Indians and Metis of Canada

Alternative names: Various tribal names
Location: throughout Canada
Population: 625,000–1.2 million
% of population: 2.5%–4.75%
Religion: Christianity, various Indian beliefs
Language: English, Indian languages

The Indians are survivors of small aboriginal societies, most of whose land was colonized by Europeans, and who have been unable either to retain fully their traditional way of life or to adapt successfully to the alien social structure of their colonizers. The Metis are peoples of Indian and European descent who are not always recognized as Indians. Indians and Metis are divided not only by tribe and language group but by artificial legal classifications.

Indians are classified legally as either Status or non-Status Indians. Status Indians are native people defined as Indian under the Indian Act of 1880 and are the direct responsibility of the federal government. They number about 326,000, are registered as part of an Indian band and live or are entitled to live on a reserve. Some 573 bands have the use of 2,243 reserves with a total area of just over six million acres, but 30% of Status Indians now live away from reserves. They have some privileges, such as exemption from certain taxes, but their freedom is heavily restricted in other areas; for example their land, education and economic enterprises are controlled by the administration. Approximately half of the Status Indians are Treaty Indians; their ancestors signed treaties with the government which surrendered lands in exchange for reserves and certain services.

Status Indians may renounce their special legal standing, receive their share of the band’s resources and give up their right to a home on the reserve to live as ordinary Canadian citizens. This process is known as “enfranchisement” and this decision is not only irrevocable but applies to their descendants as well as to their immediate family. Indian status may also be lost or gained through marriage. Because of this and other peculiar legal distinctions set forth in the Indian Act it can sometimes happen that a full-blooded Indian has no Indian status, while persons without any native ancestry can belong to a band and live on a reserve.

There are probably about 300,000 non-Status Indians, individuals of native ancestry who have given up or lost their Indian status because of legal distinctions and are therefore not recognized as Indian. Most are Metis, of mixed white/Indian descent, but many have more Indian blood than some of the status group. Often shunned by both Indian and white society, most have not totally been absorbed into the mainstream of Canadian society and continue to follow a traditional way of life, though they have none of the privileges of Indians under the law and are therefore often poorer than their status relatives.

The numbers of Metis are the most difficult to estimate. The last Canadian census indicated that 90,000 people identified themselves as Metis but Metis organizations have claimed numbers up to 850,000. The position of Metis is the most ambiguous of all the indigenous groups but it may be that a new sense of pride in their heritage is increasing the numbers of Metis who wish to be so identified. Metis mainly live in the western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Background and history

“Indian” is a term that encompasses a wide range of peoples. In pre-European times the Indians probably numbered between 200,000 and 300,000 peoples living throughout the area which is now Canada. They were divided among 50 distinct societies with their own cultural characteristics and dialects or languages. There were 10 different language families, six in the area west of the Rocky mountains and four over the rest of the country. The social and economic structure of each band depended on the region in which they lived, but all had oral traditions, taboos played an important role in society, and their religion was animistic based on an idea of a spirit world parallel to their own with powerful supernatural beings who influenced their lives.

The forest area, which stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Rockies, was inhabited by Indians belonging to the Algonkian and Athapaskan language families. They depended on hunting large animals like caribou and moose, supplemented by smaller mammals, wild plants and fish. They had a migratory existence living in temporary shelter and following the seasonal movement of game. They had no strong system of leadership and depended on co-operation and a strong sense of mutual responsibility. This type of social and political structure was followed by Indians who lived just below the arctic tundra region as well as by the Siouan speaking people who lived in the prairie region south of the forest area.

West of the Rockies was the Pacific coast region with its more temperate climate and abundance of wildlife. The Indians in this area depended partly on food gathering and hunting but primarily on fishing. They lived in permanent village communities and had a comparatively high population density. They were organized into hierarchical chiefdoms and a person’s status and place in the group was determined by birth and wealth.

East of the forest region in what is now southern Quebec and stretching south across the modern US/Canadian border lived the Iroquian speaking people. They were the most northerly of a series of hunting tribes that stretched along the Atlantic seaboard of what is now the USA. They were warlike and constantly fought among themselves, lived in permanent villages, had an agricultural economy, and their societal structure was matrilineal. Women owned the houses and land and did most of the cultivation of crops while the men defended the settlements and did some hunting to supplement the agricultural economy. Though men held offices as leaders and decision makers they were appointed to these offices by women. During the sixteenth century the Indians of this area formed three confederacies. Only one survived, the League of Five Nations, and until 200 years ago it remained a major political force.

