French explorer Jacques Cartier is shown meeting with Iroquois at Stadacona

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, First Nations peoples in Canada continued patterns of resistance to the Europeanization of the Americas that began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. This resistance, while taking many forms, was rooted in the oldest and most primal conflict between Indigenous peoples and their neighbours, namely the struggle to own, control, and exploit land and natural resources. As soon as the imperial powers in Europe began to claim sovereign titles in territories that had been governed by First Nations for thousands of years, the conflict began.


Conference with the Indians at Stadacona, 1535.

French explorer Jacques Cartier is shown meeting with Iroquois at Stadacona. The crosses were symbolic both of the arrival of Christianity in North America and the territorial claims of France to Iroquois lands.
William Henry Atherton, Montreal, 1535-1914, vol. 1 (Montreal: S.J. Clarke Publishing, 1914).

Although early interaction between Indigenous peoples and newcomers in what would become Canada was based on a mutual interest in trade and alliance, this dynamic did not endure. By the time of Confederation in 1867, those mutual interests were long gone in some parts of the nation and in the process of dramatic transformation in others. The state had begun the removal of Indian peoples from large parts of the resource-rich regions of Canada and to privatize lands and resources previously under Indian jurisdiction and control. This push to remake the human and physical geography of the country was accompanied by elaborate pioneering efforts of social and psychological engineering. The object was to eliminate the Aboriginal cultures and beliefs of First Nations peoples so that they would adopt the religions, mores, and attitudes of Euro-Canadian society. The close co-operation of church and state in what was often described as a crusade to "civilize" the First Nations of Canada created many of the controversies that shaped the larger context within which Native activism has unfolded.

Beginning in what is now southern Ontario after the War of 1812 and in much of Western Canada after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, the state introduced a series of policies and laws designed to remake the lives of Aboriginal peoples. Communities were divided and isolated in small Indian reserves. They were placed under the authority of federal laws not of their own making and under the authority of Indian Department officials not of their own choosing. This paternalistic system of governing Indians reflected the prevailing view that Aboriginal cultures, beliefs, and languages were backward and obsolete and, consequently, had no place in a progressive Canada. The object was to extinguish cohesive, self-identifying, and self-governing Aboriginal societies. The efforts of First Nations activists and their allies to resist this fate remain an important, yet little-known, aspect of Canadian history. Many First Nations citizens did not simply accept the terms that were dictated to them by Canadians but struggled to ensure that the things that mattered to them most were protected and preserved for future generations.

In order to understand this general introduction to the history of Native activism in Canada, several underlying points must be appreciated. The first is that First Nations of the Western hemisphere were sovereign peoples at the time of European immigration. They were sometimes even dealt with as such when European empires and incoming colonists struggled to gain a toehold in territories that were new and unfamiliar to them. In the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the British sovereign "reserved" much of North America to Indian peoples as "their hunting grounds" and established the principle that these lands could only be opened to non-Aboriginal colonization and settlement through negotiations between the Crown and the Aboriginal peoples in public treaty council. The process of treaty-making as it evolved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is based on that legal and constitutional foundation.

A second point is that throughout the past 200 years or so, Native activists have consistently resisted transfer of their concerns from the sphere of international law to the domestic sphere of Canadian law and provincial jurisdiction. History has unfolded in a way that made First Nations traditionally see themselves as allies of the Crown and the British Empire rather than subjects of Canadian law. That perception has continued among some First Nations traditionalists who resist any view that would limit or negate the international character of Indian nationhood. The continuity of that perception is reflected in the frequency with which First Nations go over the heads Canadian authorities and make appeals either to the British sovereign or to international bodies such as the United Nations (UN).


Tecumseh, n.d.

Together with General Isaac Brock and British troops, the Shawnee played a vital role in the capture of Detroit from the Americans in 1812. The following year, Chief Tecumseh (Shooting Star), leader of the powerful Shawnee Confederacy, was killed at the Battle of Moraviatown, as his warriors confronted an American invasion force.
Charles Mair, Tecumseh, a Drama; and, Canadian Poems (Toronto: Radisson Society of Canada, 1926).

Another more recent variation on these same themes has taken form in the argument that Aboriginal title—the interest that First Nations peoples retain in their ancestral lands—is inextinguishable. Many of the moral, political, legal, and constitutional arguments made by First Nations peoples in resisting their subordination under domestic law go back to the commercial bedrock on which the polity of Canada initially took shape, the fur trade. The fur trade could not have succeeded without a long history of collaboration, compromise, and exchange with Indigenous peoples. In the era of the War of 1812, this heritage of collaboration even extended to shared military resistance against American efforts to annex Canada. If it had not been for the actions of the Indian Confederacy and its leader, Tecumseh, this outcome would surely have come to pass.

