Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews

The Red Indian


     It may be conceded that the typical Canadian Indian is the hunter and trapper, and, when one thinks of him, buckskins and bead-work and feathers still cloak him with a sort of romance. But these are rarely seen, except in pageants and on holidays, when the superior race must be amused by a glimpse of real savages in war-paint. The Indian hunter and trapper follows the craft of his ancestors, clothed as you and I, his wife and children likewise. His domestic surroundings grow less and less savage. The rabbit-skin robe yet holds its own, and the snow-shoe; but the birch-bark canoe is sup-planted by the basswood or cedar variety; as likely as not he has a sewing machine and a gramophone in his tent. The aboriginal hunter is supreme no longer in his own craft; gone is the fiction that he is superior in these pursuits. The white man equals him as a trapper and holds his own on the trail and in the canoe. But as the margin of the wilderness recedes, it is difficult for comparisons of this kind to find the Indian of pure blood. There has been through all these years a great interfusion of white blood by lawful union and by illicit intercourse; legally a man may be an Indian with but a small trace of native blood, if his Indian descent is through the male line. If an Indian woman marries a white man she ceases to be an Indian in the eye of the law, and her children take the status of their father.
     For 70 years after the cession of Canada, Indian administration was in the hands of the Imperial military authorities; it was not until 1835 that the responsibility was transferred to the Province of Canada. The military policy had looked upon the Indians as potential allies or foes, and, during the pioneer days, the feeling was balanced between hope and apprehension. They were kept quiet by presents of scarlet cloth, silver gorgets, brass kettles, and ammunition, [page 284] with an occasional ration of rum. The fur-traders used the latter fluid as the most precious means of exchange and barter, and the restless, dejected people that were handed over to the province were indeed a problem. One Governor of Upper Canada, seeing them so wretched, resolved to send them back to Nature for healing, and to remove them to hunting grounds where they might recuperate or die away unseen. But better counsels prevailed. The missionaries claimed them as material ready for evangelization, and protested that they were capable of lasting improvement. Upper and Lower Canada, not long after that, began a systematic endeavour to educate the Indians, supported by zealous missionary effort. This informal union between Church and State still exists, and all Canadian-Indian schools are conducted upon a joint agreement between the Government and the denomination as to finances and system. The method has proved successful, and the Indians of Ontario and Quebec, in the older regions of the provinces, are every day entering more and more into the general life of the country. They are farmers, clerks, artisans, teachers, and lumbermen. Some few have qualified as medical doctors and surveyors; an increasing number are accepting enfranchisement and taking up the responsibilities of citizenship.
     A few years ago an Ontario group of Indians was enfranchised, and their tribal lands and funds distributed amongst them. It was a typical group, and each individual was self-supporting; the most successful was head of a boot factory, with a salary of $6,000.  Although there are reactionary elements among the best educated tribes, and stubborn paganism on the most progressive reserves, the irresistible movement is towards the goal of complete citizenship. At least 25 per cent of the Indians of Eastern Canada are hunters, and must remain so until settlement filters slowly into their country.
     Last year the value of fur and fish taken by the Indians of Canada was $1,626,890; this year it will be larger, as the value of raw furs rapidly increases. Measured by even a low standard, the life of these hunting Indians is not enviable, and a condition almost of slavery exists. By the very circumstances of their lives they are bound to their masters, the traders, and are in a position of debt and obligation that cannot be thrown off. The methods of the hunt are often beset with privation, but the Indian has no longer the old stamina of the race to fall back upon. [page 285]
      The larger portion of the Indian population of Canada is west of Lake Superior, and it was adopted in a primitive state by the Dominion shortly after Confederation. The aboriginal title to the vast areas east of the Rocky Mountains was extinguished; annual gifts of cash, special reserved lands, assistance in agriculture, and education, were promised by the Government. For a time the Plains Indians had to be fed, owing to the disappearance of the buffalo, but gradually stock-raising and agriculture were introduced, and now hardly a pound of gratuitous food is issued. Residential schools were established, which have influenced beneficially the life on the reserves, and, now that they are educating the children of former pupils, the progress will be more rapid and stable. The older school buildings are gradually being replaced by modern structures, which are built with the sense of civic pride which should always influence the establishment of public institutions. Many of these schools are models of what such institutions should be, and are exerting a constant influence on the character of their pupils. The graduates are either formed into so-called colonies on the reserves, or are encouraged in making practical use of the knowledge gained at school.
     As an indication of progress, the zero production of grain and live stock 30 years ago may be placed side by side with a yield in 1918 of 825,000 bushels, and a possession of 90,248 head of cattle and horses.
     The Indians of Canada may look with just pride upon the part played by them in the great war, both at home and on the field of battle. They have well and nobly upheld the loyal traditions of their gallant ancestors who rendered invaluable service to the British cause in 1776 and in 1812, and have added thereto a heritage of deathless honour which is an example and an inspiration for their descendants. According to the official records of the department more than 4,000 Indians enlisted for active service with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. This number represents approximately 35 per cent of the Indian male population of military age in the nine Provinces.
     The situation of the British Columbia Indians is unique. They were a mountain and sea people, gaining subsistence from the game of the Rockies or from the salmon fisheries. Their feuds were of even a more bitter character than the animosities of the Plains Indians, and turbulent times were common amongst them. No [page 286] native craft has ever equalled their seagoing war canoes. Their domestic arts were highly developed, and their basketry, beautifully wrought and ornamented, is still the admiration of our museums.  Their domestic utensils were carefully worked and ornamented with characteristic design, and their waterproof garments, woven from the bark of trees, showed an extraordinary adaptation of natural means to an end.
     Anthropologists have found in their myths and religious ceremonies an inexhaustible field for investigation, and volumes have been written in elucidation of their manners and customs. Civilization also came to this people not in the guise of an evangel, but with a sinister aspect. It struck at the very root of the tribal existence. For years the women were sacrificed to the licence of the white men of the coast, often with the connivance of the native males: disease and whiskey worked swiftly, and destroyed them. After these staggering blows the race is only now beginning to recover. A population which was variously estimated at from 40,000 to 50,000 in about the year 1871, when British Columbia came into Confederation, has now dwindled to 26,000. Nowhere in Canada are the Indians a greater factor in the labour market than in this province. They are the mainstay of the fisheries of the Fraser and Skeena rivers. The labour of the women is valued in the fish canning factories, and an Indian fisherman is always sure of employment if he has a number of women who can be useful in packing the fish. The men themselves are excellent fishermen, but not without the usual native failing, lack of steadiness. They are excellent boat-builders, and can readily manage gasoline boats and engines. In the high and lonely parts of this wonderful Province there are Indians who are as primitive as those who first looked upon Capt. Vancouver.
     Although no cession of the Indian title in British Columbia has ever been sought or obtained, the Provincial Government has set apart adequate reserves, and the Dominion Government has extended to the natives the same system of education, agricultural assistance, and administrative supervision as in the prairie Provinces. Many of the reserves are suitable for stock-raising, and some Indians have been successful in breeding cattle and horses, while in other localities fruit culture and the cultivation of beans and peas offers suitable employment. The outlook in British Columbia is certainly encouraging; there is fine material among the natives to make good British citizens, and in two or three decades we may expect [page 287] that a large number of Indians will have been absorbed into the ordinary life of the Provinces.
     The Indian population of Canada is fairly stable at about 100,000. Among the less civilized groups, the high birth-rate balances the high death-rate; but in the civilized tribes, who have withstood the first shock of contact with civilization, there is an appreciable gain, not only in numbers, but in physical standards. These latter people have long ago proved their worth, and only need to develop and mature under protection until they, one and all, reach their destined goal, full British citizenship. [page 288]


[back to Index / Next]