In 1608 when the first permanent white settlement was established in Quebec as an economic venture to exploit the possibilities of the fur trade, the Indians helped the early settlers to survive and trade was established between the two groups. The Indians traded furs and provided guides in exchange for military assistance which they used against their traditional enemies. Over time the Indians lost the art of making their own weapons and relied entirely on those of the whites. Migratory bands who were hunters for use were transformed into hunters for trade and thus social structures were radically changed. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries there was intensive European colonial expansion. In the early stages of colonization the Indian was vital to European survival so the tribe was able to retain much of their land and independence. Three important factors shaped the lives of the Indians in the early stages of colonization; the economic considerations of the fur traders, the religious considerations of the missionaries and the military considerations of the French and English who were at war over control of the colony. It was with these considerations in mind that the Proclamation of 1763 was issued by the British. Firm boundaries were drawn between Indian territory and colonial lands and Indians had legal title to the lands which they occupied, on which no white settlements were allowed. These rights could only be extinguished by a treaty with the crown.

By the middle of the nineteenth century Europeans had become well enough established to dispense with the assistance and co-operation of the native people. With the end of the French/English hostilities, the rebellion of the American colonies and the defeat of the British in 1783, expansion began in earnest. The main objective of the whites became settlement and new policies were introduced. During the 1850s and 1860s treaties were entered into with the Indians in which land was exchanged for services. After all of Britain’s North American possessions except Newfoundland had passed to Canada the Indian Act of 1880 was passed, which deprived the Indians of most of their lands and isolated them from white society.

The Indian Act was one of a series of Acts that were passed during the last 30 years of the nineteenth century. These Acts placed restrictions on the Indians and gave the government absolute power to organize their lives. Indians were removed to small reserves where they could pose no threat to white settlement, and could be shielded from unscrupulous drink pedlars and other undesirable products of white society. The Indians lost control over virtually every aspect of their lives. The Minister of Indian Affairs had responsibility for the band’s resources, including land and livestock, ultimate authority over medical services, and employment; could dismiss the chief and council if he chose and could countermand any of their decisions.

Indians adjusted differently depending on their culture and history. The maritime Indians, with their long history of friendly relations with the French, and the west coast Indians, with their hierarchical systems of government, found it easier to deal with the new policies of the whites than did the forest Indians, who found it hard to understand the political and legal institutions of the Europeans and could not adjust to materialistic and competitive values. The Metis under Louis Riel declared an independent republic at Batoche in Saskatchewan, demanding basic rights. The government sent in mounted police and army units to arrest the leaders and return the Indians forcibly to reserves. By 1901 the Indian population had been reduced to approximately one third of its pre-European level.

Political developments

During the 1920s and 1930s Canadian Indians made attempts to form native associations but these were hampered by suspicion and inexperience. Many Indians served in the Canadian armed forces during World War II, some with distinction. This experience brought members of the white and Indian communities together and highlighted the problems and the differences between their conditions. As a result in the late 1940s the Senate established a committee to reconsider the Indian Act. For the first time Indians were consulted before changes were implemented and a new Indian Act was passed in 1951 which gave the band councils greater autonomy and eased certain legal restrictions. The government also reconsidered its educational responsibilities, health services were improved and expenditures on Indians increased. Although the government was spending more money on the Indians the main beneficiary of the increased budget was not the Indians but the expanded government departments. This accentuated the problems of inefficiency and unrespon-siveness and hampered the implementation of urgently needed projects.

The 1960s brought change in native attitudes and saw increased political and social activity by Indians as well as cultural awareness and pride. The National Indian Council was formed during the early 1960s. It was the first nationwide organization of its kind and represented both Status and non-Status Indians. In 1967 the organization dissolved and eventually became two new organizations: the Native Council of Canada, which represented non-Status Indians, and the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), which represented Status Indians. This new generation of Indian leaders was articulate and better educated that their predecessors. They understood the nature of white institutions. They focused on land and treaty rights, socio-economic development and education, but sought to attain these changes without renouncing their Indianness. In 1966 Indian administration was moved to the newly formed Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and in 1969 the White Paper document was issued. Indian leaders had not been consulted before the proposal was put forth and their organizations joined together to denounce the proposal which they saw as an attempt to abolish their few remaining rights. Their efforts were successful and the document was later abandoned.

