Why the History of Canadian Natives Matters

My primary objective in the first few posts in this series is to explore how Canadian natives changed from being autonomous self-governing people to becoming subjects of the British crown? This change in status is extremely important. By the time of Confederation (1867) natives – at least in Eastern Canada – were no longer free to roam on their ancestral lands, or to battle with each other as they had done for centuries for possession of tribal territory.

In other words because of the encroachment of the new immigrant population and the establishment of British and then Canadian overlordship, their freedom as independent, autonomous peoples was removed, their way of life forcibly changed, and their ability to look after themselves dissolved. Perhaps if native leaders in 1814 could have predicted the fate of their peoples over the next 200 years they would have opted for more direct assimilation. Perhaps, but not likely, because even today many native leaders would never accept that assimilation is inevitable. They believe they can reshape their communities, restore their sense of fully autonomous selfhood, and become independent, self-sustaining “nations” again, within the framework of the Canadian federation, but no longer dependent on the Canadian government for support.

Whether this ever happens or not, it is clear that the loss of native autonomy took place during the several decades before and after 1800, and that this led to virtually all the policy decisions that were made by Canadian governments after that time. In short it led to the realization that the Canadian government must assume the responsibility for protecting the interests of Canadian natives as best they could, and for organizing and managing their lives.

The policies that flowed from this realization included the Indian reservation system, the policies of what is now the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs, the almost immediate recognition of the importance of education to the development (and assimilation) of the native population, and the gradual development of the Indian Residential School system. Just as surely, the developments in the “modern” era of native affairs flow from the same source. This modern era began during the 1960s and continues to this day. It is characterized by a recognition that the old assimilationist policies have not worked, and a general recognition that natives must somehow be given the opportunity to look after their own affairs.

How were Canadian natives subjugated to the British crown?

The question remains as to how Canadian natives were subjugated to the British crown in the first place. Was it through agreements or treaties? Did they willingly accept this change in status? Were they forced to become subjects?

My conclusion is that natives generally did not accept this change in status through a process of negotiation or treaty making. It was gradually forced upon them by events that took place in the decades between 1760 and 1814.

If this is true then it supports the common native claim that the treaty making process that took place in previous centuries was viewed differently by whites and natives. For whites these treaties were legalistic agreements between two consenting parties. For natives signing treaties was an exercise in giving up a lot in order to gain a little. The alternative was to end up with nothing. In other words, it was a form of extortion. There is certainly something to be said for the claim that to sign an agreement with a virtual gun to your head is not to give free consent.

In other words, treaties and agreements notwithstanding, Canadian natives did not freely give up their way of life, their claims to territory, or their right to run their affairs as independent peoples.

Were native tribes ever autonomous self governing peoples?

In order to accept this conclusion it is an important question of fact whether natives actually were autonomous self-governing people before their status was radically changed. Even to ask this question is almost an insult to the history and traditions of native peoples. But given that so much hangs on this question, even this claim is aggressively disputed by some authors, academics and political theorists.

One of the most outspoken is Tom Flanagan, a political science professor at the University of Calgary. In his book First Nations – Second Thoughts, Flanagan deconstructs the claims made by native leaders (and their advocates) that they are not like the rest of Canadians.

Most native leaders and their advocates claim that during the years prior to Confederation the British crown acknowledged native “sovereignty”, that natives never surrendered their sovereignty, and that their land and culture were taken from them through a combination of force and misleading treaty making.

(Note: Native leaders and advocates often frame this argument in terms of “sovereignty” because they are fighting this battle in the courts where such terms have fairly specific meanings. I have preferred the term “autonomy” – literally, “self-ruling”. The term “sovereignty” is much more politicized, and ironically, much more the product of the very Euro-centric view of the relationship between governments and subjects that most native leaders say is so different from their own. Arguments about “sovereignty” are political arguments. Arguments about “autonomy” are moral arguments. )

In examining these claims Flanagan discusses things like what being “first” is supposed to get you, whether natives lived in settled communities and occupied specific territories for long stretches of time, whether native tribes had any of the usual machinery we associate with organized “states”, and, perhaps most importantly, whether natives were “civilized” enough to count as equal parties in negotiations with white governments.

According to Flanagan, this last question bears directly on whether it is legitimate (by which he sometimes seems to mean “morally justifiable”) for one nation to march into territory held by another and occupy and eventually take possession of that territory. We know this happens all the time in international affairs, but in the case of Canadian natives there seems to be some serious doubt that normal standards apply.

