Idle No More: The Myth of the Lazy Indian (Part 2)

Earlier this month, I took on the myth of the lazy Indian. To recap, the question posed was this: If a Native was earning $364 year in 1890 (the equivalent of $28,246 in today’s money), where did the myth of the lazy Indian originate?

To understand the answer, it’s important to understand what happened with North-West Rebellion of 1885 and the restrictions imposed on First Nations and Metis peoples by Sir John A MacDonald.

The North-West Mounted Police had been formed in 1873 and within a year of being established, they spread out to the Canadian west to set up and maintain “British-style law and order.” The policing force pushed into communities of established First Nations and Metis peoples whose insistence that the treaties, Native land holdings and institutions be recognized as more and more settlers from the East with their families and possessions.

More and more, the government of Canada set up reserves for First Nations peoples, sent out Indian agents to administer these reserves, and gave these Indian agents the ability to control the movement of all First Nations peoples as well as to control all agricultural equipment and expenditures by the bands under their jurisdiction. Nobody, however, checked with First Nations peoples to see if they were in agreement with these executive and arbitrary decisions made by the government of Canada.

More and more, the governments that originally recognized the rights of First Nations and Metis peoples began to ignore them as was the case with the Manitoba Act of 1870 where the Metis saw their rights eroded to nothing. And so it was with all peoples with Native American Indian blood living in Canada back in 1884.

A Revolutionary Bill Of Rights was adopted in March of 1885 by a small group of Metis and Native people who were dissatisfied with how the government of Canada was dealing with land, religion and the language of instruction as it pertained to Native peoples. With some spin doctoring from politicians in Ottawa, the government of Canada convinced most settlers that the best society for the West was one that was English-speaking, Protestant, and non-Native.

Within months, some of the most restrictive policies and legislation was concentrated on breaking up the tribal system and assimilating al First Nations peoples. The three major influences that drove these changes were Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald; Indian Commissioner of the North-West Territories, Edgar Dewdney; and Assistant Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hayter Reed. After Hayter Reed drafted the “Memorandum on the Future Management of Indians,” the document became the template for Indian policy. Among the many recommendations made by Hayter Reed was the creation of passes for First Nations and Metis peoples.

Although originally the pass system was to be issued to “rebel Indians” only, Sir John A. MacDonald insisted that the system be applied to all First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves. And so, in early 1886, books of passes were printed, and they were sent to all Indian agents with instructions on how the passes were to be approved.

The introduction of the passes meant that all First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserve could not leave their reserve unless they had a pass signed by the Indian agent. It wasn’t enough to just have a pass with a signature. The pass also had to describe when the person named could leave, where the person named could go, and when the person named had to return to the reserve.

Interestingly enough, the pass system was never passed into legislation which means the passes were never legal. The rights of First Nations and Metis peoples were negated by those passes. But even though the passes were never passed into legislation, the federal and provincial governments enforced the use of those passes well into the 1940s.

From the moment Indian agents began to issue passes to First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves, the government of Canada and its agents systematically demotivated, demoralized and disempowered as many individuals and groups of individuals as possible in an attempt to make them bend to the government’s will.

Threats were used against First Nations and Metis peoples. Decisions and changes that impacted on First Nations and Metis peoples directly and indirectly were made without involving them in these decisions and chances. First Nations and Metis peoples were told what to do, and were expected to as they were told without questioning on whose authority these demands were being made. When decisions and chances were made, little to no support or guidance was provided to at least explain what the government of Canada was hoping to achieve with their decisions and changes. Appropriately negative language was used to marginalize First Nations and Metis peoples and if any objections were raised, the government of Canada and its agents resorted to more threats against First Nations and Metis peoples.

And then the government of Canada and its agents kept a close eye on every move, with frequent surprise visits by Indian agents that made sure that First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves knew that their every move was being tracked by the government of Canada and its agents. In this way, the government of Canada and its agents hoped to drive home to First Nations and Metis peoples that the government of Canada was in control.

Now that you have a very basic history on the topic of freedom of movement for First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves, is it any wonder that employment off reserve was scarce, if not impossible to secure and maintain?

Is it any wonder that the government of Canada, through these actions, forced First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves to rely on monies paid out by the government of Canada from trust monies belonging to First Nations peoples?

It’s not that Indians became lazy. It’s that the government of Canada chose to:

1. Demotivate First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves by forcing the illegal pass system onto then;
2. Demoralize First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves by subjecting them to a form of domestic abuse; and
3. Disempower First Nations and Metis peoples living on reserves refusing them their sovereignty.

Abuse in today’s terms is defined as the physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions by one person or a group of persons that influences another person or a group of persons.

And while the passes disappeared in the 1940s, the abuse that was a large part of those passes continued in the decades that followed. After all, the last of the residential schools was finally closed down in 1996 … less than a generation ago.

Elyse Bruce

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One Response to “Idle No More: The Myth of the Lazy Indian (Part 2)”


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