Review: I Have Lived Here Since The World Began

Arthur J. Ray. Key Porter Books, 368 Pp., $45.00 Cdn.

By J.M.Dykstra (reviewer) | 1997-01-01 12:00:00

This book sketches the history of Canada's Native peoples from prehistoric times to the present day. It does so with a sense of moral outrage at the ill treatment the Natives have received at the hands of European cultures. Though the subject matter is seldom addressed as relevant to the making or keeping of peace, much of it is clearly of that nature.

The most famous of such episodes is, to no one's surprise, the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, when Louis Riel ordered his troops to fight a conventional battle with Canadian troops rather than continue to engage in guerilla tactics in the quest for a Métis homeland. Other examples are the wars fought by the Iroquois against their Native brethren in the competition for beaver-producing territory, the Seven Years' War, the Native role in the fight for U.S. independence, and the War of 1812. This book includes accounts of incidents which are discounted by white histories of the founding of Canada, but which are important in the Native response to white culture, such as the kidnapping of Natives by Pacific coast ship captains in order to obtain better terms of trade, and the decision of Cree leader Poundmaker and his Cree contemporaries to keep their actions nonviolent in the aftermath of the engagement at Duck Lake (the Natives having suffered so badly after "winning" the Battle of Little Big Horn).

However, the big story Ray has to tell is how Native societies have suffered as a result of contact with outside cultures: the massive loss of lives to European diseases; the exposure to alcohol; the penning up of Natives on reserves as virtual prisoners; the effort to assimilate Natives, especially through the imposition of residential schools; the mean-spirited actions of the Department of Indian Affairs; and the unconscionable arguments of provincial governments that Natives long ago gave up whatever title they had to the lands on which they had lived for twelve thousand years. These were not, and are not, issues of war and peace because the Natives were unwilling or unable to resist. A point not made by Ray, but an important one, is that war would certainly have resulted had white society suffered in a similar way.

Without exception, the initial Native response to contact with white culture was one of welcome. The trade goods made available to the Natives revolutionized their societies. Guns, metal cooking pots, horses, and metal knives were traded for furs, fish, and buffalo hides, the latter all items the Natives had in abundance and to which the newcomers had little access. The Natives, over time, taught the white strangers how to navigate the rivers, lakes, and trails across the continent and expanded their own hunting, trapping, and artistic undertakings to accommodate Euro-pean demand. They, over time, were rewarded by being excluded as much as possible from white industry, such as trading or fish canning; by the encroachment of white industry and settlers on land that had been "reserved" for them; and then by imprisonment on the vestiges of reserve land left over for them. What this reviewer found most shocking of all was that this hegemony extends into our own times. In 1969, in spite of years of Native pleading for a voice in the conduct of their own affairs, then-Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien released a White Paper outlining the government's intentions: the Indian Act would be repealed and replaced with a land act, treaties would be terminated, and the Department of Indian Affairs closed down, all within five years. The Native response was vocal and negative.

Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a split decision, refused to rule that provincial legislation in British Columbia extinguished Aboriginal land title. The combination of the two events led the Trudeau government to change direction and initiate the land claims process that remains in the news today. As the author is quick to point out, incidents such as Oka in 1990 and Ipperwash in 1995 indicate the extent to which the frustrations of the Native community with white culture have continued.

It is perhaps illustrative of the present day situation to point out that the lands at Oka were held in trust for the Natives by the Sulpician Fathers, who, in 1930 and again in 1945, had sold part of the land because they (the Fathers) were on the verge of bankruptcy, and did so without any consultation with the Natives. The municipality of Oka received part of the lands sold to the provincial government. Under the land claims settlement process the Natives filed a specific claim to regain their lands. When the municipality got impatient with the negotiations, it announced on its own the enlargement of a golf course on land that was a Native burial ground. Enough said.

Reviewed by J. M. Dykstra, an associate editor of Peace Magazine.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1997, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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