Ottawa’s Indian policies stick with tried and tested failure

WHEN THE politician and aspiring poet Nicholas Flood Davin visited Captain Richard H. Pratt’s Carlisle Barracks, in Pennsylvania, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was only weeks along in its operations. Nonetheless, in March of 1879 an enthusiastic endorsement of this American Indian industrial and boarding school reached the desk of the Minister of the Interior, who happened also to be the author’s patron, John A. Macdonald.

“Sir, — I have the honour to submit the following report on the working of Industrial Schools for the education of Indians and mixed-bloods in the United States, and on the advisability of establishing similar institutions in the North-West Territories of the Dominion,” it begins.

In 1879 most, perhaps all, of the ideas advanced in Davin’s report were decades old within federal policy circles. The persistence of what were considered outmoded ways of life had by this time yielded a half-century’s worth of hand-wringing and pamphleteering, as prominent intellectuals and reformers throughout the century recommended for Indians an education in agriculture, Christian morality, industriousness, hygiene and private ownership. Or, as Davin recommended,

“the Indians should, as far as practicable, be consolidated on few reservations, and provided with ‘permanent individual homes’ ; that the tribal relation should be abolished ; that lands should be allotted in severalty and not in common ; that the Indian should speedily become a citizen […] enjoy the protection of the law, and be made amenable thereto ; that, finally, it was the duty of the Government to afford the Indians all reasonable aid in their preparation for citizenship by educating them in the industry and in the arts of civilization.”

The bureaucracy had long been of this view, and one can today open at random a 19th Century annual report of Indian Affairs and quickly find discourses like the following:

“A wider idea of education is commencing to permeate teachers’ work, but much enlargement of this idea is still needed. Until it is clearly felt that the primary aim is to produce, a moral, industrious, white character — even unlettered — with a cultivated antipathy to that which stands against, and sympathy with that which stands for, civilization, rather than a lettered, savage nature with increased capacities for doing, but without desire, to do and to do well, education of a true sort is not even conceived. And until good means are found of achieving this aim the methods of Indian education remain imperfect.”

Though written in 1891 by J. Ansdell Macrae — the Inspector of Protestant Indian Schools in Manitoba, Keewatin and the North-West Territories — this passage represented not only the well-established view of Europeans, but of their Canadian descendants also. Notice, for instance, that Davin’s phrase “lands should be allotted in severalty and not in common” is a call for the privatization of property, the goal of which was and remains what Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, would later call the absorption of the Indian into the body politic.

How curious that no one asks the question begged by this: should ideas and attitudes germinated in the Victorian era and formalized in early 20th Century legislation be met today with eager credulity? Both Davin and Scott were clever men and published poets, as well as government officials, and among their work are many romantic expressions pertaining to the vanishing Indian and the inevitable march of progress. On all the important questions, these men had bold visions which time has shown to be misguided, as well as in many cases callous and indefensible. The Indians did not give up being Indian, as bureaucrats expected they would, for the simple reason that they did not want to. Over and again the principal outcome of top-down, Ottawa-knows-best paternalism was another generation of consternated policy wonks and impoverished reserves whose inhabitants nonetheless resisted outside pressures to cease and desist all things Indian.

Canadians meanwhile are under the sway of some heartfelt but improbable notions, for instance the idea that the reserve system and its chief-and-council governance are anachronisms and tribal hold-overs awaiting rescue, in this case by the free market. Although as bad as its critics contend, the status quo was in fact crafted and imposed by successive leaders of Canada and at considerable effort, better to open up the land and its resources to the Crown. (Given the cherry-picking which thereby ensued, and the amount of unwanted, inarable and isolated lands devolved to status Indians, one has to entertain skepticism over the advertised economic benefits of privatization.) The Indian Act is another instance of rotten policy the alternatives to which, in the eyes of many distrusting status Indians, have been rottener policies. Will fee simple be added to the list of the rottener option? Before and not after the leap has been taken is a good time to try and sort out such fundamental questions.

There is little controversy that the way out of a cul-de-sac must be mapped and led by the people affected, or that their own views of their obstacles and aspirations and wishes might be of some relevance. The latest proposal, to introduce voluntary fee simple property ownership to Indian reserves, is championed by the former Chief of the Kamloops Indian Band, Manny Jules. This at least is one step’s remove from conducting the discussion entirely over the heads of the people affected, as has been too often the government’s practice. Davin, who laboured to hasten the absorption of the Indian into the great sea of a better race (and who never questioned his entitlement to do so), would doubtless have been sickened by the suggestion that in 2012 so little has changed — but his own attitudes, shared by his contemporaries, are a good part of the cause.

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