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Canada's Indian peoples

Verna J. Kirkness

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JULY 15 1975      v05 n12 p07  
For the first time in its history, Encyclopedia Brittanica includes a report written by a Canadian Indian.  The following essay was written by Verna Kirkness, from the Fisher River Reserve in Manitoba.

Our struggle will be over when we have in our own way found our place amongst the many peoples of the earth. And when that time comes, we will be a people identifiable and independent and proud.

The words are those of David Courchene, past president of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. They summarize the aspirations of Canada's native peoples, who in the 1970s are striving toward self-realization after a century of subservience and dependency.

Although archaeological discoveries have shown that Indians occupied what is now Canada for many thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, little is known about the native peoples before European contact. In the last 500 years, significant social, cultural, educational, religious, economic, and political changes have occurred among all peoples in Canada. Gradually, Canadians have come to share similar life-styles, including modes of dress, accommodations, entertainment, and adaptation to technological advancement. But this process of change, basically European-oriented, has bad many adverse effects upon the native Indian peoples.

The Treaties and the Indian Act.

Before the coming of the white man, Indians lived as members of independent tribes. Each tribe controlled the religious, social, cultural, medical, economic, and political activities of its people. All this changed with the white man's arrival. White immigration, commercialization of the fur trade, and the emphasis on agriculture, encroached on the Indian way of life. The result was s straining of relationships between the Indians and the white men as well as among the Indian tribes themselves.

In this situation, the land to white the native peoples had aboriginal title became a centres issue. Beginning in the mid. 19th century, the government attempted to solve the problem by initiating "treaties" with the Indians. These treaties were designed to forestall quarrel: between the Indians and white: over land, to facilitate the 'spread of white settlements, to maintain traditional military alliances with the Indians, and most importantly, to extinguish legally the Indians' aborigines land titles. In return for the Indians' surrender of their interests in the land, the crawl undertook to set aside reserves areas for their exclusive use .The crown also undertook to pay annuities of $3 to $5 per person and to provide school and other services. Only a few treaties were made before confederation in 1867. The post confederation treaties number 11 in all, with the fast major one, Treaty Number 1, having been signed in Manitoba on Aug. 3, 1871. The terms of all the treaties are similar.

The treaties brought about a split among the native peoples. The federal government recognized as Indian only those members of Indian bands who signed treaties. Those who opted not to sign were given an outright payment for their land rights, after which they were regarded as having the status of ordinary Canadian citizens. Their descendants today are called Metis and are, in the main, people of mixed Indian and white blood. However, a large number of Metis still identify with the Indians in language, values, and customs. Other legal distinctions were made among the native peoples. For example, the Indian Act of 1876 provided that Indians in the Maritimes, Quebec, the Yukon Territory, and most of British Columbia were to be regarded as "legal" Indians. Their descendants are "registered" Indians with a status similar to that of the treaty Indians, even though their ancestors neither signed treaties nor received outright payment for their land.

Until 1960 neither treaty nor registered Indians had the right to vote in federal elections. At any time, a treaty or registered Indian may choose to become enfranchised, but in so doing he forgoes his rights as a legal Indian. He receives an outright payment and is accorded the status of an ordinary Canadian citizen. A legal Indian woman automatically loses her status upon marriage to a person not of legal Indian status. However, an Indian man's spouse automatically gains the status of a legal Indian even if she has no Indian blood at all.

By law, therefore, Canada's Indians can be described as a diverse group, though culturally they are very similar. Most of this legal diversity stems from the provisions of the Indian Act, which codified the status, reserves, rights and privileges, and the general overall government of Indian people. This is the basic law governing Indians, although Indians at individuals are subject to federal, provincial and municipal laws as well.

To administer the Indian Act, the federal government established a department, presently known as the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Over the years it has developed into a large bureaucracy with a staff of about 7,000, located at the headquarters office in Ottawa, at regional offices in the various provinces, and on or near Indian reserves.

The department serves a population of over 250,000 legal Indians. The number of Indians without legal status cannot be counted accurately, but they are believed to exceed the legal Indian population. It is estimated that the native peoples are increasing at a rate of 2.82k1 per year, compared with 1.52 for the Canadian population as a whole.

The Indian Becomes Visible.

Approximately 100 years have passed since the signing of the treaties and the passage of the Indian Act, and the colonial type of government they imposed on the native peoples has taken its toll. For almost a century, the Indians of Canada remained passive under government restraints-a period that today's Indians remember as a tragic time. The reserve system restricted the traditional mobility of the Indians and caused an arbitrary split among the native peoples. When the land could no longer support a viable hunting, trapping, and fishing economy, no alternatives were provided or even explored. The once proud and self-sufficient Indian became dependent on a protectivist and paternalistic state. As a result, he developed attitudes of submission and servitude toward government that have had lasting effects.

In the late 1950s this began to change. Indians throughout Canada began to how concern for the condition under which they found themselves. Some startling facts were brought to light: a disproportionately high percentage of Indians lived on welfare; almost 502 of Indian families earned less than $1,000 a year; the infant mortality rate .for Indians was twice the national average; life expectancy of Indians was 34 years compared with the national average of 62 years; Indian housing was far below standard; 90-972 of Indian children failed to complete high school. By the latter half of the 1960s, Indian organizations dedicated to improving these conditions were emerging as strong, active forces all across the country.

In 1969 the government issued a White Taper defining a "new Indian, policy," and Indian organizations throughout Canada rallied together and reacted vehemently to it. The thrust of the policy was ' to remove legal distinctions between Indians and the general Canadian population. Services that had been the responsibility of the federal government were to be provided by the provincial governments, and their transfer would be negotiated between the federal government and the provinces. This was recognized as an abrogation of the treaties, under which the federal government was bound to recognize the special status of the Indians. The provinces are not bound by any means to honour these agreements. The policy was viewed by Indians as a scheme to divest them of their aboriginal, residual, and statutory rights. Even before the announcement of the new policy, a movement had been under way among the Indian people to break the cycle of paternalism and engage in constructive efforts toward self- sufficiency. The new policy prompted a greater, determination to move toward this goal--a determination shared by Indians in all parts of the country. Stronger bonds developed among Indians, and joint-action projects for identifying goals and objectives were in process. By organizing provincially and nationally, the Indians were establishing forceful and creative political units. Needs were being articulated that reflected their desire to be responsible for their own destiny.

Toward a New Self-sufficiency.

Within the last decade, significant gains have been achieved in the political, economic, educational, cultural, and social spheres. As late as five years ago, Indian chiefs and their band councils exercised only token authority; the real power to set policy and make decisions was vested in government civil servants. There are still many bothersome government restrictions, but today each reserve is administered, in the main, by the chief, his council, and a small staff. In the field of economic development, many local 'services once provided by non-Indians are being taken over by the Indian people. These include small businesses such as stores, service stations, and coffee shops.  There is a movement toward tourist-area development. Cooperatives are being established on the reserves, and corporations are being formed to deal in industry and commerce on a larger scale.

The Indian people are taking the position that they, and not the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, must control Indian education. Over 100 years of education under the government

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Canada's Indian peoples

Verna J. Kirkness

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JULY 15 1975      v05 n12 p08  
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system has proved ineffective, as witnessed by the fact that over 902 of Indian students drop out before the 12th grade. Indians blame this on the failure of the system to provide a meaningful educational program.

Indians are presently attempting to identify the means whereby they will control education. It is anticipated that greater involvement by native people will lead to a more meaningful education of Indian children. It will be an education rooted in Indian philosophy, relevant to the environment, and in keeping with today's needs. All these aspects are outlined in "Indian Control of Indian Education," a policy paper prepared by Indians representing various organizations in Canada.

As the Indian people struggle toward more direct control of their own affairs, one of the main obstacles they have encountered is the very system that was established to serve them. It is difficult to alter or reduce a bureaucratic structure, and the Indian Act itself has restrictive and discriminatory sections. The Indian approach to these shortcomings is to work for revision of the act rather than for its abolition. Whatever its faults, the Indian Act is legislation that was meant to protect and guarantee Indian treaty and aboriginal rights.

The Metis are often overlooked in writings on the native peoples, although a large majority of them identify with an Indian way of life. They are generally regarded as Canadian citizens with no special status, and governments have been slow to recognize them as an identifiable group. Yet they face many of the same problems as the Indians, and their plight is some-, times said to be even worse. Their struggle is for economic, cultural, educational, and even social survival.

In the last decade they, too, have founded their own organizations. Like the Indians, they desire greater autonomy, the means to become self-sufficient, and improved education for their children. But though the Indians and Metis have similar problems and are striving for similar solutions, cooperation between them is inhibited by the fact that they must deal with different levels of government-the Indians with the federal government and the Metis, because of their status as ordinary Canadian citizens, with the provinces. Nevertheless wherever possible both groups of native peoples are working together for their common good.

For Canada's native peoples, these are years of intense activity, bringing new insights into the past, a better understanding of the present, and new hope for tomorrow. The long tradition of dependency, the dominance of European culture and its adverse effects, can be counteracted only by restoration of the pride, equality, freedom, and involvement that are the Indians' birthright; by psychological renewal, social rebirth, and cultural renaissance. Given the opportunity, Indians believe they can effect positive changes that will provide them, once again, with the feeling of true citizenship.