THE 19th AND EARLY 20th CENTURY

The 1800s brought many changes to the continent that for centuries had been the preserve of various indigenous groups -- "preserve" perhaps being the best word to describe those groups' right to the land, as the European concepts of "property" or "ownership" was far different from the way indigenous peoples saw their occupancy of this vast territory. Until the newcomers introduced the ideas of legal ownership of property and national (or colonial) boundaries, First Nations and Inuit peoples saw their territories as those areas they had inhabited for long periods, could control, and could expand by conflict or simple migration and expansion.

The flood of European settlers, traders, military personnel, entrepreneurs and colonial officials had by 1831 brought the non-indigenous population to a total of about 800,000, a figure that likely equalled or exceeded the total indigenous population in the vast area we now call Canada. Now indigenous tribes were considered an inconvenient hindrance to colonial expansion. Their declining numbers, due to the spread of European-brought diseases, loss of traditional livelihood, and widespread starvation, can be seen in the 1871 estimate of indigenous population of 102,358 (Wikipedia, Population of Canada). As a result, native populations were increasingly regarded as a troublesome minority, impeding westward expansion and settlement, constituting a drain on the public purse, and, as the Metis rebellion of Louis Riel in 1885 made clear, posing a possible military threat to the newly-created "nation" of Canada.

The attitudes of Canada's first political leaders and government officials toward the indigenous population have often been characterized by indigenous leaders and activists as totally racist, self-serving, fixated upon "the bottom line", and clearly predicated on the assumption that assimilating the Indian into "white" society was the sensible course. There can be no doubt that racism and self-interest played a large part in government policies and practices, but documents of the time also reveal a very human concern for the welfare, and even physical survival, of native peoples. And the assimilation approach, while it ignored the vital importance of traditional language and culture to native tribes, was in contrast to the harsh segregation policies adopted by another colonized country, South Africa. In Canada, there were no forced mass migrations of tribes to far-distant territories as occurred in the United States, and the efforts of the North-West Mounted Police to protect native tribes from rapacious whisky traders contrast sharply with the punitive actions of the much-hated U.S. Cavalry.