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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

A First Nations Perspective 5

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

Assimilation: A Failed Strategy

"Assimilation means to absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culture."

Bad feelings are often evoked on the part of some First Nations people of Canada, when they hear the word "assimilation," because it is a word that assumes that as Indigenous peoples we have lost our culture, our identity, our language and way of life.

The assimilationist strategies and policies that have been implemented by the Canadian government include many policies and strategies, but the ones I am most familiar with include the reserve system, the Indian Act, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop.

Through all of these strategies and policies that the Canadian government has tried to implement, First Nations people in Canada are still alive and well, and thriving. I'm going to discuss the idea behind the reserve system, and then delve into the other assimilationist strategies and policies that have been implemented but have subsequently failed.

First of all, the idea of reserves appeared early in North America's colonization. According to the book Peoples and Cultural Change:

"The reserve concept took many forms before arriving in its modern state, but at the core of the concept in every form are the goals of assimilation or isolation of First Nations peoples."

"Late in the nineteenth century, reserves were small parcels of land located near non-Aboriginal settlements established with the intention that First Nations peoples would learn and adopt European ways. After Confederation, more treaties were signed and more reserves were established." 1

It was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Lower Canada that the Catholic Church set aside land to establish small communities of First Nations in order to evangelize them. In Upper Canada, the British government created farms and villages that were meant to civilize First Nations people -- which to the British meant to have them live according to European ways. Farming was not a traditional way of living for First Nations peoples, and often the land that they were placed on was not suitable for farming.

The government policy regarding reserves, including the very purpose of the reserve system, has evolved over time but has also been contradictory. Though reserves secured land for First Nations peoples, they also served as a means of confining First Nations peoples. For example, a lot of the First Nations peoples were nomadic, and reserve life undermined their ability to move freely and seasonally when it came to hunting and trapping and living off the land.

Can you imagine being designated to living on a piece of land, and then not having the ability to live the way your people have been taught? First Nations people have always lived a life that has meant moving freely and living off the land. Being confined to a reserve (often small parcels of land that can't give them what they need) interferes with traditional economic activities.

The reserve system also fragmented First Nations peoples into groups, and this meant that community was made less important than the individual, which was a denial of traditional First Nations culture.

Another example of how the reserve system served as a means of confining First Nations people was the government's attempt to institute a pass system shortly after the reserve system was implemented. The pass system forced First Nations people living on reserves to obtain permission and a written pass from the Indian agent (a government official in charge of their reserve) in order to leave the reserve.

The Indian Act is another attempt at an assimilation policy implemented by the hands of the Canadian government. According to the book Aboriginal Peoples: Building For the Future, written by Kevin Reed and edited by Don Quinlan, "In 1876, the Canadian government passed the Indian Act. In 1876, the Indian Act defined who was an 'Indian' under the law and outlined what 'Indians' could and could not do. It was a clear statement of the federal government's policy to act as guardians over Aboriginal peoples, giving them 'protection' but with the ultimate goal of assimilating them."2

It was Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932 who famously said, "The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object of the policy of our government. The great forces of intermarriage and education will finally overcome the lingering traces of native custom and tradition." 3

Agents of the Department of Indian Affairs enforced the Indian Act for most of its history and had almost dictatorial control over many aspects of Aboriginal peoples' lives. Under the Indian Act, Reed writes that "Indians did not have the full rights of Canadian citizens. For example, they did not have the right to vote. The federal government expected Aboriginal peoples to eventually give up their status and become full citizens. To this end, it introduced a policy of enfranchisement."

Enfranchisement meant gaining the right to vote, but it also became a term that referred to giving up or losing Indian status since the only way "Indians" could gain their right to vote was if they gave up their status. In Aboriginal Peoples: Building For the Future, "Status Indians considered of 'good character' who voluntarily gave up their Indian status were given individual ownership of a plot of land on a reserve, the right to buy and consume alcohol, and the right to vote. Very few Aboriginal people, however wanted to give up their status (from 1876 to 1918, only 102 Indians were enfranchised). To many, it meant giving up their identity."

Amongst the controversial issues surrounding the Indian Act was women's rights. Under the Indian Act, "If an Aboriginal woman married a Non-status Indian or non-Aboriginal man, she lost her Indian status. Her children also had no right to status. On the other hand, an Aboriginal man kept his status no matter whom he married. The Indian Act determined status through patrilineal lines (through the father's family) even though some First Nations such as the Mohawks and Haida traditionally defined their family through matrilineal lines."4

The Indian Act played a major role in the lives of First Nations peoples of Canada for over a century and more. The Canadian government has amended the act many times. The first amendments made the act more restrictive, and then later amendments lifted some restrictions -- such as the banning of certain traditional ceremonies. Most recently, the government has introduced amendments to try to correct problems that First Nations have identified themselves. Metis and Inuit peoples, although not specifically included in the Indian Act, have also been affected by government policy towards Aboriginal peoples in general, which are reflected in the Indian Act.

Residential Schools were another form of assimilation at the hands of the Canadian government. Through the Indian Act, the federal government had responsibility for providing educational services to Aboriginal children. Beginning in the mid 1800s, the government began establishing what would become the residential school system. The schools were funded by the government but were operated by the churches -- the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches. By 1931, the churches were operating 80 residential schools across the country, as well as day schools on some reserves. "For the federal government, the schools were another cornerstone in its policy of assimilating Aboriginal peoples into mainstream society. Aboriginal children were removed from their homes, and lived in these residential schools. Officials believed that the best way to assimilate the children was to separate them from their families, communities and culture. The schools were also meant to promote economic self-sufficiency by teaching Aboriginal children to become farmers and labourers."5

When speaking of the residential school system, it is important to note how damaging these schools were. The goal of those running the schools was to convert the children to Christianity. Children were often severely punished for practising traditional spiritual beliefs. Life at the schools was often harsh and rules were strict. Many children died of illnesses or caught diseases, and residing in an environment where they were often poorly fed and ill-treated, students did not learn well.

Residential schools have had a devastating long term effect on Aboriginal people and their communities. The schools broke the connection between children and their parents and culture. Many children, unable to reconnect with their families and culture after the enforced isolation of these schools, rejected their past. Others suffered from the effects of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

I leave you with the words of a Kamloops Indian Residential School Student:

"At the Indian Residential school, we weren't allowed to dance, sing because they told us it was evil. It was evil for us to practice any of our cultural ways."

Can you imagine being told that and having it enforced on you day in and day out? Assimilation policies and strategies are still happening to this day but in more secretive and discreet ways, but despite this, First Nations people are still alive and well in their own ways. We are still thriving as a people, and as a culture. We have not disappeared as popular media and film like to depict us as doing. We are not going to go away; we are survivors.

*On a personal note, my next column will be about the Sixties Scoop, which was a practice that was adopted by the Canadian government and child welfare officials to take First Nations children away from their families and communities and adopt them out to non-native families. I was a part of this Scoop, and to this day, I still deal with the aftermath of what happened to my sister and I, and the strength it has taken to try and re-establish a relationship with my birth mother and her family.


1. Kainai Board of Education, Aboriginal Studies 20: Peoples and Cultural Change, pg. 158)
2. Kevin Reed, and Don Quinlan, ed., Aboriginal Peoples: Building For the Future
3. Ibid, p. 44
4. Ibid, p. 45
5. Cowicha Valley School District 79, Residential Schools, ch. 17


Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-05-26
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