A short reflection from our Executive Director and Resident Settler, Neil Fleming.
I decided to start writing this blog to share with my friends in the non-Indigenous community, some of the things I have learned in my time working with Making Treaty 7. I know that the “algorithms” that control our newsfeeds will generally omit anything Indigenous unless you specifically show some interest. Here’s me taking a step toward garnering some of that interest from you…
What a difference a month makes. When I last sat down to write about Treaty 7, there were some rumblings about a protest that had to do with truckers having to be vaccinated.
I don’t really feel qualified to talk about the comparative treatment by police of Indigenous protestors trying to protect their land versus the tactics used on the mostly white occupants in Ottawa. But what I had planned to write about is still relevant. The Indian Act.
But first, I need to go way back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This proclamation was made by King George III after the English emerge triumphant over the French in what was called the 7 Years War. It claims all the territory that would fall under British rule, however it clearly references established Indian Nations and reserves for them all of their traditional lands.
“And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds.”
This is important in that it recognizes that Indian Bands are sovereign nations unto themselves. They were acknowledged to have the rights to land and self-government. “First Nations” if you will. According to the proclamation, the crown needed to negotiate the purchase of lands from the various First Nations in order to colonize it.
I was once asked by a friend, when we were discussing the story of Treaty 7 and the work I was doing, “but, didn’t we… conquer those people?”. It was an innocent enough question, because it was never something any of us of a certain age ever learned at school. Or if we did, it was certainly not from the perspective of the Indigenous people. (The answer is no, for the record, we didn’t conquer the First Nations. “We“ conquered the French, technically, and a great many First Nations fought as allies on both sides of that war.)
Okay, so fast-forward to 1876, one year before the signing of Treaty 7. The passing of The Indian Act which is how the government of John A. MacDonald decided it was going to force all First Nations into assimilation through legislation. Like that would work. The Indian Act was an amalgamation of a bunch of previous things like the Gradual Civilization Act and it is still the legislation governing the “management of Indian affairs” today. Why? You might ask?
It is because it is the only document that lays out their distinct legal status as “Indians”. Throw it away, as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien proposed with their “White Paper” in the 1960’s and there’s nothing to protect that “status” that ties Indigenous people back to the sovereignty laid out in the Royal Proclamation. They become simply “Canadians”.
I found it curious as I tried to navigate the terminology of First Nations, Aboriginal people, Indigenous people, Original people, etc that some Indigenous people (especially the older ones) still refer to themselves as Indians. But this is actually because Indian is still officially the legal term for Indigenous people, because of the lingering Indian Act.
The Indian Act made it illegal for Indigenous people to speak their languages, or practice their culture. It confined them to their reservations and turned them into wards of the state. It was intended to legislate the Indian out of the Indian. Over the years, it was altered to take away any advantage that came from the reserve system. When Indians got really good at farming, they became competition for white farmers and so the Act was amendment to require permits for sale of any produce off reserve.
And of course, Residential Schools. Separate the children from their native cultures and raise them in the teachings of the superior white culture. Bring them into “society”.
The Indian Act was never intend to “work” as a system. It was intended to force Indigenous people to give up their Indian status and assimilate.
I cannot recommend highly enough, that you’ve read this far, you must get yourself a copy of 21 Things You Might Not Know About The Indian Act by Bob Joseph. Which you can find all over now, but originated as a series of blog posts. I learned so many strange, horrible and sometimes wonderful things about the ongoing effects of the Indian Act, and began to truly understand the complex entanglement our government has created while trying to rid themselves of the “Indian Problem”.