Canada's History

Finding Reconcilia­tion

Are non-Indigenous Canadians ready to concede that we all live on land meant to be shared? Historians suggest we should be.

- By Christophe­r Moore


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

 ??  ?? First Nations protestors assert their rights during an Idle No More march in Ottawa in 2013. 37
First Nations protestors assert their rights during an Idle No More march in Ottawa in 2013. 37

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