A terrible but true statement from Canada’s past:

“If we had only been allowed to carry on the business in our own way for another two years, there would have been no trouble now as to feeding the Indians, for there would have been none left to feed: whisky, pistols, strychnine and other like processes would have effectively cleared away these wretched natives.”  – Alexander Staveley Hill, Ex-whisky trader, Southern Alberta

Truth and reconciliation are important for healing wounds.

Truth should include historic context.

The historic context of the First Nations and Metis people of the Canadian plains should include the circumstances of the Indian Wars in the United States as well as the deadly smallpox epidemics that preceded the arrival of Europeans in Western Canada.

In the 1860’s, the United States was swept up in a bloody Civil War between the North and the South. Canada by Confederation in 1867 was a country of some 3,200,000 and 662,148 acres of “snow” in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. According to Wikipedia, the US population was 31,443,321.

Sir John A. MacDonald had a vision of a unified country of Canada from sea to sea to sea. Sparse population and vast distances made that vision seem impossible.

Captain John Palliser had surveyed the western territories in detail in 1859, and had proposed a plan for European settlement. As the US Civil War ended in 1865, Canadians feared the huge Union Army, with its million-man standing force, might just march into the West – “Rupert’s Land” and take over. (Note: confusingly for today’s reader, the Canadian west was also referred to as the North West Territories in this time) 

So, in 1869, the Canadian government purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson Bay Company for 300,000 pounds Sterling. British Columbia waited, watching – barred by the seemingly impenetrable Rocky Mountains.

By 1872, survey crews from the US and Canada had set the 49th parallel border – but this invisible line meant nothing to the nomadic aboriginal people who followed the depleting buffalo herds or the white whisky traders, many of whom were ex-Confederate soldiers, hardened by the horrors of war.

At the time, Canada’s entire budget was $19 million – the US was spending $20 Million every year on Indian Wars alone.  By contrast to the violence south of the border, Canada had essentially been founded on friendly trade relations between the French and Scottish courier de bois and their aboriginal partners.

But in 1873, trader Abe Farwell witnessed the aftermath of the massacre of his trading partners, the Assiniboine tribe, by American vigilantes who had brutally slaughtered them in the Cypress Hills. He went east to tell his tale and his story galvanized the creation of the North West Mounted Police.

Some 300 North West Mounted Police marched west later that year, across the desert-like region of the great Canadian plains. They came in peace, and within a year restored security to the region by getting rid of the whisky traders and establishing a presence along the border.  The “Mounties” (as they became known) later gave sanctuary to Sitting Bull and his people who escaped the US following the Battle of Little Big Horn wherein General Custer and his men had been killed by them.

The truth is, that Canada sent out the North West Mounted Police to protect the nation’s border and its people.  A tiny force of 300 men were nothing compared to the US and their cavalry.  But law and order prevailed, as did recognition of the invisible border.

Today, we cannot imagine the sea change occurring in the lives of aboriginal people at the time.  Tribes had been decimated by smallpox. In the 1837-40 smallpox outbreaks in the US, entire First Nations villages were wiped out. Malnutrition had set in among First Nations as the buffalo – once numbering an estimated 60 million on the plains – had been reduced to about 1,000 by the 1880’s.

A descendant of Rev. McDougall of the Stoney Mission recalled to me that his ancestor had adopted 17 native children as they had been orphaned by smallpox. Likewise, it was the missionaries who created a written form for many aboriginal oral languages, and created dictionaries to preserve the wisdom and knowledge of the people.

The buffalo were disappearing as was the nomadic aboriginal way of life.

Today, claims of genocide and cultural genocide against aboriginal people are bandied about, but in the context of history and the above evidence, it seems this is not true.

The Mounties came to protect, and did protect Plains aboriginal people. There was no intent to wipe out the people.

True – the reservations were never part of the historic treaties. It should be noted that the Mounties found that incoming settlers thought it would be ‘okay’ to shoot any Indian who meddled with their cattle. Separation may have seemed appropriate; especially in light of continued Indian Wars and conflicts in the US.

What of residential schools?

Let’s go further back in time. Let’s look at how E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake, was seen in Canadian and British society (1816-1884). She was a Canadian poet and child of a British mother and Mohawk chief.  She was honoured in society; undoubtedly a role model for Indian Affairs authority Duncan Scott who was also a poet (1862-1947) and who likely felt this type of ‘foot-in-both-cultures’ person would be the outcome of his department’s work.  He shared a view many Canadians share today: “I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone…”

As evidence, Pauline Johnson, a mixed race woman, managed to stand alone- even before his time. And she paddled her own canoe.

She dressed as and dined with British high society; she performed in Anglo and Mohawk attire. Ms. Johnson herself had only 3 years of Indian day school education, yet became a writer; both parents being literate.

Schooling for anyone in the early days of Canada was considered a luxury. Prior to 1880 in England most children aged 4 and up were working! Poor children in Britain were not provided with free public education; boarding schools were the norm only for the well-to-do.

Consequently, in Canada First Nations children were provided with what white children were often denied – free, full education.

That the methods were heavy-handed cannot be denied; some brutal disciplinary methods, like caning, were the norm in British society right up to the 1990’s.


First there was smallpox. In the 1837-40 smallpox outbreaks in the US, entire First Nations villages were wiped out. Malnutrition had set in amongst First Nations as the buffalo – once numbering an estimated 60 million on the plains, had been reduced to about 1,000 by the 1880’s.

Next, the Spanish Flu of 1918 wiped out an estimated 50-100 million globally.  Records in Saskatchewan show that those who died were buried as soon as possible to avoid further contamination.

“Nearby, he found three Indians lying dead, and not far away a young man worked alone to dig graves for his parents and his brother and sister.” At least 20 First Nations children are recorded as dying in one residential school alone at that time of Spanish Flu.

Consequently it is no surprise that residential schools were planned with graveyards. Death was common.

That many children died there should come as no surprise. Death was common across Canada from tuberculosis up until the 1950’s. Tuberculosis (TB) was often considered a shameful thing within families, never to be mentioned.

“TB ravaged First Nations people in Saskatchewan as early as 1884. Death rates ten times higher than among whites were due to drastic changes in lifestyle, poverty and overcrowding.”

Dr Ferguson’s surveys of Indian schools and the reserves of the Qu’Appelle Valley in the mid 1920s, showed that up to 90% of First Nations children and adults were infected with TB. (Wherrett 1977:109; Houston 1991:94-95)

More orphans were created by the Spanish Flu of 1918.  This hit young adults more than grandparents or children.

In her book, Eileen Pettigrow, tells of a travelling salesman who called at a store at Paradise Hill and found both the proprietor and his wife dead. “Nearby, he found three Indians lying dead, and not far away a young man worked alone to dig graves for his parents and his brother and sister.”

Read also how many people died in unmarked graves – buried as soon as possible in the hopes of stemming disease, even though they were adult white men from out of province – their bodies were not allowed to be sent home and they ended up in unmarked graves…just like many aboriginal children: “During the flu epidemic of 1918, harvesting was still going on, but the operations ceased because of illness of the crews. There are stories of entire threshing crews – many of them men from the East who had come west on harvest excursions – found dead as a result of the flu. At Strongfield it was reported that in one nine-man threshing crew (all transients), seven of the men died in a bunk car.

Aimee Hill recalls that when the Methodist Church at Hawarden was turned into a
hospital, her mother offered her services as a practical nurse. “I recall her telling of her
experiences at that time, when men, sometimes name and home unknown, lay dying alone
among strangers” Hill writes. “I remember seeing three coffins, piled one on top of the other,
sitting outside of the church awaiting burial in a common grave.”


To give an idea of the scope of this epidemic, in Pittsburgh, 1 in every 100 people died of the flu. Here is a record of the carnage in Alaskan villages.


First Nations peoples in Canada have suffered, no doubt. But – they have survived.

First Nations and aboriginal people in Canada were not slaughtered as in the US Indian Wars. The intent of residential schools of the 1880’s was to provide them with a way to integrate into European-style society, become literate and thus become independent.  That’s not genocide.

A 1948 Geneva Convention definition of genocide specifically applies to circumstances of armed conflict. Protecting public health and providing education so that a people can ‘stand alone’ does not constitute genocide, no matter how brutal the methods were by today’s standards.

And still today there is a need for education for aboriginal youth in Canada.  The aboriginal youth of Canada don’t need sheds for canoes and paddles, as Prime Minister Trudeau recently said.

The aboriginal youth of Canada need a way ‘in’ to society – a hand up – education and acceptance.

One way is to bring practical training to the reserve. It’s been effective in Alberta for many. Maybe it will work elsewhere too.

But… how about housing? Fresh, safe water? Hope.

How about a balanced telling of history.  Without residential schools, many thousands of children would have died of disease and malnutrition.  Without the early work of missionaries and traders to document the oral languages with a written alphabet and dictionaries, these languages would have been lost.

In these same times, in the European world, children were often given up to orphanages when poor widows could not support their needs.  Homes frequently burned down as kerosene lamps were used.  People died of diseases and infections we can easily treat today.  Death and unmarked graves were common to all.

Residential schools were a product of their time and context. It is only fair to set that context first when discussing truth and reconciliation.


NAIT-in-Motion Aboriginal Trades Training comes to reserve:



IMAGE: Big Rock – Okotoks sacred to the Blackfoot Nation

Source: Wikipedia Coaxial at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons