by Zainab Amadahy
First Nations people are the original inhabitants/caretakers of the land we refer to as Turtle Island, which includes all of North America. Our languages, cultures and very identity are intimately connected to/rooted in this land. To separate us from the land either ideologically or physically is an act of genocide. The very concepts of Canada, Mexico and the US (not to mention every so-called nation in the Americas) are premised on this genocide and the concurrent seizure of land and the resources within the land. The standard of living we enjoy in North America (some of us more than others) is founded on genocide, stolen land, stolen resources and stolen African and indigenous people who were enslaved (stolen labour). These original thefts were committed in the past but their legacy impacts us all in the present.
This does not mean that indigenous people don’t recognize other forms of oppression on which capitalism depends. We want and need to make alliances. But we need allies who recognize and take responsibility for their history as settlers on this land (albeit we do not generalize about the settler experience and settler power in Canadian society; we know that not all settlers enjoy the stolen wealth of this land equally.) We need allies who wrestle with the implications of being a settler on another’s land while they wrestle with the fact that settlers are not equally empowered due, in large part, to Canada’s historic and current role in displacing people globally.
Though the relationship between First Nations and European settlers has a longer history, we can only briefly review some of that here in an effort to demonstrate how the colonial past has shaped our colonial present.
The Indian Act
In 1876 Canada passed the Indian Act which imposed the band council system of government on the indigenous people of Turtle Island (North America). Among other things, this law:
• Deposed already existing leadership to establish band councils and the areas over which they had jurisdiction. The Indian Act was passed without consultation with any indigenous leader, usurped the treaty process (nation to nation agreements) and made First Nations (FN) governments null and void, despite the fact that these governments had served our ancestors for millennia before Europeans arrived on Turtle Island. This is akin to the US government passing a law that disbanded the current Canadian government, determined what type of government Canada must have and designated the limitations of its power.
• Made First Nations Communities economically dependent on Ottawa. The federal government controls the only sources of revenue for social programs, economic development projects or job creation in FN communities. Ottawa determines through a variety of legal and financing mechanisms what band councils can and cannot do for their communities. Even the process of pursuing a land claim is legislated by Ottawa, funded (or not) by Ottawa and decided ultimately in Canadian courts. Land usage on FN territories is determined by Ottawa. There are many examples in history when the federal government leased or sold First Nations lands or resources and consequently reaped huge profits that did not accrue to the community. Clearly, the poverty that exists in First Nations communities is, and always has been, by Ottawa’s design.
• Blatantly discriminated against women by recognizing Native descent through the male line so that First Nations citizenship rights for women were recognized only through their fathers’ lineage and husbands’ status, and by prohibiting them from voting or running for office in band elections. This was in complete contradiction to traditional First Nations practices, in which descent for many communities was reckoned along the female line, and where women had significant authorities in political, economic and social life. While there were many nations and many practices, it is safe to generalize and say that women held positions of leadership directly and/or appointed male leaders and held them accountable. This was completely overturned by the Indian Act.
Although women now have the right to vote and run for band office, almost a century of being excluded from political, economic and social decision-making has left First Nations women on and off reserve in very vulnerable situations. Women are among the poorest in First Nations communities. They have been targeted through various amendments to the Indian Act and thousands were stripped of their status along with their homes, benefits and any treaty rights they may have had. The hundreds of women who are missing from our communities, dead and murdered, is a direct result of a deliberate and calculated attack on the rights and authorities of First Nations women by the Canadian government.
• Determined who could call themselves an “Indian” and live in First Nations communities. The Indian Act established an Indian registry and with subsequent amendments there has emerged a complex set of legal categories (status and non-status Indians, Treaty Indians, Bill C-31 Indians, etc.) designed to divide and disempower First Nations families and communities. Non-status Indians are those who are not recognized by Ottawa as First Nations. They cannot live in their communities, do not enjoy benefits or treaty rights and are not permitted to participate in band council elections. Again, this is akin to the US determining who could be a Canadian and who could not, as well as who could live here and vote in Canadian elections.
Initially through the use of Indian agents with sweeping powers and more recently through purse strings, Ottawa has controlled band councils, band chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations. Whether this current control is perceived of as friendly or hostile is irrelevant and sidesteps the basic assumption that First Nations people are children who cannot manage their own affairs. To recognize that some band councils, their chiefs and police are sincerely interested in serving their communities while others are corrupt may be true but fails to recognize that the band council system is itself inherently corrupt, paternalistic and racist.
