Are non-Indigenous Canadians ready to concede that we all live on land meant to be shared? Historians suggest we should be.
IN 1857 THE PROVINCE OF CANADA ENACTED A NEW LAW IT CALLED THE
Gradual Civilization Act. Who could be against civilization? But the Gradual Civilization Act was not intended to encourage the arts or to raise the cultural level of backwoods settlers. It was aimed at the Indigenous peoples of the province. “Civilization” meant assimilation.
The new law authorized the government to declare any Indigenous man “enfranchised” if he were educated and could read and write. Enfranchisement provided the vote, and also a little money and a little land — both of which would come from the First Nations band of which he had formerly been a member.
Above all, enfranchisement meant that he and his spouse and children would no longer be “Indians.” They would cease to be part of any Indigenous band, tribe, or nation. Enough enfranchisements, and there would be no “Indians” — and no First Nations left in Canada.
The Gradual Civilization Act had a long life. In 1876, with more measures for coercion and control added to it — including compulsory residential schooling — it became Canada’s Indian Act. In the 1920s, the federal government planned further amendments. Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy minister at the Indian Department, declared that the
Indian Act’s “whole object” was that every Indigenous person would be “absorbed into the body politic” and cease to be an “Indian” under the law.
In North America, “civilization” projects of this kind have had an unbroken record of failure for about five hundred years. Indigenous scholars and leaders have long identified the
Indian Act — and the Confederation-era political leaders who created it — as tools and agents of cultural genocide. In recent years, John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister and the most prominent political leader of that era — and the one honoured with the most statues — has been singled out for particular criticism on this issue.
It’s worth remembering that some parts of the Indian Act came from Conservative governments, others from Liberal governments. In the years around Confederation, all Canadian politicians and all political parties endorsed the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples.
When they came to draft a constitution for Canada, however, that same generation of politicians, representing all parties, had endorsed an alternative model for relations between the Canadian state and the First Nations. When they made Confederation in 1867, the politicians who negotiated the terms of union put a Treaty-based relationship with First Nations permanently into Canada’s Constitution.
It is important for the future well-being of Native-newcomer relations, treaty implementation, and the social cohesion of Canada that everyone come to recognize that “we are all treaty people.” — J.R. Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant