Skip navigation
Margin Notes

We once got along


It is easy to think that relations between the Canadian government and aboriginal peoples have always been bad, that the two sides have never gotten along. But, “the fact of the matter is that’s not true. There was a time in our history when our relations were better,” said Jim Miller, a professor of history and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Miller was speaking at the first Big Thinking lecture of the season on Parliament Hill last week, sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

In a foreshadow of the issues at play, University of Alberta professor Cindy Blackstock introduced Dr. Miller to the assembled guests and welcomed them to Parliament Hill, which she declared “un-ceded Algonquin land.” Professor Blackstock is a board member of the federation and member of the Gitksan Nation.

In his talk, Dr. Miller posited that if we look back at when relations were better between Canada’s First Nations and the early European arrivals, and more importantly when they began to deteriorate, that “can give us some clues to how we might be able to change things for the better in the future.”

Dr. Miller noted that in the earliest period of this relationship, there was a great deal of cooperation between the two sides, particularly in the fur trade. What Europeans found, he said, “was that in order to prosecute the fur trade successfully, they needed the cooperation, support, labour and skills and knowledge of First Nations, who were of course very familiar with the territory.”

The Natives responded to the Europeans by establishing what sociologists called fictive or ascribed kinship through rituals such as welcome ceremonies, gift exchanges, feasting and smoking the pipe. “This was the foundation of their relationship for the first century and a half after contact, not just in commerce but in diplomatic and military relations.”

This relationship continued until the end of the War of 1812, but quickly fell apart after that, particularly after 1820 due to heavy immigration from Great Britain. The settlers wanted land to farm, and this began to interfere with the native way of life. “This is when things begin to go bad. This is when the First Nations are no longer perceived as a partner and an ally by the Europeans so much as an obstacle,” said Dr. Miller. It is also at this time that natives became an object of “concern” by humanitarian Christian groups. This was “the leading edge of what becomes known as the policy of the bible and the plow,” he continued, which goes on for roughly a century, “wreaking destruction everywhere.”

These events “pave the way for the regime of tutelage, coercion and attempted assimilation. This is the beginning of the long period of our troubles.” This was formalized in the Indian Act passed in 1876, in which natives were now seen as wards of the state rather than partners. Then came the final indignity of the residential schools, which led to spiritual destruction and “a great deal of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.” It is a sad legacy, but one which shouldn’t be unfamiliar to most Canadians.

On the positive side, Canada has recently begun “working our way out” of this legacy, said Dr. Miller. The first step came in the 1980s when some churches began to apologize for what their predecessors did in the residential schools. This was followed by a wrenching era of individual litigation by those who suffered, which eventually led to the negotiation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, finalized in 2006 and implemented in 2007. Among other things, this agreement created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is now wrapping up its work.

One other thing that happened was the Prime Minister’s apology to natives in 2008. “It was a very important step symbolically. Unfortunately it has not been followed up by meaningful action on many fields that require attention,” said Dr. Miller.

Summing up, he said “we have to try to get back to an earlier, healthier type of relationship.” It is not only the right thing to do, he said, but it is the practical thing to do because we do need each other again. For example, “if you’re from British Columbia, and you’re thinking of running a pipeline to the coast, you know that you need the cooperation of First Nations in order to carry it out.” Particularly on environmental issues, “this is an area in which non-aboriginal Canadians can learn from first nations and other aboriginal Canadians, who have a relationship with the natural world.”

Pressed by the audience at the Q&A session afterwards about how to proceed, Dr. Miller said one of the biggest obstacles is the distrust and suspicion that the aboriginal leadership has for the federal government. To dissipate that climate, we need to build “a succession of small achievements, small agreements which over time will begin to create confidence rather than suspicion.” This requires the leadership of the federal government, he said. “We can’t underestimate the difficulty of the challenge.”

I must admit that my immediate reaction after the talk was: what, that’s it? You have nothing more concrete to offer? But I think that’s being unfair to Dr. Miller. It has taken us centuries to reach this point and there are surely no quick, easy fixes.

I did notice, however, that also last week former Prime Minister Paul Martin announced that a number of retired politicians and aboriginal leaders have joined together to form a non-profit group called Canadians for a New Partnership, aimed “at sparking a new national conversation among Canadians on aboriginal issues.” Echoing the language of Dr. Miller, the new group declared that they stand united to remind Canadians of the moral and economic imperative to heal our “broken relationship” with Aboriginal peoples. It’s a start.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

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