Establishment of Reserves in Canada
To provide more insight into some aspects of Canada’s colonial foundations, the following is excerpted from a presentation I made on the “Establishment of Reserves in Canada” (delivered on February 3, 2006 during Anti-Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto, organized by the Arab Students Collective and edited and updated on January 17, 2007)
It is important to address the establishment of reserves in the context of the overall genocide project on Turtle Island.
Today we estimate that about half of all status Indians in Canada live off reserve. So “status Indians” are people who are actually registered and recognized by the federal government as “Indians” under the Indian Act. When you include non status Indians, you see that the vast majority of indigenous peoples in Canada live off reserve and have been living off territory for some generations.
Despite the stereotype that Native people live on reserves or come from a reserve, the reserve experience is only one part of the North American indigenous experience and it’s a minority experience among indigenous peoples. Even so, it is still integral to understanding the larger picture of where we find ourselves today as indigenous people and it’s important to understanding the history and struggles of First Nations communities because they are of course linked to all of our other struggles as indigenous peoples.
By the way, the politically correct way of referring to reserves these days is First Nations communities, which is the term I’m going to be using from here on.
There are so many legal terms and categories of indigenous people in Canada its mind boggling. To name a few we have status, non status, treaty Indians, Bill C31 Indians, and many, many more.
The way one got registered initially under the Indian Act was to line up in front of the government-appointed Indian agent’s table whenever he came to your community and register with him. So if you were off hunting the day he was there or you were sick or injured or had just given birth or you were too elderly to make what might be a long trip or you didn’t give a shit about registering or whatever, and you didn’t make it to register, you and all of your descendants to this day are not “status Indians,” regardless of your ancestry or how long your ancestors have lived on Turtle Island.
This is important because it is only status Indians who were originally supposed to live in First Nations communities. There were mechanisms, through amendments to the Indian Act, by which indigenous people who had status – and the benefits that came with it – lost status over the years. (One must understand that the so-called benefits were – and are – only available to the extent the government lived up to the terms of its own legislation or negotiated treaties and provided benefits.) We can’t talk about that much because it’s not the topic. But the benefits on paper include health care, housing, education and so on. But these commitments weren’t kept in whole or in part – or the services were carried out in such a way that they did more harm than good – and today we still find attempts by the feds to extinguish these benefits completely.
The first thing I want to address is where reserves come from. They were made possible under legislation enacted in 1850 to set aside tracts of land reserved for indigenous communities. Thereafter, specific reserve territories were negotiated in treaties. So it’s important to understand that not all First Nations signed treaties with the government, particularly on the west coast or in the far north, which means that not all “status Indians” or First Nations bands recognized by the feds have reserves or territories that the settler government recognizes. Even though they may have lived on, cared for and held ceremonies on that land for millennia before European arrival it doesn’t give them legal right to it. That’s why we have, for example, disputes in BC where a corporation has the support of the police and the courts to bulldoze over people’s homes and sweat lodges so it can expand a ski resort.
In addition, there are examples of people whose leaders signed treaties that allocated land to the community but the community never moved onto those lands and thus their descendants fell from the band rolls and never had status. One example, which I learned about when I was helping someone with research for a publication, is a community of Algonquins in the Ottawa valley who were urged by one of their chiefs not to move off territories their ancestors had lived on for generations in favor of relocating onto Golden Lake Reserve. So to this day we have people who live on these territories, carry Algonquin names, still do the ceremonies, still hunt and fish, still care for the wild rice beds but do not have status and do not want status (as they have said in their interviews) and in recent years have issued their own Algonquin identity documents, hunting licenses, fishing licenses, selected their own leaders, established councils to address their community’s needs and so on. Sometimes local officials try to curtail their inherent rights by challenging them in court over the hunting and fishing licenses, or they’ve tried to sell off the wild rice beds to corporations or whatever, but to this day the non-status Algonquin have prevailed.
Back to reserves. So, treaties created reserves. And keep in mind that indigenous leaders who signed treaties did so under duress of one kind or another. In some cases, they signed treaties in return for protection from the Americans or because settler incursion on their lands had resulted in dwindling food supplies and they were facing starvation or whatever. Nevertheless, no indigenous leader ever surrendered their nation’s sovereignty; never gave up their right to self government. Treaties were nation to nation agreements.
Then the Indian Act came along in 1876, which usurped the treaty negotiation processes and made the assumption that the settler government had an inherent right to make laws and govern people who already had fully functioning governments of their own. And those governments, by the way, were far more democratic than anything the Euro-Canadians insisted they adopt.
While the traditional governments of the many hundreds of indigenous nations differed from each other in various ways, we can still generalize about some things. For example, we never voted but had consensus decision making processes that involved everyone in the community. Decision making and leadership didn’t exclude women. In fact, we didn’t even exclude children from decision-making.
Basically it’s the Indian Act that to this day governs every aspect of life on reserves and has certainly impacted as well on off reserve indigenous people. The Indian Act decided who was an “Indian” and who wasn’t – who could live in First Nations communities. It laid the basis for the residential school system, it completely undermined indigenous systems of governance and imposed a band council system which was modeled on the parliamentary system, it blatantly discriminated against women by denying them the right to vote or run for band council office, and, because it is still an active law, affects us in many, many other ways.
The Indian Act completely contradicted and undermined the authorities that indigenous women had in their communities prior to European arrival. While, as I mentioned, practices varied across Turtle Island, we can generalize and say that women had significant political roles and responsibilities: in some cases they directly assumed positions of leadership, in other cases they appointed and held leadership accountable. In some cases it was a bit of both of these. But whatever the system, women held significant authorities in government as well as economic, family and community life. This was completely overturned by the Indian act.
Recent scholars like Kim Anderson and Bonita Lawrence have demonstrated that this wasn’t just the result of patriarchal attitudes that coincidentally undermined women’s authorities, but that these measures were deliberate, premeditated strategies to disempower indigenous women in order to satisfy the objectives firstly, of causing such disruption to indigenous social organizations that settlers could more easily access the land and the resources within and secondly, satisfied the objective of assimilating indigenous peoples – i.e. cultural genocide. So women were very specifically and deliberately targeted in legislation and other repressive measures.
Under the Indian Act, the settler government assumed what are called “fiduciary responsibilities” for Indigenous peoples. They could hold land “in trust” for indigenous people and were supposed to make decisions regarding the resources of First Nations communities that were in the best interest of those communities. So we were looked on as children who were incapable of managing our own financial affairs. But of course, we have numerous examples of First Nations lands being sold and leased and so on where the extraordinary profits that resulted did not accrue to the First Nations communities at all but lined the pockets of settlers.
For example, the Whitefish Lake band just recently received $37 million in compensation for a deal in 1886 where the band was paid only $399 for their timber rights and a year later the feds sold those rights for $43,000, a huge profit that never accrued to the community. That’s a somewhat happy ending but there are many bands still awaiting some form of justice in Canadian courts or haven’t gotten to Canadian courts.
The feds even today control how First Nations lands are developed, which is the main reason why unemployment rates in First Nations communities is and always has been high. Today unemployment rates are between 50 and 80 percent (Assembly of First Nations’ website: hyyp://www.afn.ca/). There are few jobs, many seasonal, because there is no commercial or industrial activity unless the feds make it possible and when they do make it possible there are often conditions or situations that result in jobs going to people outside the community, to non-Natives. There’s a lot of disparity among reserves but, by and large, we’re certainly not talking about wealthy communities. So the impoverishment of those communities was created and is maintained by design (as is most poverty).
Early on, life on reserves was very much characterized by the arbitrary abuses of power of Indian agents. Indian agents were appointed by the feds, assigned to each First Nations community and given extraordinary powers to enforce the Indian Act and control every aspect of life. The Indian Agent:
• Could depose traditional leaders and replace them with band council chiefs.
• Was not elected but could overturn elected band council decisions and remove elected chiefs from office.
• Could withhold food rations or use them to coerce people to sign documents or whatever else was wanted. In fact they could force or coerce the signing of land treaties and other agreements with impunity.
• Were the arresting officer, prosecutor and judge in the community.
• Had the power to determine who qualified as a Status Indian. As I mentioned, they did the original count for the Indian registry that was basically a complete farce. They also interpreted the amendments to the Indian Act that further defined status, which I’ll speak to later.
• Upon the death of a band member, the Indian Agent dispersed property and valuables (that often ended up in their own pockets).