Many of the strongest constitutional protections for Aboriginal and treaty rights have their historical origins in the era of the fur trade. In the milieu of the fur trade, many promises were made to gain the trust and co-operation of First Nations peoples in constructing and defending the infrastructures of commerce and communications without which the Dominion of Canada could never have come into being. As long as the fur trade was the dominant mode of economic relations, Native people were able to negotiate successfully with the Europeans. Once the Europeans sought to exploit the resources of North America more intensively on the basis of private ownership, Native peoples found their leverage in negotiations diminished. More and more, they were subjected to a regime designed to destroy their communities as self-identifying and self-governing societies.


Until the 1970s, scholars demonstrated little interest in describing the history of encounter between First Nations and non-Aboriginals in Canada. When they addressed the subject at all, which was rarely, historians tended to depict Aboriginal peoples as folkloric curiosities who had quickly been overpowered. The destiny of First Nations societies, it was widely assumed, was to languish on the sidelines of the important and progressive episodes in history until such time as they would eventually be absorbed and disappear. In the 1970s, however, new kinds of histories began to re-examine earlier assumptions. No longer was it deemed acceptable, for instance, to ignore women, ethnic minorities, workers, or the common experiences of everyday life in composing the narratives of historical change. At the same time, the government's new willingness at least to hear First Nations' grievances about land and treaty issues meant that historical research was necessary to support the claims that were being presented.


Slavey Indians Plowing at Anglican Mission Garden, Hay River Post, NT, 1925.

The failure of some Native peoples to adapt to agriculture had more to do with government agents and policies than the farmers themselves. As well, White farmers resented the competition and coveted Native treaty lands.
NAC (PA-019989, image by J. Russell).

Much of the pioneering historical work on First Nations tended to focus government policy and what was done to the First Nations by the state. In their zeal to expose the details of generations of injustice suffered by many Aboriginal peoples, some historians inadvertently contributed to an image of Native people as hapless and essentially passive victims of colonial ideologies and paternalistic legislation. Certainly these studies revealed a great deal about a history that had hitherto been almost unknown, but they demonstrated very little about how Aboriginal peoples themselves saw these events or how Aboriginal communities and individuals might have reacted to them in the past.

More recently, a growing number of historians have been interested in exactly those questions. Scholars are now learning that Aboriginal people were hardly passive in the face of the colonizing onslaught. The growing number of Aboriginal social scientists, including historians, has underlined the importance of this perspective. Their descriptions of the experiences of their own peoples and of their neighbours have served to illustrate that First Nations voices and actions have always been influential in shaping and influencing how Canada's history has unfolded. What has been emerging, therefore, is a corrective to the image as First Nations as the perennial victims of domineering newcomers. The historical literature contains a growing proliferation of work demonstrating that First Nations people reacted and resisted in a variety of ways. These efforts were sometimes successful and other times not, but they always helped shape the contours of Canadian society.

One of these studies is Sarah Carter's Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. Carter examined the failure of several Plains Indian reserves to adopt an agricultural economy and demonstrated that this failure was not because the Indians lacked interest or ability. Rather, they were anxious to experiment with a new economy to replace the lost buffalo herds; Carter proposes that flaws in the policy were to blame for this failure.1 Several histories of the fur trade also began to place Native peoples as active players in the main currents of history. These include A.J. Ray's pioneering study, Indians in the Fur Trade, and Daniel Francis and Toby Morantz's Partners in Furs. Others have surveyed the histories of particular nations to argue that Native history is more than just the story of what Euro-Canadians did to them. Among these are Laura Peers's The Ojibwa of Western Canada and Kerry Abel's Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History.2

Very little, however, has been written on the subject of Native activism more directly. Some biographies of individual First Nations activists, including Hugh Dempsey's Big Bear, Murray Dobbin's The One-and-a-Half Men, and Jean Goodwill's John Tootoosis, have appeared. And a few short essays have been written about specific people or episodes, like Joelle Rostkowski's study of Deskaheh and the League of Nations. Another key work is Paul Tennant's history of the Indian title question in British Columbia, a book entitled Aboriginal Peoples and Politics.3 But much of what appears in this section has been put together for the first time.

Because this kind of approach is relatively new, there has been little real debate in the literature. One critique is that a focus on Native activism tends to deny the oppressive realities of colonialism and imperialism, making the author effectively an apologist for colonization. Robin Brownlie and Mary-Ellen Kelm made such an argument in "Desperately Seeking Absolution," an essay published in the Canadian Historical Review. Criticism has also been levelled that the emphasis on colonialism has downplayed the role of economic class. Rolf Knight, in Indians at Work, demonstrated that a large and neglected dimension of Native history has more to do with the experience of First Nations people in the workplace than in the crucible of relations with the government.4 In general, though, this is a field of history in which much remains to be explored and discussed.

