Indigenous peoples of Canada have given more than a name to Canadian history

Dec 7th, 2014 | By | Category: Heritage Now

Children of the Global Village : Democracy in Canada since 1497

Randall White
eastendbooks  2024

(For background on the larger series of which this is a part, see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic.)


How the Indigenous peoples of Canada have given more than a name to modern Canadian history.

Wherever they landed in northern North America in 1497, on behalf of the English monarch, Henry VII, John Cabot and the small crew of the Matthew met no other human beings.

In 1501 a Spanish expedition visited Labrador, and “claimed to have acquired from the natives with whom they came into contact a fragment of a broken Italian sword and two silver earrings of Venetian manufacture. It has … been suggested … these must have been relics of the 1498 expedition, since Cabot had no contact with Native Americans in 1497.”

Yet when Jacques Cartier made his voyages on behalf of the King of France more than a generation later he met various native North Americans. On his journey up the St. Lawrence River in 1535 Cartier also officially visited two large Iroquoian villages, Stadacona and Hochelaga – more or less on the sites of present-day Quebec City and Montreal.

According to the probably most plausible story about the modern origins of the word Canada, at Stadacona Cartier asked the inhabitants the name of their land (or “village”), and understood them to say “Kanata.”  It is sometimes said that the St. Lawrence Iroquoians misunderstood Cartier, and thought he was just pointing to their cornfields. In any case, Cartier’s reports of his travels apparently inspired the early modern European map-makers who called the much wider St. Lawrence valley region of northeastern North America “Canada.”

* * * *

What the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982 calls the “aboriginal peoples of Canada” (which “ includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada”) have given much more to modern Canadian history than a name.

In its still ringing and provocative conclusion,  Harold Innis’s now more than 90-year-old local classic, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History, complains: “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.” (And 2020s apologies for this customary anglophone lexicon of the 1930s.)

Even in the early 21st century, relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians remain part of the “tradition of all the dead generations” which “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” The political activism that began in the1960s and 1970s  has nonetheless helped make the Canadian Indiogenous past a more important part of the wider Canadian future. And the Indigenous peoples of Canada (or First Nations) are now the fastest growing demographic group in the Canadian present.

(In 2011 just over 1.4 million Canadians reported themselves part of what Statistics Canada called the “Aboriginal identity population” — accounting for some 4.3% of the total population, Canada-wide. Between 2006 and 2011 the Non-Aboriginal identity population increased 5.2%, while the Aboriginal identity population grew almost four times faster, by a quite dramatic 20.1%! In 2016 the Aboriginal identity population accounted for 4.9%  of the total Canadian population.)

* * * *

In the more recent past as well such diverse researchers and writers as Jennifer Brown, Harold Cardinal, Olive Dickason, Robin Fisher, John Milloy, Arthur Ray, John Ralston Saul, Donald Smith, Bruce Trigger, Sylvia Van Kirk, Sally Weaver, and Richard White have brought us closer to Harold Innis’s failed realization of 1930.

The single most illuminating summary of these investigations is probably still the impressive first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada, edited by R. Cole Harris of the University of British Columbia.

After reconnoitring the last ice age some 20,000 years ago, the first volume of the atlas (From the Beginning to 1800) outlines a current mainstream Western scientific view of the origins of  aboriginal peoples in the Americas.

About 11,000 or so years ago, the climate was changing and the great northern ice sheets had begun to retreat. At least the most southerly (and humanly populated) parts of present-day Canada were free of ice. More provocatively, in the northwest an ice-free passage had arisen, stretching all the way from present-day Alberta as far north as Alaska, which at this point was still joined to what is now Russia by a land bridge.

As the editors of the volume explain: “A cautious interpretation is that the first immigrants to the New World crossed into the unglaciated regions of Alaska and the Yukon some time before 12 000 BC on the land bridge connecting Asia and North America.”

And then: “Around 10 000 BC” descendants of these “Asiatic hunters of big game” with an early  “stone-tool technology … spread south along a corridor between melting Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets into the heart of the New World.”

Some present-day descendants of the Indigenous peoples of Canada do not accept this account of their origins. Their alternative theory is summarized in the title of Arthur Ray’s book of 1996,  I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People. The white men, these critics seem to be saying, are still trying to prove that John Cabot was at any rate onto something when he thought that Nova Scotia was really quite close to Japan.

So the first North Americans, today’s Western science explains, were themselves just very early immigrants from Asia. The Europeans who mistakenly called them Indians, because they thought they were somehow in India, were at least not entirely wrong. And all this only shows how the European-dominated mainstream culture in Canada today can still not entirely accept that the “New World” is a human habitat of ancient vintage in its own right – and that the aboriginal peoples of Canada have “lived here since the world began.”

Even many non-aboriginal Canadians today can agree that this critique has its own compelling logic. In the end, as a matter even of the highest Western science, there can be no completely certain and altogether settled answers to questions about the very deep human past.

The ghost of the Harold Innis who also published a book called The Bias of Communication – in which he placed a high value on the ancient “oral tradition” — arguably urges that both the current Indigenous activist and academic-scientific views of Indigenous origins are worth bearing in mind.

The first volume of the 1987 Historical Atlas of Canada in any case goes on to present much compelling archaeological evidence on the evolution of aboriginal peoples in northern North America, over the almost dozen millennia between 10,000 BC and, say, the arrival of John Cabot somewhere in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia in 1497.

* * * *

Certain striking impressions of this long early period arise as you browse through the early “plates” in the 1987 atlas.

The aboriginal peoples of Canada may have lived here since the world began (whenever that may have been). But the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Montagnais, Inuit, and Beothuk who greeted the French, Portuguese, Basque, and English cod fishermen (who began to visit Atlantic Canada in the 16th century, in the wake of John Cabot) — and the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes Iroquoians who greeted Cartier in the 1530s and then Champlain in 1615 — were not living at all the same life as their ancestors in 10,000 BC.

For one thing, there was “Environmental Change After 9000 BC” (Plate 4). The temperature rose and the glaciers melted. The big game of an earlier era vanished, and new species of smaller dominant animals evolved.

“Vegetation Provinces” went through several different phases and geographic dispersions between 9000 BC and AD 1000. The great inland waterways of northern North America — in some respects a legacy of the retreating glaciers (or “ice sheets”) — arranged and re-arranged themselves (as they are still doing today, and no doubt with increasing degrees of human assistance, if that is quite the right word).

Human technology progressed as well. Very simple stone tools developed into more complex stone (and wooden and sometimes bone) tools and weapons. “Around 1000 BC pottery spread from Asia across northern Alaska to the Yukon coast and from the south to much of eastern Canada. The bow and arrow also spread rapidly, probably from a number  of independent sources” (Plate 8).

Hunting, fishing, and gathering remained crucial to the food supply. But agriculture began in a few hospitable places 1000 years before European contact in the 16th century: “Corn, domesticated in northern Mexico some 3500 years earlier, reached southern Ontario after AD 500. The cultivation of beans, sunflower, and squash followed later” (Plate 9).

* * * *

It is also clear enough that over their long history before European contact in the 16th century,  the diverse and various Indigenous peoples of Canada did not exactly stay in one place forever.

The French who moved into the lower St. Lawrence valley in the early 17th century, under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, already had hints about all this. By the time Champlain arrived in the 1600s, the Iroquoians who had greeted Cartier at Stadacona and Hochelaga in the 1530s had vanished.

Exactly what happened to them remains an attractively unsolved mystery of early Canadian history. But one way or another they must have moved west, to the interior Great Lakes Iroquoian heartland of present-day northern New York and southern Ontario.

Plate 11 in the 1987 atlas similarly explains that it is “not known when the ancestors of the Paleo-Eskimos crossed from Asia to Alaska.” But: “About 4000 years ago a Paleo-Eskimo people, the Pre-Dorset, expanded rapidly eastward across Arctic Canada from Alaska.” This led to a so-called “Dorset culture” that “depended on caribou, muskoxen, and fish” in some areas, and “in others  … lived primarily on ringed seals and other sea mammals.”

Then: “By about AD 1000 the Thule people of northern Alaska,” who had developed new technologies for “the efficient hunting of bowhead whales,” using kayak and umiak boats and “harpoons attached to floats,” started to move east. Soon enough they had  “occupied most of Arctic Canada,” and largely absorbed and supplanted “their Dorset predecessors.”

Further climatic changes led to the culture of the historic Inuit, “after about AD 1600.” This included winters spent in coastal areas, living “in snow houses, often on the sea ice,” and hunting “ringed seals.” In the most recent past the Inuit have entered another era of vast and often troubling as well as stimulating cultural change, now unfolding in the new Canadian Territory of Nunavut.

* * * *

In the more benign environments further south, there are also intriguing similarities between the most favoured geographic regions of the aboriginal Canada that Europeans began to explore in earnest in the early 17th century, and modern Canada in the early 21st century.

The most southerly region on the map of the country today is southern Ontario (much of which is further south than over half a dozen states of the modern USA). It is a southwesterly jutting peninsula of land bounded by the inland seas of the Great Lakes, and linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the St. Lawrence River in western Quebec. And Plate 12 of From the Beginning to 1800 outlines the increasingly sophisticated development of “Iroquoian Agricultural Settlement” in this region, from AD 500 to European contact in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Bruce Trigger’s masterful 1976 study of the most northerly of these agricultural Iroquoians, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, is a landmark in late 20th century Canadian historical writing. By any measure the Huron Confederacy of “the Wendat” it describes was a remarkable human society.

When the French first discovered them in the early 17th century the Huron (French name) or Wendat (their name) were somewhat north of the present Toronto region, between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. They lived in longhouses, in palisaded villages with as many as a few thousand residents each, and surrounded by cornfields, cleared by men but largely cultivated by women.

The men specialized in hunting, fishing, trade, and warfare (or defence). In the late spring, summer, and early fall they traveled often astounding distances via the transportation technology of the canoe and portage, in what early Europeans saw as a primeval land of lakes and forests.

Democracy in Canada today, it could also be said, begins here. When Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote that “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” in the middle of the 18th century, during the intellectual prelude to the French Revolution, his concept of “born free” was drawing on extensive accounts of the early 17th century Wendat in the upper country of Canada, compiled by assiduous French missionaries.

* * * *

Another uniquely favoured geographic region of Canada today — and in the more ancient past as well — is the lotus land of the Northwest Coast, whose rugged northern location is offset by the kinder and more exotic breezes of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Plate 13 of From the Beginning to 1800 sketches the quite elaborate social and economic life of “The Coast Tsimshian, ca. 1750,” along “the Skeena and Nass Rivers and adjacent North Pacific Coast,” north of the present Vancouver region around Prince Rupert.

The Tsimshian “depended on the extensive exploitation of salmon supplemented by other fishing and by hunting and gathering.” They also skillfully utilized the resources of the lush Pacific coast forests. In the late fall, winter, and early spring they lived in costal villages of remarkable wooden-plank houses, some of which were painted in striking symbolic designs. They had their own uniquely designed wooden canoes as well, which facilitated “regular, seasonal migrations to other locations for specific resources.”

Their unusually hospitable environment and prosperous economic base promoted a complex social life: “All Tsimshan were members of hierarchical kinship groups in which status differences were inherited … At elaborate potlaches the giving of luxury goods validated status and title. The system was financed by the corporate (kinship-group) production for surplus goods that could be exchanged or traded over long distances.”

The related wider culture of the Indigenous peoples of Canada on the Pacific Northwest Coast, graced by the  awesome art of their giant wood totem poles, would also much later inspire its own landmarks in late 20th century Canadian historical writing. Robin Fisher’s Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890, “won the Canadian Historical Association’s John A. Macdonald prize for the best book in Canadian History in 1977.”

As the European-dominated mass settlement frontier of the 19th century moved west, the Indigenous peoples of Canada on the Pacific Northwest Coast were the last to surrender their traditional ways of life. When the colony of British Columbia joined the Canadian confederation in 1871, Indigenous peoples still accounted for more than two-thirds of its resident population.

* * * *

Once you start looking, there are more than a few other intriguing parallels between life in Canada today and the life of its deeper Indoigenous past.

The economic base of the “Bison Hunters of the Plains” (Plate 10 in the 1987 atlas) was in some ways a survival of the big-game hunting culture of more ancient millennia. And this is both a logical and a  romantic precedent for the dynamic energy-resource economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the early 21st century (which also lean on the legacies of the still more ancient dinosaurs).

The vast east-west geographic reach of the Algonquian linguistic family in the 17th century (Plate 18) — from the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia all the way west to the Blackfoot at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains — foreshadowed and no doubt helped facilitate the pioneering transcontinental reach that the modern Indigenous-European fur trade in Canada had achieved by the early 19th century.

A century ago most  Canadian historical writing tended to assume that the present-day number of Indigenous peoples was declining dramatically, and would soon approach zero.

The deepest history of Indigenous population numbers remains a subject shrouded in much mystery and controversy. But the hardest evidence currently available suggests that there are nowadays considerably more Indigenous people of Canada than there were at the most enduring start of European contact in the early 17th century.

Brian Slattery at today’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto has also urged that Indigenous or Aboriginal nations “were active participants in the lengthy processes that eventually gave rise to the federation of Canada …  Aboriginal peoples should be viewed as active participants in generating the basic norms that govern us — not as people on the fringes … but as contributors to the evolution of our Constitution and most fundamental laws.”

Tags: , , ,

One comment
Leave a comment »

  1. Imagine if the government haepnped to, oh, legally define what it means Chinese, create a department of Chinese affairs, create Chinese rights, reserve land for Chinese so defined and exempt Chinese living on reserve land from paying taxes of any kind. No one would doubt that is a recipe for disastrous social relations. So, why would anyone doubt the same about Native Affairs, native rights and native reserves? Abolish the reserve system and native rights and comments about “drunken Indians” will become as rare and archaic sounding as “drunken” whatever.Not to sound too much like a historical materialist, but a culture ceases to form a coherent whole once the dominant mode of production completely changes. This is not controversial. Everyone realizes that recreating the culture of feudal France or Ancient Athens is impossible. Such a task would mean recreating the economic basis upon which fostered these cultures. However, many people it seems have the hair brained notion that it is possible to create a close facsimile of traditional native culture. They have not noticed that what underpins native culture today is not subsistence hunting carried out with modern rifles with scopes in place of traditional hunting tools, but rather Canadian law and past Canadian attempts of social exclusion. The dichotomy between their culture and our culture is hence false. Canada is the authors of both. The Indian Act and the reserve system is the basis by which status Indians reproduce themselves. The insistence of many that the communal tenor of Native culture be maintained no matter what amounts to call to save native culture screw the natives. Yes these collection of idiotic laws have helped foster a strong Native identity (legally defining a group as other always does), but on a human level they produced nothing but misery. Why this does not bother more people I do not know. It is time the Canadian government shut down this ant farm. All it has done is produce levels of poverty that could only be described as third world, substance abuse levels that rival countries undergoing serve economic dislocation, suicide rates as high as gay males and American soldiers serving in Iraq and rapid criminality.

Leave Comment