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 theory of mercantilism. So a push began in Great Britain to liberate the country from some of the expense of empire, especially in those parts of the Crown's imperial domains dominated by European immigrants and their descendants.
Politically, one of the major changes that resulted was a widening of the sphere of colonial self-government through a devolution of powers from the mother country, a process that eventually led to a form of governance generally described as "responsible government." In this scheme, the Queen's representative, the governor general, began to take direction and choose executives from the caucus of the political party that could command the majority of legislative seats in local elections.
At the same time, the colonial legislatures were expected to take responsibility for more of the costs of administering their jurisdictions. One of the obvious means to finance this new approach to government was to transform Indian lands into public lands and sell them to non-Indian settlers as private property. This approach to fiscal relations between different levels of government was bound to increase the tensions and acrimony between Aboriginal peoples and local governments in British North America. "Indians" were increasingly seen as barriers to progress rather than as partners in an economic enterprise.
Thus, one of the great ironies of the coming of responsible government to the British North American colonies is that, as the colonial population widened its sphere of self-government, Indigenous peoples faced a diminished sphere. Indeed, this phenomenon applies almost universally to jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. Whenever powers were passed from old imperial centres in Europe to settler populations, those settler governments were provided with new means to widen the sphere of their own fortunes and liberties. In this process, Indigenous peoples generally found themselves subjugated and displaced from their lands and resources.
The primary goal of the government of the Province of Canada regarding its Aboriginal population was eventual assimilation. Attempts to "civilize" the Indians had met with little success, however, and John A. Macdonald introduced to the legislature An Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes as a means of accelerating that process. The Act spelled out the requirements for extending British citizenship to Indians. Successful applicants had to be male, 21 years of age, literate in English or French, with some education, no debts, and a good moral character. As an incentive to achieve these requirements, the Act stipulated that a successful applicant would receive 20 hectares of reserve land in freehold tenure, i.e. individual title. The drawback of the Act was that the applicant had to surrender his Indian status, and the land grant was carved out of the communally held land set aside for his people. Although the government assumed that enfranchisement and free land would be highly desirable to Natives, the recipients of these efforts saw the Act as an attempt to undermine their communal way of life and traditional values. The Gradual Civilization Act was a miserable failure. Only one man, Elias Hill, sought enfranchisement and even he was denied the requisite land grant when his band refused to allow the expropriation of their land.
In 1857, when constitutional responsibility for Indian affairs effectively passed from London to the local legislature, the province of Canada provided almost a textbook example of this phenomenon. The first thing the local government did was to pass a statute known as An Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in Canada. Through the legislation, the parent of all subsequent Indian Acts in the future Dominion of Canada, the local government asserted the power to assimilate the Aboriginal population through political, economic, and social means. Essentially, the Act created a procedure through which a Registered Indian could apply to become a citizen. If a man could prove, among other things, that he was free of debt, could read and write English (or French), and was "of good moral character," he could be given a piece of land suitable for family farming.
After a year of proving he was capable of living as a "White" man, he would be considered "civilized" and granted ownership of his parcel of land and the vote as a full citizen in a process known as "enfranchisement." The ownership of land as private property was the key to becoming an enfranchised citizen, that is, a person with the capacity to vote, hold public office and enter into binding contracts. This legal capacity to possess land in freehold tenure was denied to Registered Indians, who were, at that time, considered wards of the state under the trusteeship of the Crown. Their legal status was thus akin to that of minors, women, or mental incompetents. This approach to the enfranchisement of Indian people was calculated to entice them to sever their ties with their home communities and to enter the capitalistic individualism of the marketplace.
Indian people actively protested and resisted the Gradual Civilization Act, which, in their eyes, ominously implied the transfer of constitutional responsibility for Indian affairs from the imperial government to the government of the province of Canada. At the core of this protest was a major assembly that gathered at the Onondaga Council House on the Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario in the early autumn of 1858. Iroquois delegations attended from Kahnawake, Akwesasne, the Oneida reserve, and the Mohawk reserve in the Bay of Quinte. Among the Anishinabek communities represented were Walpole Island, Rice Lake, and Alnwick.
The delegates implored the imperial government not to hand Aboriginal peoples over to the authority of a local legislature dominated by railway interests and land speculators. The new regime, they asserted, would "blast their dearest hopes as a race." The legislation was designed to "break them to pieces." It would make the White wampums of good treaty relations "black" with the odium of broken promises. Through its spokesperson, John Smoke Johnson, the council declared their "unanimous" rejection of the decision to subjugate their nations under the power of the local legislature and its enfranchisement legislation.
The sharp lines of distinction that the state was now attempting to draw between citizens and Indians became the subject of an especially determined critic named Nah-nee-ba-we-quay, a woman whose English name was Mrs. Catherine Sutton. This Mississauga woman from the Credit Indian mission near Toronto had married a Methodist clergyman. Together, the two of them had built up a family farm in the Owen Sound area, which had been ceded to the Crown in a dubious treaty negotiation in 1858. Then Nah-nee-ba-we-quay found herself legally blocked from purchasing her farm back again. In her campaign, she sought allies among Quaker activists on both sides of the Atlantic. Her protest was also assisted by members of the Aborigines' Protection Society, a coalition of evangelical Christians who acted as a sort of lobby group defending what they believed to be the interests of Aboriginal peoples throughout the British Empire.
Nah-nee-ba-we-quay eventually received an audience with Queen Victoria, and the issue was covered widely in the newspapers of Canada and Great Britain. Her grievances anticipated many of the issues that the Native Women's Association would carry forward in the 1980s and 1990s. Nah-nee-ba-we-quay pointed out that because individual Indians were excluded from Canadian citizenship, there was no basis upon which to recognize their rights. The small amount of discretionary power left to First Nations was concentrated in the hands of a few chiefs, all males, who were subject to all manner of bribery and intimidation to gain their sanction for the ceding of the remaining Indian lands.
Nah-nee-ba-we-quay's well-honed argument was that because reserve land was held by tribal tenure, individual members were vulnerable. If the chief could be persuaded to sell reserve land, the individual members had no redress. She further argued that since Registered Indians were treated in law as minors, they had no legal powers of action and were subject to disabilities that applied to no other class of persons.
When the Prince of Wales visited the province of Canada in 1860, Nah-nee-ba-we-quay attempted to take her grievances directly to him. However, the actions of both Indian Department officials and a delegation of chiefs who, for different reasons, were resentful of her message denied her this meeting. The leader of the chiefs' delegation was David Wawanosh. His group maintained that the major issues to be raised with the heir to the British throne were the encroachment on Indian fishing rights, the need for firm legal protections for unceded Indian lands, and allegations of theft concerning Indian monies held in trust by officials of the local Indian Department. The Indian Department intervened to deny both Nah-nee-ba-we-quay and the Wawanosh group access to the Prince of Wales, claiming that these matters were the responsibility of the colonial legislature. The department asserted that the recently established principle of responsible government had to be protected.
With Confederation in 1867, the Indian policy of the old province of Canada was applied to the Maritime provinces, and, as additional territories were incorporated into the dominion, they, too, became subject to those policies. In 1876, the dominion consolidated and reinforced its legislative position with the Indian Act, which was based directly on the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857. The purpose of the Indian Act was to provide a legal framework primarily for the governance of Indian reserves. This legislative instrument, which has been repeatedly amended since its inception, was, for the most part, imposed without Indian involvement or Indian consent. There was a second major thrust in the dominion government's evolving relations with the First Nations. That thrust involved the making of many new treaties covering large parts of the dominion's newly acquired territories. The negotiation of treaties with Aboriginal peoples continued a constitutional heritage in British North America that had perhaps its most important manifestation in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. One way to look at these treaties is that they perpetuated a tradition of direct diplomatic relations between the sovereign of the British Empire and the Crown's Indian allies. These relations were based on principles of resource sharing and consensual relations.
Except for a few agreements covering a portion of Vancouver Island in the new province of British Columbia, no treaties with First Nations were made during that jurisdiction's early years. The failure to negotiate treaties in Canada's westernmost province, which entered Confederation in 1871, was the result of the contention held by some officials there that the Crown's recognition of Aboriginal title in the Royal Proclamation did not apply. East of the Rockies, however, the story was different. Having acquired a vast domain directly from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), the dominion government decided that treaties with the Indian inhabitants would be an expedient way of clearing the way for peaceful agricultural settlement and avoiding the costly Indian Wars that had been convulsing the American West. Beginning in 1871 in southern Manitoba and ending in 1929 in northwestern Ontario at Big Trout Lake, a series of 11 treaties and adhesions to those treaties were signed across the Prairies, down the Mackenzie River Valley, and through northern Ontario. These treaties have become known as the "Numbered Treaties."
Most of the treaties involved hard bargaining. Aboriginal peoples did not simply acquiesce to dictated terms. For example, in Treaty 4, the Gambler and others demanded some explanation of how the Hudson's Bay Company had been able to sell Indian lands to the dominion. Why were these negotiations occurring after the deal with the company had already been made? Where did the HBC get its title to sell? Crown officials had no real explanation other than to say, "The lands are the Queen's under the Great Spirit." This answer neglected to address the point that, even in British law, the Queen's titles to Indian lands were, until the terms of the Royal Proclamation were fulfilled, limited and incomplete.
The Canadian government hoped to use these treaties as instruments in its assimilationist program, but Aboriginal peoples did not share that view.
In the era of the making of the treaties to clear the way for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the privatization of lands and resources this project required, Canadian officials were especially intent on preventing the consolidation of an Indian confederacy in western North America.
The idea of a confederacy of nations to defend Indian interests had been articulated several times before. For example, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an Indian confederacy had rallied around Tecumseh to establish secure borders for a permanent and inextinguishable Indian Country in the interior of the continent. Two generations later on the Prairies, Big Bear, Poundmaker, and others attempted to form this same kind of transborder confederacy.
Eventually concluded with signings in two locations, Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt, the sixth treaty concluded in the West was reached after the most contentious set of negotiations encountered in the Numbered Treaties. Lieutenant-Governor Morris hoped to gain title to an enormous tract of land in what became central Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the Native negotiators sought an alternative to what they knew to be increasingly limited options in the face of the disappearance of the bison. The primary negotiators for the Cree were Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ahtakakoop (Star Blanket) at Fort Carlton and Sweetgrass at Fort Pitt. After extended discussions, during which the assembled Cree expressed concern for the security of their future and the necessity to adopt an agricultural livelihood, Mistawasis and Ahtakakoop accepted what they believed was the best deal they could get from the government. Mistawasis tempered the more irate expressions of dissatisfaction with government aid voiced by Poundmaker and the Badger, although he reiterated for Morris the need for security against starvation in the transformation period. This agitation forced Morris to make concessions in order to get the treaty signed. These included a "famine relief" clause, a "medicine chest" clause, and more agricultural assistance than had been offered to any other treaty people. In council among themselves, Mistawasis also challenged the disgruntled Poundmaker and the Badger to produce an alternative to the treaty, thereby quelling effective opposition to it. On hearing the report of the negotiations at Fort Carlton, and especially the arguments employed by Mistawasis and Ahtakakoop to win favour for it, Sweetgrass accepted the treaty without further question.
Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) raised a more critical voice. He was one of the more significant chiefs on the Plains, and his reputation had led the negotiators to avoid issuing him a special invitation. By the time he reached Fort Pitt, the treaty had been signed. At Fort Carlton, dissatisfaction with treaty terms had focused on the inadequate assistance offered to smooth the transition to agriculture as a means to address the impending food crisis. Big Bear stood apart from his fellow chiefs in his demands for preservation of the bison as a solution to this problem. He did not take his band into treaty until forced to do so by starvation in 1882.
The discontent rampant on the prairies in the early 1880s inspired efforts by a number of prominent Native leaders to organize in an attempt to redress the deteriorating condition of their peoples. At the centre of this movement were three Cree chiefs, Piapot, Big Bear, and Little Pine. They had co-operated before. In the Battle of the Belly River in 1870, they had united against their common enemy, the Blackfoot. In the 1880s, the three chiefs came together once more to combat the starvation induced by the disappearance of the bison and the reluctance of the government to honour its treaty promises to assist the Natives in the difficult period of transition to agriculture.
As early as 1879, Little Pine and Piapot realized that strength lay in numbers, and, in agreeing to settle, they had sought a consolidated reserve in the Cypress Hills. Discouraged in this effort by Indian Superintendent Edgar Dewdney, who violated treaty assurances in denying them their choice of reserve lands, Piapot moved to a reserve at Indian Head. He returned to the Cypress Hills in 1883, now personally acquainted with the inadequacy of treaty terms and with government resistance to their implementation. This time, Big Bear, who supported the drive for a concentration of forces, joined Piapot and Little Pine. Dewdney, however, used a coercive ration policy to scatter them and thwart their goals.
On the North Saskatchewan and in the Qu'Appelle Valley, Big Bear, Little Pine, and Piapot persevered in efforts to attain consolidated reserves, moves that developed in both places into drives for unified action on treaty revision. During the summer of 1884, Big Bear and Piapot both sponsored thirst dances as a preliminary to serious reconsideration of the treaties. Misinterpreting the spiritual ritual, uneasy officials saw the Thirst Dance as the first step toward armed insurrection. The risk of unrest was perceived as especially high on the Poundmaker reserve where an attempted arrest during the Thirst Dance ceremonies very nearly precipitated violence.
