Through the 1940s and 1950s, Saskatchewan was a veritable laboratory of social and political experiments whose outcomes would later be applied to the governance of the whole country. This pattern was especially pronounced in the field of Indian Affairs. In 1944, Tommy Douglas of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was elected to form the continent's first socialist government. The new premier took a particular interest in addressing the plight of the poorest and most obviously disempowered people in the province, namely the Registered Indians, the so-called non-Status Indians, and the Métis. When Douglas tried to extend the provincial vote to registered Indians, he ran into great resistance from those suspicious of his motivation. Was this yet another attempt at assimilation? This experience helped Douglas to understand the need to cultivate the support of institutions in Indian Country. Such support would anchor the kind of activism that would be required if Indian people collectively were to achieve a more equitable measure of representation in the Canadian political process.

Photo of Tommy Douglas's Cabinet, Regina, SK, 10 July 1944.

Tommy Douglas's Cabinet, Regina, SK, 10 July 1944.

Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas was sympathetic to Native concerns and favoured reform of Native policy.
SAB (R-A 7918-3).

Gradually, some members of the Douglas government came to understand the need to turn away from the assimilationist assumptions that had dominated Canadian Indian policy since the imperial government's "civilizing" policy of 1830. Instead, they proposed to adopt innovations that would facilitate forms of Aboriginal self-government similar to those that guided John Collier and others in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs when they instituted the Indian New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act in the mid-1930s. As an official in the Douglas government declared in 1946, "The Indian must be free to develop his own culture and not merely to imbibe ours; to learn his own history, and not to rely on our interpretation of it; to practice his own religion, and not be coerced into another; to devise his own means of self-government and not be cowed by ours." Tommy Douglas and the CCF government were thus integrally involved in the establishment of the Union of Saskatchewan Indians, an organization that still exists today as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. From its inception, the organization's primary goal has been to elevate Indian treaties to a higher and more respected role in Confederation.18

The pioneering efforts of the Douglas regime in putting limits on the assimilationist thrust of Indian policy and in working to better the standard of life of Indian and Métis people in Saskatchewan is not universally hailed as enlightened and progressive. Some have criticized the CCF's role in the genesis of Indian organizations in Saskatchewan as merely a more sophisticated version of an old non-Indian tactic to co-opt Indian agendas and to pre-empt initiatives genuinely generated from within Indian Country.

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge

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