Relations with First Nations: Decolonization in the Canadian context

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mark Aquash, University of British Columbia
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

First Nation communities and individuals can resolve their own issues by focusing on community development, and by strengthening processes of decolonization, self-determination and citizenship. Yet a review of the historical and contemporary record show that policy development and legislation in Canada continue to reflect the inequities that flow from Canada’s colonial relationship with First Nation communities. As Indigenous intellectuals and communities we are faced with several interrelated challenges: first, dealing with the legacies of Canada’s colonial history; second, working towards the decolonization of Canadian legislation and relations with First Nations; and, third, decolonizing the colonial mindset and educational system as well as First Nations identities and communities.

My experience suggests it is much easier to imagine an idealized history, based on how things might have been rather than how things have turned out. We might, for example, think about what First Nations people and communities would look like today, had there been a different outcome to the War of 1812.  It is difficult to focus on an optimistic outlook when negativity including blame and guilt are so pervasive in contemporary relations between First Nations and Canada. Perhaps we might turn to the thoughts of the elders and leadership from the many Tribes and First Nations of the past. The historical record offers us documentation of their thoughts and analysis that reflect Indigenous knowledge, wisdom and intelligence. Many of these wise elders and leaders were faced with how difficult the world could be and anticipated changes that future generations might face.

And indeed there have been many changes since European settlers made contact with first peoples and established alliances with the diverse Indigenous nations across North America. 

Alliances with the Spanish, French, British and many others have had direct impact on the political, geographical and social borders between European settlers and First Nations and their legacies persist. The War of 1812 made a huge impact on the alliances with First Nations. The outcomes of that war continue to shape contemporary relations between First Nations in Canada and Tribes in the United States.

It was the vision of Tecumseh seeking a First Nations homeland that ultimately led to an alliance between the First Nations and the British during the War of 1812. This alliance was formed between Major General Isaac Brock and the many First Nations led by Tecumseh. At the time Brock made it clear that the British would not negotiate a peace treaty with the Americans without providing an independent homeland for First Nations, which would have included all of what we now know as the State of Michigan and southern Ontario. As we know all too well, both leaders were killed during the war – Brock in the Battle of Queenston Heights, and Tecumseh in the Battle of the Thames, near present day Chatham, Ontario.

Within twenty years the vision of a First Nations homeland along with the alliance between Canada and the First Nations faded into an assimilationist project. Since then Canada’s policy developments have been marred by a lack of consultation with First Nations. Federal agents, sometimes with little knowledge or experience with First Nation communities have been empowered to make recommendations for policy development.  In many of these early recommendations and policies we see a paternalistic approach that continues with First Nations today. We often see commissioners’ reports that cover issues primarily of concern to the federal government, and policies established that fail to serve the best interests of First Nations. Indigenous knowledge, protocols and belief systems are seen as subversive to federal officials (and scholars) intent on pursuing a policy of assimilation. This is the mindset of continuing colonization.

Colonization through legislation and dispossession

The many land concessions and treaties made between First Nations and Canada after the War of 1812 reveal the unique relationship and fiduciary obligations between Canada and First Nation communities.  Policies and mechanisms continue to be developed in order to address both the specific and underlying intent of treaties and other agreements. The development of Canada was, and must continue to be, a partnership with First Nations. Equitable sharing of resources and economic development, education, health and well-being are what the elders and Indigenous leadership understand as integral to these agreements. In many cases, legislation outside of treaty-making is in direct contradiction to the treaties.

Colonization of First Nations was enabled through many discriminatory laws and by dispossession. The Bagot Commission of 1844 established key elements of colonial policy and produced recommendations that have had far reaching implications for First Nations communities. A major recommendation was for a centralized policy for control over all Indian matters, which resulted in the introduction of attendance policies at residential schools, individual ownership to parcels of land, and surveys in regard to land management. The major objective was to discontinue treaty gifts and payments, made possible by distributing individually owned parcels of land that were to be bought and sold among Band members. It was believed that through participation in the process of land tenure and the free enterprise system, a sense of individualism and materialism would undermine, if not displace, community among First Nations.

The ‘Gradual Civilization Act’ of 1857 encouraged abandonment of Indian status in exchange for the ‘privilege’ of enfranchisement of Indian persons. The Pennefeather Commission in1858 recommended the complete assimilation of First Nations into colonial society, dismantling traditional forms of government, and abolishing the Indian Department once assimilation had been achieved.  Based on the Pennefeather and Bagot reports, the Indian Lands Act was passed in 1860, transferring authority over Indians and Indian lands to a single colonial official, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

When the Province of Canada united with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form the Dominion of Canada, the Constitution Act of 1867 (section 93) delegated jurisdiction of education to provinces across Canada. This allowed the provinces to create standards and criteria through education legislation and training to meet the needs of the Canadian settler state.  Simultaneously, section 92 removed provincial legislative authority over Indians and their reserved lands and gave this authority to Parliament. This legislation placed First Nations education under federal jurisdiction and it continues to exist today, as departmental policy rather than public legislation.

The Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 eliminated status of First Nations women who married non-status men. This policy became very apparent in the Indian Act of 1896, which is prescriptive and dictates all aspects of Indian policy from birth to beyond the grave. The Act’s original intention was to dispossess Indian lands and impose Canadian citizenship through enfranchisement, essentially promoting assimilation. The focus was for male Indians to read, write and speak English or French, receive an elementary education, and be of good moral character. This gender specific policy did not provide for equitable treatment of female Indians until Bill-C31 in 1984. Upon individuals fulfilling the requirements for enfranchisement, the Governor General would then impose citizenship without choice. The Gradual Enfranchisement legislation did not have enough participants to significantly reduce the number of status Indians.

Decolonizing education and facilitating access to postsecondary education is important to First Nations self-determination. The Indian Act of 1896 has been the most prescriptive and dominant legislation in Canada, which provides an external controlling mechanism over First Nation communities, including over education. Until 1960, sections 109-113 under the Indian Act stated that Indians who had acquired post-secondary degrees, were admitted to a profession, or had become clergy would automatically be enfranchised and lose status as an Indian. Although assimilation policies of enfranchisement under the Indian Act were appealed in 1985, there exists no public legislation, which set standards and criteria to meet the funding needs of First Nation communities. Sections 114-122 gives the Minister of Indian Affairs the authority to enter into school agreements with provinces and other entities, such as the establishment and operation of schools, administration of educational organizations (buildings, transportation, teachers, etc.), school attendance, truancy and truancy enforcement, religious denominations and denomination of teachers.

Decolonizing Canada’s Relations with First Nations

Colonization and its legacies have had an enduring impact on First Nations identity. Loss of identity among many First Nation people is all too common. Some communities have taken ownership of the foreign systems, designed with the aim of assimilation. Thus we see the evolving symptoms and psychopathologies derived from colonization. Many First Nation people feel inferior in regard to their own historical, cultural and social background. Others have low self-esteem, experience identity crisis, a broken spirit, and a lack of hope. Social problems, often exhibited through violence, have become common. Post-traumatic stress disorder and other health problems associated with efforts to escape everyday realities have been added to the social and cultural milieu.

Decolonization begins with an individual learning about who they are in relation to their Indigenous ancestors. Such a rediscovery by a First Nation community or individual may be enabled by curiosity, accident, desperation, or intent. This rediscovery may lead to the development of a thirst for understanding Indigenous knowledge, which is important for a continuing process of decolonization. There is need for caution: Indigenous individuals should take care so that they are not easily misled; some may have difficulty understanding different aspects of, or perspectives on, Indigenous knowledge. The excitement of finding identity and the resulting pride may cause an individual to become too impatient in their learning.  It is important to maintain patience and humility when seeking knowledge of one’s own traditional teachings.

Decolonization also requires an individual to address closure and healing in their life. There must be a time for First Nations individuals to deal with their anger, loss and grief. Some individuals may feel rage when they learn of or recount historical events. For some, this knowledge may be overwhelming. For others, feeling victimized by society may seem like justification for violence, as has happened in the past.  Decolonization requires owning history and accepting your ancestors’ part in it. Continuous reinforcement and rediscovery of Indigenous language, cultural, and spiritual protocols will empower individuals to move forward with their growth as a proud First Nation citizen.

Confronting the challenges of ongoing efforts of assimilation can be difficult. Indigenous knowledge may enable individuals and communities to consider new structures and systems. Communities could engage in processes of visioning as a way of charting their own decolonization. Visioning may allow the community to develop a philosophy, as well as a mission or purpose. The community can also provide a mandate for continuous consultation so that they can revisit their vision on a regular basis. Such a process could include ongoing re-evaluations of the political, social, economic, judicial, administrative and educational structures and how they advance or impede decolonization and self-determination. There are many problematic situations that can develop during such processes. Time is also a factor: Valuing every community members’ contributions is important; it can also be very time consuming.

Once Indigenous communities begin to make progress with their own self-understanding of decolonization and achieving their goals, it is easier to move forward as one voice and to provide a mechanism for achieving future goals. Continuous reinforcement of the vision must be maintained in order to avoid external pressures and the invariable political maneuverings from colonizing forces.

Community development among First Nations also requires techniques and organizational skills that maintain unity while simultaneously engaging in ongoing processes of communication, healing and organization. Over the long term, commitment and engagement in First Nation community development require a focus on decolonization through action. Decolonizing action requires inclusivity, and building a consensus that is proactive in affirming unifying processes and outcomes, as well as in establishing community mandates designed to achieve self-determination.

Mark Aquash Potawatomi/Ojibwe Anishinaabe from the Council of Three Fires, Walpole Island First Nation, Ontario, is an Assistant Professor in Educational Administration and Leadership and the Director of the Native Indian Teacher Education Program, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia. 


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