Category Archives: Indigenous–Indian Act

Saint Ronald: The Great Communicator


After he lost the nomination for the Republican Party’s representative in the presidential election of 1976 won by Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan had many opportunities but turned them all down in order to host a daily radio show. Why would he do that? He knew a good opportunity when he saw one.  A daily radio show was his springboard to success.

Saint Ronald was known as “the Great Communicator.” Unlike his much more bombastic right-wing personalities he talked quietly and smoothly without aggression and most importantly, without hate. He did not spew hateful and vile rhetoric like his brethren. He talked reasonably. He was not an extremist. By right-wing standards, he was a moderate, though when I first took notice of him I thought he was a right-wing extremist. Compared to what came after him he was definitely a moderate.

Everyday, Reagan had a platform on national radio for his ideology.  He preached self-reliance: “Hand-outs are demeaning. They do violence to a man, strip him of his dignity, and breed in him a hatred of the total system.” Liberty: “Poor men want the same as the rest of us.  They want jobs and control over their own destiny.”  And small government: “We seek to harness the creative energy of private enterprise to achieve a solution to America’s crisis.”

Of course, by then “the Federal Communications Commission had chased most ideologues  off the airwaves with its fairness doctrine.” Yet something did change about that time. Jimmy Carter was President and enforcement of the doctrine fell out of favor. Carter was nothing if not moderate. He did not know he was slitting his own throat for this left an opening by allowing Reagan to get on the airways and attack Carter, gently of course as was his style, at least in comparison between him and those who preceded him and followed him.

According to Justin Ling, on the CBC podcast The Flamer Throwers, “It was like a shadow presidency.” 30 million Americans a week listened to him, and Reagan knew how to communicate. That was what he knew best. Had he been a candidate the election rules would have demanded that he give equal time to his opponent. As a result, he did not give up the mike until the last possible moment in the next presidential race.

His campaign for the presidency was “rooted in a supposedly golden American past.” He wanted a country, he said, that would allow a 6-year-old American girl to enjoy the same freedom that he enjoyed as a 6-year old American boy. It was honey-dripped nostalgia. Of course, African-Americans did not have quite the same golden nostalgia.  They knew the ugly side of America that Reagan and his supporters knew nothing about. They had never seen it.  They were blissfully ignorant of it and the same goes for the current crop of MAGA enthusiasts. As Reagan said during that campaign, “Let’s make America Great Again.”  Sound familiar? That was his line; so were the red baseball caps. So was the innocence. He was the winner and as he said, “It’s morning again in America,” to the gentle tune of caressing music.

For Republicans it was nothing less than “a golden age.”  It was indeed a golden age for the comfortable. He began a legacy of cutting taxes, limiting government, and selling soothing fairy tales. There was no need for critical race theory or rebellion. As Reagan said, “For Americans living today there isn’t any problem we can’t solve, if government will give us the facts. Tell us what needs to be done and then get out of the way and let us have at it.” It was a most comfortable message. It was the message everyone wanted so much to be true. So it must be true.

As Ling, said, “In 1987 he quietly got the government out of the way of Right-wing radio.” Thus he gave a huge lift up to all those who followed him onto right-wing radio. When he became president, Reagan axed the fairness doctrine entirely and as Ling said, “that brought right-wing radio roaring back.”  This set the stage for the personality with the greatest heft in the history of right-wing radio—Rush Limbaugh.  Reagan was to Limbaugh sort of like John the Baptist was to Jesus.



Fear and Trembling


I love autumn and in particular the maple leaves of autumn.  What is more beautiful?

The Canadian federal government in 1876 introduced the Indian Act. It has been amended a number of times since then, but is still on the books. That statute gave the federal government authority over indigenous people. Indigenous people were shocked by the introduction of that statute, since many of them had recently entered into treaties which they thought guaranteed them sovereignty over their own lands and peoples while agreeing to share (but not cede) the land with non-indigenous Canadians. That law actually gave the federal government the authority to completely control the lives of indigenous people in Canada. That statute gave the federal government the power to take away indigenous children from their homes and send them to church run government funded Indian Residential Schools. There were eventually more than 140 residential schools across Canada. 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to these schools often at considerable distance from their home communities and far away from their families. The last school closed in 1996. Again, this is not ancient history. This is yesterday. And the ill-effects of those schools live on in the lives of descendants of the survivors.


The Indian Act is a piece of legislation that amounts to the extreme use of colonial power and paved the way for exploitation of indigenous people. It is based on the false notion that whites were superior to indigenous people. I will have more to say about that legislation in future posts.


Children are still leaving their homes and families and communities just to get an education.  Now they do it by “choice.” Many go to places like Thunder Bay where they are the objects of powerful and deep racism. Of course, indigenous people are compelled to go there by economic circumstances. Many of these modern students report that they feel unsafe in places like Thunder Bay. One said, “I feel like I have to look over my shoulder every second, or I’m going to, you know, get hurt.” Many are scared because they know of others who have gone missing.

Of course, the 7 deaths of indigenous students in the Thunder Bay area brought painful recollections of Indian Residential Schools where often young children were sent to schools far away and never came home. Was this not comparable to that? Were we living through another heinous event like that?

Wampum Belt: We’’ll Work Together



On my jaunt past Thunder Bay I started to see a few red maples.  What says autumn more than a red maple? We get very few of these wonderful autumn leaves of red maples in Manitoba. In fact, to my surprise, since I know there are some just past Kenora, I was surprised that I did not encounter these until I was past Thunder Bay. But eventually they were evident in all of their splendour.


The Two Row Wampum Belt of the Haudenosaunee people, also known as that Iroquois, is a great example that illustrated one way that Indigenous peoples recorded and preserved their laws and government systems. The Two Row Wampum Belt is made from either whelk shell, quahog, or hard shell clams. The belt’s rows of cylindrical purple and white beads are bound together with hemp that runs its full length. It was these belts and their intricate beadwork designs that served as the foundation for all other treaties and agreements between the Haudenosaunee and the colonial representatives.


2 row Wampum Belt

In addition to confirming an individual’s credentials and authority, these belts also served as one of the first methods used to document oral agreements. Today, they also act as evidence of pre-existing Indigenous diplomatic relationships. Wampum belts were used as mnemonic devices to record important events and were often brought out for official gatherings and sacred ceremonies. Indigenous laws were also recorded within the patterns on these belts. Items like masks, medicine bundles, birch bark scrolls, petroglyphs, and button blankets, although primarily spiritual in nature, could also record and preserve legal traditions.

Named Gusweñta, this two-row wampum belt serves as a symbolic and binding agreement that was made in 1645 between Haudenosaunee leaders and Dutch colonial officials. When the Dutch began making incursions into Haudenosaunee territory, Mohawk runners traveled to Onondaga to request a meeting among the Haudenosaunee leadership to determine how to deal with these new uninvited guests. This belt represents the outcome of subsequent meetings between Haudenosaunee representatives and Dutch officials. Like other wampum belts, this living treaty is made of purple and white wampum beads. The three rows of white beads each represent the shared tenants of friendship, peace, and forever. The two parallel rows of purple represent two vessels. One row embodies the Haudenosaunee, their people and their life ways. The other row stands for the Dutch, their people and their life ways.


Later other First nations adopted the wampum belts as well.

The image on the wampum belt was two boats on the same river. Pam Palmater in the film Colonization Road gave one of the best explanations of  the wampum belt:

“The whole Wampum belt concept of we’ll work together, we’ll share this place, but I will steer my boat and you will steer yours, and never will we try to interfere with one another. I think that’s the most critical fundamental message that has since been recognized by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It’s basically self-determination. Recognizing however whatever English word you want to use nationhood, sovereignty, self-determination. It’s we will take care of ourselves, and govern ourselves and you do your business and we’ll work along cooperatively in the areas that we have to. And what a wonderful vision for Canada. And I think that is the original vision. We don’t need any new ideas to save Canada, we just need to go back to that original wampum belt, and recognizing each other’s abilities to govern ourselves and protect one another.”


But sadly, that was not the vision of the Canadian government. Immediately after the first treaties were signed it enacted the Indian Act to impose its vision of how the “Indians” should conduct their affairs in this white system and foisted it upon them without their consent. The vision of the government was that European whites were superior, and Indians should assimilate with them. They should become like us. They should do things our way. Many non-indigenous people still believe this. They should do things our way, because we know best what’s good for all of us. But it is not what Indigenous people wanted and was not what they thought they had agreed to.

 Indigenous people began to see colonialism as the whites putting their foot on the throats of indigenous people. And they believe that is ongoing to this day. That of course is what the Indian Act is all about. It is about dominance.

Genocide Repudiated


The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””


Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”



And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,


As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”


But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”


Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.


Destructive by Design


After some protesters tore down statues of British queens on the Manitoba legislative grounds some political leaders, like Premier Brian Pallister got quite upset. Here is part of what he said,

“The people who came to this country, before it was a country and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came to build. They came to build better. To build, they did. They built farms, and they built businesses. They built communities, and churches too. And they built these things for themselves, and for one another, and they built them with dedication and with pride.”


At first glance this has a ring of truth to it.  But much is hidden below the surface.


Pallister said such actions on the part of protesters would stand in the way of reconciliation. Melissa Martin, a national award winning Winnipeg Free Press commentator understands these issues much better than Premier Pallister. Unlike Premier Pallister who outright ignored the pain and suffering of the indigenous people, in his haste to attack the vandals while praising the settlers,  Martin had some empathy for the indigenous people. She didn’t excuse them; she didn’t have to do that. She did attack Pallister’s unthinking praise for the European settlers who came to this province “to build better,” according to the Premier. Frankly, that is the settler myth that ignores a lot of Manitoba’s history. That history is not just one of building. It was also a history of destruction foisted on the people Pallister seems intent on ignoring. These are people that Pallister just does not see.

Martin pointed out, the flaw in the Premiers claims:

“This idea about the things settlers built for themselves, serving as an example to us today, does make a point, but not the one the premier intended. Because Canada did build itself many things. But never when it came to Indigenous people did it build “together,” and what it  built was certainly not without destruction.

When the settlers built, they did so not only without the indigenous people, often then they did so with the specific design of destroying their culture, their families, their society, and even, their children.”

It was not building better when about 140 years ago the settlers filled with jealousy, influenced Canadian politicians to give to them farm land around Selkirk that indigenous people had been given, because they saw how successful the indigenous farmers there were. For many years the indigenous people there thrived in their farming enterprises in that region.


In 1885 a federal official pointed out that the indigenous farmers were every bit as successful as the best Ontario farmers so they pressured the Canadian government to turn that rich farm land over to them instead and to push the indigenous farmers 200 km farther north where the land was much less fertile much less suitable for farming. The white settlers claimed the land and a white judge upheld their claims.  The Judge supported the effort to have the indigenous people evicted and moved.  A Canadian politician did not call this “building” as Premier Pallister did. He admitted in Parliament it was “a barefaced swindle.” More than a hundred years later the Canadian federal government admitted as much when it settled the law suit against it by the displaced First Nation for $126 million.

Again, in 1903 the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation was pressured to surrender its also fertile farming land in favour of white settlers. More than a 100 years later the injustice was finally acknowledged, when the First Nation was finally able to secure a measure of justice when the federal government settled with it by making a payment of $80 million to it. Again, the federal government admitted it had not just been “building”, but was destroying the way of life of the indigenous people.

Martin also reported how the federal government burned 35 Métis homes in the community of Ste. Madeline. Again, not a case of building but rather a case of destroying.

In fact, these acts of destruction by the Canadian government at the behest of white settlers were much more egregious than toppling statues of English queens.

Premier Pallister also ignored the things that indigenous people had built in this land long before Europeans arrived. As Martin said,

“Indigenous peoples built things too, on lands that sustained their nations since time immemorial. They built homes, and communities, and cultures. They built trade networks that stretched to every corner of the continent.

And they built deep knowledge of the land and how to live on it, strategies that allowed them to thrive from the deserts to the tundra. They built families that passed all this knowledge from one generation to another. When Canada came to these lands, none of these things Indigenous people had built was seen to matter.”

 Not only that, but in many respects, the indigenous people were barred from “building.”  The Indian Act and the Indian agents appointed pursuant to it, who controlled the reserves, made sure that indigenous people would always be dependent on the whites. Indigenous people could not even leave the reserve without a pass issued by the Indian agent under the pass system so admired by the white supremacists of South Africa.  As Martin said, that system, made the reserves “into open-air prisons.”  Others called them concentration camps, Canadian style.

Martin described the real world of Canadian settlers and indigenous people this way:

 “It takes a negative will to tear down,” Pallister said. “It takes a positive will to build up.”


Here, he was talking about statues. The words would better apply to residential schools, which for over a century deliberately tore down Indigenous cultures, families and lives. They would better apply to policies that denied full participation in the nation’s economic life and sought to sever Indigenous peoples’ self-determination.


This is the history from where we have come. It cannot now be undone.


But when Indigenous people stand up to call for an end to celebrating the figures and events that, by design, so damaged their communities, this is not an act of tearing down. It is, in fact, an invitation to consider a new future, one where, for the first time in this country’s history, we actually can build something better together.

Canada is a construction project, Pallister said, and in a way he’s right. Those who came here built many things, supported by a government and a system that prioritized their chance at affluence, their place on the land and their rights. And that construction came at a heavy cost to Indigenous health, and Indigenous life.”


This history of Canada is uncomfortable for many Canadians. They prefer the more comfortable  “history” encapsulated in statues of English monarch. They prefer the settler version of the truth that ignores the privileges the settlers were granted at the expense of the indigenous people who were moved away to allow the settlers to benefit from those privileges. The settler version of the truth is much more attractive to many Canadians because it hides the ugly truth. But reconciliation will never be possible until those comfortable and untrue myths are set aside the real truth is faced. As Martin said,

“Reconciliation, in part, requires understanding that to go forward, to build better, then we must see the pain and that is part of that story too. In this way, a couple of toppled statues don’t stand in the way of reconciliation; what might is if we make so much noise about statues, that we close our ears to hearing the truth.”