Let’s first respectfully acknowledge that St. Thomas University, and The Aquinian are situated on the traditional, unceded territory of the Maliseet/Wəlastəkwiyik Peoples. A disclaimer to readers, that I am a cisgender, white man with no Indigenous heritage. In this article, I seek to be as informative and enlightening as possible to those who may not know much about this situation and Canada’s history with Indigenous Peoples, while giving my take on the situation at hand and some of the political implications of it. I sincerely hope this article helps your understanding of the situation, bearing truth and reconciliation in mind.
In 1920, deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott (in the office he held from 1913-1932), discussed an amendment to the Indian Act that forced Indigenous children aged seven to 15 to attend Residential Schools. To the House of Commons, he said:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. That is my whole point … Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department, that is the whole object of this Bill.”
Holding this in mind, I would also like to highlight Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, that came into force in 1951, which states the following:
“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: A) Killing members of the group; B) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; C) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; D) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; E) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Let it be clear, the situation on Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia is the most recent link in a long chain of events relating to Crown-Indigenous relations in this country. Some of the previous links in this chain are important to have in mind prior to discussing this issue. In 1857, the Gradual Civilization Act was passed, which sought to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into the rest of society. In 1869, the Gradual Enfranchisement Act was passed, imposing a legal definition of “Indian” upon Indigenous Peoples, along with the imposition of the colonial-style governing structure of band councils, and rejecting the matrilineal delineation, or descent of Indigenous heritage through the female bloodline, of most Indigenous societies. This, followed by the Indian Act in 1876, which stipend band councils and among other things made Indigenous Peoples wards of the state. Thus, depriving them even of their personhood.
Meanwhile, residential schools were being run as early as 1834, with the express intent of forcefully assimilating Indigenous children into society, after they had been forcefully removed from their families, with most never seeing them ever again. Attending residential schools was mandatory, and at a certain point it was made so a child had to attend until the age of 18. In these schools, operated for profit by mainly the Catholic church, but also by the Anglican and United churches, sexual assault was rampant, disease spread constantly, children buried their friends and they endured inhuman conditions. This all as part of “the final solution” to the “Indian problem,” a term coined in Canada, later used by the Nazis perpetrating the Holocaust.
In residential schools, blankets were given to children, blankets which came directly from smallpox victims who had perished in hospitals at the time. In 1938, it was proposed that residential schools be closed, yet this proposition faced staunch opposition from the church, and the schools remained open. In 1946, as a part of Project Paperclip, a secret program of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency, rocketry and bioweapons testing occurred as a joint operation between the United States and Canada involved experimentation on children in residential schools. The final residential school closed in 1996.
In addition, in 1927, the Indian Act was amended to make it illegal for Indigenous persons or groups to raise money to sue the federal government.
In 1928, Alberta passed the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act, and in 1933 British Columbia did the same, signing into law a bill that had the express intent of sterilizing Indigenous women to prevent them from having more children. This continued into the ’70s and there is evidence that forced sterilization has illegally occurred in recent years, particularly in British Columbia.
All this to say, Canada has a horrific history of trying to extinguish Indigenous Peoples and is guilty on multiple fronts of breaches to the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This point remains true even prior to considering the treatment of Indigenous children in the child welfare system and the conditions of which hundreds of reserves currently exist in, with hundreds of boil water advisories in effect across the nation today. This does not consider the United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples either, which we are currently in violation of over a dozen articles outlined in that document. Yet somehow, with all of this entrenched in our history as a nation and much of it still occurring today, we struggle to give reconciliation the light of day, five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, and nearing a year since the delivery of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ report.
While many of the outlined atrocities committed above have been reprimanded, apologized for and in part made illegal, reconciliation has a long way to go in this country. This point has recently been made clear by the ongoing Wet’suwet’en crisis in B.C., which will be illuminated in part two of this piece. The crisis, and the reactions to it, pose a significant threat to the very lifeblood of the concept of reconciliation in this nation, an idea that has been brittle from its conception — But has it met its end?
This is part one of a two-part series focusing on the history of the Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada and contextualizing the Wet’suwet’en crisis. The second part will appear in the March 12 issue of The Aquinian.