Intent on forcing treaty revision, Big Bear devised a strategy that involved forging a common front among the Prairie Indians in order to confront Ottawa with a single voice on Indian grievances. In this, he sought Piapot's assistance.
Riel's return confused official views of Indian activities. Riel actively sought an alliance with the Natives. At an Indian council at Duck Lake at the end of July 1884, a meeting sponsored by Chief Beardy who had joined the growing coalition of treaty revisionists, the Cree gave Riel a brief hearing and then returned to a consideration of their primary concern, their own grievances. This council shortly relocated to nearly Fort Carlton, and there, under the scrutiny of the local subagent, the Indians enumerated the sources of their dissatisfaction and reasserted their allegiance to the Crown. Big Bear assured the subagent that no violence was intended, but he warned that a failure to redress Indian grievances would lead to further action on their part.
An investigation by Dewdney and Hayter Reed in the fall of 1884 revealed the strength of the growing unification movement and raised concerns about the proposed council on treaty revision slated for the summer of 1885. Even more distressing was the news that the Cree were seeking a wider alliance. While Piapot and Big Bear concentrated their efforts on the Cree in Saskatchewan, Little Pine courted the Blackfoot, who shared many of the same grievances. Little Pine returned to Saskatchewan with a request by Blackfoot chief Crowfoot for a grand council with the Cree at Blackfoot Crossing. This meeting was to be held in the summer of 1885.
The power of such a coalition alarmed government officials. Dewdney sought the means to subvert this movement and thought he had found the answer in a plan to arrest its principal leaders. The outbreak of the North-West Rebellion, brought on, in part, by the desperation of the Cree following an unusually severe winter, rendered Dewdney's plans unnecessary. The rebellion provided a convenient cover for the government's failure to deal fairly with the Indians and allowed Dewdney to cloak his assault on the Indian unification effort in the robes of legitimate suppression of rebellion. The effect was to destroy the alliance crafted by Big Bear and Piapot and to undermine any subsequent effort in this direction for decades to come.
In the years following the making of Treaty 6 in 1876, a movement of mostly Cree peoples coalesced around Poundmaker and, especially, Big Bear, a Native leader who had refused to accept the terms of the treaty. These, and other key members of the Cree leadership, proposed initially to create a unified Indian confederacy across the Prairies. When that objective failed, they attempted to create a sovereign Indian territory in the Cypress Hills of what is now Saskatchewan. The Cree independence movement was not forced underground until the buffalo were all but extinct on the Prairies and until the conclusion, in 1885, of a brief war between the Métis and the Canadian government. Big Bear and Poundmaker worked to keep their followers neutral in that conflict. But, with the military defeat of the Métis at Batoche in the North Saskatchewan Valley, Canadian officials had found a pretext to act decisively to enforce the regime of reserves and the Indian Act on an unwilling population. Not only did the government of John A. Macdonald hang Louis Riel for treason, but his administration incarcerated Big Bear and Poundmaker in an attempt to send a message to their supporters.
In 1876, Sitting Bull and about 4,000 Sioux (Dakota) warriors arrived in the Cypress Hills area from the United States after their defeat of the army of General George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. They feared American reprisals and came to Canada requesting sanctuary from the British. Many Sioux had been allies of the Crown in the War of 1812, and, in the years since, some of them had moved northward in order to escape oppression in the United States.
The American frontier battle at Little Bighorn, Montana, between the U.S. cavalry and the Dakota had serious repercussions for both Canadian Native peoples and the Canadian government. The battle led to the exodus of Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa people from their homelands on the Bighorn and Powder rivers to the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan. The bison were fast declining on the Canadian prairies, and the appearance of the bison-hunting Dakota population strained already scarce resources. The N-WMP were particularly concerned about the possibility of a military alliance between the Dakota and the Blackfoot peoples, as Sitting Bull made repeated requests for reserves for his people in Canada. The Canadian government, knowing that the N-WMP could hardly turn back an incursion of U.S. troops into Canadian territory, feared reprisals by American military forces outraged by the annihilation of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The American government pressed Canada to force the Dakota refugees to return to their reserves in South Dakota. Although Canadian officials did not require the Dakota to leave, the N-WMP entreated them to do so on a number of occasions. Eventually, Sitting Bull and many of his followers were forced by imminent starvation to turn themselves in to American authorities. Some 500 Dakota remained in Canada, however, and, though no treaty was ever concluded with them, reserves in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were established, and the Dakota became entitled to Registered Indian status and benefits. Many joined existing Dakota settlements in Saskatchewan and Manitoba that had been formed in the 1860s by refugees from the Minnesota wars.
With the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Native people had little choice but to bend before a huge tide of immigration that eventually brought millions of new settlers into the western part of the continent. First Nations moved to settled reserves and attempted to make new lives for themselves. While the state's authority over them was exercised primarily through the Indian Affairs branch of the federal government, the state formed a partnership with the Christian churches to implement their policies. Perhaps most notable among these co-operative endeavours was the decision to advance the old civilizing mission through educating Native children. The state intended that education, as delivered by Christian evangelists, would be a powerful tool in the assimilationist program.
In practice, however, the education policies devised in Ottawa and the realities of the schools did not always mesh seamlessly. While many school officials belittled and devalued the worth of Aboriginal culture and heritage in their attempts to assimilate children, others did not. In 1891, for instance, the Reverend E.F. Wilson, an Anglican clergyman who participated in the founding of Shingwauk Indian residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, advocated the creation of an Indian legislature and an Indian capital city as the site of a third order of Canadian government. He was outspoken in condemning the assimilationist course of the dominion's Indian policy, asking, "Why should we expect that Indians alone, of all people, should be ready to give up all old customs and traditions and language, and adopt those of the aggressor on their soil."
Indeed, the idea of Indian Country had many important allies and defenders who were not themselves of Aboriginal ancestry. For instance, Walter O'Meara, a member of an influential Anglican missionary family, participated in the creation of the Allied Tribes of British Columbia and helped to generate the political will that culminated in a parliamentary inquiry into the British Columbia land question in 1927. An Ontario lawyer, Andrew G. Chisholm, devoted a long career starting in the early 1900s to the advancement of many Native claims. Samuel Blake, a Toronto lawyer and member of the executive committee of the Canadian branch of the Church of England's Missionary Society, was another non-Aboriginal activist who criticized many aspects of Canadian Indian policy. He was especially active in opposing the growing dependence on residential schools. In 1908, an era when government and church conduct of Indian Affairs was rarely placed in the political spotlight, Blake wrote a controversial pamphlet that lamented the utter foolishness of an approach that "must thrust everything out of the Indian and turn him into a white man in order to make him fit for citizenship." Initiatives in the field of Indian education should be directed, Blake argued, at engendering "pride" in Aboriginal culture and heritage, rather than to "rob the Indian student of his language, traditions and all that has made him love his home, and cemented the tie between himself and his parents."
While this kind of non-Aboriginal involvement in the political life of the First Nations has recently been criticized as paternalistic or a variant of "voice appropriation,"these non-Aboriginal activists also have many defenders inside and outside of Indian Country. Their activist endeavours can be seen as directed at making Canada a better and fairer society for everyone, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike. Their role in First Nations politics also seems consistent with old Aboriginal approaches that eschewed racial definitions of who properly belonged in their clans, nations, and confederacies.
Department of Indian Affairs chief medical officer Dr. P.H. Bryce conducted an official investigation of the residential schools in Western Canada focusing on health conditions there. In his 1907 report, Bryce revealed the alarming results of his survey of 15 schools. He provided a statistical analysis of the extent of tuberculosis in the schools and discovered the death rate among pupils in these institutions to be 24 per cent. Had the study included other schools or covered an extended period of time, the death toll might have been higher still, a fact acknowledged by Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs D.C. Scott. The report laid blame for this disastrous state of affairs on the churches who were mismanaging the schools, but more particularly on the government. Chronic underfunding did not permit the construction or maintenance of reasonable structures or the provision of adequate food. As well, the department controlled the health standards and regulations to which the schools were subject, as a result of an Indian Act amendment of 1892. Bryce pointed out that these regulations were poorly applied, if at all. Bryce's report received a great deal of publicity, in part because of the horror stories it related, but also because it gave ammunition to critics of the residential school system who wished to see it brought down for other reasons. Despite the media attention and an acknowledgment of the problems by senior officials, disease and death continued unabated. Bryce resigned from the department in 1921 and the following year published a tract entitled The Story of a National Crime. The work castigated the government and the department in particular for their continued neglect of this issue.
F.H. Paget, an accountant in the Indian Affairs Department, was appointed to survey the physical conditions of the schools in the West. His report served as a companion piece to Bryce's investigation. Paget found, not surprisingly, that school buildings were unfit for use and suffered from flawed heating, ventilation, and drainage facilities. He drew the logical connection between these conditions and the prevalence of disease, especially tuberculosis. The report was another example of both the government's awareness of the situation in Western residential schools and its reluctance to take action to remedy these problems.