Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Canadian Problem: Restructing the Relationship Between the Indigenous People and Non-Indigenous People of Canada

First Published in 1997 (by pj)

1997 - Fifteen years ago a Commission of Inquiry into Aboriginal Rights and the Constitution of Canada was established by the Ontario Metis and Non-Status Indian Association and a newly appointed Provincial Secretary for Resource Development, Mr. R.H. Ramsay, pledged his support at the Grand Assembly held that March. In 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples published their report, but still, after all this time, while the courts continue to grapple with the interpretive difficulties of the treaties, children are being born into sub-standard living conditions, and valuable resources are increasingly exploited. As Langara College students loudly protest inhumane conditions in third world countries, Canada’s Indigenous people are still fighting against discriminatory practices that exclude them from enjoying a fair share of the wealth of this country.

The following report is a cursory look at how the policies of representatives of the Canadian government have contributed to what is perceived as the “Indian Problem”. The writer of this report will also attempt to come to some understanding of why some Canadians perceive First Nations people as “a problem”.

The question is, in what ways has the Federal Government’s policies for the First Nations People in Canada contributed to racism against Aboriginal people. The hypothesis of this report is that racism is at the heart of the Land Claims Issues, and is a diversionary tactic used to prevent the revitalization of treaties and land claims.

What is the “Indian problem”, and how did it come to be? Frideres, in Canada’s Indians: Contemporary Conflicts says: “The situation is usually defined as an Indian problem and, generally is couched in an individualistic framework. Solutions offered are based on this perspective. In my view, it can be a white problem” (1974, p.xvii).

The way in which the “Indian problem” started out was in “the problem of controlling Indians” (Frideres, 1974, p.4), and even though “the French were attempting to ‘exploit’ the land and continue the ‘pseudo-colonization’ of North America” (p.5), they did not intend to settle in Canada. “The initial relationship of the French to the Indians can best be described as one of total dependency, but this soon changed to a ‘symbiotic’ one” (Frideres, p5), when war broke out between the English and the French. What has started out as a system of bartering (maintaining a favourable balance of trade was important to France), eventually evolved into one of dominance and exploitation. In fact,

“In general, the policy toward native people by the
dominant groups has been two-sided. It publicly proclaimed
‘respect for native people’s rights’, while privately denying them any rights, such as to vote and choose their ‘reserve’.
(1974, p.5); as cited in Anderson and Wright, 1971; and Washburn,

Claims to land is at the heart of the so-called “Indian problem”. Certainly the way in which they have been handled in the past, and continue to be handled, can only be seen as racist. The attitude toward the Indigenous people (of North America as a whole and Canada in particular) has deeply ingrained historical origins, as reflected in the following quote by Frideres. He writes: “…when Indians[sic] attacked a white village or fort and won, it was called a massacre, while if whites[sic] attacked an Indian village and won, it was described as a victory” (1974, xv). It is important to elaborate by expanding this quote:

“In the past, empowered groups have been able to define
history and provide an explanation of the present. A good
example is the portrayal of wars between Indians[sic] by
Canadian historians. Part of this bias in the recording of
events is because Western civilization is based upon an
‘enemy concept’…Since the dominant group is able to make
these interpretations and definitions, they are also able to keep
others from initiating alternative explanations and definitions.
(Frideres, 1974, xv)

The understanding of how deeply rooted this “white” concept of aboriginal people is in the Canadian psyche is important because this bias has caused the perpetuation of the notion of all the negative attributes that aboriginal people have had to endure. In addition, in the preface of his book Canada’s Indians: Contemporary Conflicts, Frideres writes:

“To feel that they are self-sufficient is a healthy attitude, but
to reject out of hand any help by any outside group is foolish
and will result in continued subjugation…Indians[sic] are not
in a position to reject all outside help”.
(1974, xii)

Now, while this researcher feels that Frideres is well intentioned, indeed he states in his introduction that “The economic and social status of the Canadian Indian[sic] is one of abject poverty” (1974,xiii), he adds that the assistance that has been provided to them by the “empowered groups has (1) an explicit “warship” orientation, and (2) has been so minimal that it has been completely negligible, and that “both factors have been based on a single ideology – racism” (Frideres, 1974, p.xiii). But having said this, he still maintains that Canada’s Indigenous people are not in a position to reject outside help. Frideres, even in his attempt to do the “right thing”, still has the remnants of chauvinism. But, all this aside, obviously his words have gone unheeded. It is ironic to read now, with the knowledge of the burgeoning numbers of homeless people, and long line-ups at half-empty Food Banks, what he wrote so long ago. This is what he says: “People in Canada should not be allowed to go hungry, or be uneducated. We are a nation of plenty – but only those who support the empowered groups will benefit in the harvest” (1974, xv).

Again his intentions are good, but unfortunately his perception is skewed. He claims that his aim is to give the student a new perspective, and that rather than viewing the problem as an Indian[sic] problem, perhaps it should be viewed as a white problem. As previously quoted in this report he writes: “The situation is usually defined as an Indian[sic] problem...In my view it can be a white problem (although that does not exclude Indians[sic] from some “house cleaning”). To view Indian-white relations from an individualistic perspective will not provide solutions, for example, to integrating Native people into the larger society” (Frideres, 1974, xvii).

I cannot begin to imagine why Frideres thinks the "indians" are responsible for this “house cleaning” [or in fact, in 1974 - the time of Frideres book, how they were capable of so doing!]

It seems presumptuous to assume that all Indigenous people want to be, or even need to be, integrated into the larger society. In fact, in a report on the impact of residential schools on Native people as a whole, Hodgson relates a story from the Maoris in New Zealand. It tells about a shark and a mackerel and assimilation. The story is about the shark who was swimming through the new ocean he had discovered, and he meets dinner, the mackerel, and

“Just before he was going to swallow the mackerel, the shark said,
‘Let’s assimilate!’ Now whose perception do we look at? Do we look
at it from the shark’s or the mackerel’s perception? Of course the
shark thinks he is doing the mackerel a favour because he will provide
him with a nice warm stomach to swim around in and certainly things will
be better for him in there. From the mackerel’s perception he will think
if it is at all possible I do not want to end up as part of that shark, I am a
mackerel and free…I intend on remaining free."
(Hodgson, 1991, p.2)

The point of relating this story is that integration has not only failed, in its failure it has damaged a major portion of the Canadian population. Integration has failed because it was foisted upon the aboriginal people, and when addressing the issue of integration, Hodgson says:

“It’s our choice. Some native people make the same choice when
They choose to see the treaties and the residential schools as good
experiences and empowering ones. Or do we look at those policies
from the perception of the people who experienced abuse in residential
(1991, p.2)

The residential schools were clearly an attempt to assimilate Native people into the larger society for one reason only, and that was to lay claim to the land and its resources. Yet there is more than one way to look at these issues. Freedom and choice are things that most Canadians not only take for granted, but that we demand and are entitled to. Yet freedom and choice do not seem to be ideals that have been extended to Canada’s Indigenous people. No one would disagree with Frideres when he says as previously quoted on page 4 of this report that people in Canada should not be allowed to go hungry, or be uneducated, yet statistics show that Native people have been conspicuously neglected in this area.

The data from Statistics Canada (1961) illustrates that fewer than one percent of Aboriginal children attended university at that time and that “nearly 90 percent of natives have not matriculated” (Frideres, 1974, p.42). Although in “1970, 432 students were enrolled at university…chances of finishing university are still quite small” (p.47) because discrimination, along with language differences, put Native people at a disadvantage to white students (p.47). Native people have generally been portrayed negatively in school text books, and “a recent study on grades 1-8 social studies texts revealed that native people were generally portrayed (if even acknowledged) as savages, evil or non-entities” (Vander-Burgh, 1968). This has a serious impact on the Indians’[sic] personal development” (p.47).


In addition, people who do not want to see a change in the status quo intentionally put forward the argument that the way in which aboriginal people say they view land ownership and land use is false.

Brian Crowley, President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based economic and social policy think tank, maintains that property rights are not an “alien imposition”, as “na├»ve” supporters of Native rights would have us believe, but that the notion of communal resources is greatly romanticized (1995, pp.58-59). A major point that Crowley overlooks is the distinction between land ownership and land use, as well as property. Land ownership is different from land use, just as property is different from land. Land refers to real estate whereas property refers to movable objects. The distinctions are important. The remainder of this report will touch briefly on some of them.

Crowley puts forward many arguments that attempt to justify why Native land claims should not be taken seriously. Here is a sample of one of them:

“The notion of theft, for example, is inextricably tied to
the notion of property: one cannot steal something that
is not owned…The maker of a birch canoe or buckskin
jacket would have fought to prevent someone’s arbitrarily
appropriating it without his consent…One owns one’s labour
because one owns one’s body and having property in these,
one has property in those things to which one turns one’s
hands. “
(1995, p.62)

Ironically, Crowley’s argument works in favour of Indigenous people because on the basis “that one owns that to which one turns one’s hand”, one would have to agree that native people own all the land and all the rivers because those are areas where they have indeed “turned their hands” (p.62). In fact, there is a very strong precedent to support this claim, as Schwindt states: “In the past, Indians[sic] depended heavily on the salmon resource and that dependence was recognized by early policymakers, who guaranteed continued Indian access to the fish” (1995, p.99). And, as far as the idea of theft is concerned, on the basis of Crowley’s argument Aboriginal people can claim that the land was stolen from them, in that “white” settlers robbed them of their ability to use the land. This is where it is important to understand the distinction between land ownership and land use.

