The Continuing Story Of A Continuing Relationship


There was a time when Aboriginal peoples and Europeans newly-arrived to this land conducted affairs between them with mutual respect. There’s no need to romanticize the character of these relations. It was an era of alliances, political intrigue, war, and nastiness. But even warfare indicates respect. It bears an implicit acknowledgement of a foe’s strength and independence. In the initial phase of contact between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of this land, indigenous peoples had the advantages. They knew how to live on the land and how to navigate the rivers and the forests, and in battle there were more of them. Perhaps this is why mutual respect characterized the early relationship.

The intention here is not to deliver a history lesson, though there is always value in that. There is also a trap. History concerns what has taken place in the past. For many Canadians, the “history of Aboriginal people” designates “things that happened a long time ago.” The story of Aboriginal people is a story only from the past, of the past, and in the past. Once there were Indians; settlers arrived; the buffalo disappeared. With the inevitable advance of Civilization their story came to an abrupt end. It is very difficult, I think, for Canadians to comprehend that the story of Onkwehonweh (the indigenous peoples of North America) is a living, enduring story, with a present and a future in which they themselves figure. And so it serves us well to speak of a relationship.

As I’ve said, the relationship between indigenous peoples and settlers was initially characterized by mutual respect. By this I mean that indigenous peoples accommodated the new-comers and did not interfere in their affairs. Likewise, settlers recognized the autonomy of indigenous peoples and did not impinge on their activities. There were of course exceptions, but here I am describing in general terms the nature of early relations. In the nineteenth century this was changing in ways we may easily identify. There were many more settlers coming from abroad; the balance in relative military strength had given way to Euro-American advantage, and the humble activity of homesteading was being subordinated to the political ambitions of state-building. In the 1830s, colonial government officials began commissioning reports on the topic of “The Indian Problem.” It may be fair to say that this notion of an Indian problem recast the relationship, bringing an end to the period of mutual respect. Here we enter the era of the Indian Residential School System, informed by relationships of another sort.

The Indian problem refers to the fact that someone else was here first. The land was not empty, awaiting settlement and exploitation. However, colonialism is not so easily discouraged. Myths, narratives, and stereotypes justifying the domination of indigenous peoples flourished. Throughout the nineteenth century, the colonial Government — and later the Government of Canada — crafted policies and laws facilitating the peaceful and sometimes not-so-peaceful conquest of indigenous peoples and appropriation of their territories and resources. Among these policies and laws were: the Gradual Civilization Act (1857), the British North America Act (1867), an Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian (1869), the Dominion Lands Act (1872), the establishment of the North-West Mounted Police (1873), the Indian Act (1876) and its amendments, and Sir John A. MacDonald’s “National Policy.“

Of The Indian Residential School System

The above list reflects a relationship – or, perhaps more accurate, it reflects one-half of a relationship’s changing character. Alongside other policies and laws facilitating westward expansion, reports recommending agricultural- and religious-based government-funded Indian industrial and boarding schools, placed far from parental and community influences, were being produced by government officials. However, it took additional developments to bring forth Government action. What follows is a narrative account of the Indian Residential School System – the story of how this System came to be.

The critical development was the settlement of the West and the attendant treaty-making process. Indigenous peoples were well aware of the changing times and the need to negotiate the terms of their relationship with Canada. As settlers encroached upon their territories, and as the means of sustaining themselves through hunting was thereby diminished, Onkwehonweh turned to the familiar act of treaty-making to secure the arrangements which would enable them to maintain their well-being. One of the treaty provisions they were keen to obtain was education. The objective here was to transfer useful Euro-Canadian skills to their children, not in place of their ways, but as a necessary supplement. The security of cultures, languages, and lives would be enhanced by an attainment of know-how. In other words, the treaty making process was, from an Onkwehonweh perspective, another instance of parties gaining mutual advantage through a relationship of accommodation and respect.

The churches also played a role throughout this period. They had been engaged in missionary work since the earliest days of contact. Missionary activities were typically funded through subscription. Often semi-formal groups known as “women’s auxiliaries” would support missionary work by holding fund-raising meetings in the homes of well-off individuals. A presentation on the accomplishments and challenges of religious missions abroad would be followed by a call for support. These sorts of activities supported the earliest missionary schools abroad, but by the nineteenth century religious groups sought a larger and more predictable funding base. To this end they became eager to draw the Government of Canada into a formal funding partnership.

A now-familiar, triangular relationship — between indigenous peoples, religious entities, and Government — began to take shape in the late 1800s. Each brought into this tripartite relationship a particular agenda. Onkwehonweh sought, through treaty, practical education of their children in exchange for territory. The Government entered treaty negotiations as part of a larger nation-building, colonialist strategy. The Churches sought formal economic support of their missionary work.

Learning of the treaty provision of education, the Churches grasped that their opportunity had arrived. They approached Government to propose formal support of their missionary work as a fulfilment of past recommendations and of present treaty obligations. The Government, eager to divest itself precisely of these treaty obligations to indigenous peoples, saw an opportunity to hurry the assimilation of Indians into “the body politic.” In 1892, a funding relationship, based upon a per-capita formula, brought into being the official system of Indian Residential Schools.

Lost in the Church-Government deal were the spirit and intent of the treaties and the interests of Aboriginal people. Instead of receiving the skill-oriented education they had negotiated, they found themselves the objects of an aggressive Christian-based campaign of State-supported assimilation. The aspirations of Government and Churches were accommodated, but for indigenous peoples the Indian Residential School System represented a shocking, painful, and ultimately destructive violation of trust.

Of Forced Assimilation

Such has been the nature of the relationship ever since. This initial violation was followed by others. For the roughly eighty years the residential school system endured, and beyond, Indigenous people would be subjected to many forms of systemic institutional abuse, creating the historic trauma which is with us today. It is important to realize that residential schools were only one symptom of the imbalanced relationship between Aboriginal people and the Government of Canada. To address only residential schools, even in a comprehensive manner, is to treat a symptom. Land, languages, cultures, mental and physical health, have all suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of this broken relationship.

Furthermore, considering Indian residential schools as an instance of failure to honour a relationship exposes the relevance of the issue to the contemporary individual. Policies come and go, but the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown remains. In the present as well as in the past, governments elected by Canadians have violated treaties and have disregarded the rights of Aboriginal people in their name. It is doubtful that governments could maintain their policies and their prerogative without a certain degree of public complacency, even complicity. The contemporary Canadian public must perform its role in bringing about a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Without exertion of public pressure, a reconciliation agenda, or indeed any “Aboriginal agenda,” is unlikely to succeed.

Canada should be unequivocal about the fact that the policy of forced assimilation has devastated Aboriginal people. For generations, Canadian institutions and laws have actively worked against the ability of Aboriginal peoples to live well as Aboriginal people. Assimilate or suffer the consequences: this has been the tacit arrangement imposed upon us. Forced assimilation’s legacy is destruction of languages and destruction of cultures, chronic addictions, community violence, suicide, mental illness, broken families, mistrust of leadership and authority, poverty, and shame.

The theme of relationship shows the way out of this legacy. It binds past, present, and future. It is the underlying reality. That is one reason why, for instance, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples chose as the title of the Final Report Summary, “People to People, Nation to Nation.” In the introduction to that publication, the Commissioners wrote,

The story of Canada is the story of … peoples trying and failing and trying again to live together in peace and harmony. But there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice. It was to help restore justice to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems, that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was established.

Ten years later, and more, that still describes Canada’s failures.

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