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.

Written By

J.R. Miller
History Professor Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan


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