Crowley goes into a lengthy explanation of various aspects of traditional Aboriginal cultural values, yet the tone in which he expresses his opinion is unmistakable ethnocentric. Unfortunately for his argument he gives a brief and incomplete description of “West Coast Indian potlatch ceremony”. First of all, it would not be referred to as a “potlatch ceremony”, but simply a potlatch. Secondly, he quotes Campbell (1988, 1910), (1995, p.63), who most certainly would be observing this gathering from a European’s (and possibly Imperialistic) point of view, without benefit of knowledge of the overall significance of such an important function. {see Footnote}

Crowley is way off track when he says “the historical, cultural, and especially economic difference between aboriginals and non-aboriginals on the question of property are much exaggerated” (1995, p.59).

Most Canadians will need to undergo a re-adjustment in attitude in regard to the way in which Indigenous people are perceived, and were traditionally perceived. For instance Aboriginal fishermen

“…were using fish traps, weirs, night lights and spears long
before the arrival of Europeans on this continent. If the
primary goal is to obtain food with the least amount of effort,
then these are all sensible practices…though they remain
offensive to recreational anglers for whom the thrill of the
catch is part of the sport. There have been various attempts
to reconcile these views…cultural differences are coupled with
another difficulty: the long-standing ethos in resource manage-
ment that perpetuates distinctions between users and managers.
These distinctions become particularly problematic when the
users are Aboriginal and the managers predominantly non-
(RCAP,1996, P.651)

People fishing for sport will have to realize that their pleasure is secondary to the cultural needs of the Indigenous people of Canada.

When Crowley states that differences between Aboriginal people and non-aboriginal are “much exaggerated” he is wrong. In October 1992, Josephine Sandy of the Ojibwa Tribal Family Services in Kenora wrote:

“Our people have always understood that we must be able to
continue to live our lives in accordance with our culture and
spirituality. Our elders have taught us that this spirit and
intent of our treaty relationships must last as long as the rivers
flow and the sun shines. We must wait however long it takes
for non-Aboriginal people to understand and respect our way
of life. This will be
the respect that the treaty relationship
between us calls for.” (RCAP, 1996.p.36)

It is this very spirit and demonstration of goodwill that Crowley, and others like him, need to understand. All Canadians, Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people alike, must agree that the renewal process is imperative because when the original treaties were drawn up they were done when Native people did not generally have legal representation (RCAP, 1996, P.51). However, keep in mind that

“Making a treaty does not require the parties to set aside all
their political and legal differences, much less to adopt each
other’s world view. A treaty is a mutual recognition of a common
set of interests by nations that regard themselves as separate
in some fundamental way. Treaty relationships will evolve
organically, but there must be no expectation that one world
view will disappear in the process.”
(RCAP, 1996, P.54)

As previously stated, in a country as rich as Canada, no one needs to go hungry or live without adequate shelter, yet is it obvious that this is the case for large numbers of Canada’s Indigenous people because, as far as land and resources are concerned,

“In short, there is no certainty for Aboriginal people in the
current relationship. They are forced to rely on the grace
and favour of government and industry for development
benefits, and governments can create new third-party
interests both before and during negotiations. This is a
fundamental weakness of their submissions to the
(RCAP, 1996, p.683)

But perhaps before any restructuring can take place we need to come to a better understanding of just what the problem is. Richards (1995) makes an interesting distinction between contemporary racism and past racism, and states: “past decisions of governments and past attitudes among non-aboriginals have bequeathed a serious legacy of bitterness among many aboriginals toward ‘white’ society. If not racism, what does explain the severity of aboriginal social problems?” (Richards, 1995 p.153).

I agree with Richards, who writes: “At some point, the arguments of those worried about the extent to which aboriginals receive income via transfers, as opposed to employment, become valid” (p.160). He believes that transfer programs have become part of the explanation, not the solution for “aboriginal poverty”. He further notes that

“Whether they be aboriginals or not, the psychological effect
on people from long-term dependence on transfer income is
damaging…Among men, particularly, long-term welfare induces
a loss of self-respect, increased rates of depression, and a
tendency toward self-destructive activities (such as substance
abuse and family violence)”.
(1995, p.161)

He also says that “restoring aboriginal in-river fishing rights could both generate traditional native employment and improve the efficiency of the fishery” (p.154). So why has this not been done?

It is my opinion that honouring the treaties is fundamental when it comes to demonstrating that the Canadian government is not discriminating against the Indigenous people of Canada. Unfortunately, to bring about justice and equality there will have to be losses on one side to bring about gains on the other (but the gains will far outweigh the losses), and if the Canadian people can exercise as much goodwill and integrity as people like Josephine Sandy, then perhaps we will see a peaceful conclusion to these issues.

*Benedict, R.(1959). The Northwest coast of America. In Patterns of Culture (pp.173-277).Boston, MASS: Houghton Mifflin Company
*CANADA. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. RCAP (1996) Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Vols.2, Part One, pp.10-104, and Part Two, pp.422-719). Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.
*Crowley, B.L. (1995). Property, culture, and Aboriginal self-government. In Market Solutions for Native poverty (pp. 58-97. Toronto, ON: C.D.Howe Institute
*Frideres, J.S. (1974).(pp.xii-58). In Canada’s Indians: Contemporary conflicts.
Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall of Canada Ltd.
*Hodgson, M. (1991). Impact of Residential Schools and Other Root Causes of Poor Mental Health. (Special Report). Edmonton, AL: Nechi Institute On Alcohol and Drug Education.
*Richards,J. (1995). A comment. In Drost, H., Crowley, B.L., & Schwindt’s, R. Market solutions for Native poverty (pp.153-165). Toronto, ON: C.D. Howe Institute.

Footnote: There are many reasons for a chief to have a potlatch (not simply to display his wealth as suggested by Crowley). Marriage, the birth of a first child, coming-of-age of a child, or “an inter-tribal challenge to a rival chief” (Benedict, 1959, p.185) were some good reasons for a potlatch. The significance of the destruction of property is grossly misunderstood by some “whites”. As Benedict points out “these actions were necessary ‘cultural checks’ upon too despotic an interpretation of a chief’s role. He was not free to destroy property to the utter impoverishment of his people or to engage in contests which were ruinous to them” (p.195). Potlatches were not only important to the cultural life of Indigenous people but were an integral feature in the redistribution of wealth.

The Medicine Wheel, "Uniting Human Spirituality"Artwork by Ti:lelem Spath, printed with his permission and gifted to all who attended a series of anti-racism workshops. "Blue symbolizes the sky and waters of our planet, green the forests. Red, yellow, white and black represent the four races"


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Wow! What a super post you have. You did did something special in 1997.

dragonflyfilly said...

Thanks, mon Kapitano,; yep, it was actually a huge leap of faith; to actually write down what I was thinking and feeling!- I was given this topic "The Indian Problem" as a class assignment and while I did a huge amount of research, i wrote mostly from my heart - and somewhat limited experience (then) with First Nations individuals - I subsequently sent copies to the Chief of Six Nations, and also to the Director of the Nichi Institute. Unfortunately I was restricted by the number of words that we were allowed, otherwise I would have gone into a lot more depth.

Land Claims, as you know, are a very controversial topic here, but I was thinking yesterday, we, like the Americans, really need to do our own "housecleaning" ; we should make sure our own house is in order before we start trying to fix other countries.

At the time of that research report I was surprised to learn that there were still reserves (one in particular, Brandon, Manitoba) where people were living without hot/cold running water!

Meow (aka Connie) said...

Wow, great post ... very interesting read ... thank you.

Hope you are well, and keeping out of mischief.

Take care, hugs, Meow

dragonflyfilly said...

hi meow, thanks for stopping by...well, I am TRYING to stay out of mischief, but it is not much fun.

glad you appreciated the post, kind of old news, but relevant as we continue to stuggle with diversity here in Canada.

hugs back atcha!
cheers for now,

alan said...

It's not that I haven't been here, it's that I fee guilty for not having made it all the way through this yet!

I used to get to listen to "As It Happens" on one of my local NPR stations and was always amazed by the stories and the things I learned about Canada. I miss it!


dragonflyfilly said...

hhey hey hey, aLAN! haven't i taught you ANYTHING, we don't, i repeat, don't "do guilt"....

alan said...

It's always been one of the few things I did really well, and it's really hard to turn loose of!

I keep trying to slay the dragon, though!


Mr. Death said...

Really powerful...I did something similair to this last year about Aboriginal Fisheries, which eventually led to the barriers we all have.
Nice to hear from you again...abscence has been long, on my part...


dragonflyfilly said...

hi alan,
yep, that is all we can do eh, is keep trying.... keep up the good fight...

hey there mr. death....long time no see...nice to know you are still in the land of the living... i shall pop over to your blog soon to say hi.

cheers all,

heiresschild said...


dragonflyfilly said...

thanks Sylvia,
i am on vancouver island right now, at the library

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Dragonflyfilly, the snapshot is really easy. Just pick a picture off your computer and put it in User Profile.

dragonflyfilly said...

ops, i think you misunderstand me, i know how to do "user profile", but i was talking about that thing you have on your blog...i will have to try to describe it to you.