|HMS Grappler at Comox, BC. In 1862, the Grappler escorted
smallpox-infected natives who were expelled from Victoria.
The resultant spread of the disease among the Indian
population largely depopulated the BC coast, making way
for immigrant settlement.
Throughout the post-Columbian colonization of North America, settlers have pursued one of three policies toward the indigenous inhabitants: expulsion, extermination or assimilation. For the settler citizen who seeks an overview of this brutal process of Native dispossession without risk of unbearable laceration of conscience, Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: a Curious Account of Native People in North America is an excellent primer, lightly written, ironic, but without overt bitterness or anger.
Astonishingly, despite relentless harassment, chicanery, exploitation, ethnic cleansing and mass murder, the Indians of North America still remain, and still remain largely unassimilated, which leaves the question of their ultimate future still to be determined.
To the Indian, whether it be the largely assimilated and rationally dispassionate, Tom King, or the angry National Chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, the goal is native self-determination and sovereignty. And the means to sovereignty, according to Atleo, is the working out of treaties that promise the native people shared control of Canada’s vast resource wealth and extensive lands.
The problem for the Indians is that treaties mean little or nothing unless the contracting parties have the muscle to back up their rights. In such matters, might, though usually not right, is nevertheless decisive. And at present, the indigenous people of North America are no stronger relative to the settler states than in the past and thus are in no better position to regain their sovereignty than at any time since 1492.
Thus, treaties notwithstanding, the future of the indigenous people of North America will depend for the foreseeable future on the intentions of the settler states. Currently, Canada’s Indian policy is focused on the provision of routes to assimilation. In place of the discredited policy of forced residential schooling are now generous grants, scholarships and systems of positive discrimination to draw bright natives off the reserves and into the academic and professional worlds of the settler society. It is difficult to find objection to this policy except that it deprives the native communities of some of their most able and creative individuals who might contribute disproportionately the the welfare of their community of origin. However, not all Indians seeking education will abandon their tribal communities. Many are idealists intent on returning to the reserve as teachers and mentors who will bring hope, enlightenment and practical improvement to the lives of those who remain permanently at home.
A darker side to Canada’s native policy is manifest in the system of payments and subsidies to Native bands that make welfare a seemingly deeply destructive form of Indian assimilation, one that is resistant to change in part because it is rewarding to Native politicians who are able to line their pockets with taxpayer funds supposedly intended for social services on the reserve. For example, 50 Indian chiefs receive salaries greater than that of the Prime Minister of Canada, with one band councilor at a reserve in Atlantic Canada receiving a tax-free salary in 2008 of $978,468 (equivalent to about $1.8 million off reserve). This brings to mind the bantustans of apartheid South Africa, where native people were subject to the repressive discipline of native chiefs highly paid by, and thus presumably attentive to, the needs of the national government.
The future of Canada’s native nations will thus depend on where the interests of Canada and of the native people intersect, and whether the native leadership is capable of, or truly intent upon, the interests of the mass of their own people. In the case of the Innu, great progress toward a mutually beneficial arrangement seems to have been achieved by the 1995 Nunavut land claims agreement, negotiated by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, under the terms of which the Innu of the North West Territory formed the self-governing territory of Nunavut, within the Canadian confederation.
One might hope that such an agreement will one day provide Canada’s Indian first nations a similar degree of sovereignty. However, the challenge for the first nations is great, because they are, unlike the Innu, widely dispersed and highly differentiated among over 600 bands or nations. There is not the slightest possibility that Canada will agree to the creation of 600 independent, sovereign Indian nations, with populations ranging from a few dozen individuals to a few tens of thousands. To think otherwise is to make the ideal the enemy of the feasible. To achieve the greatest attainable measure of independence and self-government, Canada’s Indians must devise a democratic Indian federation that will, as a single entity, seek something like provincial status within the greater Canadian confederation.
Thus empowered, Canada’s first nations will be in a position, for the first time, to negotiate a full, fair and early settlement of all land claims, and to establish educational and other institutions to preserve Indian culture and adapt it to the modern world.