First Nations In British Columbia Essay, Research Paper
By the end of the Victorian period hardly a people remained on the
face of the earth whose social structure, culture, and basic way of
life had not been more or less violently disrupted.
-Cell, Imperial Conscience 1
When the first explorers reported that they had reached the Pacific
coast, they mentioned that there were inhabitants already occupying the
territory. Although sometimes reluctant to even bother reporting on the
Native peoples, the explorers stated that it wasn t worth looking into the
cultures of these people2. This attitude of ignorant explorers laid the
groundwork for prejudicial preconception of the future settlers that ultimately
resulted in assimilation.
One conclusion that white men made was that the Natives would
eventually annihilate themselves because they were not a self-sufficient
nation. This assumption has proved to be faulty, in that through all the
turmoil that the Aboriginals of British Columbia have suffered through
racism, reserve systems, residential schools, and prohibition of practicing
their cultural traditions, they have survived and in fact, have prospered and
continue to prosper in the present day.
During the colonization period of the 1800 s, settlers started to fill up
Britain s western colony. The gold rush enhanced the popularity of the colony
and the settlers became preoccupied with its wealth to deal with themselves
adapting to the rights of the Natives and instead were pushed aside and
European assimilation began3. The settlers were told of the extreme racial
differences and beliefs and decided that the only theirs were valid. They
saw the Native culture and spiritual beliefs as heathenistic and barbaric;
nonetheless, there was the odd settler that saw the cultures of the Northwest
Coast to be astounding. Overall, the settlers knew that if they were going to
dominate the colony, they would have to constrain the Natives and rid them
of their culture.
Before British Columbia reached provincial status in 1871, the colony
started to enforce assimilation. The first act of assimilation were the 14
Douglas treaties which took place from 1850 to 1854, when the settlers
wanted to free the land from Native occupation on Vancouver Island. The
fourteen treaties involved moving the Natives onto small reserves and camps;
as well as granting them small allowances such as cash, clothing for the chief,
and livestock. In the 1860 s it was viewed that the Natives didn t have a
sophisticated society, and were not competent to settle the land. This opinion
lead to the creation of reserves for the rest of British Columbia when the
Indian Act was constituted4.
The next step in assimilation was the British North America Act. The
BNA Act was created in 1876, and it legislated that Natives became a federal
responsibility(section 91)5. This meant that all native relations were to be
dealt with by federal government and the Douglas treaties came to a halt. The
reasons why there was no more treaties was because the land became the
responsibility of the province and the provincial government didn t agree with
Native land title; funds were cut by the colonial office in Britain; and because
the majority of the settlers disagreed to give public funds, Douglas also no
longer believed that Natives retained land title6.
The Indian Act
The end of the Douglas treaties didn t stop assimilation. The Indian
act was created in 1876. This act demoralized the Natives by more or less
treating them like wild animals. Reserves for the rest of the province were
formed and laws became enforced to keep order among the savages .
The laws of the Indian Act were inhumane, for example, there was a passlaw
in which any one Native person could not leave the reserve without
permission by their Indian Agent. With regard to Indian agents, only they
could determine who was status and who was not. The Indian agent could
also strip a Native of their status. Such was done when a Native woman
married a white man or, if a Native got a University degree, his status would
be taken away.
The churches also had a big part in assimilating Natives. William
Duncan was among the missionaries who believed that Christianity was best
for the Natives7 The churches wanted to convert all Natives and abolish
Native culture, this was when the potlatches were prohibited8. The potlatch
prohibition is easily one of the most monstrous acts of cruelty that the
Europeans imposed on Natives. The potlatch was the way Natives governed
themselves. Every important event that occurred in Native society resulted in
a potlatch. Birth, Death, marriage, shame, settlement, and victory feasts were
all common practice. The purpose of having a feast was to resolve a
problem, tragedy, or celebrate a joyous event. In the feast hall, the
participants were seated according to clan, house, and finally rank. This is
where social structure is most important because it was the way that Natives
honored and respected the living and the dead, paid out debts, and thanked
clans and people for their kindness and assistance.
The churches also suggested residential schools. The children that
were sent away from their families were forced to learn how to be European
and they were not allowed to speak their language, let alone see or speak to
their siblings, which was punishable if they were caught doing so. Many
tragedies occurred in residential schools including sexual, physical, and
mental abuse which has caused psychological harm to many of the children
who attended residential schools9.
The potlatch wasn t the only tradition that the church eradicated.
Wearing traditional regalia and dancing were also outlawed. This was a
grave adversity. For the Natives, oral history was how they educated their
future chiefs and matriarchs. The history was often told by a story from an
elder, a ceremonial dance, or by art. Before the settlers came, lineage were
passed down from generation to generation in either of these forms. There are
a variety of dances along the northwest coast. Each nation has there own
dances; in which each clan, house, and chief own. Regalia would often be
worn for dances or potlatches with various art work which was exclusive to
that of the owner. The art work alone was an aspect of history and was
always created for a purpose, every object that had art work on it symbolized
a story or ownership. The natives continued to have potlatches, they would
have them in secret, out of sight from the Indian agent. When Alert Bay
Natives were caught having an illegal potlatch, their Indian agent offered their
freedom in exchange for their regalia10.
Attitudes toward Natives
By the late 19th century the majority of settlers saw the Native people
as a nuisance. These people were extreme capitalists and were only
concerned about their personal gain and not the respect of a different culture.
Barman suggests that there were four major misconceptions surrounding the
view of Natives11. During this period, nationalism became very prominent
across the world. It was no different in North America, now that the
Europeans were the dominant race in British Columbia, they were not afraid
to treat the Natives like inferiors. The Europeans also assumed that the land
the Natives traditionally lived – off of was just being wasted if it was not
cultivated. Barman also stated that the Native culture and spiritual beliefs
were irrelevant to the Europeans, and they didn t care too much to actually
realize that there was structure and governance which was not unlike that of
European hierarchy. The final and most dreadful misconception was that the
Europeans figured that the Natives would eventually disappear. The
Europeans believed in these misconceptions to their full extent. It was from
the thoughts and idealism of the ignorant settlers that the Indian policy
became a reality.
To truly understand the effects that assimilation had on the Northwest
coast Natives, one must live the life of a Native. It is difficult for non-natives
to interpret the hardships that occurred in the lives of the Natives by only
reading from a book. The unjust realities that took place could never be
obliterated, but over the years Natives have become more than just an alien
in a European society, but a part of Canadian society. The European
idealism that was determined to make Canada has long since passed and the
Canada that has been made is proud to be multicultural.
Assimilation didn t work in British Columbia and today Natives are on
their way to regaining their lost culture. There are numerous Native
organizations that strive ensure that their culture will never die again. These
organizations also encourage non-natives of all ethnic groups to share in the
prosperity of their culture. Today Native edification is thriving, there is still
a presence of prejudice, but the majority of British Columbians have become
less ignorant and more understanding; which truly lives up to the name of
today s Canadian .
vBarman, Jean The West Beyond The West (1996) University of
vFisher, Robin. Contact And Conflict Second Edition(1994)
vFrideres, James. S Aboriginal Peoples In Canada Fifth
Edition(1998) Prentice Hall.
vJohnston, Hugh J.M. The Pacific Province(1996) Douglas &
vMcMillan, Alan D. Native Peoples And Cultures of Canada
Second Edition (1995) Douglas & McIntyre.