• Had the power to determine who could live on reserve and who could visit. So when a woman lost status due to the discriminatory aspects of the Indian Act, the Indian Agent could evict her and deny her the right to return to live or even visit her family and friends. An amendment addressing trespassing allowed for the Indian Agent to arrest anybody visiting a reserve after dark.
• Anyone who wanted to work for wages off reserve had to obtain the permission of the Indian Agent who, if he approved, would issue a pass stating where one could go and for how long.
• Was complicit in coercing or forcing parents to send their children to residential schools. And they weren’t above kidnapping children and handing them over to school officials. (Residential schools, contracted out by the feds to the churches, were places where children as young as four were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse; where they were forced to work in fields, shops and laundries; where some children, because of the treatment they received, ended up dead.) The last federally run school closed in 1988, so we’re not talking about ancient history here.
• Made decisions concerning the use of reserve lands. For example, he could decide to lease lands out to pulp and paper mills or mining companies. In Kahnawake in 1954, the Indian agent, without consultation, ceded a huge tract of territory for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
In the passage below, Dan Ennis of the Tobique First Nation gives a first hand account of life under the Indian Agent’s authority (from Sharing our Wabanaki Perspective by Dan Ennis, http://www.unb.edu/web/bruns/0001/issue5/oped/wabanaki.html).
“In 1940, when I was a child, I experienced the poison of the racist mindset firsthand. It was a traumatic experience for a boy of three or four to watch as my dad was taken away from our small family to jail because he tried to keep his family warm. It was cold and we needed wood for heat so my dad went out to the woods to cut firewood for his family. He did it without asking permission from the Indian agent because the Indian agent was away on vacation. As it was winter, my father could not wait to ask for permission. He knew he had to take care of his family and that wouldn’t wait for the return of the Indian agent. My dad did what had to be done.
“When the Indian agent returned from vacation, he was immediately informed about my dad’s wood cutting. My father was summoned to the Indian agent’s office where he confirmed that he had, in fact, cut the wood for his family. The Indian agent tried him and found him guilty of an offence and imposed a sentence of five days in jail to teach him a lesson. Within the span of just a few minutes from leaving his home, my father was in jail for cutting wood to keep his family warm.
“In those days, the white Indian agent was god on the reserve. He was accountable to absolutely no one and certainly not in any way to the Indian people. The irony of this particular situation is that the wood cut by my father at that time was located on Indian reserve land and there was no such legislation to charge my father with this offense. It was simply the white Indian agent’s way of asserting his power, control and authority over my father and our people. My dad had to be made an example to ensure no other Indians would get similar ideas about doing anything without the agent’s permission.”
So that gives us some taste of the kind of corruption that was enshrined in the government and justice systems imposed on First Nations communities. It really makes me laugh bitterly when I hear of Canadian officials these days charging First Nations bands or band members with being corrupt. The system itself is corrupt and settler authorities and Christian clergy over the years have hardly ever been role models of integrity and honesty.
Through various amendments to the Indian Act, we also saw over time an erosion in the total amount of territory allocated to First Nations communities. In some cases, reserves were dissolved or relocated to allow for the expansion of towns and municipalities, like Edmonton, for example. A 1911 amendment allowed portions of reserves to be seized by municipalities for roads, railways or other public purposes. A couple of amendments prohibited First Nations from contesting in court decisions where all or parts of their territories were taken. The law for a crucial time very blatantly prohibited Indian people from hiring lawyers, filing court papers and even raising money with the intent of contesting a land claim. In 1936 the Department of Indian Affairs was transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Mines and Resources, which made it even clearer what the settler government was really concerned about.
As reserve territories were being stolen, exploited or encroached on by settlers there were also Indian Act amendments that were designed to strip people of their status (particularly women) and force them off reserves. The rationale for this was, as I mentioned, assimilation – or cultural genocide – another form of genocide.
So women who married non-status men, whether they were white or not, lost their status, benefits and treaty rights and had to leave their communities and families. It was a completely discriminatory process, not in the least because, when men did the same thing, they were allowed to keep their status and, in fact, status would be granted to their white or non-status wives and even step children that pre-existed the marriage. So you had white settlers with status cards and the right to live in First Nations communities while there were full blooded indigenous women who couldn’t set foot on their territories. This was in complete contradiction to matrilineal indigenous practices where the mother’s nationality and clan membership determined the child’s.
Some men and their families as well lost status and the right to live in First Nations communities when they enlisted in the military or in some cases when they enrolled in secondary educational institutions or, until 1960, when they wanted to vote in federal elections. Sometimes whole communities were declared non status so that their land could be taken, and that affected everyone. Blood quantum became an issue at various times and enabled the eviction of people from reserves because they were deemed to not have enough Indian blood (From “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood by Bonita Lawrence. University of Nebraska Press. 2004). In 1951 an Indian Act amendment made provincial law applicable in First Nations communities to cover gaps in federal legislation and this paved the way for what we now call the “60s scoop” because it gave provincial child welfare agencies the power to seize hundreds of First Nations children and place them in non-indigenous foster homes, again furthering the genocide project.
There are many stories of the experiences of what happened to people after they were stripped of their status. The traumatic implications of having to leave your home and family for often urban settings where you may not have spoken the language, where there was no community, family, financial or emotional support of any kind are huge. Increasingly non-status communities have been organizing. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of time to discuss that now but Bonita Lawrence’s book, Real Indians and Others, speaks to the history of non-status, mixed race indigenous communities and some of the struggles people have faced over the generations.
According to some analyses, amendments to the Indian Act since 1951 are considered friendlier to indigenous peoples because they were made in consultation with indigenous organizations or were made in response indigenous activists who lobbied for the changes. Bill C31, another amendment to the Indian Act passed in 1985, falls into this category of being a “friendly amendment.” C31 addressed the concerns of women who had lost their status, housing, benefits and access to their communities through marrying non-status men. C31 allowed them to apply for status and something like 120,000 women have had their status reinstated. What is often not mentioned however is that 107,000 women did not have their status reinstated after applying. The federal government of course determined all the criteria and conditions regarding who could have their status reinstated.
The C31 amendment has been criticized about, among other things, the “second generation cut-off,” which prohibits reinstated women from passing status on to their children. So it doesn’t address the genocide issue at all. Basically if we accept the definitions of status offered by the Indian Act, it’s been predicted that First Nations people will cease to exist in a few generations. Not because the actual people have ceased to exist but because the legally defined category of “Indians” (i.e., First Nations people) won’t exist and everybody will be unregistered, non status and assimilated. We’ll all be Canadians with no land rights and no recognition of our inherent rights as Aboriginal peoples generally.
Of course sovereigntists question the right of the Canadian parliament now or at any other time in history to make laws that govern our nations, including laws that define who is and is not a member of our nations, where our territorial boundaries lie and so on.
So, that’s a very brief synopsis of how reserves were established and it should give the reader insight into the history of some of the struggles being waged today by First Nations people on Turtle Island. It should also help people question the myth commonly referred to as the “Canadian history.” The simple truth is that the land and resources of First Nations people have been subsidizing the Canadian economy for generations. The basis of the wealth and standard of living that we enjoy on Turtle Island is premised on the theft of land and resources from the First Peoples, a process that continues to this day.
While First Nations children were being abused in residential schools and foster care, the colonizers were reaping huge profits exploiting the resources of First Nations territories. While First Nations people were being jailed for hunting and fishing without a license or for working off their reserves without a pass from the Indian agent, the settlers passed laws that said, for example, that “Indians” could not sell their produce in Toronto’s St. Lawrence market (because white farmers didn’t want the competition).
Nevertheless our communities across Turtle Island continue to struggle with great courage for their very survival as well as the inherent rights of future generations. While most media like to focus on dramatic events like the Oka Crisis, the murder of activist Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park or the current Six Nations land reclamation (all important struggles), anti-genocidal activities are practiced in all communities and include things as basic as cultural and language programs.
In this struggle, our Elders, cultural leaders and warriors talk about a paradigm shift that recognizes our relationship to the land on which we depend for life; recognizes our roles and responsibilities to each other in a community that includes other species besides human beings as well as those yet to be born. They speak of spiritual development, dignity and peace. In their wisdom we find a system of values that challenges political, economic and social institutions of Canada. In the wisdom of Elders we find encouragement to share, trade, learn, grow and create something new and wondrous.
Zainab Amadahy is a writer, activist, community worker and an active member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Her achievements include contributing to the anthology, Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, co-edited by Bonita Lawrence and Kim Anderson (2004, Sumach Press) as well as authoring Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press). Zainab is a founding member of the Coalition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty, is a Board member of the Association of Native Development in the Performing & Visual arts and is the Executive Director of Community Arts Ontario.