1850s - 1914


The late 1840s and 1850s were a time of significant constitutional reform in British North America. Ideas of free trade and liberalism were becoming widely accepted in Great Britain, challenging older ideas about an empire based on the economic th...


1914 - 1945

Representative of the Indian Association of Alberta, founded in 1939, in Ottawa

First Nations were as dramatically transformed by their participation in the First World War as were the larger societies in Canada and the United States. Although it was determined that Registered Indians, as wards of the state, could not be cons...


1945 - 2000

Canadian activists show support for the American Indian Movement's standoff with the American government at Wounded Knee, South Dakota

The nature of the fascist enemy faced by Allied forces in the Second World War necessitated some change in Native policy. Certainly an effort had to be made to exorcise from Canadian Indian policy those elements that seemed rooted in ideological s...



First Nations activists have taken a variety of approaches to finding solutions to these many challenges. For some, full equality of place within the Canadian state would ensure Aboriginal peoples the tools necessary to protect their interests. For others, Aboriginal peoples constitute sovereign nations whose interests can be protected only in the realm of international law. This growing reliance on international forums and venues helps to highlight the reality that the treatment of Indigenous peoples is emerging globally as one of the great, unresolved issue inherited from Europe's era of imperial expansion. In fact, some view the process of decolonization that accompanied the dismantling of European empires, especially after the Second World War, as only the beginning rather than the end of a more elaborate process that is needed to achieve a more genuine state of liberation. Indeed, Canada itself is only now coming to terms with its own identity in this post-colonial world.

Photo of Give the Country Back,

Give the Country Back," 1991.

The constitutional squabbling between the provinces and Ottawa gave the sense that few leaders wanted to promote national unity. More positively, Native leaders, who had been left out of the constitutional process in the past, participated in discussions during the Charlottetown debates.
Aislin - Montreal.

While Canada's constitution was patriated from Great Britain in 1982, every subsequent attempt to fulfill the process of decolonization through some sort of domestically made definition of the country has stumbled. While proponents of a "New Canada" often seek a relatively uncompromising formula for the legal "equality" of all citizens and provinces, the "founding peoples" of the original Canada, namely the so-called Québécois and the Aboriginal peoples, are frequently less willing to put aside their unique place in the Canadian federation. They tend to see their uniqueness not as some grant from on high but rather as contemporary manifestations of those pacts, covenants, and treaties that have been integral to the growth of Canada into its present shape. They are inclined to see themselves not as so many isolated individuals scattered throughout society, but as members of national groups whose unique role in the genesis of Canada entitle them to a kind of dual citizenship. This dual citizenship is unlike the unitary citizenship belonging to those whose place in the Canada is rooted ultimately in experiences of voluntary immigration to an adopted country after the Crown declared its new relationship to the Québécois and to the First Nations in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

While the goals of those who situate themselves within the framework of Canada's oldest nationalities have often been similar, there have often been very large disagreements over strategy. Some First Nations peoples looked to compromise and accommodation, while others took a harder line on tactics. But whatever the differences, First Nations have never simply accepted the terms that European colonizers attempted to dictate to them. They have played an active role in shaping the dynamics of the relationship between Native people and newcomer and struggled consistently to mould that relationship in ways that they hoped would best protect their peoples' futures. Native activism is not something new in Canadian history but an important force that has shaped the contours of our past and laid the foundations for the nation's future.

Further Readings

Abel, Kerry. Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.

Carter, Sarah. Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.

Cardinal, Harold. The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada's Indians. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1969.

Dempsey, Hugh A. Big Bear: The End of Freedom. Vancouver: Douglas, 1984.

Englestad, Diane, and John Bird, eds. Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada. Toronto: Anansi, 1992.

Francis, Daniel, and Toby Morantz. Partners in Furs: A History of the Fur Trade in Eastern James Bay, 1600-1870. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1983.

Nock, David A. A Victorian Missionary and Canadian Indian Policy: Cultural Synthesis vs. Cultural Replacement. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1988.

Peers, Laura. The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 1780-1870. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.

Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role As Trappers, Hunters and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay 1660-1870. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Smith, Melvin H. Our Home or Native Land? What Government's Aboriginal Policy Is Doing to Canada. Victoria: Crown Western, 1995.

Titley, E. Brian. A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of India Affairs in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1986.

Weaver, Sally. Making Canadian Indian History: The Hidden Agenda, 1968-1970. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Wuttunee, William I.C. Ruffled Feathers: Indians in Canadian Society. Calgary: Bell Books, 1971.

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge


Powered by ChronoForms -