First Nations people in legal terms is counter to Canada’s constitutional commitments and Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for residential schools.
The Path Toward Reconciliation
In taking steps toward true reconciliation, injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples need to become viewed as ongoing, not ‘historical.’ The peculiar view that the past is somehow completely detached from and does not inform the present directly stifles progress toward attaining a just relationship. Indeed, the colonial Indian Act is still in place and so it cannot be said that injustices remain in a separate realm of history.
According to university professor and co-author of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Taiaiake Alfred, the main challenges to reconciliation is denial and entitlement. He says,
“The colonizers who refuse to acknowledge their privilege and inheritance of wrongs are practicing another form of selfishness and hypocrisy – they claim the right and privilege of indignation and the power to judge those cruder colonizers among them and attempt to use this rhetorical posture to release themselves of their own responsibility for the colonial enterprise, both historically and in the way it has affected their own lives, their families’ privilege and their communities’ formation.”
Alfred describes reconciliation as,
“The logic of reconciliation as justice is clear: without massive restitution, including land, financial transfers, and other forms of assistance to compensate for past harms and continuing injustices committed against our peoples, reconciliation would permanently enshrine colonial injustices and is itself a further injustice.” Reconciling sovereignties would also allow for Aboriginal peoples to fully engage in their political and economic development and move beyond the legacy of colonialism by taking control over their own affairs.
In 2007, after multi-year negotiations resulted in a $1.9 billion victim compensation plan, funding was set up for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (established in 1998 as part of the Gathering Strength — Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s eleven year mandate ended in 2009) Provided that victims met the required criteria, a payment of up to $10,000 for one year of attendance with an additional $3,000 for each additional year was offered.
A full disclosure of the abuses of the residential school system must be done to facilitate reconciliation efforts, however the Federal government purposely withheld documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but in January of 2013, they were court ordered to release them. Today, ten months after the court order, the Federal government still has not released the documents.
Paulette Regan, a non-Indigenous Canadian and author of ‘Unsettling the Settler Within’ gives a call to action for all non-Indigenous Canadians,
“As Canadian citizens, we are ultimately responsible for the past and present actions of our government. To those who say we cannot change the past, I say that we can learn from it. We can better understand how a problematic mentality of benevolent paternalism became a rationale and justification for acquiring Indigenous lands and resources, and drove the creation of prescriptive education policies that ran counter to the treaty relationship. Equally importantly, we can explore how this mentality continues to influence Indigenous-settler relations today. Failing to do so will ensure that, despite our vow of never again, Canada will create equally destructive policies and practices into the future.”
In conclusion, after exploring much of the currently available literature on residential schools, it can be said that the schools have caused widespread and intergenerational harm to all Aboriginal peoples and have negatively impacted virtually every aspect of Aboriginal lives. Although the residential school system has not erased Aboriginal cultures and languages entirely, the system’s role in the larger colonial scheme to displace Indigenous peoples and relegate them to the lower classes of society have been successful however. In moving toward the path of reconciliation, it must be understood that colonization is still unfolding in Canada and that injustices are not historic but actually entrenched in the current system. And while small but difficult steps have been taken toward the goal of reconciliation, there remains a great deal more for Canada as a whole to do politically and socially.