Posted below is an extract from Part III, Chapter 15 of the book Stolen Continents by Ronald Wright, which is a historical overview of the brutal impact of European colonization on the ancient peoples of the Americas.
When it became clear during the late nineteenth century that the United States would not invade the British colony (Canada), Indian buffer states were no longer required. Canada, knowing that native nations held Aboriginal title to large parts of North America, wanted to get rid of its Indigenous rivals. The best way, short of extermination, was to absorb them. With no Indians, there could be no Aboriginal claims; so the young Canadian parliament passed an Indian Act intended to promote assimilation.
The process could be hastened, Canada thought, by encouraging contact with “civilization” which often involved confining Indian children in missionary boarding schools, and shrinking the reserves, which it had come to regard as mere holding camps for a doomed race. Under the policy of “enfranchisement” Indians were expected to give up membership to their own nations forever in exchange for the privilege of voting in Canadian elections. Males received a lump sum and a piece of land – essentially a bribe – snipped from the reserve. Few took the bait. Between 1876 and 1918, only 102 did so, most of them women who had married whites. Such a marriage brought automatic “enfranchisement” even though Canadian women then had no vote.
The Indian Act also aimed to replace Indigenous governments with a uniform system of elected band councillors who would be responsive puppets of the Indian Affairs department. “Hereditary” chiefs (an inaccurate term for Iroquois sachems) would be deposed, and matrilineality – the reckoning of descent, and hence nationality, through the female line – would end. In short, the act’s purpose was to destroy native nations from within by dissolving their political and family structures.
Canada began by overthrowing traditional governments on the smaller Iroquois territories of Ontario and Quebec. In the mid-1880s, Indian Affairs pressured the Bay of Quinte Mohawks, ostensibly on a trial basis, to replace their condoled chiefs with elected councilmen. The Indians put up with the new system for a couple of years, then rejected it – the adversarial style of European politics ran counter to their traditions of consensus, as did the exclusion of the women’s voice.
But it turned out that the “trial period” was a sham: Canada would not allow the people to restore their own system. The outraged Mohawks sent pleas to the governor general, Queen Victoria’s representative in Canada:
“We… do not want our Council Fire extinguished, because it was the custom and manner of our forefathers….
“We will remind you of the Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship between the English people and the Six Nations. When our forefathers first made the Covenant Chain with the English, both parties engaged to keep the end of it fast in their hands…
“Brother! At the time of the formations of the treaties … the Six Nations were found and looked upon as a people, and had a systematic constitution … It was understood by both parties. … that each should maintain their own constitutions, but in the present instance, it appears that the Silver Chains is now tarnished upon these points.
“The Canadian Government, which does not recognize us fully looks upon the Six Nations as minors and treats them as such.
“Brother! We quote the words of Lord Dufferin, one of your predecessors, saying the people of Canada and the people of Britain will not cease to recognize these obligations … Never shall the word of Britain, once pledged, be broken …
“What is your power and authority to rule our people?”
What indeed? But the petitions did no good. Canada recognized only the puppet council and funnelled all rents, annuities, and other funds belonging to the Indians through that body.
Along the St. Lawrence, where the Iroquois first met Cartier and Champlain, are the large Mohawk communities of Kahnawake, opposite Montreal, and Akwesasne, between Montreal and Kingston. Although these had drawn close to the French for a century, they had helped the British conquer New France in 1759-1760 and welcomed large numbers of southern Mohawks during the Revolution.
In 1890, the people of Kahnawake protested, pointing out the Canadian government’s lack of jurisdiction and its hypocrisy in opposing “hereditary” chiefs: ”Every nation throughout the world retains their own customs, rites, and ceremonies, and according to the British Constitution [there are] Kings, Queens, and Lords and Peers as hereditaries. Brother! We cannot account…why we cannot adhere…to our customs, rights and ceremonies.”
Canada’s most brutal intervention came at Akwesasne. This territory’s very location should remind the United States and Canada that the Mohawk Nation is far older than they, for the map line drawn between them runs through the middle of it. Here, in 1898, the clan mothers wrote a long letter to the governor general, explaining how their system worked and insisted that they had no wish for change. Twice the women prevented elections from being held. An official of the Canadian government, sent to investigate, made a most revealing comment: The Indians, he said in his report, “might as well look for the falling of the sky as to expect recognition of their claim to hold the position of a practically independent state.” Very similar words would be uttered ninety-two years later by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The real issue, then as now, was sovereignty. And then, as now, the affair turned violent.
In March 1899, Mounted Police arrived to enforce the holding of an election. They were soon besieged by 200 Mohawks. No Mounties were hurt, but they were sent packing. Two months later they returned. Michael Mitchell, the present elected chief of Akwesasne, wrote this account of how the council he heads, and aims to reform, was installed:
“At 4 am on May 1, 1899, Colonel Sherwood … came to Akwesasne, leading a contingent of police across the St. Lawrence River. They occupied the Council Hall, where they sent a message to the chiefs to attend a special meeting regarding the buying of stone [to build a bridge]… As the chiefs walked into the council office, they were thrown to the floor and handcuffed. One of the women notified the Head Chief, Jake Fire, and as he came through the door demanding the release of his fellow chiefs he was shot twice, the second shot being fatal. The police marched their prisoners to the tugboat and left the village. Jake Fire was shot down in cold blood while fighting for Mohawk Indian government….
“The seven chiefs…were imprisoned. Five of them were kept in jail for more than a year….
“Immediately after this affair, the representatives of the government took fifteen Indians over to Cornwall and provided them with alcohol. The Indian agents told them each to nominate one of the others present. This was how the elective government under the Indian Act system was implemented at Akwesasne. This is the way Canada introduced our people to the principles of their democracy.”
(Part III: Chapter 15 pp 316-319, Ronald Wright. Stolen Continents. Viking Press, 1992.)
The Indian Lands Act, 1924
On April 1924, the Canadian parliament passed The Indian Lands Act, 1924 – An Act for the settlement of certain questions between the Governments of Canada and Ontario. The architect of the law was the notorious Duncan Campbell Scott – the same person who expanded the residential school system as Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, refused to assist Indigenous peoples when a tuberculosis epidemic broke out on a number of reserves and was determined to completely assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canada as the means of solving the “Indian Problem.”
The Indian Lands Act, 1924 concerns the manner in which Canada laid claim to the resources on reserve lands. It is premised on a Memorandum of Agreement between Charles Stewart, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs for Canada, and two Ontario ministers James Lyons, Minister of Lands and Forests and Charles McCrea, Minister of Mines. This Memorandum of Agreement was signed in March 1924. Duncan Campbell Scott signed the memorandum on behalf of Canada. Through the provisions of this law, the Canadian state set the stage to lay claim to land, minerals and resources on Indian reserves.
The Indian Lands Act, 1924 notes as the first point: “All Indian reserves in the Province of Ontario heretofore or hereafter set aside shall be administered by the Dominion of Canada for the benefit of the band or bands of Indian to which each may have been or may be allotted; portions thereof may, upon their surrender for the purpose by the said band or bands be sold, leased or otherwise be disposed of by letter patent under the Great Seal of Canada…”
Further, “…the Government of the Dominion of Canada should have full power and authority to sell, lease, and convey title in fee simple or for any less estate to any lands forming part of any Reserve thereafter surrendered by the Indians…”
Additionally, “Any sale, lease or other disposition made…may include or may be limited to the minerals (including precious metals) contained in or under the lands sold, leased or otherwise disposed of…”
This act also gave guidelines on any entity wanting to enter reserve land to prospect for minerals: “Any person authorized under the laws of the Province of Ontario to enter upon land for the purpose of prospecting for minerals thereupon shall be permitted to prospect for minerals in any Indian Reserve upon obtaining permission so to do from the Indian Agent for such Reserve…”
Under the band council system of governance imposed by force on reserves through the Indian Act, the Chief and Council reported to the Indian Agent who was the representative of the Canadian state on a reserve, and were accountable to him, not the members of their community. Needless to say, there was widespread resistance to the band council system, which attempted to displace age-old traditional forms of governance established by the Indigenous peoples themselves.
The law also stated that any royalties from such mining activities will be shared between Canada and Ontario on an equal basis. There is no mention in this law of Indigenous peoples getting any share of the revenues generated from the theft of the resources in their territories.
The Canadian government brought pressure to bear on the reserves in various ways and under the arbitrary rule of the local Indian Agent many Indigenous peoples lost their livelihoods because they could not leave the reserve without permission from the Indian Agent. Little by little band councils were forced to open their reserves to outside development or lost portions of their reserve through forced sales.
In recent times, one such case is the Cree community of Attawapiskat where pressure was brought to bear on the band council and members to permit the South African mining monopoly De Beers to operate a diamond mine in that community. Since the mine opened, the community has received a pittance of the profits, and promises of jobs for local people have not materialized. The same pressure is being applied to the communities surrounding the Ring of Fire in some of the Ojibway and Cree Nations in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory in Northern Ontario.
What took place through The Indian Lands Act, 1924 was the opposite of what Indigenous leaders understood when they signed treaties, such as the numbered treaties, with the Canadian state. The Indigenous peoples never viewed their lands as property to be bought and sold or that could be forfeited, and those Indigenous leaders who were forced to sign treaties with Canada never relinquished their hereditary claims. Today, the organized resistance of the sovereign Indigenous peoples to attempts by the Canadian state to impose its will on them and steal their resources or run pipelines through their territories, is broadly supported by the Canadian people. They want an end to the crimes that were, and continue to be, committed against Indigenous peoples, as the Canadian state continues to serve the biggest resource monopolies in their plunder of the lands and resources, violating the hereditary rights of the Indigenous peoples.
(The Indian Lands Act, 1924. Text taken from https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca)