From Allies to Subjects – Part 2

As I suggested in a previous post, the Indian Residential School issue in Canada is a fairly good focus for a discussion of what went wrong with the dominant white culture’s relationsihp with Canadian natives.

While the Residential School issue really belongs to the previous two or three generations of Canadians, the problems that school system was meant to address are basically still with us today. And the current solutions don’t seem to be much more effective than the schools were fifty or a hundred years ago.

At the heart of the issue is that at some point in time Canadian natives lost their ability to run their own lives. Unlike other cultural groups within Canada most natives were unwilling or unable to adapt themselves to the changes taking place around them. For most native leaders, assimilation was out of the question. It was something to be resisted.

As a result in many cases native groups were unable to look after their own affairs. Since they were unwilling to conform to the euro-centric ways of the rest of Canadians, they ultimately became dependant on the British crown, and, in turn, the Canadian government to protect their interests and provide for their day to day survival.

How did this happen? How did Canadian native peoples lose their autonomy and become dependants of the state?

Early Relations With the British

For all intents and purposes during the early days of colonization in North America the British treated natives as autonomous peoples. They made agreements with them, used their services in commerce and war, and signed treaties with them.

Somewhere between the late 1700s and mid 1800s natives ceased to be allies and partners in commerce and war, and became subjects and eventually virtual dependants of established white man’s governments. No longer able to fight in a meaningful way for their way of life, they became a “problem” standing in the way of colonization and the dominant culture’s idea of progress.

The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812

The new configuration of North America was essentially settled in the six decades between 1760 and 1814. During this period the French were driven out of North America, the British were driven out of what is now the United States, and war broke out between the U.S.A. and the rest of British North America (Canada). The effect of this war (the War of 1812) was to decide whether there would be one country (an expanded U.S.A.) or two (U.S.A. and Canada).

The period prior to 1800 also represented the last great hope for North American native self-government. Traditional native lands and a large measure of native autonomy had been guaranteed by the British before the revolutionary war, but this arrangement was abandoned by the British after the war.

The simple fact is that the numbers no longer favoured the natives. Euro-Americans greatly outnumbered natives in the U.S. by this time, and this was soon to happen north of the Great Lakes too. Britain could not ignore this fact when negotiating the future of the continent.

In short, Britain’s objective during this period was to make peace with the Americans and get back to stable, predictable, and profitable relations with them. In spite of the fact that many natives had fought on the British side in the war, native interests were no longer important enough to be considered on the same level as negotiations with the Americans.

In the post-war treaty between the US and Britain many traditional native homelands were split in two – straddling the new international border. Many natives viewed this as a betrayal by the British. Nevertheless, the political realities meant that the old arrangements were gone forever. There was no turning back.

Prior to 1814, when the future development of the continent was still in question, the British had consistently viewed native tribes and confederacies as useful self-governing allies. In the late 1790s the British even entertained the possibility of creating an autonomous native state called Indiana in what the Americans referred to as the Northwest Territory – the land between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. This new state would serve both as a homeland for natives and a buffer between the USA and British North America.

Native Autonomy is Bargained Away

As the reality of the new independent American nation began to sink in, it became clear that native issues would now be considered internal rather than inter-national matters.

Jays Treaty, signed in 1794 between the Americans and British made it much less likely that such an autonomous state would ever see the light of day. In that treaty the British agreed to withdraw their troops from the forts between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. In exchange, natives were given the right to pass freely back and forth across the international border. This arrangement has been honoured ever since by the U.S. (but not to the same extent by Canada.)

The war of 1812-14 cemented this arrangement. Going into that war many Americans felt it was inevitable that the northern part of the continent would (and should) eventually become part of their new country. After the war this idea was abandoned. The United States officially accepted the British presence in the north and negotiated peaceful terms with the British and Canadians that have lasted almost 200 years.

The big losers in this extended process were the natives of North America. By the time British and American relations were sorted out, native status had changed in a very significant way. Most native tribes had fought as autonomous allies of the British in both wars. But when those wars were ended they had essentially become non-players on the international scene.

It is true that the existence of trans-border native homelands was tacitly accepted (in Jay’s Treaty). But this was (and still is) completely at the whim of the US and Canadian governments. By becoming secondary players in the negotiations between the British and Americans, their status as autonomous peoples was essentially eliminated.

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