The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change. –Sir John A. Macdonald, 1887
In the previous chapters, we talked about the ideas that Europeans falsely employed to categorize the Indigenous Peoples of North America. These prejudicial categories soon became instrumental in managing and controlling these nations; indeed, they provided an excuse for moving the
) out of the way of the European settlers. In this chapter, we will examine how some of these views were put into action after Confederation in 1867.
By the 1870s, with the processes of European settlement and the removal of First Nations to
under way, the Dominion government faced a number of dilemmas: Was there a solution to the problems faced by the Indigenous Peoples, many of whom were pushed to live on the brink of starvation on small and unproductive plots of lands by European violence? What would long-term solutions look like, besides charity and urgent humanitarian assistance (which the government was frequently forced to provide, however reluctantly)? How did these possible solutions fit with the colonists’ own interests and prejudices?
In addition to the
, which were signed under duress with different First Nations, the government passed
to formalize its relations with the First Nations. As part of the act, the government also turned its attention to education. At the time, many Europeans believed that with time and Western education, the Indigenous Peoples would assimilate into the settler society, which the Europeans believed to be a positive change. What they considered progress is today recognized as an attempt to eradicate
cultures. In a now-famous paper, residential schools scholar John Milloy argues that the Indian Act effectively ended indigenous forms of self-government and made First Nations people wards of the Canadian government. “Successive federal governments, Liberal and Conservative,” he maintains, “over the next century, in amendments to the 1869 Act and in new Acts, spelled out, in increasing detail, a colonial structure that passed control of First Nations people and communities into the hands of the Indian Affairs Department.”
Several options for bringing Western education to the Indigenous Peoples were tried before federation, including manual-labour schools, day schools, and boarding schools. Most if not all of these schools were run by Christian churches, with varying degrees of religious instruction taught along with farming and trade-skills training. The government eventually chose the boarding schools, or the Indian Residential Schools, as its most important institution designed to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. The most distinctive characteristic of the
was that it tore indigenous children from their families and left them in the care of complete and often hostile strangers—the schools’ religious instructors.