Forced Exclusion, Forced Belonging: The First Nations of Canada

By Professor Darlene Johnston

This article was first published in the Fall 2005 issue of Nexus.


Sophie Bender-Johnston

Pictured here on her First Nation’s reserve on the Bruce Peninsula, Sophie Bender-Johnston, daughter of Professor Darlene Johnston, pauses after having performed the Anishinabe girls' jingle-dress dance at the Cape Croker Pow-Wow, August 2003. The Pow-Wow is a traditional gathering for social and ceremonial purposes which celebrates Aboriginal heritage with drumming, dancing and feasting. Sophie, who is now 12, is wearing a "jingle dress" made by law grad Dawnis Kennedy (’03), which takes its name from the hundreds of small tin cones attached to the dress with ribbons. The cones jingle musically with the movement of the dancer. Sophie has been taught that the Anishinabe tradition of jingle-dress dancing is a gift from the Creator which, when performed with humility and care, brings healing to the People. Sophie was joined at the Pow Wow by her mother and father, her brother, her grandparents, her aunties and cousins, as well as law grad Allyssa Case (’03), who took the photo.

The drum sounds, reverberating out from the central cedar-covered arbour around which the veterans will march. The sound echoes back from the limestone bluffs which surround the park, easily within hearing range of the farmhouse where my father was born, here on the Cape Croker Unceded Reserve. It's not a big reserve. In fact, this roughly 16,000 acres on the shores of Georgian Bay is less than one percent of our traditional territory. But it's ours, unceded, never surrendered. It is the one place that my ancestors would not relinquish. It is the place where we belong.


As the veterans march in, they carry flags to post around the arbour: the Canadian flag; the American flag; the United Nations flag; the Red Ensign; and our Reserve's flag. These flags speak to our multiple identities and loyalties. We are united, though, by the strength of our attachment to our land and our relations. Some of our ancestors came from what is now United States. We have familial attachments all around the Great Lakes. Some of our veterans have served in the US Marines. Many others have worn the blue beret of the United Nations. The posting of so many flags might challenge those with a monolithic conception of citizenship.

My heart swells with pride. I am standing at my daughter Sophie's side, as she waits for Grand Entry to begin. This is her fist time dancing in the traditional pow-wow held each summer on our reserve. She wears a jingle-dress made lovingly by Dawnis, one of the first Aboriginal students to have befriended me when I began my teaching career at the University of Toronto. Tingling with excitement, we watch as my father and the other veterans form the honour guard that signals the commencement of Grand Entry. My father comes from a long line of warriors. My Grandfather and his two brothers fought in World War I. The youngest, Uncle Archie, never made it back home from France. My father's oldest brother fought in World War II. Uncle Ross fought in Korea. My father served as a United Nations peace keeper in the Congo and Gaza.

CITIZENSHIP: The very word conjures up notions of freedom and autonomy, the right to participate, a sense of belonging. The Western political tradition regards the transition from subjecthood to citizenship as one of its crowning democratic achievements. The First Peoples of Canada, however, have experienced the paradox of imposed citizenship.

The ubiquitous officious bystander, if asked today whether First Nations people are citizens, would promptly answer "yes, of course". Once pressed for details, such as when and how we came to be citizens, the bystander would be at a loss to answer.

That's because the political status of First Nations within the Canadian Confederation has never been satisfactorily resolved. It remains an outstanding matter for reconciliation.

The prevailing Canadian mythology portrays a transition First Nations from allies to subjects to wards to citizens. The history of the denial and gradual extension of political and legal rights can be cast as a good news story; except that the "happy ending" to a legacy of forced exclusion was likewise non-consensual. In 1947, when Parliament passed the first Canadian Citizenship Act, all persons then residing in Canada, who had been born in Canada, were recognized as "natural-born Canadian citizens". All persons, that is, except for "Indians" as defined under the Indian Act. You see, it would have been difficult to include as citizens a class of persons who were specifically excluded from voting in federal elections. A decade later, "Indians" were retroactively deemed to be citizens, albeit in the category reserved for naturalized aliens, that is, "other than natural-born Canadian citizen". Even so, it would not be until 1960, in the wake of the Canadian Bill of Rights being passed, that "Indians" would be able to vote without first having to relinquish their treaty rights and sever their community ties.

ENFRANCHISEMENT: the process of acquiring or being granted the right to vote. Voting rights in Canada historically depended upon gender, ethnicity and property. Women won the right to vote in federal elections in 1920. Race exclusions, which had prevented Chinese, Japanese and South-Asian persons from voting, were repealed by Parliament in 1948. In granting the right to vote to these formerly disenfranchised groups, the federal government had not required them to sacrifice any pre-existing rights and relations. Yet, enfranchisement for First Nations had always been a matter of choosing Canadian identity over Aboriginal identity.

In the minds of the colonial politicians, Aboriginal ways of life were deemed "uncivilized" and it was the colonizers' duty to transform "Indians" into Christians and farmers. The first enfranchisement act, dating back to 1859, begins with the following preamble;

"whereas it is desirable to encourage the progress of Civilization among the Indian Tribes in this Province, and the gradual removal of all legal distinctions between them and Her Majesty's other Canadian subjects, and to facilitate the acquisition of property and of the rights accompanying it, by such Individual Members of the said Tribes as shall be found to desire such encouragement and to have deserved it."

This act was designed to undermine the authority of the tribes and dismantle their reserves. Under section 3, any "Indian" man could be "enfranchised" provided that he could meet certain educational and linguistic requirements (English or French), was of "good moral character", and was free from debt. The result of enfranchisement was that all "enactments making any distinction between the legal rights and abilities of the Indians and those of Her Majesty's other subjects, shall cease to apply to any Indian so declared to be enfranchised, who shall no longer be deemed an Indian within the meaning thereof." The act also required that the enfranchised individual "shall cease to have a voice in the proceedings" of his tribe. The legislation contained both proprietary (50 acres of reserve land) and monetary incentives (pay out of share of treaty monies) for enfranchisement. As it turned out, ties to family and territory proved much stronger than these inducements. Only one Indian was actually enfranchised under this legislation before Confederation.

After Confederation, a variety of adjustments were made to the enfranchisement process to make it more palatable. But still it was largely rejected by First Nations. Between 1867 and 1920, only 102 individuals became enfranchised. Why?

Because, at the most basic level, enfranchisement required self-alienation. The power of the Canadian state to determine one's legal and political status had to be accepted. The Creator's gift of identity as an Aboriginal person had to be rejected - cast aside as inferior to that of a British colonial subject. Enfranchisement also involved denial of community autonomy and rejection of the values that community membership represented. It meant standing outside the circle that contained one's ancestors, language, traditions, and spirituality. For what? To escape the humiliating disabilities that the Canadian state had imposed in the first place.

The persistence of communities with separate lands, languages and cultures, came to be seen by government officials as the "Indian problem". In 1920, compulsory enfranchisement was proposed by Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs: "I want to get rid of the Indian problem…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill."

The message could not have been plainer. There was simply no place for First Nations in Canada. As soon as Aboriginal children were sufficiently deculturated by the federal Residential School system, they were to be absorbed into Canadian society, by compulsion, if necessary. Forced belonging.

Once the Diefenbaker government granted voting rights to "Indians" in 1960, the enfranchisement process, at least with respect to voting rights, was redundant. However, it continued to operate until 1985, taking status away from women who married non-natives and denying it to the children of those marriages.

The granting of federal voting rights did not signal an end to the assimilationist goals of the federal government. In 1969, Prime Minister Trudeau, set out his vision in a "Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy", infamously known as the "White Paper", in which he proposed the abolition of reserves and the termination of treaty rights. In defending the policy from an immediate Aboriginal backlash, Trudeau stated:

"We can go on treating the Indians as having special status. We can go on adding bricks of discrimination around the ghetto in which they live and at the same time perhaps helping them preserve certain cultural traits and certain ancestral rights. Or we can say you're at a crossroads - the time is now to decide whether the Indians will be a race apart in Canada or whether they will be Canadians of full status. And this is a difficult choice. It must be a very agonizing choice to Indian peoples themselves, because, on the one hand, they realize that if they come into society as total citizens they will be equal under the law but they risk losing certain of their traditions, certain aspects of a culture and perhaps even certain of their basic rights."

Thankfully, Trudeau was persuaded to change his mind. And in 1982, his Patriation Project resulted in the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada.

I squeeze Sophie's hand as her time comes to enter the circle. I feel a sense of pride and thanksgiving. It can't be taken forgranted that our reserve is still here and that there are new generations of children to dance in our pow-wows. Had others had their way, we would have disappeared by now. It is a testament to the resilience of our culture that the drumming and dancing continue. I smile as I watch my daughter dance into the circle, to honour her grandfather and all her relations.

Rememberance Day Ceremony, Cape Croker Reserve, Ontario
Flag bearers: Giles Keeshig, Korean War Veteran (Canadian flag); Ronald Johnston, Korean War Veteran (American flag); Ted Johnston, UN Peacekeeper (United Nations flag); and Ross Johnston, World War II Veteran (RCAF flag) pictured here at a Remembrance Day Ceremony, November 11, 2004, at the Cape Croker Reserve. The Cape Croker Reserve had one of the highest voluntary enlistments rates in Canada for World War I. All eligible members – 67 out of a total adult male population of 108 – enlisted. The photo is courtesy of Joseph Borrows, father of Professor John Borrows '91.