Lubicon Lake Indian Nation
Little Buffalo Lake, AB
3536 - 106 Street
Edmonton, AB T6J 1A4
June 11, 1991
Enclosed for your information is a copy of a particularly well- done book review by John Goddard. The book contains little known history important to understanding the current plight and struggle of aboriginal people in Canada.
Reprinted from The Toronto Star, Saturday, June 08, 1991
NATIVE PEOPLE WERE NEVER PASSIVE ACCOMPLICES
SWEET PROMISES: A READER ON INDIAN-WHITE RELATIONS IN CANADA edited by J.R. Miller
University of Toronto Press,
468 pages, $24.95 pb.
By John Goddard
Tom Siddon, the Indian Affairs minister, says he likes "progressive" Indians who agree with his policies. In recent news releases and letters-to-the-editor, he praises those "who have been working productively and co-operatively (with him) to develop a bright, positive future." Such Indians, he says, are "forward-looking", "visionary" and "unfettered by past wrongs."
Feeling kindly towards native people who embrace government programs is nothing new for politicians, but Siddon might be interested to know that encouraging progress can sometimes backfire.
When the Plains Indians were told to start farming after the buffalo disappeared, many excelled at the new life, taking prizes against all competitors for their wheat and cattle. Complaints soon arose that "Indians are raising so much grain and farm produce that they are taking away the market from the white settlers." New laws had to be passed in some districts. Grain markets were made the exclusive purview of white settlers, and throughout the West all farming machinery on reserves was banned.
In eastern Canada, too, progressive Indians proved to be a problem. Many embraced new opportunities to be educated and to train in new jobs, but instead of assimilating into non-native society as intended, they refused to leave their communities. Laws had to be passed to force them out and to whittle down the size of reserves.
Such events are recalled in SWEET PROMISES, a collection of scholarly essays on Canadian native issues and events, edited by J.R. Miller, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
The collection looks as though it may have been culled from material that Miller used while writing his excellent overview of Indian-white relations in Canada, published two years ago, also by University of Toronto Press, as Skyscrapers Hide The Heavens. Its thesis was that Indians have always been assertive contributors to the shaping of the country, not the passive accomplices to a sorry fate that early historians might have us believe.
Most essays in this book are from the past 15 years and reflect a willingness among historians to reappraise the venerable notion that Canadian Indian policy has been mostly wise, benevolent and well-thought-out.
The topics are wide-ranging -- from the role of Jesuit missionaries in the fur trade, to the 1987 Brundtland report on environment and development, which concluded that "the recognition of traditional rights must go hand in hand with...responsibility in resource use."
But one of the most striking points emerging from the collection is how arbitrarily Canadian native peoples have been dealt with over the past 200 years -- not because well-meaning officials sometimes failed to live up to their responsibilities, but because not-so-well-meaning governments constantly passed legislation against Indian practices, imposed the laws by force, and manipulated unsuspecting co-operative types into serving government interests at the expense of their own.
Some of the titles speak for themselves: "The Extermination Of The Beothucks Of Newfoundland," and "Canada's Subjugation Of The Plains Cree, 1879-1885."
Both are among the best pieces in the book. The first is a dispassionate, blow-by-blow account by Leslie Upton about how the Red Indians of Newfoundland were decimated by imported diseases, then incrementally slaughtered. The opening sentence is characteristically understated and forceful: "The extermination of native people as the result of white contact was a recurrent feature of European expansion."
"Canada's Subjugation of The Plains Cree," by John Tobias, has been reprinted many times since its first publication in 1983, but it bears rereading.
The essay tells of how the central government, to encourage Prairie tribes onto reserves, made an instant chief out of any Indian male who could claim 100 followers, a strategy designed to split a powerful movement holding out for better treaty terms. RCMP ranks were also reinforced and sent to arrest the hold-out leaders.
Like several other pieces in the books, the Tobias essay lends historic context to current events. Siddon is now using the same subjugation strategy to split the Lubicon Cree band of northern Alberta to end its aboriginal-rights campaign. He has been encouraging "progressive" Indians to work with him as members of a new band that he calls the Woodland Cree. At the same time, the RCMP have picked up 13 Lubicon members on charges of setting fire to a logging camp.
Siddon might be reassured to hear that when the strategy was used more than 100 years ago, it worked -- although not before the government had to call in the army.
**John Goddard's book "Last Stand of the Lubicon Cree" is to be published this fall by Douglas & McIntyre.