At Confederation

One group of Native peoples actually rated a mention in the founding document of the Canadian Confederation. The 1867 British North America Act contained a clause that listed "Indians and lands reserved for the Indians" as an area of jurisdiction assigned to the Parliament of Canada. This bland labelling of "Indians" hid the fact that they were only one of several Aboriginal peoples, not to mention the fact that within the designated category of "Indians" there were many diverse and distinctive communities. 1

Mi'kmaq Family, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1900.

Mi'kmaq Family, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1900.

The Mi'kmaq were among the earliest First Nations to establish and maintain contact with Europeans (1534). They adopted many features of European culture and technology. This family is dressed in Victorian garb.
PARO/PEI (Acc. 2320/9-11).

An investigating party of strangers approaching Canada's East Coast would have had to look hard for evidence of Native peoples in most parts of the original provinces of Canada. In Newfoundland, which would not be part of Confederation until 1949, the original inhabitants, the Beothuk, had become extinct when the last surviving Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died from tuberculosis in 1829. The Beothuk were the original red Indians, as Hollywood would later designate Native peoples: French explorers in the sixteenth century described them as peaux rouges (literally, red skins) because of their practice of decorating their bodies with red clay. The demise of the Beothuk, however, had not left Newfoundland totally void of Native peoples. About 150 Mi'kmaq people resided and made their living mainly by hunting and fishing in the resource-rich interior of the rugged island.

The Newfoundland Mi'kmaq were only one branch of a larger family that could be found in several parts of what are now the Atlantic provinces during the 1860s. Compared to Newfoundland, probably twice as many Mi'kmaq lived on Prince Edward Island, which would become a province of Canada in 1873, while rather more lived in Nova Scotia. In the two mainland Maritime provinces (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), the First Nations community of approximately 2,500 was made up mainly of Mi'kmaq but also included smaller groups of Maliseet and Abenaki, particularly in New Brunswick. All of these Native nations belonged to the Algonkian linguistic family, and all had traditionally been people who maintained themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering, and trading among themselves. By the time of Confederation, the non-Native settlers had seriously disrupted these traditional means of subsistence. Further, the three First Nations of the Maritime provinces found themselves crowded off the best lands and out of the emerging commercial and industrial economy. The Crown and the Indian nations of the Maritime colonies did not negotiate land-surrender treaties, and, as a result, the approximately 2,500 Mi'kmaq, Abenaki, and Maliseet were not well provided with reserve or other lands. The "Indians" who came under federal jurisdiction with Confederation had few "lands reserved for" them about which the government in Ottawa had to concern itself. The result of these conditions was that the First Nations of the Maritimes lived a hand-to-mouth economic existence in the new dominion.

 Mohawk became an integral part of the cultural life of Quebec on select ceremonial occasions

Dancers from Mohawk Nation, Montreal, QC, 9 Oct. 1869

Although often isolated from "proper" society, the Mohawk became an integral part of the cultural life of Quebec on select ceremonial occasions. These dancers performed for HRH Prince Arthur at the Montreal lacrosse tournament in 1869.
NAC (PA-172573, photo by James Inglis).

The dispossession and marginalization of the Maritime Algonkians was largely mirrored by the experience of the approximately 5,000 First Nations peoples of southern Quebec in the 1860s. This region possessed an extraordinarily diversified Native population, mainly because of a series of historical developments. Many of the First Nations communities in the river valleys of Quebec had congregated around Roman Catholic mission sites because of either alienation from the non-Christian groups in their former home communities or the need for refuge from setbacks in wars with other First Nations. The southern Quebec groups were a mixture of Algonkian nations such as the Abenaki, Algonkin, or Nipissing, and of Iroquoians such as the Mohawk located at three Catholic missions. The Mohawk of Akwesasne (St. Regis) opposite Cornwall, Ontario, Kahnawake (Sault St. Louis) on the south shore of the St. Lawrence across from Montreal, and Kanesatake (Oka) on the Lake of Two Mountains had long since lost the traditional Iroquoian orientation to growing corn, beans, and squash. Like their Algonkian brothers and sisters, they depended on an economy that combined hunting-gathering with gardening for subsistence, and seasonal employment. The three Mohawk groups in southern Quebec would have a significant impact on Canadian life in the late twentieth century.

Neither in southern nor northern Quebec did these First Nations enjoy a treaty relationship with the Crown. Indeed, nothing resembling a land agreement in northern Quebec would exist until the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. In the south, the explanation for an absence of treaties was primarily historical: the French, who had been the imperial power in the region until 1763, did not make land treaties with First Nations, and the Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by their British successors did, not apply to Quebec. Nonetheless, the proclamation, by spelling out how Indian lands in the interior might lawfully be obtained from First Nations, stimulated treaty-making elsewhere. In northern Quebec, a region dominated by the Precambrian, or Canadian, Shield, First Nations continued to live an economically successful traditional life because of an absence of agricultural settlement in most of the vast expanse. Accordingly, the approximately 3,500 Cree and other Algonkians in the north at Confederation were still engaged in a hunting-gathering-fishing-trading economy.

Ontario had by far the largest number of First Nations people of any of the original provinces of the dominion. The Mississauga, an Algonkian group, had mainly populated southern Ontario when non-Native settlement began to be significant in the 1780s. The Crown had made treaty with the Mississauga to prepare the region for settlement by two groups: non-Native Loyalists who left the United States after the American Revolution (1775-1783) and a small numbers of Aboriginal allies who had fought with the Crown against the American rebels. Mohawk allies had important reserves near Brantford and Belleville. Later, smaller groups of pro-British Natives located in other places in southwestern Ontario after the War of 1812. Tens of thousands of British immigrants followed in the 40 years before Confederation. This group transformed the region, making farms and towns and, as in the Maritimes, displacing and marginalizing the original inhabitants. As in southern Quebec, in southern Ontario Christian missionaries, here mainly Methodist and Anglican, ministered as best they could to these groups as social and economic change swept over them from the 1820s to the 1860s and beyond.

1850 - The Robinson Treaties

Increased pressures on the natural resources of what would become northern Ontario led to tension and even warfare between Native groups and between Native tribes and mining corporations during the mid-nineteenth century. In 1850, the government empowered William Benjamin Robinson to negotiate with the Ojibwa bands of the area in order to establish reserves. In so doing, the government hoped to ease the competition for the limited resources available and open up the land for exploration and settlement. Chief Peau de Chat and Chief Shinguaconse, as well as other leaders from their respective Lake Superior and Lake Huron regions, agreed to a payment of £2,000  in cash and further annuity payments of £500 for the Lake Superior band and £600 for the Lake Huron group. The Robinson Treaties set the example for later negotiations between the Canadian government and Native tribes, establishing standards such as public negotiation processes, Crown takeover of surrendered lands, payment of annuities, and guarantees of full hunting and fishing privileges for Natives on Crown lands. The Robinson Treaties also broke with prior practice in treating for extensive tracts of land not needed for immediate settlement.

In Ontario's near north, particularly along lakes Huron and Superior, the predominantly Ojibwa, or Anishinabe, population had begun to experience non-Native intrusion later than the more southerly Mississauga. The Ontario north, like that of Quebec, was dominated by the rocks and rivers of the Canadian Shield and would remain largely immune to the agricultural settlement that devastated First Nations elsewhere. However, the Ontario north was one of the earliest regions to experience the intrusion of a mining frontier, the other form of Euro-Canadian economic activity that disrupted First Nations throughout Eastern Canada. Early mining exploration in the Sault Ste. Marie region provoked Ojibwa resistance in the late 1840s, leading to the negotiation of two 1850 treaties that were important as models for Post-Confederation treaty-making in the West. The Robinson Huron and Robinson Superior treaties, as these agreements were known, covered a vast area north and east of each of the upper Great Lakes. Further north, in a region dominated by Cree rather than Ojibwa, treaty would not be made until 1905. In northern Ontario, as in northern Quebec, First Nations were able to maintain themselves by traditional means longer than in the south. In both Central Canadian provinces, however, mining exploration, hydroelectric development, and even agricultural settlement in pockets of suitable soil would begin to transform the regions and disrupt the First Nations from the 1880s and 1890s onward.

Posed photo of Chief Walking Buffalo and his family

Chief Walking Buffalo and His Family, n.d.

The Lakota (Stoney) Nation was part of the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy. The Lakota were skillful horsemen and formidable warriors. After the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877, they took up residence on their reserve, part of their traditional territory in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary.

