Continuing Negotiations: First Nations and the State
William R. Morrison, University of Northern British Columbia
The history of the past 400 years of contact between First Nations people and newcomers has included friendship and war, mutually advantageous trade and exploitation. Canada's first important commercial activity was the fur trade, exemplified by the Hudson's Bay Company, in which the First Nations played an essential role.
At times powerful in North American affairs, for instance, during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the First Nations were treated with respect as valuable allies. At other times they were ignored, and even treated with contempt.
During the 19th century, the nation of Canada was formed. As its population grew and land was needed for agriculture and settlement, the First Nations were persuaded or compelled to move on to 'reserves.' A series of treaties was negotiated with First Nations across the country under which most of their lands were surrendered to the government. As Canada became industrialized in the late 19th century, the prevailing opinion was that First Nations' culture was inferior and that these peoples were destined to die out. To prevent this, the officials in charge of 'Indian affairs' encouraged or forced them to send their children to residential schools. The Indian Act, passed in 1876, put all First Nations under the control of a government department and outlawed traditional practices. Denied full citizenship, the First Nations were in fact wards of the state.
The hopes of government officials and others that they would assimilate into the mainstream culture were not realized. Their culture proved stronger than most people predicted, and much of it survived. In the past thirty years, the attempt to assimilate First Nations has been abandoned. Their rich culture, particularly their art, has been recognized and appreciated. And, partly as a result of court action, steps have been taken to repair some of the wrongs done to them. In British Columbia and in the North, new treaty negotiations are underway. This time the parties-First Nations and government-are in a position of far greater equality.