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British North America
The Canadian Aborigines


It is especially difficult to speak historically and numerically of a people so nomadic in their habits, and living in so vast a territory, as the Canadian Red Indians. As settlement has advanced westward and northward, so detailed and comprehensive particulars have supplemented the estimates and the reports of Hudson Bay factors and agents. At the present time the available information as to the Canadian aborigines is fairly adequate, and as accurate as it is sympathetic.

In 1856, the number of forts erected and owned by the Hudson Bay Company was 154. These forts were scattered over the whole country, and were usually the one point of contact between the red men and the white, forming centres of civilisation and law. The Red Indian tribes necessarily fell largely under their influence and government, an influence mainly depending upon toleration and rigid justice, indispensable qualities where large numbers of natives are to be successfully controlled by a strictly limited number of whites.

That the policy of the Hudson Bay Company towards the Red Indians was based upon a wise humanity it will be sufficient to quote from the standing rules of the Company, issued to their officials:—

“That the Indians be treated with kindness and indulgence, and mild and conciliator}^ means resorted to in order to encourage industry, repress vice, and inculcate morality; that the use of spirituous liquors be gradually discontinued in the very few districts in which it is yet indispensable; and that the Indians be liberally supplied with requisite necessaries, particularly with articles of ammunition, whether they have the means of paying for it or not, and that no gentleman in charge of district or post be at liberty to alter or vary the standard or usual mode of trade with the Indians except by special permission of Council.”

Some statistics of the aboriginal population of Canada were given before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed in 1857, to consider the state of the British Possessions in North America. These figures are useful as affording perhaps the first reliable numerical returns on this subject:—

The above may be classified according to races somewhere as follows :—

The respective characteristics of the various tribes differ very widely from one another, although the common constraining influence of the law may cause such differences to be less apparent. Thus the Assiniboine Indians acquired a special character for consistent treachery and cruelty, and the Saulteaux Indians for pride and laziness. Marked characteristics may also be found among the plain Indians as compared with those tribes inhabiting the forests.

In 1876, the Canadian Indians received a great reinforcement by the arrival of a large contingent from United States territory. Into the causes which led to the Indian exodus across the frontier it is not necessary here to enter. During December of that year United States Indians, numbering 500 men, 1000 women, and 1400 children, entered Canadian territory with 3500 horses, and camped east of the Cypress Hills. Towards the end of May, in the following year, Sitting Bull, with 135 lodges, also crossed the frontier and joined their friends, and these bands were further augmented by parties of Nez Perces and other tribes. Considering their warlike nature, they gave remarkably little trouble to the mounted police force, showing great appreciation of the kindness of their reception, the justice with which they were treated, and the absence of the molestation to which they had perhaps been accustomed. In 1SS1, Sitting Bull and a portion of his following returned to United States territory.

At the present time the Canadian Indians give no trouble whatever, except in the occasional direction of drunkenness, petty larceny, or horse-stealing—offences not entirely unknown amongst white men.

For some time past the policy of the Canadian Government has been to group the Indians, as far as possible, upon reservations, which are as numerous and as far apart as possible. The advantages of this system have been well epitomised as follows: —

The reservations do not arrest the march of settlement in any one direction, and consequently do not to any great extent excite the cupidity of settlers.

The Indians, when congregated in small numbers, cling less tenaciously to their habits, customs, and modes of thought, and arc in every way more amenable to the influences of civilisation.

They have less opportunity for devising mischief, and lack the combination to carry it into operation.

The danger of quarrels among hereditary enemies is avoided.

The game which contributes to an Indian’s maintenance does not disappear with such rapidity as in the presence of large numbers of hunters.

The Indians find a market for produce and for labour, when distributed through various settled districts, and settlers in turn share equally in any advantage to be gained through furnishing such supplies as beef and flour, which can be purchased locally.

The difficulty of persuading the Indians to settle upon the allotted reservations was greatly minimised by the sudden disappearance of the buffalo, although at the same time new difficulties were thereby created. The task, however, was eventually done, and the government proceeded in its good work by the appointment of Indian agents, in such numbers that the needs and capacities of each individual Indian could be personally considered. A general system of rations was devised and so applied as in no way to pauperise the recipient or promote indolence, while sustaining him up to the point at which he might become self-sustaining.

Every encouragement is given to persuade and to enable the Indian to earn his own living, whether by hiring out his labour or by the sale of such articles as he is able to manufacture. He can obtain almost any special instruction that he may desire, whether it be in manufacturing, in agriculture, or in cattle-raising. A loan system has been inaugurated by which stock cattle are loaned for certain periods, to be eventually returned or paid for. By methods such as this many Indian communities have already become self-supporting, and many others are making rapid advance in the same direction.

The Indian religions vary one from another almost as much as their customs, and it would be out of place to attempt any serious account of them. In the main they may be said to comprise various aspects of a not undignified nature worship, and the attempts that are inevitably made to modify or change their beliefs into those more in accord with the opinions of the white population around have met with a large measure of failure, and have too often resulted in the destruction of aboriginal virtues without any more exalted substitutes. It may well be that the present generation will not see a merging of the white and red peoples of Canada. For yet a long time the reservations may continue the most suitable home for the latter, as much to their own benefit as to that of the dominant race. But it may be confidently said that the efforts that have been made toward the instruction and the independence of the Red Indian have been so far fruitful of success as to encourage a continuance of method and of work worthy of the best humanitarian efforts of a great nation.

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