Things began to change for First Peoples throughout North America with the advent of the exploration period. In Canada, the exploration period had two movements.
If students are interested in this history, they can consult sources such as the Jesuit Relations and explorers' published journals, such as those by Samuel Hearne and David Thompson. The impact of exploration, the fur trade, and settlement upon Indigenous peoples was grave.
Haudenosaunee Two Row Wampum - Gusweñta. A record of the agreement between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee that each nation would respect the other and not interfere with the other's ways of life.
The period of exploration was followed closely by settlement, first in central Canada, but quickly expanding outwards, both West and East. Settlement meant a need for land and more resources. Enter the various treaties.
Treaties were documents created in agreement between the Indigenous population and the British government, eventually the Canadian government. They were meant to establish the relationship between First Peoples and settlers and set in place rules around land and resource use. Typically the treaties are meant to secure a particular tract of land and protect particular hunting and other resource gathering rights of the First Peoples in the area, as well as provide certain social services and monetary incentives, in exchange for ownership over much of the rest of the land and resources by the settling culture.
Another essential building block in the creation of Canada as a nation was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. As the railroad was being built, a number of settlers arrived and began creating communities on what was then First Peoples' land. This settlement led to a series of rebellions by the Metis population (with help from the Cree, Blackfoot, Peigan, and Saultaux) who were being displaced by the both the railroad itself and its connected settlement. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Red River Rebellion (1869-70) and the North-West Rebellion (1885) are often seen as the first instances of resistance against colonization by First Peoples in Canada.
As Canada worked on developing itself as a nation, racism and conformity reared their ugly heads. A number of policies and laws were enacted by the Canadian government in order to eliminate difference as a way to create a unified citizenry.
A number of Indigenous cultural ceremonies and practices were banned at various points across the country in the name of cultural unity. For instance, in 1880 an amendment to the Indian Act called the Potlatch Law made any First Person who participated in any activity related to the Potlatch festival guilty of a crime and eligible for imprisonment.
The most horrific and impactful of these policies was the Residential School system, which began in 1883 under then Prime Minister John A. Macdonald who, as the creator of the Indian Act, suggested that children attending school on reserves were surrounded by "savages" and should, therefore, be removed from their communities.
The Residential School system reached its height in the 1930s. This system was created with the goal of, as it was put at the time, "killing the Indian in the child." The Department of Indian Affairs, under the leadership of Duncan Campbell Scott, believed that the best chance for assimilating its First Peoples citizens would be to reeducate the youngest members in the ways of the European colonizers. The belief was that within a few generations there would be no distinct Indigenous culture left in Canada. These children were forcibly removed from their families and communities and taken to schools that were run primarily by the Catholic Church. Here they were not allowed to speak their native languages or practice any of their culture traditions. The students were given new names, or sometimes numbers, and stripped of any vestige of their cultural identity. They were punished for any display of their Indigeneity and made to feel ashamed of who they were. A majority of the students suffered physical and/or sexual abuse. The students were often malnourished.
They were kept far away from their families, and some became so homesick that they attempted to run away, often dying from exposure on their way back to their own communities. In total, approximately 150,000 First Peoples attended these schools. The TRC has estimated that at least 6,000 of these students died while in the care of the state either from abuse or from attempts to return home. Those 6,000 deaths puts the odds of dying in Canadian residential schools over the years they operated the same as for those serving in Canada's armed forces during the Second World War. The last of these schools closed in 1996.
St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba. 1901
Residential School, Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories
Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School, Lebret, District of Assiniboia. 1885
The promise that these schools would prepare their students for mainstream Canadian life through education remained unfulfilled. The students were taught very few skills and largely used for labour, so most students were able to only get low-wage jobs, such as housekeeping, upon completion. These students also were ill-equipped to return to their own communities as they had lost the language and ways of their own people.
These schools led to a wide range of intergenerational problems and trauma. First, those who attended them were often left with horrible memories and turned to alcohol as a way to numb their pain. Many of these students were left not knowing how to be in a family or a community as they had been taken away from their own too young to learn. So when they went on to have their own children, they often struggled with how to parent, and they felt conflict and shame towards their own parents because they had been taught that their ways were wrong. There was, therefore, a huge schism between generations and a breakdown of many communities due to language loss, trauma, and conflict. The legacy of this system cannot be underestimated, and First Peoples communities are still dealing with its effects and learning how to heal and move forward. To this end, the government of Canada issued an apology and acknowledgement of the impact of these schools and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create an extensive report on the history of these schools and on what should be done to recompense the survivors.
The Sixties Scoop was an extension of the paternalistic approach the Canadian government took towards Indigenous peoples. During the Sixties Scoop, which took place from the 1960s to the 1980s, a number of Indigenous children from communities across the country were taken from their families and placed in childcare, either fostered or adopted out to non-Indigenous families, often far away from their homes. The assumption was that their own families and communities were not fit to care for these children, but the fall-out of the Sixties Scoop was similar to that of the Residential Schools. Children lost contact with their families, their language, and their culture.
The relationship between Canada and First Peoples continues to be a fraught one. First Peoples have begun to voice their resistance to many laws and policies; however, to describe Canada as a post-colonial country would be a huge stretch. First Peoples, after all, are still living on reserves and are still, often, living in abject poverty with no opportunity for self-determination.
Oka Crisis standoff. Photo: Jacques Nadeau Archives Le Devoir
Finally, students should be made aware of the disproportionate number of First Peoples women who have been murdered or gone missing and the fact that these instances and the lack of investigation by police forces were, until recently, not seen by the government as a social issue. There is currently a commission on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls.