This is part two of a guest post series providing historical context to the Idle No More campaign written by Tony Kaye. Tony completed his Master of Arts in history at the University of Saskatchewan. His thesis focused on British colonialism in northern Ghana, and he also studied Treaty History in Canada. His ancestral background is a mixture of Métis, Chinese, and European.
Let’s focus on how the relationship between settlers and natives in Canada led to the grievances propelling the Idle No More movement we introduced in part 1.
Canada is a nation whose first political architects were the victors in an international competition for dominance on the continent. By the way, the word dominance is important for colonialism and imperialism: it underlines the struggle for control between colonizer and the colonized. The British won the contest among other European nations for control over the continent after the Seven Years War in the late 1700s. Soon after, the British did what they did in all their colonies abroad: they signed as many treaties with natives as they could.
The tactics of treaty making with chiefs in North America and West Africa didn’t differ much from their purposes in Europe: to maximizing the self-interest of mainly the British. In Canada, that meant legally acquiring the right to use land by removing or extinguishing land title from the previous owners. Good luck, right? Sounds difficult. Fortunately for the Canadians, native communities entered into treaties amid complex and dire motivations. More about that later.
The Crown agents signed dozens of treaties between the English Crown and native chiefs from the along the St. Lawrence River to the Rocky Mountains. By around 1812, European migrants spilled into the prairies en masse to populate a nation from “sea to shining sea” after Confederation in 1867.
As the century clock ticked from 19 to 20, natives became legal wards of the Canadian state to reflect the “everlasting care and benevolence” of the Queen of England, as the treaty documents say. According to Canadian law, this meant loosing personal and collective identities and becoming just Aboriginals: Indians, Natives, Eskimos, Half-Breeds, and First Nations. They were relocated to live on comparatively tiny pieces of land (or no land, if you were Métis), were sterilized by the hundreds in Alberta, and up to 150,000 nation-wide were forcibly separated from their parents in joint religious-state controlled residential Indian Schools. These were some of the official assimilationist projects that brought natives into the twentieth century, arguably part of a cultural genocide whose residential school policy only ended some fifteen or twenty years ago.
The nineteenth century Crown Commissioners of the Numbered Treaties and their precedents in early decades around the St. Lawrence required that chiefs and their people would no longer ‘own the land’. The colonizers wanted to use treaties as legal stepping-stones towards building a new home overseas. European leaders would see the treaties as proof that the Queen of England really did own (more) land overseas, like she did in Africa, the Caribbean, and India. Thing was, the natives and their chiefs in North America didn’t really understand what the Queen’s men meant by “owning the land”: people don’t own land. They could only borrow it from their children.
At the time, most of the chiefs agreed to the treaties to survive the many existential threats of nineteenth century post-contact. These included the diminishment of bison, the onslaught of European diseases, the many ongoing wars with other natives, and the “long knives” of the American Blue Coat Cavalry. The Treaty Commissioners kept assuring the chiefs that the Queen of England would care for their every need for “as long as the sun shall rise”, if only the tribes would surrender themselves and their land into her loving arms.
Hell, maybe this won’t be such a bad thing, some natives thought. If these Whites could survive all the way across the abyss on man-made whales, with just the love of their Queen in their hearts, then surely their Queen and her servants would make good on all their promises. Right?
Now, as I said earlier, not long after these agreements, the colonizer settled the prairies in a comprehensive, map every inch of the land and water kind of way. Natives watched as an alien and more powerful society forever changed the course of life around them. Instead of living with nature, the colonizer did everything they could to force nature and people into their plans to build railroads, factories, highways, and cities. And the colonizer made sure that access to land was always in the new Modern way, and not in the old Savage way.
Natives surely questioned what their place could be in this new way of life, and I wonder if for the first time ever, did some people feel lost and distant from each other in ways they never had before? Let’s look at this in Part 3 to come.