Interpreting what I learned in my Aborignal History Class

Interpreting the Indian Act: Indian Agents, Aboriginal Land and Resistance

What the Aboriginal peoples saw as honest negotiation for their land, the Europeans and then the Canadians saw as a peaceful way of gaining land without the costly expenses of war. They signed a number of treaties with no intention of keeping them.

This caused starvation in some areas as the government tried to control the Aboriginals through their food rations. “Peoples of Treaty 4, who signed partly because of their disappearing food source, the bison, had not received the promised farm equipment six years after signing; they were starving, sick and ill-dressed for a tough winter (Lux 2001, 36; Wilson 2007, 380–381).”(Bednasek and Godlewska, 448) Other aboriginal tribal chiefs reported rotten food being delivered and claimed it was killing their people, even if the food was not spoiled many reported that they were not getting enough food to feed their people. The Canadian government tried to force the Aboriginal tribes to sign away their land using food. They wanted the land to be developed by European settlers.

“Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney targeted the Cree leadership: ‘I know they are not getting enough flour but I like to punish them a little. I will have to increase their rations, but not much’ (Lux 2001, 40)”. (Bednasek and Godlewska, 448) He and his assistant, Hayter Reed utilized a work for your rations method to encourage the aboriginals to learn farming.

Many of the treaties signed by the government were not seen as binding by the government but the Aboriginals did not have this view. They expected the government to abide by the word of the treaty.

The Aboriginals saw the governor-generals as representatives of the “Great Mother (Queen Victoria)” (Carter, 35) and believed their continued assurances that the treaties would be upheld. The Aboriginals viewed the visits by the governor-general and royals as a reaffirming their treaties and a confirmation of their long partnership. These treaties were the basis for many debates by the Canadian government.

The government created the North West Mounted Police due to their fears that the Americans would extend their territory into western Canada. The police could only operate in areas not yet formed into provinces because law enforcement was under the jurisdiction of the provinces unless an agreement was made between them and the Canadian government. The North West Mounted Police was originally to have British officers with Metis filling in the other positions but this idea was vetoed after the revolt of 1869-70. The forming of the federal police force was instrumental in curbing the liquor trade and establishing good relations with the Aboriginals. The federal police force and the improved relations with the western aboriginals led to further treaties between the aboriginals and the government.

The Indian Act of 1867 promoted assimilation of the aboriginals. This Act took away even more of the Aboriginal people’s rights and allowed the government to restrict their lives even more than the previous act. In 1869 the process of electing chiefs and band council members was put in place by the government. They were trying to make the Aboriginals conform to their system of governance.

The government never gave up its policy to assimilate the aboriginal peoples. Their need to assimilate the Aboriginal people has meant the loss of many aboriginal traditions and customs. The government also failed to fulfill its promises as described in the treaties, many tribes were left not only without the means to feed themselves but also without the assistance from the government agents. The aboriginal peoples of Canada lost much of their rights through treaties that were not upheld by the government. The debate over the treaties or lack of treaties with the aboriginal tribes continues to be an issue for both the provincial and the federal governments today.

Interpreting the Indian Act: Education and Health

The Canadian government and the provinces saw education as a way in which to further erode the Aboriginal customs and traditions. By removing the children from their villages, families and familiar surroundings and forcing them to conform to European style boarding schools and style of dress they were able to limit the amount of contact they had to their customs and traditions. Those in charge saw the education of the Aboriginal children as a way of assimilating the Aboriginals into European acceptable peoples, the missionaries saw the schools as a way of striping the Aboriginals of their sense of community, of ridding them of their heathen ways, and of training them to the European way of thinking.

The schools robbed the Aboriginal children of their sense of self, community, and connection with their families, and an understanding of their traditions and customs. It left many generations of Aboriginal peoples adrift. “The village that it takes to raise a child, especially those that are Aboriginal ones, have not been supported, or developed, so that they can be, in and of themselves, places of child welfare: with adequate employment, nourishing systems of education appropriate to a peoples’ beliefs and values and supportive of their identity, and with systems of self-government that allow people, together, to make their way forward, together, in a difficult world.”( Milloy, 3) The removal of children from their communities to educate them although well-meant was disastrous to Aboriginal communities. The legacy it has left is sad. More Aboriginal children were removed in the 1970’s from their parents care due to neglect than any other ethnic group. Many Aboriginal who had attended residential school were lost, and did not have any support systems. This was not true for all Aboriginal tribes. Some never lost their sense of community, family and self –worth. They even found ways to incorporate the parts of colonization that they found beneficial while still maintaining their sense of community identity.

The attempts by the government to assimilate the Nisga’a into their European style culture failed. The Nisga’a fought them or ignored those ideas they did not feel were beneficial to their culture. They continued to have a separate identity and their many battles with the government has rather than discouraged them from adopting any European ideas “encouraged them to seek out other aspects of non-Nisga’a culture that might be used to benefit Nisga’a. Medicine is one of these features”. (Kelm, 336)

Most disputes between the Aboriginal tribes regarding their culture and the government usually ended in disagreements. These disagreements could in some cases require court interventions. The governments of Canada and the provinces seemed to be influenced by the non-Aboriginal population when implementing programs that directly affect them. This has lead to misunderstandings as the Aboriginal councils try to protect their people and their people’s life styles.

