Failing the First Nations

Globe & Mail
January 24, 1998


Olive Patricia Dickason

Canada’s national dream at the time of confederation, a single nation of spanning the continent from sea to sea was seen as involving mainly political challenges.

Socially, it was taken for granted that the creation of a nation would involve uniformity of laws and customs within its borders; the notion of unity in diversity was at first neither widely accepted nor taken seriously. It was confidently expected that it would be only a matter of time before all would fit into one cultural mould that would be the identifying mark of this new nation. The culmination of that approach was reached during the last part of the 19th century the height of social engineering, for which residential schools have become the symbol.

In examining, the consequences of this policy for Canada’s aboriginal peoples, Fournier (a journalist) and Crey (a Coast Salish activist) focus mainly on the British Columbian experience particularly that of the Coast Salish people. They make it clear, however, that for aboriginal peoples the experience of externally enforced assimilation was a national one, as were its consequences: rising rates of substance abuse, with attendant physical and health problems; psychological and sexual abuse; broken families, community dysfunction and soaring suicide rate. "Killing the Indian in the child" resulted in adults disconnected from their communities, described by the authors as "walking time bombs" who in turn mistreated their own children in a cycle that has passed from generation to generation.

As the problems increased, so did the efforts of the dominant society to enforce assimilation more rigorously than ever. An example of this was the "Sixties Scoop," a massive program in the 1960s that stepped up the removal of aboriginal children from their faltering families to place them in non-aboriginal homes, either through foster care or adoption. Far from solving the problems, the initiative compounded them: Children in foster care could be even more isolated and subject to abuse than those in residential schools, It was increasingly clear that assimilation was not working, at any level, and that new approaches would have to come from within the aboriginal communities, even though their problems had been set in motion by external factors. This, in turn, called for fundamental revamping of relations between the two segments of society, a process now well underway.

While there has been some dramatically encouraging progress, the healing of the damaged aboriginal societies has just begun. A prominent manifestation of the new approach is the 1996 report of the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, with its 440 recommendations, a report that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.

The temptation to simplify this sad story of misguided policy into terms of villains and innocent victims is very strong, and not entirely avoided by the authors, who frankly

espouse the aboriginal position. However, they argue their case persuasively, and back it up effectively not only with statistics but also with personal histories, that illustrate points at issue. They make plain their impatience with the slowness of the federal government in taking remedial measures; as they point out, Japanese-Canadians unfairly treated during the Second World War received an apology and monetary compensation in 1988, in contrast to aboriginal peoples, who endured a century and a half of enforced assimilation policies before the federal government acknowledged its error on Jan. 7, 1988.

The two cases, however, are not really comparable; Japanese-Canadians were suspected of divided loyalties during a war that potted their adopted country against their ancestral home; aboriginal peoples were regarded as needing a helping hand at cutting ties with "savage" past to adopt a "civilized" future. With few exceptions, officials firmly believed that they were acting for the peoples’ good, whether they accepted it or not. It was only when the consequent social evils and dislocations became too obvious to ignore or explain away that a change in policy began to be considered.

The authors, too, demonstrate a susceptibility to ideology. They idealize the aboriginal traditional past, transforming it into a Golden Age, at the same time largely ignoring whatever positive aspects government initiatives may have possessed. For example, their reference to the "herding" of aboriginal peoples in eastern Canada onto "artificial" reserves. The policy of setting aside lands for exclusive aboriginal use was an attempt to counter loss of land due to growing settler pressures. Amerindians themselves saw reserves as a means of retaining an aboriginal land based in the midst of widespread surrenders. Far from arising out of the Indian Act of 1876, as the authors maintain, reserves were being negotiated on an ad hoc basis long beforehand, particularly in the Maritimes. In Ontario, provisions for them began to be incorporated into land surrender negotiations with the Robinson treaties of 1850. It cannot be denied, however, that abuses developed in the selection of reserve sites, and that during the repression that followed the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 western reserves became little better than prisons.

For the authors, the healing process for aboriginal communities is necessarily linked with self-government. This means accepting responsibility; rationalizing failure to deal with problems by blaming others not only will not work, it is counterproductive. As they sternly observe, "I abuse because I was abused" is no longer an acceptable excuse. However, there must be a mechanism to deal with offenders such as the healing circles that have shown such promise. Although historically, "iron houses" have been anathema to First Nations as outside their tradition, the authors acknowledge that some of the most progressive developments in aboriginal justice have been worked out within prison walls. Co-operation and co-ordination of systems is the key, rather than hard-line ideological positions.

Although one can argue with the authors on specific points, and in spite of some minor slips in facts (e.g., six, not 16, Davis Inlet teenagers were flown to Edmonton’s Nechi Institute for treatment), their study of Canada’s failed Amerindian social policy is generally well presented and thoughtful. As they demonstrate, the goal of social justice is easier to proclaim that to achieve in practice. But that it can be done has already been demonstrated.

About the Author: Olive Dickason is adjunct professor, University of Ottawa, and professor emeritus University of Alberta. Her most recent publication is a second edition of Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times. She is a member of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award