Reflecting on Aboriginal history

The College of New Caledonia (CNC) hosted a series of events at its Lakes District campus from March 12 to 16 to mark Aboriginal History Week. Events like these should be embraced, because if we’re serious about reconciliation, we need to start by arriving at a clear understanding of the history that brought us here. A brief look at the history of treaty-making in Canada — or in B.C., the historical lack thereof — is a case in point.

Rewind to the mid-1700s, when France and Britain were struggling for control over North America. Indigenous nations served as important power brokers, and the emergence of a military alliance commanded by Obwandiyag (better known as Chief Pontiac) compelled George III to issue the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — a document that remains enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. It states that any land not ceded or purchased through treaties with the Crown is reserved for Indigenous people.

In the treaties that followed, Indigenous people often found themselves negotiating under the most unfavourable conditions, struggling with disease and starvation due to the effects of colonial settlement, like the sudden collapse of the buffalo hunt. To call these treaties imperfect would be an understatement, but they provided Indigenous nations with some payments and commitments from the Crown in exchange for the presence of settlers on the land.

But even such gestures towards nation-to-nation cooperation were too much for the founders of B.C. This province was settled in the almost complete absence of treaties, with a few small exceptions, notably those negotiated in and around present-day Victoria in the 1850s by Sir James Douglas.

But even the Douglas Treaties, which supposedly extinguished Indigenous title on southern Vancouver Island, should be regarded as uncertain. Oral histories indicate that Indigenous signatories believed they were making peace treaties, not selling their land. This underlines the chasm between the written histories of Indigenous-settler relations, and the oral accounts that have too often been dismissed.

Canada is one of the richest countries in the world, and yet the original people of this land experience disproportionate rates of poverty. Indigenous land forms the basis of much of our wealth, providing the lumber and minerals that create jobs for rank-and-file workers and profits for businesses. Similarly, Indigenous labour was essential for the fur trade, the industry upon which Canada was built.

Aboriginal History Week gives us an opportunity to reflect on these aspects of our shared history — and also the thousands of years of oral history that preceded contact — while celebrating the achievements of First Nations and looking toward a better future. The CNC should be saluted for making it happen.

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