Natives in Canada – From Allies to Subjects

In this series of posts I consider some of the historical, political, anthropological and philosophical background to Canadian “native” issues. Along the way I touch on some interesting things I have recently (and not so recently) discovered about the native Indian presence in Canada. (Note: I use the term “native” to cover those people normally referred to as North American Indians, aboriginals, or First Nations people. None of these terms are without their problems.)

Old Sun Indian Residential School, Gleichen, Alberta - 1945

Old Sun Indian Residential School, Gleichen, Alberta - 1945

First, a little bit of personal background. My own awareness of native issues in Canada is indirect at best. The area I have the most direct interest in is the “Indian Residential School” problem. A fairly close member of my family actually spent a number of years at one of these schools back in the 1950s. Not as a “resident”, but as the child of one of the staff members. She lived alongside the residents, as much as that was possible back then, and still fondly remembers the years she spent there.

In Canada the debate about “Indian Residential Schools” has more or less been politically settled. The Canadian government has issued an apology, along with several of the churches who ran the schools, and in one form or another “compensation” is being issued to native people who were negatively affected by the government policies of the day.

(Note: Unfortunately much of this money is going to lawyers who have a direct interest in dragging this process out for as long as possible. This is one of the great scandals associated with the Residential Schools issue – possibly even larger than the alleged abuse and cultural deprivation the natives are being compensated for. But that will be a subject for another day.)

There are many people who believe the Indian Residential Schools issue is just symptomatic of a general mis-handling of the native affairs in Canada. But to be a bit more fair to those (like my family member) who participated at the ground level, the attitudes that gave rise to these schools, along with the policies aimed at dealing with natives were the product of centuries of history.

The time period in which residential schools were conceived and operated covers roughly 100 years, from the late 1860s to the late 1970s. The policy of compulsory residential schools was not actually implemented until the 1920s. But the political environment that made them possible was developed in the period from the early 1700s to 1860.

Early Treaties in British North America – From Allies to Subjects

Before the 1800s North American natives were a force to be reckoned with. From the Euro-imperial point of view, natives served a useful economic purpose. They provided the labor that fed the fur trade centered in Montreal and Quebec. This economic fact was extremely important to the French rulers of Quebec prior to 1759 (when they were defeated). And it remained important to the British conquerors after that.

Treaties signed during the late 1700s reflected the desire of the British to safeguard the economic role of the natives, and to avoid costly conflict with native tribes. Until the early 1800s natives formed a significant military force, so keeping peace with them was an important objective.

We usually forget that after the British defeated the French and officially took control of what is now eastern Canada (in 1763), British colonies stretched from Hudson’s Bay to Florida, and potentially the entire North American continent.

From the beginning, embedded within the governance of this huge and rapidly developing area was a conflict between the interests of the British imperial masters and “the people” of North America – that is, the immigrant settlers who had occupied what was soon to become the United States of America.

On the one hand, the British crown wanted to protect their economic interests centered on the Quebec fur trade. And on the other, speculators within the American colonies – represented by people such as Benjamin Franklin – wanted to deal directly with natives to acquire land for American expansion.

In 1755 the British crown had handled this conflict of interests by giving itself the sole right to negotiate treaties with natives. No longer could a government in Pennsylvania, for example, negotiate with local Indians for land. Such negotiations could only be conducted by the British crown.

The net effect of this policy was to protect native lands from the encroachment of speculators, and to preserve their right to a “traditional” way of life – where “traditional” was understood as feeding the fur trade and supporting British military causes in North America.

In 1774 this policy of the crown being the sole negotiator with natives was extended to the administration of Quebec. And since Quebec’s traditional sphere of influence extended down into the Mississippi valley, this was viewed as a direct encroachment on the interests of the American Colonies.

This was a major factor leading to the American Revolutionary War in 1776. After the Revolutionary War, at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the international border between the US and the Quebec colony was redrawn to look much as it does today.

In the process, previous treaties between Britain and natives in the American colonies were ignored, and the native lands were divided up with no native involvement in the negotiations.

This treaty represented a new low point in Euro-Indian relations, and began what we might think of as the modern era of treaty making. In this new era natives were considered secondary participants with no direct say in the outcome.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia,

When it came to the highest level of international treaty making, Indian nations were not even invited to the Paris negotiations though it was their lands that were traded back and forth as if they were subhumans with no inherent right to a say in charting their own political destinies. This racist relegation of treaty making with aboriginal peoples to a lower order of law making that can be violated by nonaboriginals with impunity, tends to continue until this day.

Why did this happen? Why did natives go from participants to expendable pawns, from allies to subjects?

One factor is certainly the realization that native military support for the British cause was becoming less and less significant. After all, the British and Indian alliance had lost the Revolutionary War, and it was just a matter of time before native interests in the new U.S. would be over-ridden by those of the expansionists.

The British had to make peace with the new country (the United States), and that meant they had to make a tradeoff. They gave up trying to protect or insist on the rights of natives in the new U.S. territory, in order to retain control of the native trading posts in the northern Mississippi valley. This area was not yet considered part of the new United States, and while the British were clearly concerned with preserving the fur trade, natives came to see this as a continued effort by the British to resist unbridled American expansion west of the Ohio River.

It is clear that the native tribes were no longer considered “allies”, but rather “subjects” of either the British crown or the American republic. If it had not always been the case in Euro-native affairs, it now became clear that negotiations with natives were essentially about moving them out of the way by buying them off. By this time natives lacked the political and military muscle to support their claims and their fate rested in the hands of their political masters.

Some resources;
The Canadian Encyclopedia – Native Treaties

History of Indian Residential Schools


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