Resources Economies and Aboriginal Lives in a Changing World

In week twelve of my class reading and discussions we learned were about the economic resources of British Columbia and the way Aboriginal lives changed due to the allocation of these resources. For many years the aboriginal peoples of British Columbia have utilized the natural resources of our coast waters, river, streams and lakes. Many tribes’ cultures and traditional foods relied upon the fisheries of the BC waters. Prior to the invasion of the European fur traders, settlers and fisheries they managed and sustained their ecological resources. Since the early 1900’s this has changed, fisheries were now being harvested not only by the Aboriginal peoples but also by the European commercial fisheries and sport fishermen. Even though the treaties were supposed to protect the native fisheries, they were under the management of the government that were lobbied by commercial and sport fishermen for an ever increasingly larger portion of the fishery. Just as the Aboriginal treaties has been a major bone of contention so to have the fishery and hunting rights along not only the west coast of Canada but also the Arctic and Atlantic Coasts.

Fishing and hunting and the cultural significance it plays in Aboriginal peoples lives has become of great concern as the environmental issues of the world become more and more evident. The consuming of Canada’s natural resources seems to be a historical trend, the settlers would arrive, trick the aboriginals into giving them some land and when they had utilized all the resources in that area would petition the government to remove the aboriginals to another area. This was true also of the fishing industry; they Aboriginal peoples were removed from their traditional fishing grounds so the settlers and commercial fisheries could harvest the fish from the area. They would wait at the mouth of the streams and rivers catching the fish before they would have a chance to spawn.

The Aboriginals in the area would protest the management of the fisheries in their area but in many cases their concerns would fall on deaf ears. The government never spoke with the aboriginals in the area when the implemented fishing bans or conservation efforts. This trend of disregarding the Aboriginals traditional knowledge of their tribal lands has begun to change over the last few years with naturalists and others beginning to acknowledge and accept the historical knowledge the various tribes have of their traditional lands. The Aboriginal peoples of British Columbia were managing the fishery resources and the other natural resources of their lands long before settlers came. I

 Land Claims, Charter Rights, Aboriginal Title to Land: From the Indian Act to Delgamuukw to the Nisga’a Treaty

The Nisga’a Treaty signed August 4, 1998 is one of the most significant documents signed between the government and the Aboriginal peoples. It “stands out as a model of compromise and moderation” (Foster,3) when one looks around the world at how other nations are coming to grips with their colonial pasts. This Treaty recognizes the Nisga’a right to self-govern themselves within the laws of Canada and the provinces; it also recognizes their right to their lands and the resources located on those lands. It gives the Nisga’a people the rights to their lands, which had been illegal taken from them by the local government of 1887. In 1913 the Nisga’a Land Committee and their legal council “petitioned the British Crown for recognition of their title” (Foster,3). They relied on the broad statement made by King George the third, to prove their point that the government had not signed a treaty with them and therefore had no claim to their lands. “The committee and its successor, the Nisga’a Tribal Council, took similar action after the First World War and again in the 1960 and 1970s, when they took the famous Calder case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.” (Foster, 3) The Canadian government was advised that the provincial governments could not use the Aboriginal lands as a source of revenue until they had received full title to the lands from the Aboriginal peoples. The upholding of the Aboriginal title and their self-governance rights by the courts was the easy part; the hard part was in implementing the ruling.

The majority of the public seems to have forgotten the legal tradition of treaties and of the Aboriginals turning their land over to the crown (government) in trade for certain concessions of the government such as self-governance. The memories of the government seem to be spotty at best, they like to forget they never signed treaties or if they did that they did not keep them. The British Columbia government has a history of not making treaties with the aboriginal people and “when British Columbia’s new Crown Land Act was referred to Telesphore Fournier, the dominion minister of justice, he was quick to note that it made no mention of the Royal Proclamation and made no provision for Aboriginal title. Fournier therefore recommended that the Act be disallowed, and the Dominion Cabinet accepted that advice.” (Foster,5 ) The idea was that the disallowance would enable the BC province to become more realistic about the reserve question and stop or at least minimize their complaints about the railway. The federal government found away to get around the provincial government’s lack of consent by engaging in various lawsuits in their position as trustee for the Aboriginal title-holders. This made the provincial government defend the land grant in question. However, after the 1911 election when Laurier’s government was defeated this strategy ended. In a bid to gain British Columbia’s inclusion in the Dominion of Canada the federal government sided with British Columbia and the famous “McKenna-McBride Report” was written. The report encouraged the tribes to form the Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia. This group dominated the Land Question here in BC until 1927. Negotiating a solution to the land issue because BC would not participate and it was assumed that Ottawa would not proceed without them did not seem possible. The land claim issue was only resolved for the Nisga’a and a small number of other bands. Mean while the political scene has changed and negotiations with the various aboriginal tribes has slowed down. The Nisga’a treaty has opened the door for other aboriginal tribes and hopefully everyone has learned from their mistakes.


C Drew Bednasek and Anne M. C. Godlewska, “The influence of betterment discourses on Canadian Aboriginal peoples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”, The Canadian Geographer / Le G´eographe canadien 53 no 4 (2009) 444–461

Sarah Carter, “‘Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea’; Prairie First Nations, the British Monarchy and the Vice Regal Connection to 1900.” History Department University of Calgary

Professor John S. Milloy, How do bad things happen when good people have good intentions?, Trent University, Peterborough (ON)

Mary-Ellen Kelm, “Wilp Wa’ums: colonial encounter, decolonization and medical care among the Nisga’a”, Social Science & Medicine 59 (2004) 335–349

Douglas C. Harris, Aboriginal Rights to Fish in British Columbia, Scow Institute, October 2005

Caroline F. Butler, Charles R. Menzies, Out of the Woods: Tsimshian Women and Forestry Work, Anthropology of Work Review, Anthropology of Work Review

Joseph Gosnell, Speech to the British Columbia Legislature, December 2,1998

“Delgamuukw and Treaties”: An Overview

Olive Patricia Dickason, and William Newbigging. A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations. 2nd ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2010.


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