Indigenous Canadian History

The Rise of a Nation at the Hands of Another

The arrival of a European nation and the commencement of a civilized existence in Canada drastically impacted traditional Indigenous culture, and essentially changed the course of history. European contact as early as the fifteenth century marked the onset of an ongoing conflict with lasting effects upon multiple aspects of Indigenous conduct within Canada. Through an examination of the past, this paper will discuss the aspects of European innovation that have contributed to the demise of Indigenous identity. Beginning with an examination of the initial contact and the rise of capitalism, looking forward the residential school era, and the establishment of the Indian Act 1876 with an analysis of its contents, this paper will point to a loss of Indigenous culture and identity. This paper will conclude by referring to the circumstances of civilization that have led to a persistent struggle within modern Indigenous society.

Prior to European contact with North America, Indigenous populations inhabited the land. These populations existed and functioned through traditional cultural values and rules of conduct. Due to the northern location of the country, Canada’s original peoples were hunter-gatherers (Dickason, et al. 40). This nomadic lifestyle originated from an arrangement, which grew out of an intimate knowledge of natural resources and the most valuable way to exploit them (Dickason, et al. 40). The use of natural resources has accounted for a fundamental tradition in Indigenous culture, although the phrase “natural recourse” fails to capture the true relationship between the people and the land. During the period prior to civilization, the Indigenous population and the earth in all its parts were considered to be one, functioning as a cohesive entity (Anderson and Bones, vii-ix). The land fulfilled an essential component of a complex relationship, and was considered to be inseparable from Indigenous cultural values, and spirituality (Anderson and Bones, vii-ix). With an affiliation to the land, Indigenous peoples used traditional knowledge to their advantage in order to survive and strive while isolated from civilization. However, upon the arrival of Europeans and the onset of a civilized existence, traditional Indigenous culture began to shift.

Identification of the east coast of Newfoundland in 1497 by Giovanni Caboto marked the introduction of Western civilization. When British colonialists first made contact they encountered Indigenous communities with their own forms of Government and economic systems. A spirit of cooperation between the two nations initially marked this contact. The Europeans cooperated because the Indigenous populations proved to be more experienced than the colonialists. They knew how to survive the diverse elements of nature. In this period, Indigenous populations were initially partnered with the colonialists in their economic endeavors of trade, and were also used as military allies (Anderson and Bones, vii-iv). Towards the end of the initial period, the European perspective of the Indigenous population began to shift. The discovery of expansive North American land eventually served to highlight the vast differences between traditional Indigenous culture and European practices.

Despite initial cooperation, beginning in the mid 1700’s, Government policy began to reflect an increasing trend toward the disempowerment of the Indigenous population. The Europeans expected Indigenous societies to abandon their own traditional means and embrace a capitalist society. The traditional position of egalitarian societies and the perspective of humans as members of a transcendent universal system clashed with the development of capitalism, and the European perspective of humans as the solitary force of the universe (Dickason, et al. 59). With an accepted ideology, Europeans believed they were spiritually superior to the Indigenous population. This distorted perspective justified the occupation of Indigenous land without any regard for their basic human rights. Differences between the two were particularly evident in regards to the worth placed on cultural knowledge. The two nations exerted conflicting attitudes towards the land and its inherent values. (Dickason, et al. 59). Indigenous populations did not view the land as an asset to be managed and exploited. Rather, the world had been viewed within a web of interrelationships and obligations, not as a supply of resources to be used in order to benefit a profitable society (Anderson and Bones, vii-iv). Taking into account the advantages that European cultural practices held over the Indigenous tradition, it was evident that the original inhabitants of the land lacked the ability to prevent the invasion and ultimate takeover of their lands (Dickason, et al. 60). As a result, traditional Indigenous culture became marginalized, while European conduct achieved its greatest domination in history.

Within the span of two centuries, the Indigenous-colonial relationship had altered from an initial spirit of contact and cooperation to one of disempowerment and assimilation. A crucial aspect of this relationship involves an examination of the goal of capitalism and the European centrality to the colonial effort. (Anderson and Bones, 18–29). For capitalism to expand, it was necessary for colonialists to seek new market and labor forces in order to generate a profit. Not only did capitalism necessitate that land be available to the colonialists, but also that it be subject to private ownership. The extensive use of land in order to fuel the economy had been inconsistent with traditional Indigenous values. The economic power of capitalism at the time was equivalent to the representation of power that Europeans held over the Indigenous population. With an overwhelming concern regarding the continuation of economic growth, colonialists were inconsiderate to the well-being of the Indigenous population, as exclusive ownership of land and its resources were not part of their traditional way of life (Anderson and Bones, 18–29). The rise of capitalism is an example of a system inflicted upon Canada’s original inhabitants in order to disempower traditional culture. As a result of clashing cultural and religious values, Europeans also began to target Indigenous children in an attempt to diminish traditional teachings. This time period can also be identified as the residential school era.

In the 1840’s, the Canadian Government developed a policy called “aggressive assimilation” to be taught in Church-run government funded industrial schools, which were later referred to as residential schools. These schools were federally run under the Department of Indian Affairs. The residential school system, often viewed as a form of cultural genocide, sought to, “kill the Indian in the child”. Upon arrival, siblings would be separated in an attempt to eliminate familiar structural ties. Children were striped of their integrity as they were dressed in a similar fashion and their hair was cut. Residential schools instilled Catholicism amongst Indigenous children, many of whom were subject to physical and mental abuse at the hands of the administrators (Knockwood, 22–24). A residential school survivor by the name of Morley Norton is quoted in an article recently published in the Prince Albert Daily Herald. She recalls, with “a whip in one hand and a bible in the other… I never really understood religion” (Clarke, 2012). Residential schools instilled Catholicism while demonstrating violence at an equivalent rate.

In these schools a common language was taught, allowing European powers to further establish a sense of their own religion and culture. Children were torn away from their own culture and were unable to participate fully in lives of their former communities. Infected with values that directly conflicted with Indigenous tradition, children would return to their reserves after a semester and would feel as though they no longer belonged. The traditional skills that Indigenous children were accustomed to were shunned by the administration in residential schools. As a result, children became ashamed of their Native heritage. About 150,000 children were removed from their communities and forced to attend residential schools. (Hobbs and Rice, 294–295). However, children were not the only ones to suffer from the system. The entire Indigenous population experienced the devastating effects of the institution as it essentially tore families apart. (Maybe add violence against women here) This paper will now focus on the establishment of legislation in order to segregate and supervise Indigenous culture.

After the Numbered Treaty had been signed by a majority of Indigenous peoples in 1876, the Government passed a piece of legislation known as the Indian Act. The act consolidated and continued provisions found in previous legislation. Its purpose was to govern in manners pertaining to status, treaties and bands, and reserves, all of which will be discussed in further detail throughout the remainder of this paper. The act, although originally presented as a temporary means to control the Indigenous population on reserved land, reflected the Federal Government’s hidden agenda. The Indian Act was established with the ultimate goal of assimilation in an attempt to absorb an entire nation into the dominant European population. (Vago and Nelson, 90–94).

The Indian Act 1876 accounts for a component of a long history of assimilation policies intended to terminate the cultural, social, economic and political distinctiveness of Indigenous peoples, and resulted in the absorption of traditional means into current mainstream Canadian society (Hobbs and Rice, 558–594). These policies were originally developed in a response to the increasing social and commercial contact between traders and settlers and Indigenous nations, and reflected the belief that Indigenous people were unable to deal with persons of European ancestry without being exploited. Crown superintendents were appointed to manage relations with Indigenous nations and to ensure the Royal protection of Indigenous lands. However, the act resulted in opposition to its intended proposal to ‘protect’ Indigenous land and culture. Rather, the act is highly invasive of traditional culture, as it authorizes the Canadian Government to regulate and administer in the affairs of registered Indians and reserve communities. The act “ultimately established the Aboriginal population as a legal ward of the state” (Canada in the Making: Treaties & Relations). The act originally included qualifications, with specific boundaries and restrictions for the Indigenous population to adhere to. Supporters of the act refer to an “opportunity” granted to Indigenous peoples within a section of the act. This “opportunity” is known as the process of enfranchisement.

Enfranchisement was another feature of the Governments’ assimilation policies regarding the Indigenous population. Once recognized as a voluntary practice, enfranchisement was defined by, “the legal process of terminating a person’s Indian status and conferring full Canadian citizenship” (The University of British Columbia: Indigenous Foundations). In the Indian Act 1876 enfranchisement was established as a legal compulsory. The process was considered to be a “privilege”, rather than an aggressive form of assimilation into the dominant Canadian society (The University of British Columbia: Indigenous Foundations). Indigenous people have been enfranchised for multiple purposes such as, “serving in the Canadian armed forces, gaining a university education, for leaving reserves for long periods –for instance, for employment- and for Aboriginal women, if they married non-Indian men or if their Indian Husbands died or abandoned them” (The University of British Columbia: Indigenous Foundations). This section of the Indian Act 1876 left Indigenous populations no choice but to conform to the process of enfranchisement. The act has been highly criticized for its content based on a multitude of circumstances.

The constant use of the masculine pronoun within the original act caused confusion as to whether Indigenous women held any of the same rights pertaining to men. For this reason, the Indian Act 1876 has been criticized for its gender bias towards men. The legislation provides that, “any Indian woman marrying any other than an Indian or non-treaty Indian shall cease to be an Indian in any respect” (Hobbs and Rice, 280–284). In addition to the loss of status upon marriage women would also lose, “treaty benefits, health benefits, the right to live on her reserve, the right to inherit family property, and even the right to be buried on the reserve with her ancestors” (Hobbs and Rice, 280–284). This condition of the act was clearly used as a means to assimilate the traditionally impactful presence of Indigenous women in relation to decision-making. Women who lost their status as a result of the act were rejected by their communities, and were also socially discriminated against by the dominant white society. These results point to a complete loss of identity among Indigenous women, accounting for some of the issues they face within modern society. (Missing and murdered — Pamela George

In a 1920 House of Commons discussion of an amendment to the Indian Act, its original intentions were brought back to light. Deputy Superintendent General Duncan Campbell Scott clearly announced, “Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there’s no Indian question, and no Indian department; that is the whole object of the bill” (Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2012). The Indian Act was substantially revised in 1951, but was still highly detailed in its order and contained most of the paternalistic and assimilative provisions previously described. The year 1985 saw the greatest revision, when Parliament passed Bill C-31. Bill C-31 was an act established to amend the Indian Act. The bill brought the Indian Act more into line with the provisions set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 1982. As a result of the bill, legislation relating to entitlement to registration that discriminated on the basis of gender was eliminated from the Indian Act. The original provisions were replaced with non-discriminatory rules for determining entitlement (Hobbs and Rice, 280–284). Although the Indian Act has undergone numerous amendments since its first enactment, it largely retains its original form within modern society.

As mentioned previously, Europeans reinforced their superiority with an accepted view that Christians were entitled to take control of non-Christian land. The 19th century also saw the establishment of Indian reserves, with the fundamental purpose to segregate the Indigenous population (Dickason, et al. 252). Section 18 of the Indian Act 1876 pertains to the regulation of Indian land. The term “reserve” as defined by the Indian Act 1876 refers to, “Any tract or tracts of land set apart by a treaty or otherwise for the use of, benefit of or granted to a particular band of Indians, of which the legal title is the crown’s, but which is surrendered…” (Hobbs and Rise, 280–284). These fixed geographical locations hindered the cultural connection that Indigenous populations held to North American land, as they considered maintaining a relationship to nature a vital value. Through legislation, the Europeans surrounded Indigenous inhabitants with clusters of permissions and inhibitions that affected the opportunity and movement of their peoples (The University of British Columbia: Indigenous Foundations).

As defined by the original Indian Act, the term “band” describes, “any tribe, band or body of Indians who own or are interested in a reserve or in Indian lands in common, of which the legal title is vested in the crown” (Hobbs and Rice, 280–284). The policy of the Federal Government in relation to Indigenous title to land where a treaty had not been signed was simple. The Government would act as though the land did not exist. While dealing with entitlement to land, in relation to the gender bias noticeable in the original Indian Act, only men were permitted to vote in band elections authorized by the Governor in Council (Barsh, et al. 51–82). Even with the revision of the Indian Act in 1951, the Governor in Council continued to acquire the power to order bands to abandon their traditional forms of Government in order to adopt the elective band council system that was implemented. (Barsh, et al 51–82).

The conditions endured as a result of European contact have led to long-term effects on the Canadian Indigenous population. A coercive attempt to civilize the original inhabitants of Canada resulted in a lack of trust in the Government to uphold Indigenous rights and to respect traditional culture. Beginning with initial contact of Europeans, the superiors labeled the Indigenous population. These labels clearly have a negative connotation, and the stereotypes relating to them remain to this day. An example of a persistent stereotype is the view that Indigenous women represent socially unprotected targets within society (Hobbs and Rice, 588–594). As a result of this stereotype, Indigenous women are put at a higher risk for racial and sexual discrimination. The various discriminatory practices persistent in modern society are rooted within the social and economic conditions of colonization. There remains a widespread lack of housing, with rental practices often discriminatory towards Indigenous peoples. The availability of public services is still limited, with a lasting impact on the well-being of Indigenous populations (Frideres, et al. 77). As a consequence of the labels assigned to Indigenous populations throughout colonization, racism is a major barrier to employment, home ownership, and an equal access to justice, healthcare and education (Hobbs and Rice, 558–594).

An additional long-term effect of colonization is a lack of compassion among Indigenous peoples. This factor is particularly evident regards to the lives of residential school survivors. After experiencing a complete loss of identity in the hands of abusive administrators, Indigenous children, unable to find themselves, would often result to alcohol as a means of escaping the memories of their past. Substance abuse within Indigenous communities as a result of these circumstances is persistent in modern society.

Moreover, the loss of Indigenous culture and identity experienced throughout the process of colonization has also resulted in a low self-esteem and self-worth, leading to the issue of internalized racism in addition to the more common forms of externalized racism (Hobbs and Rice, 234–242). The high “profile of mental disorders among Aboriginal people is primarily a by-product of our colonial past with its layered assaults on Aboriginal cultures and personal identities” (Royal Commission on Aboriginal People). As society evolves further to create new histories, internal scars will remain within the hearts of the Indigenous populations affected by colonization.

The genocide inflicted upon the Indigenous inhabitants of North America is incomparable in history. The exploitation of traditional Indigenous religion and culture ultimately gave Europe the groups to continue on its path to colonial development. The Europeans completely disregarded the rights of thousands of human beings in a selfish attempt to expand their own foundations. In the process, the colonialists labeled the land and established a system of unequal relations. The methods examined in order to break down traditional Indigenous conduct put the original inhabitants at an even greater disadvantage, resulting in the complete vulnerability of an entire nation in the hands of another.


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Vago, Steven, and Adie Nelson, edit. Law and Society. Toronto: Pearson Canada Inc., 2014.

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