Following my 1968 assay into the world of Canadian Indians, described in my previous Chronicle, I had a more or less open assignment to investigate the same subject across Canada. In the next three years, until I quit my job, I believe I met most of the significant leaders, from the legendary George Manuel down to the mere chiefs of many small local bands. As must be expected with so complex a subject, complicated by its shameful generations of history, and by the many divisions, induced by the government, among the subject peoples, I came to a number of somewhat contradictory conclusions.
At that period, few Canadian Indians had even made it through high school, and it became obvious to me that however strong and dedicated their leaders might be, they did not, overall, have the education that would enable them to confront on equal terms the moloch of the federal government, with its hundreds of civil servants and lawyers, all of whom, it seemed, were concentrated on finding measures designed to keep the indigenous people in their place. At the same time, in a somewhat contradictory finding, it became obvious to me that the first thing needed by the indigenous people was to rediscover their pride in, their belief in, their traditional beliefs, ceremonies, and practices, without which, as a basis, no amount of education would serve to lift them from their decline.
None of that is to suggest that they had no leadership during those long, bitter years. I soon heard about, for example, Chief Gabriel Sylliboy, a Micmaq, who in 1928 went to court to argue that under the terms of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship his people had signed in 1752 with the newcomers, he was entitled to hunt and fish freely. To say that he was laughed out of court is merely to emphasis one of the shameful episodes in the relationship between the indigenous and the newcomers. The judge said that treaties were unconstrained acts between two sovereign powers and the Mi’kmaq were savages and incapable of having treaties. Yet 57 years later, a Micmaw called James Simon went to court with exactly the same argument, basing his reasoning on the very same Treaty, and he was found to have the right to hunt and fish, as he claimed. And another 32 years on, that is, 89 years after Sylliboy was humiliated in the court room, the Lt-Governor of Nova Scotia, J.J. Grant, in a formal ceremony, granted Sylliboy a full pardon and coupled it with an apology. “It is not simply the stroke of a pen on the Queen’s behalf that is the only component of what we undertake today,” said Grant. “It is a process of treaty education that includes understanding and valuing what the Mi’kmaq have contributed in shaping this province and nation.” Sylliboy died in 1964, and as one of his people said at the ceremony, “he went to his deathbed thinking he let the Mi’kmaq people down.”
I was utterly astonished when I learned that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had laid down that no lands could be occupied before a negotiation had taken place between the government and the native occupiers of the land, but that this had been totally ignored over huge areas of the country, such as most of British Columbia and all of Quebec. It was only as the newcomers began to filter across the country, and wanted the land, that they entered into such negotiations, signing the so-called Numbered Treaties from one to nine, but these were not negotiations between equals, and the native people were given misleading guarantees that they would be allowed to use their traditional lands as before, to hunt and fish and feed themselves, activities that, in the event were forbidden to them as the newcomers erected controls over everything the original occupants did.
I quickly began to realize as I wandered the country that there was nothing exceptional about this Sylliboy story: similar stories could be heard everywhere. Sylliboy and men like him had been diligent all through those years of decline, in maintaining opposition to the takeover by the newcomers from Europe. For example, the Nishga people of northern British Columbia maintained throughout their history that they had never surrendered their land. They repeated this at every opportunity. In 1913 they sent a delegation to London to tell the Sovereign their views; in the late 1920s, they were at it again, unrepentantly claiming ownership of their traditional lands. For years it was even forbidden for native people to collect money to defend themselves, but eventually they took the matter to court, their case being argued for them by the BC politician and lawyer, Tom Berger, and, not long after I began to take an interest, their argument was so persuasive that they split the Supreme Court on the substantive issue of their Aboriginal right in their land. This case, with three Supreme Court justices finding for the Indian interest, persuaded Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who had hitherto argued that one part of society could not make a treaty with another part, and therefore the Indian treaties were invalid, to change his mind.
Wherever I went I found similar stories. For example, when Banff National Park was established in 1885, a huge chunk of traditional Stoney land was forbidden to them. These Assiniboine people had for millennia made their living by hunting (mostly bison), fishing and trapping in the foothills of the Rockies. But the newcomers had another use in mind for their land, and they confined these free-ranging people to small reservations whose land was not capable of feeding them. It was not enough that the Stoneys were not wanted within the Park, they were not wanted outside the park, either. The living in the reservations was so poor, the government was reluctantly forced to send in food aid just to keep them alive. So, at a stroke, they were homeless, with no economy, no homelands, nothing left of what was always the glory of their lifestyle.
Or take the Ottawa valley, home not only to one of Canada’s great rivers, but to the Algonquin people who had always lived there. Gradually the newcomers went to work logging the lower reaches of the valley, ignoring the pleas of the original inhabitants, simply pushing them aside, as if they didn’t count. The newcomers tried, along with the church, always the willing handmaiden of brutal colonialism, to gather all Algonquins in a large reservation they established at Maniwaki, north of Ottawa in the province of Quebec, one that still exists today. But the idea never caught on: only the displaced people from the lower valley accompanied the priests to the new reservation, but, as people from the upper reaches of the valley told me years later, they made one visit in their canoes, their people fell ill, and thereafter decided to maintain themselves in their traditional manner. In this way the Algonquins were divided as between those in Quebec and those remnants left in Ontario. Divide and rule has always been the government mantra. Repeatedly over the years, the Algonquins handed in petitions asking that their land rights be respected, only to be ignored. Until today nothing is left to them except for the ritual repetition at formal ceremonies or occasions in Ottawa that the speakers, whoever they might be, recognize they are on unsurrendered Algonquin lands. Such an empty gesture, far short of the necessary land settlement.
The history of the relationship between the upper Algonquins, the people of Barriere Lake, Grand Lake Vicroria and Lac Simon, is a ttextbook account of colonialism in action right in the heartland of Canada, with the inevitable result that these are among three of the poorest communities in the entire country.
In the prairies, the prevailing mantra was that indigenous people had to adjust to the developing society around them, and could only do so by becoming farmers. As shown by the author Sarah Carter in a 1993 book, Lost Harvests, many of them succeeded in becoming farmers, only to find that they were forbidden, by regulation or legislation, from selling the produce of their farms, for fear that the white farmers living around them might not be able to meet the competition. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, as the saying goes.
A common argument against the indigenous is that a subsistence life of hunting and trapping is not viable in the modern world. But what are we to make of the experience of the Ojibway of the Lake of the Woods, in western Ontario? These people had a fully-functioning, diversified economy using all the resources of the land --- fur, fish, wild rice, corn, potatoes and other vegetables, large and small game, maple sugar and manufactured items such as pitch, twines and canoes. Their sturgeon fishery was described by the Hudson’s Bay Company as one of the most productive fisheries in North America. They used every part of the fish, curing and storing much for later use, making a special pemmican, using the oil from the fish as a condiment and doing a profitable trade in isinglass, manufactured from the gelatin obtained from the air bladder of the fish, which was in high demand among the non-natives for use in making glue, and as a clarifying agent for wine and beer. Three times they rejected the effort to get them to sign a Treaty. But the newcomers needed passage through their territory, were willing to make extravagant promises, hoping that some Ojibway would accept them, as some did. Eventually, fishing was opened to commercial fishermen selling into the United States, and within a few years, the sturgeon had disappeared from the lake, and the Ojibway diversified economy was on its last legs.
As Charles Wagamase, a young Ojibway, told me: “People do not make a Treaty to become poor, to have their children suffer, to go from being respected to being assaulted and humiliated…..We gave them our hand, we signed these treaties, and now people say, to hell with you Indians. You are just a bunch of welfare cases, alcoholics. We are tired of supporting you. (Long silence) ….How did they come to that mind?...I deal with government people every day…I look across the table at these people, and I say to myself, these guys, their job is to keep our people poor… I think the people of Canada have to look in the mirror and ask themselves why they don’t keep their deals.”