Land rights

The most controversial issue remains land rights. Among Status Indians 50% are Treaty Indians. These treaties were signed “for as long as the sun shall shine” to there is legal recognition of their land rights. The Non-Treaty Indians however have had to pressure the government for any agreements on aboriginal rights. They argued that the Proclamation of 1763, which had never been repealed, stated and confirmed the official policy of aboriginal land title. If true they would have a claim for more than half of Canada and their leaders are seeking settlements based on recognition of this claim.

In the 1970s the Indians gathered legal support for their demand for recognition of their aboriginal rights and in 1973, in British Columbia, the Nishga tribe made such a claim in court. Although they lost the case in a four-to-three decision of the Supreme Court of Canada the head of the Department of Indian Affairs issued a policy statement that the government would observe the spirit of treaties as well as the letter.

With the oil crisis of the early 1970s the government tried harder to settle claims with the Indians so that areas could be opened up for development. In 1975 the first comprehensive land claims settlement agreement was signed between the federal government, the provincial government of Quebec, and the Cree Indians and Inuits of the James Bay area. The agreement gave the Cree and the Inuit exclusive use of 5,408 square miles, exclusive hunting, fishing and trapping rights in an additional 60,000 square miles and a certain amount of power to influence the nature of development. Over a period of time the native peoples will also receive $225 million as compensation for their extinguished aboriginal title.

In other areas of Canada however solutions have not been readily available. The Nishga Indians who have been demanding recognition of their land rights as early as the 1900s have been continually impeded by the provincial government of British Columbia. After demonstrations, boycotts and protests, the provincial government finally arranged for a meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs and the Nishga tribal government. In addition, agreements in the Northwest Territories have been slow to materialize because of the split that has occurred among the Indians themselves.

Land struggles, some of them involving the use of force by the government, have continued throughout Canada. Some Indian nations have straddled the US/Canadian border and have continued to travel and trade across the border without restrictions. An attempt to tax the internal trade of the Haudenoshaunee Mohawk people at Kahnawake, Quebec, by the Canadian government in June 1988 led to a number of arrests. In Alberta the Lubicon Lake Cree people, who had been offered a reserve by the federal government almost half a century before but had never received it, blockaded 90 square kilometres of their traditional land in October 1988 and declared a sovereign nation with rights and legislation. They were especially angered by the fact that the land had been used extensively for oil drilling, ruining the traditional fishing and hunting economy, yet the Lubicon had never received any compensation or royalties. After six days of blockade and many arrests, the Alberta Premier agreed to negotiate with the Lubicon Lake chief and the Lubicon were promised a reserve. However there were many problems with the federal government on the question of third party rights and financial subsidies and the issue resulted in protracted legal proceedings. There are also threats to the peoples of the West Coast, such as the Haida, where extensive logging has destroyed forests.

The publication in 1986 of “Living Treaties: Lasting Agreements”, the final report of the Task Force on comprehensive claims (areas of Canada where the government has never made any settlement over land) is a landmark in official understanding of comprehensive claims and should, if implemented, mark a major advance for Indian groups in isolated areas such as NWT, Yukon, British Columbia, Labrador and mainland Newfoundland.

Constitutional changes

Native rights were recognized and protected under the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and later the British North America Act of 1867. From the late 1970s there were efforts by the Liberal Party government of Pierre Trudeau to “patriate” the Canadian Constitution, in part prompted by separatist pressure from Quebec. This aroused fears in Indian, Metis and Inuit communities who had noted Trudeau’s 1969 proposals to end the special status of Indian communities. Indigenous groups began a process of publicizing and lobbying, not only in Canada but in the UK, the ex-colonial power and holder of the Constitution. Trudeau initially promised to give “a high priority to the involvement of Indian, Inuit and Metis representatives in the process of constitutional reform” but only at a special conference to be convened after the patriation had been completed and the basic structures of the new arrangements completed. The Indians had proposed that a clause stating “The Aboriginal rights and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby confirmed and recognized” and this was approved in an all-party agreement in the Canadian House of Commons in February 1981. Several provincial governments, however, refused to support the patriation plan unless this commitment was withdrawn, and as a result it was unanimously repudiated by the Prime Minister and 10 provincial ministers in November 1981. Subsequently a compromise was reached whereby the Canadian Constitution would contain the phrase: “The existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed”, but this is less strong than the original proposal and there are fears that it could be used to limit the rights of native peoples.

