Ten Books to Contextualize the Idle No More movement

book cover: Lament for first nations

ActiveHistory.ca is a website that connects the work of historians with the wider public and the importance of the past to current events, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History, and York University.

The following is a re-print of its January 4th post Ten Books to Contextualize Idle No More by Andrew Watson and Thomas Peace. Thomas Peace is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College; Andrew Watson is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at York University.   The original post has many other book recommendations made in response to the original ten suggestions - nine of which are currently available at the Leddy Library.

After reading comment after uninformed comment, both online and in the media, ActiveHistory.ca decided to compile a short list of books written by historians that address the issues being discussed by the Idle No More movement...

...In addition to these books, we would also like to direct your attention to the Canada in the Making‘s section on “Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations.”  This website provides an overview of the relationship between European empires, the Canadian state and First Nation peoples from the late-fifteenth century to the present. It includes links to online copies of many foundational – and constitutional – documents underpinning Canada’s relationship with First Nation peoples.

Peggy Blair, Lament for a First Nation: The Williams Treaties of Southern Ontario, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008)

  • Blair explores the historic and legal context for this major treaty negotiation between seven Ontario First Nations and the federal government. Encompassing 10,000 square miles of south-central Ontario, the Williams Treaties marked the culmination of several decades of confused federal-provincial wrangling for jurisdiction over Native fishing in Ontario, and continued efforts on the part of Mississauga and Chippewa First Nations to have their rights recognized. At the heart of this book are the disputes between First Nations and the provincial government over hunting and fishing rights, which continued throughout the remainder of the twentieth century. Blair argues that the legal basis for court rulings on this treaty have been inconsistent and often contradictory, revealing the inherent fluidity of treaty interpretation.

Jarvis Brownlie, A Fatherly Eye: Indian Agents, Government Power, and Aboriginal Resistance in Ontario, 1918-1939, (Oxford University Press, 2003)

  • Brownlie uses a case study of two Indian Agents from the Georgian Bay area to explore the relationship between the Department of Indian Affairs and reserve communities. Indian Agents acted as intermediaries who oversaw reserve administration and the implementation of government policy. As efforts to assimilate Aboriginal peoples became reduced to simply controlling their lives, the role of the Indian Agent became increasingly influential. By choosing two relatively different reserves and agents, Brownlie reveals how band members resisted these efforts of control, the inconsistent manner in which government policy was employed, and the importance of context in understanding how paternalism operated on reserve during the interwar period.

Shelagh Grant, Arctic Justice: On Trial for Murder, Pond Inlet, 1923, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002)

  • Grant focuses on the first murder trial in the eastern Arctic. The case involved the death of a White fur trader, killed by an Inuit man in order to protect his family. She argues that the introduction of western jurisprudence and the non-Native criminal justice system to the Arctic during this case marked the imposition of Canadian sovereignty over the Inuit. Grant contrasts the flexible Inuit customs for maintaining social norms and conviviality in the period prior to colonization with the strict legal codes that characterized Western law. Both systems were irreconcilable with one another, but coercion and the threat of violence ensured the latter won out over the former.

Cole Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2002)

  • In this book, Cole Harris traces government policy towards First Nations in British Columbia from the early-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Harris focuses on the creation of reserves (and their unusually small size relative to elsewhere in Canada), provincial and federal squabbling over jurisdiction, and Native responses to these colonial interventions. Harris does an excellent job negotiating the different perspectives of imperial and Canadian officials towards settlement and the people living on the land they coveted. The book reveals that colonial policy was debated and that British Columbia’s colonial legacy could have turned out differently. This nuanced reading of the past sets up his final chapter. Chapter 10: Towards a Postcolonial Land Policy explicitly links his historical study to present-day issues. His emphasis on the possibilities of the past allows him to make a suggestion for the future. Harris calls for a redrawing of boundaries between Native and non-Native land in British Columbia as well as “a fair measure of local self-government”.

Douglas Harris, Fish, Law and Colonialism: The Legal Capture of Salmon in British Columbia, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)

  • In this comprehensive study of the legal history of Aboriginal fishing in British Columbia, Douglas Harris explores how colonial laws displaced Aboriginal laws during the early twentieth century. By demonstrating how colonizers (the canning industry, for example) benefitted from restrictive laws and licensing, Harris argues that the management and regulation of fisheries did not allocate access neutrally. Although regulation impeded First Nation fishing, Aboriginal fishermen resisted the state through the market economy, wage labour and politics. Harris makes it clear that colonial laws could be, and were, contested. Colonization was not a straightforward process.

J.R. Miller, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009)

  • Compact, Contract, Covenant is perhaps the best synthesis of treaties in Canada. Miller’s book surveys the history of treaty-making from early commercial compacts made between fur traders and First Nations during the seventeenth century to the more modern treaties negotiated with the Canadian state during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The book helps situate the centuries-old treaty relationship within present-day Canadian society and demonstrates why these legal relationships “were, are, and always will be an important part of Canadian life.” This book is a good starting point for anyone interested in legal relationship between indigenous peoples and the Canadian state.

Jocelyn Thorpe, Temagami’s Tangled Wild: Race, Gender, and the Making of Canadian Nature, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012)

  • Thorpe explores the ways concepts, such as ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’, were (and are) socially constructed to create exclusionary spaces. The designation of Temagami as a nature preserve and park in northern Ontario at the start of the twentieth century relied on categories of race, class, and gender in order to obfuscate the long indigenous human occupation of the territory and reconstitute it as a place without history. In doing so, ‘nature’ became something without humans, and ‘wilderness’ framed as something antithetical to civilization. Thorpe argues that these ways of thinking reveal far more about the context within which they are expressed than they do about the places and people they describe and their history.

Treaty Seven Elders and Tribal Council et al. The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996)

  • This is a collaboratively written book anchored in the oral testimony of over eighty elders from the five First Nations that are part of Treaty Seven (Bloods, Peigan, Siksika, Stoney, Tsuu T’ina). The book argues that the treaty text did not reflect the agreements made during negotiation; Treaty Seven was a peace treaty rather than a land surrender. In return for their agreement to share the land with the Canadian state, the communities in Treaty Seven were promised freedom to hunt, access to education, medical assistance and financial support. The authors do an excellent job demonstrating the importance of Native oral testimony and explaining why it must be taken seriously when considering past treaty-making processes.

William C. Wicken, Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial: History, Land and Donald Marshall Junior, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002)

  • Treaties on Trial shares many similarities with The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty Seven.  The book explores eighteenth-century British-Mi’kmaw treaty-making through the lens of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Marshall case in the late-1990s. The Marshall case was a landmark decision in Canadian law because it helped integrate First Nations’ perspectives into contemporary legal understanding of treaties. In this book, Wicken demonstrates that eighteenth-century treaties often had both oral and written meanings that were taken seriously by both Aboriginal and Imperial participants. Over time, however, the written text took precedent over the oral agreements.

Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011)

  • This book addresses a period before, and during, the early formation of the Canadian and American state.  We have included it on this list because Witgen makes a compelling argument that most North American people remained autonomous from eastern colonial settlements until well into the late-nineteenth century. Rather than being seen as a part of New France, British North America, the United States or Canada, Witgen argues that the European fur trade created an opportunity for alliance between Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples. Together they dominated the politics and political economy of the mid-west, ensuring their own independence and survival. Of all the books on this list, An Infinity of Nations most explicitly demonstrates how the colonial legacy of the Canadian and American state has encouraged historians to ignore First Nations accounts and perspectives in the past.

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