The treaties that government-appointed treaty commissioner W.B. Robinson negotiated in northern Ontario would serve later as models for agreements with the Plains and woodlands nations of the Western interior. A major reason that treaty making was such a dominant feature of relations with the Western Natives was sheer numbers. In the early years after Confederation, the non-Native population of what would become the three Prairie provinces probably counted fewer than 2,000. However, the Aboriginal population—First Nations and Métis—between Lake of the Woods and the Rocky Mountains totalled approximately 45,000. If mere numbers alone were not enough to capture Ottawa's attention, the Red River Resistance would have convinced the federal government to pay attention to the land rights of the Indigenous Western population. Led by Louis Riel, the approximately 12,000 Métis, or mixed-blood, people residing in and near present-day Winnipeg, challenged Canada's assertion of its title to the region in 1869-1870. When federal leaders turned to examine that Western population, they found that there were about 33,000 First Nations people belonging to no fewer than five distinct groups.

Map of Select Reserves and Treaties with First Nations Peoples.

Select Reserves and Treaties with First Nations Peoples.

Paul Hackett.

Three separate linguistic families were represented between Lake of the Woods and the Rockies. An Algonkian nation and close relative to the Mississauga and Ojibwa of Ontario, the Saulteaux, or western Ojibwa, were found in northwestern Ontario and parts of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Siouan family was also present in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the form of the Dakota, Assiniboine, and, in southern Alberta, the Stoney of the foothills. The Stoney were part of the formidable Blackfoot Confederacy. Algonkians were also numerous, principally as Cree, in the forests of northwestern Ontario and the parklands and northern woods of the Prairie provinces. Two cultures divided the Western Cree, who, like the Saulteaux, were western extensions of nations who had migrated in pursuit of economic opportunities. These two groups were the southerly, or Plains, Cree, who had adapted to the Plains culture that had developed by the early eighteenth century, and Woods Cree, who still resembled their eastern ancestors in their forest-based culture. Also representing the Algonkian linguistic family were several of the constituent nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy of southern Alberta. The Piikuni (Piegan), Siksika (Blackfoot proper), and Kainai (Blood) were Algonkian. Among the other members of the confederacy were, as mentioned previously, the Stoney in the foothills to the west and the Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee), a group that resided near Calgary. The Tsuu T'ina were actually descended from an Athapaskan nation that had migrated from the northern reaches of what would become the North-West Territories.

Photo of a Slavey Native woman ice fishing at Hay River

Slavey Native Woman Ice Fishing, Hay River, NT, ca. 1900.

The Slavey Nation was one of many Native groups pushed northward as the Cree expanded to the west in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
GA (NA-4433-31).

The First Nations of the Western interior might have constituted many nations and represented three linguistic families, but, by the late 1800s, they could be categorized culturally as woodlands or Plains peoples. In the forests to the north, the Cree and Dene pursued hunting-fishing-gathering lifeways that made them migrate seasonally among the various resource-harvesting and trading sites. These groups were dependent especially on the moose and woodland caribou. Many of the northern First Nations were also heavily involved in trade with non-Natives, principally the traders of the Hudson's Bay Company. The company's demand for the furs the Natives harvested and gathered had been a powerful economic influence in the region since the 1670s. To the south of the forest-dwellers, the Assiniboine, Saulteaux, Plains Cree, and Blackfoot had fashioned the Plains culture. The colour and excitement of this way of life impressed everyone who came in contact with it. Plains culture utilized English firearms acquired from Hudson Bay Company men in the north and horses that the Spanish had introduced far to the south to augment the traditional hunting and fighting skills of the First Nations. These elements combined to create a way of life that emphasized trade, warfare, and diplomacy. In Plains society, warring and acquiring horses as prizes vied with hunting the buffalo and trading as the principal pursuits. This was particularly true of the men within the community. In no small part because hunting buffalo required large numbers of participants and considerable discipline, political organization was fairly highly developed among the Plains peoples and their Métis kinfolk. Annual buffalo hunts were simultaneously economic, social, and military occasions in which Plains peoples celebrated and renewed many of the values and practices that made them unique. The Plains warrior astride his swift horse, ideally with eagle-feather war bonnet trailing behind him, was, and remains, one of the most powerful and positive stereotypes of First Nations peoples in Canada.

If the Native peoples of the Western interior could be classified fairly simply according to their Plains or forest orientation, no such easy generalizations were possible west of the mountain ranges that divided the Prairie region from British Columbia. In describing the First Nations of British Columbia, as with so many other features of Canada's westernmost province (B.C. entered Confederation in 1871), it is essential to appreciate that the territory consists of at least three geographical regions. These different regions within British Columbia were home to a dizzying variety of Indian nations.

Photo of West Coast Natives in masks and robers.

West Coast Natives in Traditional Masks and Robes, n.d.

The finely crafted wooden masks and woven robes, integral to the culture of the West Coast First Nations, were indicative of their high level of craftsmanship.
NAC (PA-023081).

Several nations that resembled the hunter-gatherers of the northern and eastern woodlands lived in the northern interior. These included groups such as the Chilcotin, Carrier, Gitksan, and Sekani. To the south, although still in the interior region, were the Kootenay, a linguistic isolate, or unique linguistic group, and Interior Salishan peoples such as the Shuswap, Okanagan, Thompson, and Lillooet. The most extensive ethnic and linguistic diversity, however, was found along the Pacific coast and on Vancouver Island. There were Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) and Southern Kwagiutl on Vancouver Island, while Coast Salish dominated the mouth of the Fraser River and southern coast. Northward, up the shoreline, were more Southern and Northern Kwagiutl, Tsimshian peoples, Nisga'a, and, in present-day Alaska, Tlingit. The Haida lived on what became known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, a location that the Haida lovingly called Haida Gwaii. Well over 50 nations that were part of almost as many linguistic families had developed and, in 1867, still thrived in the valleys, fjords, and resource-rich coastal regions of British Columbia.

At Confederation, the Pacific province was still more Native than newcomer in population, although the Indigenous peoples were declining dramatically because of disease and Euro-Canadian invasions of their territories.

Photo of Totem Pole in British Columbia, ca. 1910.

Totem Pole, British Columbia, ca. 1910.

The intricately carved and meticulously painted totem pole is one of the most recognizable and famous cultural symbols of the First Nations on the West coast.
NAC (PA-060018).

The First Nations population of the future British Columbia had been a robust 70,000 in 1835, a period prior to the advent of prospectors, miners, settlers, missionaries, and colonial administrators when the land-based fur trade still dominated the local economy. However, by 1885, Native numbers would shrink to about 28,000. Even so, the First Nations population of British Columbia probably constituted well over one quarter of the 100,000 to 120,000 Indians throughout the territory that was or would become Canada at the time of Confederation. To that uncertain total must be added around 12,000 Métis in the Western interior, and an imprecise number—perhaps 15,000 to 20,000—of Inuit in the Arctic, lands to the north over which Canada would not get formal title until 1880.

Rituals and Relations

Uncertainty about the precise numbers of Inuit, Métis, and First Nations in the Dominion of Canada at Confederation revealed two factors. The first was the lack of interaction between Indigenous and immigrant peoples and the second the sad reality that the total number of the latter was shrinking rapidly in the 1860s and 1870s. Except for fur traders and missionaries, non-Native Canadians usually had little contact with Aboriginal communities. In southerly parts of the country, the non-Native population, if it considered Native people at all, regarded them either as obstacles to the development of agriculture, mining, orchards, and other Euro-Canadian forms of economic activity or as strange and alien peoples in need of tutelage.

Photo of Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932

Duncan Campbell Scott, ca. 1930.

Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, was open and honest about the ultimate goal of Indian Affairs policies: assimilation of Canada's Native peoples.
NAC (PA-135698).
Duncan Campbell Scott, a high-level bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs in the first few decades of the twentieth century, even referred to Indians as "a weird and waning race."2 His phrase captured the sense of the alien, the bizarre, and the evanescent that many Euro-Canadians were developing about the people whose lands they were in the process of taking over. Earlier fur traders had found little reason to attempt to change the people they encountered; Native persons possessed knowledge about the vast forests and plains that was critical to the success of the fur trade. In the future, Christian missionaries would increasingly seek to change those elements of Native society that were considered "weird."

People with a European and Judeo-Christian background perceived Aboriginal societies as dramatically different because of their distinctive values, organization, and social institutions. For example, Native societies in North America shared a world view, or spiritual outlook, that set them apart from the newcomers. Christians and Jews found in their sacred writings the insight that humans were created by God in the deity's image. In contrast, Aboriginal societies regarded human beings as simply one species among many things, both living and inanimate, that populated the world. Native people talked matter-of-factly about their "relatives the tree people" and their friends "the fish people" because they understood the world as a place where humans, animals, plants, and everything else was formed as it was and placed where it was by the Creator. Most Native people believed that this Creator had made everything, and everything was part of a great circle of life. Life infused everything on the land that eastern Iroquoians called "turtle island." North America, was infused with life. Accordingly, humans were not a special order of creation; they had no privileged place on "turtle island." In the world of non-Native learning, animism describes this set of values and perceptions. It made Aboriginal people radically different from the newcomers who were taking over their lands, and it underlay Duncan Campbell Scott's perception of Native ways as alien.

The values and attitudes that made Aboriginal peoples different from newcomers expressed themselves most clearly in the ceremonial practices of First Nations, Inuit, and, to a lesser extent, the Métis. A visitor among the Mi'kmaq of Cape Breton, for example, might notice that a fisher observed certain ceremonies and voiced prayers before fishing or consuming the catch. The Mi'kmaq fisher was expressing respect and gratitude to the spirits of the fish and to the Creator for the food that was being provided. Such rituals were essential because he believed that the fish allowed themselves to be taken. Innu who hunted moose in northeastern Quebec or Cree who prepared to break into a beaver lodge in search of meat and furs in northern Ontario carried out similar ceremonies of respect. The same fishers, hunters, and warriors would also say a prayer or make an offering of tobacco to the spirit of a rapids in the river that had to be traversed. In doing so, they hoped to ensure that the spirit of the waterway would allow them to pass safely. By their actions towards fish, animals, watercourses, and, indeed, everything on earth, Aboriginal people expressed their belief that they were related to all living things in the world. When Aboriginal people referred at the end of a prayer or speech to "all my relations," they were articulating their kinship with all of creation.

The Sun Dance was a ceremony essential to the religious and cultural life of many Native peoples of the Plains.

Native Ritual of the Sun Dance, n.d.

The Sun Dance, a ceremony essential to the religious and cultural life of many Native peoples of the Plains, featured very painful and exhausting feats of endurance. Christian missionaries and other Europeans perceived the Sun Dance as barbarous and, hence, pressured authorities to ban such spiritual rituals.
SAB (R-A 3963).

Sometimes the ceremonial expression of this world view was more elaborate than prayers before fishing or incantations at the head of rapids. Three specific examples—the Midewiwin, Sun/Thirst Dance, and the Potlatch—will illustrate the complexity of the ritual life that still prevailed among First Nations at Confederation and during the decades immediately following. Midewiwin was both the name of the healing group, or Grand Medicine Society, and the ritual practices among the Ojibwa and Saulteaux. As a ritual, Midewiwin was both a group healing ceremony and an educational forum intended to transmit and reinforce Ojibwa history and values. The term Midewiwin also referred to the shamans, or medicine men, who were curers, among which a number of levels of knowledge and prestige existed. A curer would have to study special knowledge and ritual for many years before advancing to the next level. As was the case with all Aboriginal groups and their shamans, Midewiwn among the Ojibwa used ritual and prayer to mediate between humans and other spirits. The objective, both among the Ojibwa and other groups, was always to keep different forces and beings in balance and harmony: such happy equilibrium was the source and guarantee of health and happiness, success, and security.

The same assumptions and goals—harmony and balance—were at the heart of Prairie ceremonies that were known as the Thirst Dance among Assiniboine and Plains Cree and the Sun Dance among the members of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Someone who had experienced a crisis and raised a prayer for assistance sponsored the ceremony in the late spring or early summer. The celebrants danced around and hung offerings on a sacred pole erected in the middle of a dance lodge constructed of saplings. Participants refrained from eating and drinking through long periods, sometimes days, of dancing and other observances. Sometimes young males, in a gesture of sacrifice, bound themselves to the central pole by leather thongs attached to their chest or shoulders by wooden pins. They then danced until they tore the skin and were freed. Participants in these sacred observances at the Thirst or Sun Dance, as was the case with Midewiwin rituals, also enjoyed social contact and communication among the members of their group. In the Sun Dance camp, friendships were renewed, marriages pledged, and all manner of human interaction carried out. The summer ceremonials were also opportunities for Plains diplomats and political leaders to carry out discussions with people, including invited representatives of other nations, with whom they hoped to co-operate politically, diplomatically, and, if necessary, militarily. Finally, an essential part of Plains summer ceremonialism was lavish distribution of material property. In the disapproving language of missionaries and bureaucrats, however, these rituals were simply "giveaways."

The social observances and giving of property of the Thirst/Sun dancers were ritual features shared with a winter ceremony known as the Potlatch. Like the Thirst Dance, the Potlatch, a ritual practised by the nations of the northwest coast, was a phenomenon that had multiple purposes. The massive distribution of material wealth linked the various reasons for holding the Potlatch. The Potlatch ceremony might be held to commemorate the taking of a new name or title by a high-ranked member of a village or to provide community recognition of a betrothal or marriage. Because these purposes were so central to the Potlatch, the ceremony was sometimes described as being held "to make my name good."3 Equally, another Potlatch might be described accurately as "fighting with property."4 Since generosity was a sign of status in Native culture, the giving away of blankets and other goods might be motivated by a desire to achieve greater prestige. Such Potlatch rivalries might erupt between individuals or families within a village, or between competing villages on the coast. Non-Native people, who were stunned, or even aghast, at such institutionalized generosity, sometimes regarded the practices as bizarre. However, the Potlatch, like the ritualism of Sun dancers or Midewiwin, perfectly expressed the values and world view of the communities that held the ceremonies.

Potlatch, 1890-1930.

The potlatch was a very important ceremony for West Coast Native peoples. The primary purpose of the ritual was to bear witness, and to confirm in public, changes in status, such as marriages, births, deaths, and comings of age, and to give gifts and distribute wealth. The oral tradition, which included the imparting of morals through stories, was also central to the potlatch. The last image of the slide show shows a Haida retelling of the story of the potlatch.
BCA (PDP 02749, H-02498, G-04242, G-06642, G-04244, and PDP 05648).

The First Nations that conducted these so-called weird observances were regarded as waning in the decades after Confederation. Unfortunately, in this instance, the popular perception was correct: the forces loosed by contact with the Europeans who came to their lands had decimated Native communities. In Canada, as was the case throughout the Western hemisphere, the greatest consequence of the Europeans' arrival was exposure to diseases to which the Indigenous North Americans had limited or no resistance. In southern Ontario during the 1630s and 1640s, the Huron (or Wendat) Confederacy lost one third or more of their population (estimated as 30,000 strong at contact) to a number of diseases that French missionaries and traders unintentionally introduced. In the Western interior, a number of epidemics, of which outbreaks of smallpox in the 1780s and 1830s were among the most deadly, laid waste to some of the First Nations. In 1837-1838, the epidemic's impact differed greatly between groups. For example, the Cree, who were in direct communication with Hudson's Bay Company traders, enjoyed the benefits of an experimental vaccination program. Others, such as the Assiniboine—whose numbers and influence in the fur trade declined as a result of the 1838 epidemic—were very seriously affected. The experience of the Mandan, a group located to the south in what later would be American territory, was even more drastic. The Mandan, a major Aboriginal power in early post-contact years, were almost wiped out by the epidemic of 1837-1838.

The combination of horses and firearms had devastated the buffalo herds on the plains.

Hunting Buffalo on Horseback, n.d.

By the 1870s, the combination of horses and firearms had devastated the buffalo herds on the plains.

In the immediate post-Confederation years, the worst losses of life to epidemic disease occurred in the regions where First Nations had the most recent exposure to Europeans and Euro-Americans. In British Columbia, as previously noted, the Aboriginal population was declining rapidly at this time. Similarly, the late 1860s in the Prairie region was a period of devastating losses to smallpox. In 1870, unsuspecting Blackfoot introduced the disease north of the "medicine line," as Plains Indians called the international boundary Soon afterward, an unwitting Cree who had raided an abandoned Blackfoot camp spread it northward. The magnitude of the losses are difficult to calculate precisely, but a Methodist missionary later claimed "that fully half of the native tribes perished during the season of 1870 through the ravages of smallpox."5 The fact that the disease struck a heavy blow, however, cannot be doubted. For one thing, smallpox's impact was compounded by a crescendo of Blackfoot-Cree strife in 1870 that brought to an end two decades of warfare that was caused, ultimately, by competition for increasingly scarce resources. The losses to disease and war that both Plains Cree and Blackfoot experienced in 1870 were so severe that the Cree initiated discussions that led to a peace agreement in 1871.

Graph of Canadian Native Population, 1871-1931

Canadian Native Population, 1871-1931

Disease took a toll on Native peoples. Estimates of actual numbers throughout this ear probably reflect inaccuracies in gathering data, such as not counting Natives in some regions. The 1891 data has a note indicating: "It is not… claimed that any of these figures are quite correct, as there are still some places, particularly in British Columbia, where there are at present no resident agents, and the number of Indians can only be estimated." The same statement might apply even more to earlier counts.
Canada. The Statistical Yearbook of Canada for 1891. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1891. p. 85.

1870 - Disappearance of the Bison

Non-Native visitors to the prairies had reported on the decline of the bison as early as the 1840s, and the Plains Cree in 1859 held a conference to discuss restriction of the hunt in order to preserve the animal. Pressures on the bison included the fur trade, for which the bison were the chief source of food; the movement of the Métis west from Red River in response to the declining herds on the eastern prairies; and the massive expansion in the hide trade, facilitated by American participation, which exploded in the 1870s. The bison was a central element of life to the Natives of the prairie West, providing the necessities of life and playing a major cultural role as well. Fears of starvation and the loss of a way of life, linked directly to the dwindling buffalo herds, prompted the Plains Cree to seek treaties with the dominion government in the 1870s, and the Blackfoot Confederacy proved receptive to treaty overtures for the same reasons.

The Canadian government paid little attention to worries about the bison and in treaty negotiations encouraged the Natives to continue to hunt as their major means of subsistence. The single limited preservation measure addressing the question was adopted by the Northwest Council, not Parliament, in 1877, but repealed the following year because of its ineffectiveness and unpopularity. By the late 1870s, the species had faded across the prairies. This development prompted the food crisis the Natives had feared and forced the government to scramble for a response to a problem it had hitherto ignored. The disappearance of the bison was the first test of the new relationship between Natives and the government forged in the treaties, and the official response did not bode well for future relations.

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Though peace on the plains was a welcome relief to all the First Nations, it proved merely to be a preliminary to another, ultimately more damaging, scourge. By the time Cree and Blackfoot put their war bonnets aside, rapid declines in the number of buffalo were undermining the way of life of both groups. The buffalo, or bison, was the foundation of Plains economy and culture: its meat sustained life, its hides made the tipis that sheltered Plains people, and its tongue and skull were both prime elements in the Sun Dance ceremony. However, thanks to over-hunting by First Nations, Métis, and non-Native hunters from the 1820s to the 1870s, the bison resource had entered a terminal phase. Some Plains Cree and most Blackfoot were willing to negotiate treaties with the Dominion of Canada between 1874 and 1877. Part of the reason for this willingness was their leaders' awareness of and anxiety about the weakening of the foundation of their way of life. Neither government nor Plains diplomats expected that total collapse was imminent, but it soon occurred. By 1879, the buffalo, which had once roamed the plains and parkland in such large numbers that the sun would be obscured by the dust that thousands of hoofs kicked up, were almost extinct. This economic disaster made Western First Nations extremely vulnerable to the use of pressure and force by government from the 1880s onward.

Illustration comparing supposed American and Canadian treatments of Natives

Comparison of Indian Policies of United States and Canada, 22 July 1876

This illustration captures the then popular notion that Canadian treatment of Native peoples was far more benevolent than the American counterpart.Canadian Illustrated News, 22 July 1876.
GA (NA-1406-165).

Although First Nations in other parts of the country were spared the triple blow of epidemic disease, war, and economic collapse that was inflicted on Western Natives, they still faced considerable hardships. As noted elsewhere, Native peoples throughout the country found themselves being drawn ever more deeply into a web of federal policies aimed at controlling them politically, reorienting them economically, and altering them culturally. These pressures were especially strong on their young. From the 1880s and 1890s onward, Christian missionaries operated government-supported schools that sought to assimilate Native students while helping them economically and converting them to their God.


York Boat, Lake Winnipeg, MB, 1889.

York boats were used to ship furs from inland trading posts to the Hudson's Bay Company posts on the coast of Hudson Bay. They also carried large quantities of British manufactured trade goods to the interior.
COE (EA-170-1).

