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.
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).
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.