Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

White eyes on native history

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The history between First Nations people and the European populations that moved in and settled across Canada is pretty raw. At least it was for the aboriginal people who were pushed aside on a very uneven playing field to meet the wants of the growing and powerful white communities.

In some corners it's viewed as one big injustice for its first people. But I suspect the newcomers of a hundred years ago didn't quite see it that way.


Guilt-free-with-no-apologies is the slant on the dealing with and handling of the aboriginal population in a hand-me-down, century-old encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, a set of which sat displayed in my parents' dining room for years.

Written for a younger Canadian audience, the volumes are bound in heavy black covers with gold embossing. The pages are whiter than white with matching gold edges and an introduction written by a then-principal of McGill University.

While some of the writing comes off as almost romantic, a lot is pretty blunt and unlikely to find its way into today's mainstream texts.

An early 1900s student studying "The Indians in Canada" would have learned that the "first attempts to civilize Indians were not kindly received." They would have read of the Jesuits and their attempts to Christianize the aboriginal population and further of those Jesuits being tortured and put to death by the very people they were bent on helping.

But those same readers would also find that "good" prevailed with reports of conversion and that "most of the formerly pagan Indians have joined one or the other of the Christian denominations."

It is noted that most of the turn-of the-century Indians lived on reservations gifted to them by the Canadian government and, although Indians were allowed to roam and hunt at will, there were blocks of land set aside to cultivate that gave them an option to "follow a civilized mode of life."

There's talk about the helping nature of Indian agents, but nothing about swindlers.

The impressionable pre-First World War reader found "the Indians in Canada today are a quiet and peaceable, law-abiding people. Like most ignorant races, however, they are easily stirred up, and they sometimes talk unreasonably about their rights and privileges, and about the freedom they have lost."

The road to conformity was reportedly rocky for the Canadian Indian, with many difficulties arising from an undisciplined and erratic work ethic. And to their peril, it was written that, "(Indians) naturally despise rules and dislike hard or continuous physical effort."

Advancement, however, "under the forces of civilization" could not be stopped and that advancement continued in 1912 with the shipping of over 11,000 Indian children to industrial (read residential) schools that reportedly resulted in progress and opportunity.

Dependent on locality, opportunities of the day included fruit-picking, fishing or even working in a canning factory, adding that, "a few are becoming prosperous, though generally they dislike to work continuously at any task."

Despite the supposedly best of efforts of the dominant culture, the future of the Canadian Indian was described in resigned terms. "Disease, because of the unsanitary conditions of their dwellings, will gradually diminish them... they will become absorbed in other races... in time the Canadian Indian will vanish from the earth."

Canada's progress was quick and largely positive for most of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, that wasn't the case for First Nations people. Immense gaps in education, health and opportunity remain despite political rhetoric and the billions of dollars spent annually in the name of aboriginal issues.

Abhorrent living conditions continue with entire communities being packed up and moved to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Unsafe drinking water and homes without flush toilets are very much part of this sad picture.

Canadians of 100 years ago would be surprised at the current state of Canada's first people, shocked mostly perhaps that those aboriginal populations are outpacing others in terms of annual growth.

History can't be changed, but the future can be shaped. Or can it? Beyond the bluster from all corners, how real is a will for change when so many powerful players -- white and otherwise -- take advantage and make their fortunes from Indian misery?

But even if the will for change were real, can people who have been downtrodden for so long generate the collective conviction to make the most of helping hands?


Robert Marshall is a former



Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2011 J6

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