Neither disease nor economic dislocation—or even the two combined—was a new experience for First Nations in the post-contact period. What was different in the late decades of the 1800s, however, was that the appearance of these afflictions coincided with a new development: the emergence of non-Native populations as numerically dominant throughout the country. The evolution of the fur trade after Confederation was one measure of what this conjunction of changes meant for Native peoples. The commerce in pelts, along with the cod fisheries, had been one of the foundations of what evolved into the Canadian nation. By the 1800s, the trade was restricted to the most northerly reaches of Quebec and Ontario, the woodlands north of the prairies, and the Subarctic. In the Western interior, which along with British Columbia had been the main arena of the commerce through most of the century, the trade had fostered a demand for foodstuffs. This demand, and the so-called provisioning trade that it fostered, was one of the major reasons for increased pressure on the buffalo resource from the 1820s onward. In the post-Confederation decades, some of the trade's most important influences were in technology, particularly in transportation; these changes profoundly affected the seasonal employment opportunities that Indian and Métis men had traditionally enjoyed.

The variable impact of changes in the fur trade illustrates the complexity of economic relations between Native peoples and Euro-Canadians in the post-Confederation period. In central Manitoba in the 1870s, for example, Cree who had adjusted to the presence of the Hudson's Bay Company found their livelihood disrupted. They had incorporated seasonal labour on the company's brigades of York boats that transported trade goods from York Factory on Hudson Bay into the continent and furs outward. The Hudson's Bay Company was shifting its sources of supply and mode of transport. With the arrival of steam-powered transportation on the Red and other rivers to the south, it became possible to supply company posts more cheaply. The company's reliance on steam transportation for supply displaced Native workers. In addition, as historical geographer Frank Tough effectively demonstrates, the reliance created pressures that made the Woods Cree around Norway House, Manitoba, anxious to establish a treaty with Canada. Indeed, they were as eager to reach such an agreement as their southern cousins, the Plains Cree, a group facing the imminent disappearance of the buffalo.6

Photo of a Métis encampment in Manitoba, 1874

Métis Camp, Manitoba, 1874.

In the 1870s, the Métis moved from Manitoba to areas further west, such as lands adjacent to the South Saskatchewan River between Prairie-Ronde and Prince Albert.
NAC (C-081787).

Another historical geographer, Arthur J. Ray, points out that Subarctic hunter-gatherers further to the north actually benefited economically from other changes in the fur trade in the period from the middle of the 1890s to about 1920. Increased competition on the demand side, as more firms and individual traders entered the market, and a voracious appetite for expensive furs for high-fashion garments combined to elevate prices. This market condition was, of course, much to the benefit of Dene and other northern First Nations engaged in the commerce.7 Although not even the dislocations of the First World War (1914-1918) could stifle this fur boom, the long-term downward trend in the sector was unmistakable. In addition, by the middle of the twentieth century, slumping demand adversely affected Native fur suppliers in both the forested regions of the provinces and southern parts of the Northwest Territories. As will be noted later, federal government social security programs of various types partially filled the economic gap from the 1940s onward.

As the microcosm of the Northern fur trade illustrated, Native peoples in Canada experienced a bewildering array of effects in the period from Confederation to the First World War. The growing numbers of Euro-Canadians and the increasing penetration of economic forces under the control of that non-Native majority had serious implications for Native people. Probably the First Nations of the Prairie provinces and British Columbia were the most adversely affected in these years, and the Inuit in the Arctic, the least. The Métis of the Western interior also experienced disruption of their mixed economy of hunting, gathering, fishing, trading, gardening, and seasonal wage labour as a result of settlement and increasing government control. However, the Métis did not have a treaty relationship with the Government of Canada to provide even limited assistance, and they suffered dreadfully as a consequence. They became a marginalized and largely forgotten Native minority. First Nations, too, continued to languish beyond the everyday consciousness of non-Native Canadians through this period and beyond. By the era of the First World War, the Native communities had become Canada's marginalized and ignored peoples.

Mi'kmaq Family, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1900.

Mi'kmaq Family, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1900.

The Mi'kmaq were among the earliest First Nations to establish and maintain contact with Europeans (1534). They adopted many features of European culture and technology. This family is dressed in Victorian garb.
PARO/PEI (Acc. 2320/9-11).

Written By

J.R. Miller
History Professor Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan


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