When the French Empire was ejected from North America by the British variety, the indigenous people of what became Canada faced a brand new adversary. The French had always seen their foothold in North America as a source of raw materials and wealth, not as a place to settle new communities. The British saw it as a colony, a place to “develop”. Europeans had developed a policy, an attitude to other races they came across, which stated that only those who cleared and farmed land were deserving of it. Those who lived by hunting, fishing, and trapping were called “savages”, and were considered “uncivilised”. The lands they roamed and used in their traditional ways were referred to as “waste lands”, because they were not cultivated, civilised.
So, the British considered the Indian allies and enemies, “uncivilised”, but were still dependant on them for military aid in countering American expansionism. But, once the Americans and British had reached an acceptable working relationship, the future of the indigenous people was radically altered. When the British first took over the old French territory, they drew a line just west of the Ottawa River, a boundary beyond which Europeans were not allowed to settle, own land, or operate. North Grenville was on the other side of that line, in what was called “Indian Territory”.
But once the British were invited into that land by the Mississauga, who opened their territory to political refugees from the new United States, their future was sealed. Britain took over what is now Ontario, with some exceptions, between 1784 and 1867. Most of the so-called “treaties” they negotiated with the inhabitants weren’t even written down. Others simply agreed that the indigenous people ceded land to the government in order to open it for settlement, but promised that traditional land use and lifestyles would be respected. As soon as settlers were actually granted land, the fences went up, the traditional hunting, trapping and fishing lands were closed to the aboriginal people, and all the promises contained in the treaties were forgotten.
In most cases, those who signed the “treaties” got nothing in return for their land. After 1850, with the Robinson Treaties, each individual Indian was entitled to $3 per year in return for allowing Europeans to come and live among them. The annual payment was later raised to $4 and remains that to this day. For $4 a year, people gave up all the oil, trees, gold, copper, fish, minerals and land north of Lakes Huron and Superior, while losing all access to these same assets.
Indians were not allowed to establish commercial fisheries, timber operations, mining, or any other economic development opportunities on the lands they once roamed freely. They wanted to start such enterprises, but were not allowed. As soon as they signed the “treaty”, which many of them believed promised a partnership with the government in exploiting resources and deciding land use, they were told that they now came under British and Canadian laws, and had to obey them.
These laws reached their lowest level of abuse in the Indian Act of 1876, a law that has been maintained and amended ever since. Much has been made of the idea that indigenous people don’t pay taxes, get free education, and other “perks”. This is highly inaccurate, and does not reflect the historical realities which governed the daily lives of generations of indigenous people. Adult men and women who had to ask permission to leave the small reserves on which they had been isolated, denied under law the freedom to hold traditional ceremonies and dances which expressed their identity. Imagine if a foreign power came into Canada and forbade any celebration of Canada Day, hockey, speaking English or French, denied the right to vote to all Canadians, and then forced them to live on lands incapable of supporting a decent quality of life. That is the history of Canada’s indigenous peoples: the Apartheid system that almost resulted in the extinction of aboriginal people in Canada.
We have much more to learn.