Let’s grant for the moment the self-evident fact that the British crown signed treaties with the native occupants of British North America. And let’s also grant that, as many native spokesmen would have it, this implies the British considered them autonomous peoples – even “sovereign nations” (although that is doubtful).

Flanagan seems to be arguing that even if this is the case – even if this was the British attitude when various treaties were signed – there is still justification for later disavowing these treaties, going back on their promises, or reneging on their agreements. Why? Because the native tribes were nowhere near as “civilized” as their white antagonists, their societies nowhere near as well organized, or their territories nowhere near as settled as is normally the case with nations.

Therefore, as the argument goes, in the confrontation between a more civilized European culture and a much less civilized aboriginal one, the outcome is inevitable. The less civilized culture will be forced by perfectly natural processes to give way to the more civilized one. Because at least to some degree, “civilization” in this context refers to control of physical and intellectual resources, technological sophistication, social organization, and, in the language of political philosophy, the concentration of coercive power in the hands of what we now call “the state”.

But this is not very convincing. It is hard to see how this amounts to much more than the claim that “might makes right”. Of course in the interplay of peoples and the confrontation of societies, power usually is the deciding factor between opposing parties. But what we are willing to accept in international affairs, we often are not willing to accept in domestic affairs.

Precisely why this might be the case I will address in more detail in a later post. But I think it is clear that the fact that natives in Canada moved from being autonomous peoples, cooperating with the British, to de facto subjects of the crown, means they must be considered, at the very least, as fellow citizens. In other words, they cannot simply be written off as “conquered peoples” (as has been suggested to me), whose rights and privileges the rest of us have a supposedly God-given right to dictate as we wish.

Why is this important?

This is important, because it is one of the main points that the debate about right and wrong with respect to native Canadians turns on. There is the clear fact that the British made agreements and signed treaties with what they considered autonomous peoples. And there is the other clear fact that when circumstances changed (in the late 1700s and early 1800s) they no longer viewed natives as autonomous peoples. They now viewed them as subjects whose interests had to be balanced against the interests of other subjects. Not two (or many) nations, but one. Not two (or many) equal parties to agreements, but one government negotiating with one segment of the population to find a fair and just solution to benefit the whole nation.

There is an important sense in which Flanagan’s arguments about moral and political justification are both irrelevant and important at the same time. We can look back on historical events and try to “justify” them, as Flanagan tries to do. But the fact that history has turned out the way it has makes these justifications somewhat irrelevant.

But Flanagan’s point is not so much about the past as it is about the future. If the justification results in a dismissal of some of the historical facts (the early British attitude towards native autonomy) then this clearly stacks the deck against the aspirations of many native leaders who want to re-establish that autonomy. If we agree with Flanagan that native autonomy and sovereignty never existed in any politically significant sense, then the claims of many of today’s native leaders are spurious and misleading, not to mention factually incorrect – hearkening back to a past that never existed.

Impact on Government policy

If this is true, then the willingness of Canadian courts and Canadian governments to even listen to native arguments for greater autonomy are misplaced and ill-advised products of a romanticized reinterpretation of history. Rather than seeing native “nationhood” as the solution to native problems, Flanagan would rather see the gradual dismantling of alternative native governments and the assimilation of natives into mainstream Canadian life.

This would not necessarily mean the dismantling of distinctly native communities, but it would mean the gradual elimination of special native status, government subsidies for native communities, or special treatment for native institutions such as schools. Native land claims would also be abandoned, or at least seen in a very different light.

It would mean natives would have the same rights as all other Canadians, no more and no less, including the right to own property (which non-status natives already have), and make their own way in the world. Natives could still band together in communities, associations, and commercial companies, to share resources and exploit joint opportunities, but these would be no different from other communities, associations and companies formed by other Canadians.

I must admit, this view of the matter has a good deal of appeal, and I suspect that if presented this way, many Canadians would agree. In fact many native leaders might also agree if native band leadership and community organization were ever made more truly democratic. But to get from here to there is a long road, and it has to deal with the current fact of native dependence, poverty, lack of eduction, and poorly organized undemocratic (sometimes downright corrupt) political representation. It also has to deal with the moral prerogative that this be a free choice which natives themselves make.

My own inclination is to think that the Canadian government and courts are trying to strike a balance, and that they are right in doing so. They generally acknowledge that natives had a self-sustaining culture before it was irretrievably dismantled by British and Canadian government forces. They also acknowledge that because of these historical facts, natives should have a special status, if they want it.

Possibly, as is already happening, many more natives will not want special status and reservations with all their poverty, welfare-dependence, favouritism and undemocratic or currupt leadership will simply wither away.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *