Opinion

Philippe Casgrain, a Quebec Liberal MP, told the House of Commons in 1883 he believed it was just a matter of time before Canada’s Indigenous people would become extinct.

Philippe Casgrain, a Quebec Liberal MP, told the House of Commons in 1883 he believed it was just a matter of time before Canada’s Indigenous people would become extinct.

"Indians of the North-West Territory, they are a doomed race, and it is only a question of how soon they will disappear," said Casgrain, during a Commons debate on Department of Indian Affairs expenditures.

Casgrain described what he believed was an "inaptitude of the Indians to enter into civilized life." He predicted government’s attempt to assimilate First Nations into white, Christian society would ultimately lead to their disappearance as a people.

"The experiment has been tried ever since the beginning of the colony, and I know of only one Indian who ever became thoroughly civilized," said Casgrain.

"I lay down as a principle, which cannot be controverted, that this race is becoming rapidly extinct, and we are wasting an enormous expenditure to attain an object which will never be attained, that is, to civilize these Indians."

Children's dresses are hung on a crosses near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, B.C. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Children's dresses are hung on a crosses near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, B.C. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

If that sounds like genocide, it is.

Sadly, Casgrain’s perspective wasn’t uncommon. The accepted treatment of Canada's Indigenous people was to shove them onto reserves, give them small annuities and encourage them to learn "civilized" farming, or perish.

If they could not adopt the ways of the white man, they would no longer exist.

In the wake of the recent discovery of 215 children buried in unmarked graves near a former residential school in Kamloops B.C., there have been renewed calls to improve public education around residential schools.

One of the reasons is the surprise many expressed about the Kamloops discovery; Canadians don’t know their history.

It’s not just residential schools, it’s the broader story of Canada’s genocidal policies that have been largely absent from the historical narrative.

Shoes are placed on the lawn outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, B.C (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

CP

Shoes are placed on the lawn outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops, B.C (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

When hundreds of Indigenous people gathered at Lower Fort Garry in July 1871 to negotiate Canada’s first treaty post-Confederation, they were told by Adams Archibald (Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor) the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, wanted them to be more like white people.

"She would like them to adopt the habits of the whites," he told several First Nations chiefs during his opening address. "She thinks this would be the best thing for her red children to do."

The idea of Indigenous people maintaining their culture and way of life in Canada was out of the question.

As far as the federal government was concerned, First Nations were an inferior race. If they wanted to survive, they needed to convert to white culture, right down to who they worshipped.

One of the most effective ways to do that was through residential schools, which became a central instrument of Canada’s genocidal policies.

The treaties promised First Nations schools on reserves. However, federal officials soon realized local, secular schools prevented them from achieving their assimilation policies. So they forcibly removed Indigenous children from their parents and placed them in religious-based schools, far away from the influence of their home communities.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald called Indigenous people savages. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

CP

Former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald called Indigenous people savages. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

"When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages," said John A. Macdonald, Canada’s prime minister, in the House of Commons in 1883.

"He is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write."

That did not comply with Canada’s genocidal objectives.

"Secular education is a good thing among white men, but among Indians the first object is to make them better men, and, if possible, good Christian men by applying proper moral restraints," said Macdonald.

Casgrain was wrong; Indigenous people did not become extinct, in spite of Canada’s efforts. But the heavy price they paid, and continue to pay, through inter-generational trauma and the structural racism that remains, is Canadian history.

It’s time we started learning it.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

   Read full biography