Other fears were that aboriginal constitutional rights could be altered by majority vote. Since Indians and Metis are a minority in every state, they wished to entrench aboriginal rights to be invulnerable to popular pressures. They also wished to extend indigenous rights. In 1981 a last-minute amendment ensured that further talks on the constitution would continue between the federal and provincial governments and Indian groups. In 1984 the Constitution was amended to give constitutional protection to rights contained in existing or future land claims agreements and to guarantee that the constitutional rights of native people would not be altered without their participation.

Canada’s federal structure has proved to be a major difficulty for native peoples. Some Indian groups, such as the Assembly of First Nations, representing Indians who are registered and recognized under federal legislation, has expressed fears that dealing with provincial governments could lead to compromises on their rights. Provinces have strongly resisted any attempts by either the federal government or Indian groups to restrict their autonomy. To date Quebec has not signed the 1982 Constitution and fears giving any sign that it recognizes indigenous rights as a federal sphere. Certainly the federal government appears to give greater weight to the views of the powerful provincial governments rather than the powerless Indians. In March 1987 a conference which could have lead to self-government for indigenous peoples ended in failure after three states — British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan — vetoed a constitutional amendment and Quebec boycotted the meeting entirely. One month later the Lake Meech Accord between federal and provincial leaders recognized some minority rights for English and French speakers.

Social and educational developments

Reserves have been in effect for a hundred years and continue to shape the lives of native people. Reserves separate whites and Indians and tend to be small and isolated. They offer few opportunities because they have limited potential as farmland and are too small for the Indians to live by the traditional pursuits of hunting and trapping while their remoteness and small populations make them unattractive to industry. In law the reserves do not belong to the Indians but to the government whose duty it is to exploit the resources for the benefit of the Indians. If Indians want to initiate economic enterprises of their own they are hampered by lack of capital and obstructed by the administrative restrictions which surround every area of their life.

Among Canadians as a whole in 1982 unemployment was 8.6% while among Indians it was 60%. In 1969 the average income of a Canadian family was $8,874 while 88% of all Indian families made less than $3,000 and about 50% made less than $1,000, including welfare payments. The differentials continue today. Eighty-eight per cent of Indians live in sub-standard housing as against 11% of Canadians as a whole. The Indian infant mortality rate is more than twice that for Canadians, and Indians are ten times more likely to suffer from tuberculosis. Their life-span is less than other Canadians and their suicide rate is seven that of non-Indians. Alcoholism has reached epidemic proportions and there is widespread delinquency, so while Indians make up only 3% of the population, at any one time they make up between 30% to 60% of the inmates in jails, usually serving short sentences for petty crimes like drunkenness and vagrancy. Many are there because they cannot afford to pay a fine. These problems are a common pattern among Canada’s Indians, although the Indians in the north who follow a more traditional hunting life style have fewer problems of delinquency, maladjustment and social collapse than tribes which have come under stronger pressure to conform to the white Canadian norm.

In the 1950s the government took greater control of the reserve schools to ensure that standards were maintained and to integrate Indian children into white schools. The academic performance of most Indian children remained poor for the educational system was designed to meet the needs of white children and did not take into consideration the unique cultural and social problems faced by native children. In the 1960s, 61% of Indian children dropped out of school before grade six, 97% before grade 12, and only 150 were enrolled in full-time courses at university level.

The opposition to the White Paper Document of 1969 had strengthened the Indian organizations and forced them to focus on exactly what they wanted. The Indians’ educational objectives were put forth in an NIB paper in 1972 and presented to the Minister of Indian Affairs. The government committed itself to implementing the proposal. Among other things, the proposal suggested that there be more parental responsibility and local control, that authority for reserve schools should be transferred to the bands, that Indians should be represented on provincial school boards, and that traditional values and culture should be encouraged. However, by the 1980s there was little improvement. While 88% of all Canadian children completed high school only 6% of Indian children did so.

(See also American Indians; Inuits)