Economic Life

Between the end of the First World War and the economic boom that followed the Second World War, Native peoples' economic and social position in Canada continued to decline. Although this period is part of what historians sometimes call the age of Aboriginal peoples' irrelevance,8

Native volunteers from File Hills Indian Colony, First World War

File Hills Natives Prepare to Go to War, n.d.

Almost the entire male population of the File Hills Indian Colony volunteered for military service during the First World War (1914-1918). These Native members of the 68th Battalion are shown with their Fathers and Mr. W.M. Graham, Commissioner for the Department of Indian Affairs.
Natives never ceased to play a role in the economic life of the country. The phrase, rather, refers to Native peoples' omission from the thinking of political leaders and public-policy planners, and their disappearance from leading roles in the fur trade or in diplomatic and military alliance. Even during the so-called age of irrelevance, however, Native labour and skills continued to contribute to the Canadian economy in a variety of ways. The problem was that Native workers participated at the lowest wage levels, were involved in the larger economy only seasonally in many cases, and, over time, found their already precarious position eroded still farther. The drastic deterioration in the economic standing of the Native population was revealed as a major socio-economic problem for the country as a whole only when the Native community began to recover numerically towards the middle of the twentieth century.

Waiting for "Destitute Supplies"

The photo from the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys collection shows Natives waiting for "destitute supplies, Rae Settlement, Great Slave Lake, 1925."Photo by J. Russell
NAC (PA-019888)

1914-1918 - Native Participation in the First World War

The First World War affected Native communities in much the same way it did non-Native communities. Approximately 35 per cent of Native men eligible for service enlisted, with the commensurate casualty rate that resulted from the carnage in the European trenches. Approximately 4,000 Natives served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, many finding enlistment an appropriate expression of the warrior spirit of their forefathers. While serving, Natives benefited from all of the privileges of Canadian citizenship, including voting rights, but after returning home found that these rights were once again unavailable to them. Many veterans also found reserve lands substantially reduced, if only temporarily, as the government expropriated considerable farm acreage to enhance production to aid the war effort. Several bands raised substantial funds for the Red Cross, in spite of having band money used to purchase equipment for the "Greater Production" farms carved out of Prairie reserve lands.

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1939-1945 - Native Participation in the Second World War

When Canada declared war on 10 September 1939, Canadian Natives responded with a patriotic fervour that equalled and, in some cases, exceeded that of non-Native Canadians. Indians who "joined up" amounted to a greater proportion of the population than any other group, and totalled some 6,000. The war and Native participation in it brought a number of issues to the surface. Many volunteers were initially rejected for reason of poor health or inadequate education, a revealing statement on the conditions in which they lived. The compulsory enfranchisement regulations that had been implemented following the First World War and had been particularly directed at veterans led some to fear that participation might lead to a loss of status or rights. Some Natives, particularly the Mohawks, reiterated their independent national status and protested being treated like Canadian nationals. Such concerns did not impede the Native war effort, as individual Natives and Native organizations saw no contradiction between recruiting and fundraising on the one hand and asserting and guarding treaty and other rights on the other. In 1944, the government relented on the issue of whether treaty promises had guaranteed that Natives would not be called to fight Canadian battles, and signatories of Treaties 3, 6, 8, and 11 were, if they so chose, exempted from serving overseas. Native veterans were frequently refused benefits, most notably land distributed by the Veterans Land Administration.

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Photo of a model farm house built for the Soldier Settlement Board, 1919

Soldiers' Settlement Board Model Farm House, 1 May 1919.

The Soldier Settlement Act was intended to assist only those veterans that it deemed likely to be successful as farmers. This house was built by Empire Sash and Door Company for the board that administered the Act.
PAM (Foote Collection, 845/N2445).

For Aboriginal peoples, the maintenance of their limited participation in the Canadian economy became, in many respects, even more difficult in the 1920s and 1930s. In some regions, such as the Prairies, ill-advised federal government policies mainly caused their problems. Late nineteenth-century Department of Indian Affairs programs often frustrated reserve farmers, and the failure of agriculture then became a justification for the seizure of reserve lands and their transfer to non-Natives. The government used a variety of methods to reclaim this land. For example, it sponsored dubious surrenders and specific projects such as the Greater Production Scheme of the First World War or the Soldier Settlement program of the immediate post-war period. The Greater Production Scheme allowed Indian Affairs to take over reserve lands to promote agricultural production for wartime. The Soldier Settlement program, which aimed at providing farmlands for returning veterans, sometimes obtained the land it needed from the reserve land base. The result of these developments in the Prairies was that reserve populations were almost universally non-participants in the large-scale, commercial production of wheat and other grains that dominated the region. Native males, and occasionally females as well, filled the niches in this agricultural economy, serving as casual, seasonal labour at critical points in the annual cycle such as seeding and harvesting. The jobs were poorly paid, unreliable, and ultimately doomed. After the Second World War, Prairie agriculture moved towards extensive mechanization, and the farming economy consolidated into large farm units that had less reliance on semi-skilled, seasonal labour. Consequently, by the 1950s and 1960s, reserve farmers were shunted out of even the limited role they had traditionally played in commercial farming on the Prairies.

1917 - Soldiers' Settlement Act

Inaugurated in 1917, and expanded in 1919, the Soldiers' Settlement Act was an effort to accommodate returning war veterans by offering either grants or loans for agricultural lands. Where Native veterans were concerned, the department preferred they receive such lands from existing reserve property, rather than from other Crown or Crown-acquired lands that were the source for non-Native veterans. The Act had other repercussions for Native rights. Under one section of the legislation, the deputy superintendent general acquired the power to grant location tickets to Native war veterans. The distribution of such tickets, previously an exclusive band council prerogative, now had passed in part to a government official, a move that weakened band autonomy and local government. The Act also allowed for surrendered reserve lands to be distributed to non-Native veterans. Between 1919 and 1922, some 68,000 acres of Prairie reserve lands were surrendered and sold to non-Natives, resulting in an erosion of reserves.

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1918 - Greater Production Program

In an effort to expand Canadian agricultural production in support of the First World War, the government introduced the Greater Production program. When officials realized that reserve farm lands were not producing at their full potential, a 1918 amendment to the Indian Act addressed the problem. It allowed reserve lands to be appropriated or leased for farming purposes without band permission. The program, which involved the creation of three "Greater Production" farms on reserve land encompassing some 62,000 acres, was also paid for out of band funds, again without band permission. Natives gained little if anything from the program, although this part of it operated largely at their expense. Protests were raised, but without effect. The development of ranching on the Blood reserve, in particular, was set back considerably as a result of the program. The Greater Production program did not involve a permanent loss of lands, but it did underline the arbitrary attitude Ottawa took toward Indian reserve land rights.

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On the Pacific coast, similar long-term developments squeezed the Aboriginal workers, although a bizarre wartime episode provided respite for some Native fishers. In this region, employment came usually either in the fishing or food-processing industries.

Photo of Haida women working in a crab canning factory in the Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C.

Haida Women, Crab Canning Factory, Queen Charlotte Islands, BC, n.d.

Native girls and women worked extensively in the British Columbia commercial fishing industry.
NAC (PA-123909, photo by Dept. of Citizenship and Immigration).
Native women, in particular, enjoyed relatively high levels of seasonal employment in the canneries during the first half of the twentieth century. The fish-processing sector, however, was moving towards greater concentration and mechanization, and, in the process, often reduced the employment opportunities in cannery work. A peculiar exception to this negative trend for Native fishery workers on the Pacific occurred during the Second World War. In 1941-1942, the government, mobilized by popular fear and outrage after the Japanese bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, began the seizure of fishing equipment owned by people of Japanese ancestry. Immediately following the confiscation, the major fish-canning firms purchased at bargain-basement rates approximately three quarters of the 880 fishing vessels seized. Native fishers then rented many of these boats, and, for a change, they had the experience of profiting from another ethnic group's state-enforced misery. However, this aberration in the Pacific fishery could not disguise the fact that British Columbia Natives continued to experience many of the same difficulties in the workplace as their counterparts in other regions of the country.

This pattern was typical of the mining industry, which, by the interwar period, was expanding throughout the Central and Northern regions of the country. Most of the exploration, extraction, and refining of precious and base metals was extremely technology— and capital—intensive, meaning that individuals who worked in these industries often had to possess fairly advanced technical skills and that the financial backers who provided the funds for developing mines and refineries required very deep pockets. Not surprisingly, of course, Native people were rarely found among the ranks of either the holders of engineering degrees or individuals whom banks considered creditworthy. Consequently, except for work assisting with exploration and helping to construct mining and refining facilities, this maturing sector of the Canadian economy largely shut out Native workers. The starkest example of this process was found in the Northwest Territories in 1939. In that year, the value of minerals produced in the region exceeded the value of furs harvested, yet not a single person of Native ancestry was employed in the mining sector of the territorial economy.

Photo of Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. staff

General Office, Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd., Toronto, ON, 1918.

A combination of factory location, education, and prejudice meant that Native workers were seldom welcome in Canadian manufacturing plants link the one shown here.
NAC (PA-025186).

While conditions were not as severe in the manufacturing and the service industries, these growing sectors of the Canadian economy also proved inhospitable to Native workers in the period after the First World War. Manufacturing was concentrated in the southern tier of the Central provinces, one of the regions in which Native peoples were least represented. Moreover, thanks to inadequate schooling, a phenomenon described elsewhere, Native young people rarely had the educational attainments to allow them past the Personnel Department of a factory. Even if Native applicants possessed such qualifications, however, brute racial prejudice was likely to screen them out of the hiring pool. A particular problem for Native women was the office revolution that dramatically affected Canadian workplaces in the 1920s and beyond. The phrase referred to the growth of female employment in standardized clerical functions that took place throughout the service sector and became a distinguishing feature of the North American economy. Here, as in the manufacturing sector, Natives were especially disadvantaged. Not only did the substandard schooling that was available to female Natives leave them almost totally unequipped for such work, but racial prejudice also worked against them. The significance of these developments was that both female and male Native workers found it difficult to acquire a place in the maturing and increasingly sophisticated economy that Canada, like the entire Western world, was developing after 1919.

1930 - Natural Resources Transfer Agreement

By federal legislation in 1930, the Prairie provinces gained jurisdiction over Crown lands within their borders, a privilege reserved to the federal government since the acquisition of Rupert's Land in 1870. In establishing the Natural Resources Transfer Act, the federal government required the provinces to honour treaties guaranteeing Native fishing, hunting, and trapping rights in all seasons on unoccupied Crown lands. However, the terms confirming these rights were augmented by the words "for food," thus implying a limitation of these Native practices in a way not consistent with the original treaties. The provinces subsequently applied a narrow definition to this commitment in an attempt to enforce provincial game and fishing regulations and prosecute Native offenders of these laws.

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In other words, whether the economy was dominated by the growth of the later 1920s, the depressed conditions of the 1930s, the war-induced expansion of the early 1940s, or the resource industry growth of the post-war period, Native people were at a disadvantage. This is why Aboriginal people, though often participating as individuals in waged work in primary and secondary industries, collectively found their economic position deteriorating in the twentieth century. A critical turning point was the decade of the Great Depression (1929-1939). The economic effects of the Great Depression bore down savagely on Native peoples, particularly in the Prairie region. Conditions during the 1930s in the Prairies were so severe that some Indian families asked to have their children taken into the residential school. By now, most First Nations communities intensely disliked these institutions, but they felt the schools would at least provide food and shelter at a time when regular meals could not be guaranteed at home. Viewed from a social or demographic perspective, the 1930s were also a critically important decade. The period marked the point at which the population of First Nations stopped their steady decline. For reasons that are unclear, the population trend reversed at this time, and Native populations in general started a steady climb upward. Like other segments of the Canadian population, Native communities participated in the baby boom of the mid- and later-1940s, but, in Native communities, the boom did not fade by the late 1950s. Native birth rates remained high from the 1940s to the end of the twentieth century. When these elevated birth rates combined with improved health care, at least for status Indians, that the government of Canada accepted as its constitutional responsibility in the later 1950s and beyond, the makings of a demographic revolution were under way. By the middle of the twentieth century, Native peoples were expanding in numbers, although economically they continued to languish near the bottom of the population.


Waiting for "Destitute Supplies"

The photo from the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys collection shows Natives waiting for "destitute supplies, Rae Settlement, Great Slave Lake, 1925."Photo by J. Russell
NAC (PA-019888)

Written By

J.R. Miller
History Professor Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan


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