The Indian Commissioners: Agents of the State and Indian Policy in Canada’s Prairie West, 1873-1932 by Brian Titley (University of Alberta Press, 2009)

The myth of the indolent Injun is not new; in fact, that idea goes back to circa 1800.  In the 1700’s, when slavery was still legal, the new world was still new and Indian Residential Schools weren’t yet even an experiment.  At that time, Native people often adopted, traded with and fought alongside (and therefore against) Europeans.

Europe had a rigid class system that settlers, militia and imperial representatives brought with them across the ocean.  This meant, in their opinion, that Natives were generally of lower class.  At the same time, however, European leader-representatives would engage in ceremonies and rituals with Native leaders that were meant to promote peace and brotherhood between the two peoples.  The participation was just a facade, unfortunately.

In the next century, the 1800’s, this facade took on an administrative mask via the Indian Department.  Joseph-Alfred-Norbert Provencher was commissaire des Sauvages in Manitoba between 1873 and 1878.  Titley writes, “The Indian Department under Provencher was unimpressive in its operations and achievements…it was in no hurry to fulfill its treaty obligations.  Surveys of reserves dragged on for years allowing squatters to occupy lands claimed by Natives…The wherewithal to engage in agriculture was provided but slowly, and rarely with sufficient quality or quantity to be of much use.  Scrawny oxen and inferior ploughs were no match for the unbroken prairie sod…” (p.35).

Other commissioners weren’t much better.  Edgar Dewdney took the reins from Provencher in 1879 until 1888.  Dewdney’s legacy “was an administration that subjected Indians to strict surveillance and coercive tutalage.” (p.90).  He chose to have Natives enrolled in industrial schools.  These early schools for Native people on the Prairies, unlike anything encountered by them before, were “modeled closely on similar institutions designed for the reform of delinquent and neglected children in mainstream society.” (p.74).  Talk about being low man on the totem pole!

Hayter Reed took over from 1888 until 1893.  Just when some Native people were starting to do well with agriculture (despite bad weather, soil, tools and animals), Reed decided to “remove Native agriculture from the emergent competitive marketplace of large-scale mechanized operations.” (p.103).  Reed figured that the Natives would do too well with “modern” equipment and so, through his agents, “…Indians were expected to make, as much as possible, their own tools and equipment using wooden dowels and animal sinew rather than metal screws and hinges.  It was back to the Middle Ages.” (p.103).

Remember, these Native people lived for thousands of years by hunting buffalo, which had recently disappeared from the land.  So, the Native people had to make the transition, but, obviously, Reed (and the other commissioners) were making it as difficult as possible – despite Treaty promises meant to protect against just this kind of hardship.  (I believe it was all a ploy so that the settlers would prosper beyond the level of the “lowly” Injuns.)

The book looks at a couple of other commissioners, but the story is similar.  Each man typically took a hard line approach to dealing with Native people, and basically at every opportunity attempted to undermine any effort by Natives to maintain links to their past while experimenting with the new ways of the white man, which oftentimes was successful. But Canada didn’t want none of that.

Unfortunately, over a century later, the only thing that seems to have changed is the popularity of mutton chops.

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