By John Lutz
Why, with all the resources the Canadian government pours into aboriginal communities, is the on-reserve Indian population among the most impoverished in Canada? Why do they rank poorest in Canada across the main measures of physical health (life expectancy, HIV/AIDS infection, diabetes rates) or social health (education, incarceration, suicide, substance abuse)?
The government has tried its best and failed, and so it seems to many of us that the problem must lie with the aboriginal people themselves. The phrase “lazy Indian” rises into our minds, even if we are afraid to say it out loud. The stereotype of the “lazy Indian” starts early in the history of European colonization and is one of the most powerful and persistent. It is also one of the most perverse characterizations of a population that considered laziness to be one of the worst faults.
A close look at our history shows that aboriginal people have historically been eager to work and that the poverty in so many First Nations communities is a phenomenon brought on by deliberate and inadvertent government policies over the past 60 years.
It is well known that the first Europeans here wanted furs and traded them from aboriginal people. It is not well known that aboriginal people welcomed the traders, and in many cases, like the Lekwungen, helped build trading posts like Fort Victoria. It is even less known that aboriginal people were the first gold and coal miners in the province. The first coal mine in British Columbia, near present-day Port Hardy, was entirely worked over several years by the resident Kwakwaka’waka people. The next mine, at Nanaimo, depended on Sne ney mux men to keep it going.
The first commercial fishermen and loggers in the colonies were aboriginal workers, and when the salmon-canning industry boomed in the 1880s, Native women canned the fish in industrial canneries from the Fraser River to the Nass, while their husbands caught the fish. The first modern sawmill in B.C. was built at Port Alberni in 1862, and over half the 200 to 300 workers were Nuu-chah-nulth men. The big sawmills established in the 1860s on Burrard Inlet employed “runaway sailors and Indians”, according to mill manager R.H. Alexander, used Squamish longshoremen, and bought their logs from the Sechelt people.
Through the 19th century, aboriginal people worked as farmers and farm workers, stevedores and ships’ crew, and helped build the roads, railways, and public buildings. Franz Boas, the famous anthropologist, wrote in 1886 that “Almost all the labour of the province is done by Indians and Chinese” and all agreed that aboriginal people were well off—richer even than many whites.
The 20th century has been hard on aboriginal people. The explosion of immigrants created new competition for jobs they used to hold and racism gave preference to the whites. With the immigrants came laws that deprived the majority aboriginal population of the vote, and confined them to reserves and inferior education. Without the vote, it was easy for white politicians and bureaucrats to discriminate against aboriginal people in issuing fishing licenses, logging permits, and grazing and water rights. They could not study law or operate many businesses. Other laws curtailed Native fishing for food to save salmon for the canneries, and hunting to protect game for sports hunters. The Indian agents warned their bosses of the consequences: “the game regulations...worked a great hardship on the Indians and thrown them more or less on relief [welfare]”.
When labour was short during the wars, aboriginal people were again hired everywhere and were again pushed out when the soldiers came home; but after World War II it was no longer possible to live off the land. Until the 1950s, per-capita expenditure for social assistance or “welfare” for Indians was a fraction of that of other Canadians. By the 1970s, it was much higher and a generation of aboriginal children had grown up as “welfare Indians”.
Today, there is enormous diversity between the poorest and richest in aboriginal communities, and between aboriginal communities, some of which are vibrant, healthy, and economically “comfortable”. But in many communities there are now several generations who have grown up in the welfare trap, with all the accompanying social problems that poverty brings. These people, once described as the “original affluent society” by anthropologists, now are the country’s poorest. It took a century of deliberate and careless policy by governments and industry to make them poor. It will take a new approach by government and all British Columbians to help them back to social and economic health.
John Lutz is an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria, and the author of the new book Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations.