Restorying Canada

August 22, 2019

In her incisively argued book, ‘Aboriginal people and colonies of Western Canada to 1900’ , Sarah Carter states: “The Indian Act of 1876, which has been described as a...

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In her incisively argued book, ‘Aboriginal people and colonies of Western Canada to 1900’ (University of Toronto Press, 1990), Sarah Carter states: “The Indian Act of 1876, which has been described as a ‘formidable dossier of repression’ and which established race-based laws and limitations in Canada, was originally passed with 100 sections, and this nearly doubled in the next thirty years, to 195.

“It consigned Aboriginal people to the status of minors; they were British subjects but not citizens, sharing the status of children, felons, and the insane.... Those who came under the act were not allowed to vote in federal or provincial elections, and as they were not voters they were legally prohibited from the professions of law and politics, unless they gave up their Indian status”

(p 117).

Carter informs us that many of the clauses of the Act were based on “nineteenth-century negative stereotypes of Indians as drunkards, as immoral, as incapable of handling money” (p 118). Indians were perceived as a “foreign element” within Canada. Although the “pass system” was not law, it was imposed as a policy that required government permission to leave the reserve. Some Aboriginal people thought of the reserve as a “concentration camp.” The Indian Act was racist to its malevolent core. It could not have been imagined into existence without deeply, unquestionably held notions of the inferiority of Aboriginal people.

Even as late as 1987, Justice McEachern could rule against Gitksan land claims with these lamentable words: “… The Indians of the territory were.... a primitive people without any form of writing, horses, or wheeled wagons … The Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en civilizations, if they qualify for that description, fall within a much lower, even primitive order” (cited, Paulette Regan, ‘Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada’ [UBC Press, 2010, p 165).

McEachern went on to suggest that Natives were conquered by a more worthy, relentlessly energetic people. Since this statement, Indigenous issues have developed into a rather formidable body of texts shredding myths about Native inferiority into thousands of shards. Old narratives of Canada without Indians must be overturned and restoried.

We want so badly to believe national, patriotic myths about how peace-loving and tolerant we are as Canadians. Thus, given how deeply non-Aboriginals want to deny our racist past with its consequences very much evident today, and how deeply Aboriginal peoples do not trust their governments, how might reconciliation be even possible? Answer:

not easily.

One big reason, very big in fact, is quite simply that the government and legal system do not respect or even understand First Nations concepts of law, diplomacy, and peace-making ceremonial processes. Until very recently, oral accounts of life experience have counted for naught in legal proceedings.

In the heady treaty-making days of the 1870s, they didn’t trust fully those making treaties. And they didn’t when residential school participants were forced to tell their stories to a tort-based legal system that, once again, placed the onus on native people to prove they were abused. This system was based on blame and fault-finding, wrongdoing and compensation and was unconducive to reconciliation. The white settler state always knows what is best for Natives, doesn’t it?

Excerpted from: ‘That Couldn’t Be True: Restorying andReconciliation’.


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