Toronto played a role in dark his­tory of as­sim­i­la­tion

Toronto Star - - OPINION - DON SMITH

On Aug. 28, Justin Trudeau promised Cana­di­ans a new na­tion-to-na­tion re­la­tion­ship with the Indige­nous peo­ples. The prime min­is­ter an­nounced his wish to end the In­dian Act of 1876, a com­plex piece of leg­is­la­tion amended many times since but which still gives the fed­eral govern­ment enor­mous pow­ers over many as­pects of Sta­tus In­di­ans’ lives.

Toronto’s Carolyn Ben­nett, the new Min­is­ter of Crown-Indige­nous Re­la­tions, is now charged to work for its dis­man­tle­ment. Toronto has a sec­ond di­rect link to this story. The Act for the Grad­ual Civ­i­liza­tion of the In­dian Tribes in the Canadas, the pre­cur­sor of to­day’s In­dian Act, was passed in Toronto a decade be­fore Con­fed­er­a­tion, 160 years ago.

In May1857, John A. Macdonald made a ma­jor in­ter­ven­tion in the Assem­bly of the Canadas. The at­tor­ney gen­eral of Canada West pre­sented the Act for the Grad­ual Civ­i­liza­tion of the In­dian Tribes. Nei­ther he nor any other cab­i­net mem­ber had con­sulted any chiefs or In­dian coun­cils prior to the de­bate. On ac­count of mas­sive em­i­gra­tion from the Bri­tish Isles, the First Na­tions now only num­bered 1 per cent of to­tal pop­u­la­tion of ap­prox­i­mately two mil­lion. The val­ued Bri­tish al­lies of the War of 1812 no longer mer­ited con­sul­ta­tion.

The Par­lia­ment Build­ings of the Union of the Canadas dom­i­nated the water­front be­tween “John” and “Sim­coe” Sts., both named af­ter John Graves Sim­coe, Up­per Canada’s first lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor, and founder of Fort York in 1793.

In the mid-1850s, Toronto, a city with a pop­u­la­tion of ap­prox­i­mately 50,000, served as the cap­i­tal of Canada West, now On­tario, and Canada East, to­day’s Quebec. The Cana­dian cap­i­tal shifted be­tween Toronto and Quebec City, as nei- ther sec­tion of the Union would ac­cept a per­ma­nent cap­i­tal in the other. Only the mid­way choice of Ottawa re­solved the is­sue in 1865.

The Grad­ual Civ­i­liza­tion Act es­tab­lished the pro­ce­dures by which Sta­tus In­di­ans could be­come “en­fran­chised” or full cit­i­zens. The Act re­flected the views and value of the dom­i­nant so­ci­ety in re­gard to the place and role of the First Na­tions. En­fran­chise­ment was pre­sented as an hon­our. Its pur­pose was to grant In­di­ans the vote, full sta­tus as Bri­tish sub­jects and own­er­ship of a plot of land of 20 hectares (50 acres) of re­serve land.

Any In­dian adult male judged by a spe­cial board of ex­am­in­ers to be ed­u­cated, free from debt, and of good moral char­ac­ter, could ap­ply. Af­ter a suc­cess­ful three­year trial pe­riod, the ap­pli­cant gained full own­er­ship of his 50 acres that im­me­di­ately ceased to be part of the re­serve, and could be sold to a non-In­dian.

The Cana­dian leg­is­la­ture quickly passed the bill, in a near unan­i­mous vote. Why is Macdonald sin­gled out for cen­sure for his as­sim­i­la­tion­ist out­look? All the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal lead­ers sup­ported the leg­is­la­tion: Ge­orge-Éti­enne Cartier, his great Con­ser­va­tive Party po­lit­i­cal ally; as well as his op­po­nents, Lib­er­als Ge­orge Brown and An­toine Do­rion. As­sim­i­la­tion of the First Na­tions was seen as an in­stru­ment of free­dom, not of op­pres­sion.

The Indige­nous re­sponse was not long in com­ing. First Na­tions lead­ers de­nounced the Grad­ual Civ­i­liza­tion Act. They cor­rectly saw it as an at­tempt to end their land base. It in­creased con­trol over their lives.

A huge protest meet­ing was held on the Six Na­tions Ter­ri­tory near Brant­ford. They re­jected Canada’s in­vi­ta­tion to dis­ap­pear. By 1876, only a sin­gle can­di­date had been en­fran­chised.

Nei­ther Macdonald nor any other Cana­dian politi­cian paid any at­ten­tion to First Na­tions protests af­ter the bill’s pas­sage. As the dis­tin­guished Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Peter Rus­sell has writ­ten in Canada’s Odyssey: A Coun­try Based on In­com­plete Con­quests (2017): “In Canada at this time, there was not an ounce of re­spect in ei­ther the po­lit­i­cal or ju­di­cial branches of govern­ment for Indige­nous peo­ples’ right to gov­ern them­selves.”

Two years af­ter Con­fed­er­a­tion, Macdonald cab­i­net min­is­ter Hec­tor Langevin in­tro­duced in Par­lia­ment the bill that be­came the new coun­try’s first ma­jor piece of leg­is­la­tion re­lat­ing to In­di­ans. The Grad­ual En­fran­chise­ment Act built on the 1857 Grad­ual Civ­i­liza­tion Act of the United Prov­ince of Canada. It was de­vised with­out In­dian con­sent or par­tic­i­pa­tion.

The In­dian Act of 1876, passed eight years later by the Lib­eral ad­min­is­tra­tion of Alexan­der Macken­zie, Canada’s sec­ond prime min­is­ter, com­pleted the leg­isla­tive frame­work for as­sim­i­la­tion. The pas­sage of the Grad­ual Civ­i­liza­tion Act in Toronto in 1857 set Canada on the wrong road of as­sim­i­la­tion, or to use the modern de­scrip­tion favoured by some to­day — cul­tural geno­cide.

Why is Macdonald sin­gled out for cen­sure for his as­sim­i­la­tion­ist out­look? All the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal lead­ers sup­ported the leg­is­la­tion

Don Smith, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­tory, Univer­sity of Cal­gary, is cur­rently writ­ing The Blind Spot, a study of non-Indige­nous Cana­di­ans’ per­spec­tives of the First Na­tions, 1867-2017.


It was in Toronto, in 1857, that John A. Macdonald pre­sented the Act for the Grad­ual Civ­i­liza­tion of the In­dian Tribes to the Assem­bly of the Canadas. The act was a pre­cur­sor to the In­dian Act and a pol­icy of cul­tural as­sim­i­la­tion.

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