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Littell's Living Age/Volume 131/Issue 1686/The Indians of Canada

< Littell's Living Age‎ | Volume 131‎ | Issue 1686

From The Saturday Review.


The various nationalities comprised within the confines of the British empire are so numerous, and the conditions of their lives so little known, that there is a danger lest the responsibilities attaching to the possession of great power should be overlooked and ignored. Few persons perhaps have ever realized the fact that a population of nearly ninety-two thousand, comprising many distinct tribes and languages, but included under the general name of North American Indians, are subjects of the queen, and, as such, claim the sympathy and interest of Englishmen. Even in Canada, where their presence is more felt, but little is known of their real condition, excepting by the department of the government in whose especial charge they are. It is, however satisfactory to perceive that there is considerable activity in this branch of the Dominion government, that important improvements have been made in the method of dealing with the wilder tribes, and that steps are to be taken to advance the civilization of those who have adopted a more settled life and have devoted themselves to agricultural industry.

The Indian population may be divided broadly under three heads, each numbering about thirty thousand. First, there are those who reside in Ontario, Quebec, and the maritime provinces, the remnants of the tribes who were brought in contact with the original settlers, and whose names have been rendered familiar to us by Cooper's novels. Nearly half of these tribes possess reserve lands or settlements in Ontario, and are making considerable progress in agriculture. About ten thousand are scattered throughout the province of Quebec, leaving the remainder to the maritime provinces. The second division comprises the Indians of Manitoba, the North-west, and Rupert's Land. These consist mostly of wandering tribes divided into wood Indians and prairie Indians—the former subsisting principally by fishing, and the latter by hunting, the buffalo forming their staple food. But little civilization has yet reached them. Missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have been at work with varied success for many years, and the Hudson Bay Company has exercised over them a parental sway, which has now been replaced by that of the Canadian government. The third division, of about equal numerical strength, is comprised within the province of British Columbia, where the Indian population considerably outnumbers the white settlers. These Indians may also be subdivided into the tribes settled on the coast, who subsist by fishing, and those who are possessed of considerable property in cattle, and who occupy the valleys among the western slopes of the Rocky and Cascade Mountains. Unfortunately they are discontented with their present lot; the terms granted to them by the provisional government of British Columbia have been less favorable than that which Ontario and Quebec have conceded to the tribes within their borders, and, as they feel their numerical strength, they are the more urgent in pressing their not unjust claims.

The system of dealing with the Indian tribes which has gradually grown up, and which has worked so far well that no Indian wars have, since the British settlement, devastated Canada, may be said to consist in buying up the native claims, founded on their rights of hunting through the territories required by the settlers, by yearly grants of money or of goods to each chief and family, and by the allotment of tracts of country termed Indian reserves. This property is under the charge of an agent or superintendent, who watches over the welfare of the tribe, protects it from the encroachments of white settlers, and prevents the alienation of the property. Some large Indian reserves may be seen close to the most important cities of Canada, and those who have travelled on the St. Lawrence or the Ottawa will remember the wild and almost waste strips contrasting with the highly cultivated land on either side, and which belong to the remnants of the once famous tribes of the Iroquois and the Algonquins. The last of the Hurons occupy the village of Lorette, near Quebec, whilst the Six Nations partially cultivate a large district in the heart of the most fertile portion of Ontario, in the vicinity of the town of Brantford. All profess deep loyalty to the English crown, and appear generally contented with their condition. Some time must, however, elapse before the habits of the hunter will give place to those of the agriculturist, and even among the most civilized of the tribes many men will be found who for several months of the year leave their homes and seek the excitement of their former life among the more distant forests. The religious tenets of the settled Indians usually correspond with those of their white neighbors; the Indians of Quebec being mostly Roman Catholics, whilst those of Ontario belong to some among the many divisions of Protestants. Paganism, however, retains its hold over many of the older men, and even in the settlements of the Six Nations some are to be found who profess the faith of their ancestors.

