“For the dead are not powerless” Chief Seattle

There are so many wrongs to be undone, so much history that has to be relearned, that the whole idea of true reconciliation with our indigenous Brothers and Sisters seems like it will never be done in our lifetime.  No matter how high we rank as a country on global ‘happiness’ polls,  unless we do what needs to done, all those self- satisfied pats on the back will be a lie.

I have just finished a book that helped me learn some truths about our shared history here in BC.  It is called ‘Makuk- A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations’ by John Lutz , who teaches history at the University of Victoria.  Some who attended the 2014 Pacific Northwest Labour History Association conference in Cumberland may remember the excellent presentation he and Wedlidi Speck gave on ‘Aboriginal Coalminers on Vancouver Island.’

One of the premises of the book is: “The myth of the “lazy Indian’, derived from peculiar views about labour that were prevalent in European culture of the time, was invoked to transfer lands from Aboriginal Peoples to colonial states and then to colonialists.”  Lutz shows how in order for that myth to be invoked,  the role of indigenous labour, both within the traditional subsistence and prestige economies,  and within the capitalism of the settlers, was ‘disappeared’ from the history books.  It’s a fact that from Contact till at least the 1890’s it was indigenous labour that built much of this Province. How could it not be?  In 1856 indigenous people were 98 % of the population.  There were 62,000 aboriginal people and 1,000 settlers.  It wasn’t till after the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1886 when whites started flooding in, that the balance shifted.  Today indigenous people comprise about 3% of the population.

In almost every facet of the economic life in this province indigenous people, from the Lekwungen people of Victoria to the Haida of Haida Gwai to Dakelh of the Caribou region to the Nuu-Chah-Nulth of the west coast of Vancouver Island, participated in the wage labour economy.  Whether it was in the fisheries, agriculture, construction, domestic work, sealing, logging, mining, you name it, indigenous people supplied the muscle and skills.  The money earned was to supplement the living they made off the land, and for the coastal people, to provide goods for the potlatch or prestige economy.

Over a period of decades the ability of indigenous people to exist economically was destroyed by land grabs, restrictive and racist laws, and social engineering policies that were intended to rid this nation of its original inhabitants.  The first step was losing the right to vote in 1872.  “They would have no say in who governed them, even in places and periods in which they were the majority. When unfairly treated they had no political voice, their only access to politicians was through the Indian Agent…of course this rarely worked and it was often the case that it was the Indian Agent himself who was the problem they wanted to complain about.”

Once they lost the ability to elect representatives to legislatures, those same legislatures started enacting an array of laws to restrict and constrict the economic activities of indigenous people.  For example, with no right to vote, they could not become lawyers or run for elected office. Prohibited from buying or selling alcohol, they were cut out of the hotel and hospitality industries.  Indigenous people were not allowed to bid on or even work on public road construction.

In 1907 hand logging was a flourishing trade for many young indigenous males but the Government decided not to issue licenses for the next three years which killed that industry.  In fisheries it was even more blatant.  In 1886 purse seine licenses were limited to whites and in 1913 the Department of Fisheries instituted a ‘white preference’ system of licensing for all fish boats.  With these restrictions, plus the fact indigenous people could not own land, and therefore could not use it as collateral for loans to buy boats, most native fishers were restricted to fishing in cannery boats.  This meant they had to accept whatever price was offered. Even as late as the 1960’s the Davis plan put many small fish boats out of business which disproportionately affected  indigenous fishers.

Lutz points out: “The Voter Registration Act and the Indian Act may have been the most significant individual pieces of legislation affecting Indians but they were accompanied by a long stream of legal enactments that had two consistent aims.  First the State alienated control over resources that had previously rested with indigenous inhabitants; and second it gave whites preferential access to those resources.”

As part of that ‘alienating control’ the State also went after people’s ability to fish for food and hunt for game  with restrictions and outright prohibitions on when and where indigenous people could carry out these activities.  These basic rights were supposed to be protected by the Crown. Even plant and berry gathering were watched over by provincial wardens.

All of this, on top of populations that were devastated by diseases, worn down by everyday racism, families torn apart by the effects of residential schools, and whole nations reduced to tiny parcels of their former territories, led to crippling poverty with its resultant social problems of alcoholism, suicide, dependency on social assistance and a general sense of loss.

Here in 2018 the First Nations have bounced back with a political and cultural renaissance.  Lutz feels the starting point was the organizing around Trudeau Sr.’s 1969 White Paper that proposed wiping out Indian status and rights.  The fight back led to a more unified national movement that, armed with new legal precedents and with acts of resistance on the ground, has re-instilled pride in the First Nations.  As Lutz says “Aboriginal Peoples have been subordinated but never subjugated.

There is so much more in this book but I only have a thousand words in this column.  So please do read it to get the whole story because it’s a story every Canadian needs to know so we can move forward.