There seems to be little common ground between Canadian natives and mainstream Canadian society. Canada’s uniqueness in world culture comes thanks to its natives, who are regularly trotted out in ceremonies related to international events such as the Olympics, and now featured in the composition of the new Canadian $10 bill. But they remain at the bottom of the mainstream pecking order economically.
Justice Thomas Berger wrote in 1966, “They began by taking the Indians’ land without any surrender and without their consent. Then they herded the Indian people onto reserves. This was nothing more or less than Apartheid, and that is what it still is today.” First Nations children in Western countries are subsisting in Third-World conditions, with an estimated 80% of urban aboriginal children under the age of six living in poverty.
In a famous anecdote, Justin Trudeau’s father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, cynically told Marlon Brando when the American actor wanted to discuss native rights, “There are differences in the way we treated our natives,” he said. “You hunted them down and murdered them. We starved them to death.” Trudeau meant actual physical starvation, not just cultural starvation, echoing what the Canadian historian James Daschuk has called “the politics of starvation.” The policy in North America toward natives can be put simply: confiscation of 90% of lands, assimilation, and/or death.
John Ralston Saul argues for the “originality of the Canadian project,” that contained elements of a rejection of the Enlightenment project of Europe/the US, which was based on secular rationality and liberal revolution. Canada was never a monolithic nation-state, but rather based on consensus, supposedly incorporating the native philosophy of man as part of nature. In A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008), he argues that Canada is a “Metis civilization,” not a European one. “We are a blend of aboriginal and non-aboriginal, but the driving ideas underneath are the aboriginal ones.”
Saul argues that Canada was “founded” as a modern nation not in 1867 but in 1701 with the Great Peace of Montreal between New France and 40 First Nations of North America. This treaty, achieved through negotiations according to Native American diplomatic custom, was meant to end ethnic conflicts and violence. From then on, negotiation would trump direct conflict, it was thought, and the French would agree to act as arbiters during conflicts between signatory tribes. The paradigm is a confederation of tribes, consensus, the aboriginal circle, “eating from a common bowl.” The treaty is still valid and recognized as such by the Native American tribes involved.
Saul’s claim sounds good, but the fact is most Canadians know nothing about their fellow Canadian natives. Typically, natives are most visible as a large segment of the homeless, especially in Toronto. Ac-cording to Homeless Hub, a third of homeless, and in some areas up to 90%. Just as Canada and other rich nations face a flood of refugees from Third-World countries, formerly colo-nies, mostly of Britain, France, and Spain, Canada still has to come to terms with its only colonial train wreck.
By the early-20th century, First Nations and Metis reached their low point: from roughly 2 million, they had been reduced to 150,000, less than 10%, the same shocking statistic as in the US. Since WWII and especially after 1960, when improved sanitation in reserves and medicare lowered the infant mortality rate, populations have rebounded ten times, to 1,400,685 in 2011, representing 4.3% of the total Canadian population. While physical starvation has abated as a policy, poverty abounds and cultural starvation destroys native languages and traditions. The dominance of Western commercial culture continues this slow death.
In 1910, the Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan, and Couteau tribes presented (French Canadian) Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier with a letter that looked to the French colonial legacy of the 1701 Great Peace of Montreal. “We speak to you the more freely because you are a member of the white race with whom we first became acquainted, and which we call in our tongue “real whites.” The “real whites” we found were good people. They did not interfere with us nor attempt to break up our tribal organizations, laws, customs. Nor did they stop us from catching fish and hunting. They acknowledged our ownership of the country, and treated our chiefs as men.”
Little did the chiefs realize what would soon be in store for all natives, with the nice French and maudit anglais Liberals/Conservatives putting their common policy of forcible assimilation into high gear. The Gradual Civilization Act in 1857, and the Indian Act, first passed in 1876, spruced up with amendments in 1920, making compulsory “education” at residential schools, and in 1927, prohibiting natives from hiring lawyers to pursue land claims (repealed in 1951). This paralleled the US policy, but more aggressively, given the larger population of natives proportional to the settler population.
Though population rebounded after WWII, the 60s “Sweep,” the last gasp of this forced assimilation, took aboriginal children and placed them in white foster homes within the child welfare system, leading to unstable families and homes.
Laurier bitterly disappointed native leaders, as the “real white” influence in Canadian politics had given way to British colonialism after 1763. There were never massacres on the scale of Wounded Knee, but after 300 years, there is little evidence of the claim that Canada was any better than the US in its relations with natives. There is little to differentiate the provinces in their relations to natives. The most visible conflict in Quebec in recent times was at Oka in 1990, in Ontario at Ipperwash in 1995, and in BC at Lake Gustafsen, also 1995. There are road blockades across Canada continually going up to protest encroachment on lands claimed by natives as part of broken treaties, or in the case of BC, promises to land that were never formalized.
There are heroes who fought for native rights — Tecumseh, Joseph Brant, Louis Riel — all tragic. Brant holds a special place for Canadians in southwestern Ontario, for the treaty he inspired, made famous by its promise of “six miles deep,” meaning the land on both sides of the Grand River. These Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, Tuscarora) unified under the Great Tree of Peace. During the American Revolution, (native) Captain Joseph Brant led many from the Iroquois Confederacy to ally with the British.
For their loyalty to the Crown, the Six Nations would be deeded a tract of land along the Grand River. But, as happened to all the other Nations (there are 50 distinct nations and 634 First Nations bands), most of the land would be stripped from them, reduced to the present 46,000 acres of what the federal government calls the “Six Nations Reserve No. 40.” This includes the village of Ohsweken, between the cities of Brantford, Caledonia, and Hagersville.
Part 2 of this article, entitled Six Nations: “Six Miles Deep” will look at how Canada’s growing Muslim community can help build a meaningful relationship with Canada’s native peoples.