Passing to the second division—namely, the Indians of Manitoba and the Northwest—we find conditions of life more nearly resembling those which existed before the arrival of the white men, although even here the approach of civilization has made several marked changes. A section of the savage tribe of the Sioux, which sought refuge in our territory to avoid retribution after the Minnesota massacre, is now established in the partially civilized province of Manitoba, and the men are well reported of by the settlers as sober and industrious laborers. Treaties have been made with the Crees and the Salteaux, their internecine feuds appeased, and reserves, in the proportion of one hundred and sixty acres to each family of five persons, allotted to them on the shores of Lakes Winnipeg and Winnepegosis. Many of these tribes had, until recently, found employment as boatmen on the Red River, and in conveying the stores from York Factory to the inland forts of the Hudson Bay Company; but the introduction of steam on Lake Winnipeg, and the change of route owing to the opening of communication with Lake Superior, had deprived them of their means of livelihood, and led them readily to welcome the settlement of their claims proposed by Mr. Morris, the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba. Along the valley of the Saskatchewan the mounted police force has established law and order, and has been welcomed as protectors by the Assiniboines and the more warlike Blackfeet. East of the Rocky Mountains, Indian affairs appear very fairly prosperous, and seem to warrant some advance in the legislation dealing with these children of the soil. An indication of this change is given in the report of Mr. Laird, the minister of the interior, who announces that the gradual enfranchisement of the Indians will be one of the most important objects of a proposed new act. Care, however, must be taken so to word its provisions that protection may be afforded to those who do not desire to avail themselves of what they may fail to consider an adequate compensation for paternal government.

On the western side of the Rocky Mountains the Indian question will, it is feared, give more trouble; indeed, if the reports of men who have resided among the tribes are to be credited, an Indian war has only been avoided by the divisions among the Indians themselves. The great grievance, which no amount of presents or subsidies will overcome, lies in the illiberal conduct of the British Columbian government in regard to the allotment of land. Whereas, in the treaties with the Indians of Manitoba, one hundred and sixty acres of land were handed over to each family of five persons, the Indians of British Columbia are only offered twenty acres, and even this small grant has reference merely to new reserves. So deep is the feeling of discontent that two of the tribes have refused to accept their usual annual presents, lest they should appear to waive their claim for compensation for what they regard as an injustice. Three causes have led to this dissatisfaction on the part of the Indians. Since communication with the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains has become more frequent, information has reached them of the better terms awarded to the tribes of Manitoba, and consequently they require similar treatment from the government of British Columbia. Again, the pressure of the white settlers who occupy the more fertile districts, and who, as the dominant race, enforce what they choose to consider their rights at the expense of the Indians, is of course more felt as population increases; and, thirdly, the Indians are becoming aware of their numerical strength, although happily they have not as yet appreciated the strength which union adds to numbers. The question involved is a serious one, not only to the local government and to Canada, but to England, which must be ultimately responsible that, no unfair treatment should lead the Indians to take up arms in a cause which, to say the least of it, would have the appearance of being a just one. Happily, both the Canadian and the local governments appear to be aware of the importance of settling the points in dispute. Three commissioners are to be appointed conjointly by the two governments, who will visit the tribes or nations, and determine the extent and locality of their respective reserves. These reserves are to be determined, not by a fixed extent of acreage, but by the requirements and habits of each nation, and they will be increased or diminished according to the variations of the Indian population. The different modes of life of the tribes of the interior who possess horses and cattle, and those on the seacoast who live by fishing, afford a reason for diverging from the plan in force in the older provinces of Canada, and for adopting a more elastic rule in dealing with their several claims. It is to be hoped that a liberal policy will be agreed upon, and that the scandal of Indian wars which has so long afflicted the frontiers of the United States, and which have even within the last few months been productive of so great disasters, may be averted from the Pacific, as it has hitherto been avoided in the Atlantic and central provinces of the Dominion.

Meanwhile, the presence of the Earl of Dufferin in British Columbia, and his well-known interest in all that concerns the well-being of the Indian tribes, will exercise no unimportant influence over the local government, and will encourage those who regard this great question in a broader view than that presented by the merely temporary interest of a small community. It is in dealing with these and similar matters of more than local importance that the value of the influence of an English statesman, such as Lord Dufferin has proved himself to be, is likely to be felt; and if the result of his visit to British Columbia tends to a satisfactory settlement of the Indian difficulty, as well as the removal of some of the causes of friction between that distant province and the central government, he will have done much to further the true welfare of the Dominion, whose rule embraces so many nationalities with varying and often conflicting interests.