The Segregation of
Native People in Canada:
Voluntary or Compulsory?

By: Michèle DuCharme

From: Currents Summer, 1986, pp. 3-4
© 1986 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

The history of the Indian people for the last century has been the history of the impingement of white civilization upon the Indian: the Indian was virtually powerless to resist the white civilization; the white community of B.C. adopted a policy of apartheid. This, of course, has already been done in eastern Canada and on the Prairies, but the apartheid policy adopted in B.C. was of a particularly cruel and degrading kind. They began by taking the Indians' land without any surrender and without their consent. Then they herded the Indian people onto Indian reserves. This was nothing more nor less than apartheid, and that is what it still is today(1).

Thomas Berger, 1 November 1966

Apartheid has become synonymous with oppression, injustice and racism. The resultant anti-apartheid movement has inspired boycotts, demonstrations, marches and most recently, an 8-day arts festival in the city of Toronto. Indeed, the image of the quiet, complacent Canadian who hesitates over becoming involved in issues of social injustice seems to have been replaced by the reality of anti-apartheid advocates who have taken the festival slogan, "Speak out. South Africa will hear us" very much to heart. In short, the overwhelming degree of support and attention the issue has received from the public, the government and the media is nothing short of phenomenal.

The consensus of opinion is that action must be taken against South Africa's racist regime. Yet as this powerful and humanitarian collective voice continues to express its outrage and repulsion over South Africa's segregational practices and policies, it is important to remember that similar conditions have existed in this country for over 100 years, and in many ways, continue to exist in Canadian society today.

As we become more informed and concerned about the problems facing South Africa's indigenous people, we cannot afford to be oblivious, disinterested and/or condoning of the conflicts affecting our own inhabitants. We can no longer close our eyes to the history of separation and disadvantage by which Canada was founded, or to the conditions of inequality and tragedy which still permeate the lives of ethnic and racial minorities today.

Perhaps the most severe and yet overlooked example of discriminatory practices towards Canadians is to be found in the treatment of our own indigenous people, the Native Canadians. South Africa is not the only country where the Native population has been set apart legally, geographically and economically on a purely genetic basis. Canada also used a variety of strategies to methodically remove Native people from their lands to make way for immigrants, including actual physical extermination.

Newfoundland for example, Beothuk were completely extinct 1829, in part because of a bounty system that encouraged systematic massacre. For those who shy away from the suggestion that parallel exist between conditions in Canada and South Africa, it is important realize that "simply because the framework of apartheidism is not written into a constitution does not mean that it is not a component nor a reality nation."(2) Although the laws and policies of the two countries are not the same as the existence of racial repression which allies them, and not the degree or extent to which it occurs. While the intensity of personal oppression varies considerably, the result is the same as in South Africa: "The native population has been herded on to reduced territories in order to make way for others."(3)

Physical Barrier

The implementation of the reservation system in Canada and South Africa has acted as a physical barrier between Indians/Blacks and main- stream society, and has helped to maintain the status quo in favour of the white establishment. Canadian Indians were placed on Reserves in the late eighteenth century in order to clear land for newly arrived European immigrants and settlers from the U.S. Although these Reserves were originally located within the areas which various tribes had long occupied, the actual size of the enclosures greatly reduced from their previous territories. Today, only 0.4 per cent of Canadian land is set aside for Indians to live on, while 13.7 per cent of South African territory forms its reserves for 74 per cent of the population.(4)

Regardless of whether one refers to Reserves as homelands, bantustans, national states or human dumping grounds, the fact remains that these closed communities have "... not robbed indigenous people of their land, but (have) perpetuated racial injustices and inequalities. They (have) also created a sharp social and political separation between colonizer colonized."(5) The following table shows some aspects of the apartheid reserve system which are common to both countries:

1. External legislation that legally controls the separation of Natives and whites;
2. The establishment and utilization of reserves exclusively for Natives;
3. Indirect rule via chiefs and tribal councils;
4. The suppression of Native nationalism and consciousness;
5. Reserve programs controlled exclusively by white bureaucrats;
6. Racial separation through the use of social and cultural institutions.(6)

Who is an Indian?

The passage of the Indian Act forced the Canadian government to provide legal definitions of who was a Native and who was not. Yet as Daniel Raunet points out, "to ask the question (who is an Indian?) in legal terms is in it self discriminatory. One would not dream of enshrining in a law a definition of the Québécois, the English Canadian, or the New York Jew. People do not need legislation to know their origin or place on this earth. They know who they are, period. In Canada, however, the lawgiver has not shied away from the murky half-truths of racial definition. For him, an Indian is a person registered on an "Indian register." In the federal Department of Indian Affairs, there is a civil servant called "the Registrar" whose task is to keep a record of certain people - a racial record - and whose decisions are, by law, "final and conclusive."(7) Canadian Indians, like South African Blacks, continue to live under the shadow of apartheidism, born from a fundamental economic motive. The Metis in Saskatchewan, the Haida in Vancouver, the Cree at James Bay, like many other Native groups, have all been uprooted and relocated for the sake of white development, resources, and convenience.

British Columbia in particular seems to abound with examples of "Native moves Canadian style".(8) For example, the Salish who lived in Vancouver's Kitsilano area at the turn of the century were "induced" to move because they were encroaching on a white residential neighbourhood. The Songhees who lived in what is now Victoria's Bastion Square were "induced" to move to Esquimault because they were in the way of white development.

An Indian band at Fort St. John was relocated to make land available for returning Second World War (white) veterans. Oil later was "discovered" on the former Indian property. When did the government learn about the oil?

Several Indian bands were relocated to make room for the flooding of British Columbia's Williston Lake. Some received compensation. The Indians of the Stulguate Reserve on northern Vancouver Island were ordered to move because the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs said their land was too remote for government administration. The new land given them proved economically disastrous. This move is described in a book called How People Die.(9)

The struggles, injustices and stereotypes which have plagued Native Canadians for over a century are still grim realities today, and yet they seem more invisible and insurmountable than ever before. Recent statistics from the Federal Department of Indian Affairs resound with proof of past and present failures in Canada's policies toward its 500,000 Native people. For instance, the average Native income is two-thirds of the national average. Fewer than 50 per cent of Indian houses are fully served with sewer and water connections, compared with a national rate of 90 per cent. Almost 50 per cent of Indian families live in overcrowded houses. Among the Indians living on reserves, 60 per cent are on welfare. About 70 per cent of status Indians have been incarcerated in a correctional centre by the age of 25; among other Canadians, the rate is 8 per cent. Suicide among Indians is six times the national rate and in fact, exceeds the rates for all other racial and ethnic groups in the world.(10) One cannot help but wonder at the lack of public outcry. However, the absence of public protest may be partially due to misconceptions over the "provisions" made by the Federal government for Native people in this country as opposed to more violent measures which exist in places like South Africa. History has proven that "the liberalization of oppression, and the apparent equality granted to the Indians, does not amount to a differ- ence in nature between the Canadian reserve system and other forms of apartheid; they are simply evidence of the fact that the elimination of the Native population is more advanced in North America than elsewhere. The only difference is one of numbers.(11)

Thus, it is imperative that we begin to acknowledge that apartheid is not confined to any one people or country. It is not bound by colour, religion or culture, nor is it a social condition exclusive to South Africa. Apartheid breeds despair, violence and injustice. Ideally, the momentum created by our exposure to the crisis in South Africa can be used to remedy the segregational conditions which continue to plague Native Canadians and racial and ethnic minorities here in Canada.

Michèle DuCharme is a descendant of Louis Riel.

"... South Africa is not the only country where the native population has been set apart legally, geographically and economically on a purely genetic basis... "


1. Thomas Berger, "The B.C. Indian land question and the rights of the Indian people", speech to the ninth annual convention of the Nishga Tribal Council, Port Edwards, B .C ., I November 1966, 3, in Daniel Raunet's WithoutSurrender, Without Consent: A History of the Nishga Land Claims, Toronto: Douglas &
Mclntyre, 1984, p. 167.

2. Howard Adams, "The Metis", Racial Oppression in Canada, B. Singh Bolaria and Peter S. Li, Toronto: Garamond Press, 1985, p. 71.

3. Raunet, op. cit., p. 178.

4. Globe and Mail, March 22, 1985; Globe and Mail, April 17,1986.

5. Adams, op. cit., p. 71.

6. Ibid., p 70.

7. Raunet, op. cit., p. 168.

8. Globe and Mail, April 9, 1986.

9. Ibid.

10. Globe and Mail, May 20, 1986; Toronto Star, May 23, 1986.

11. Raunet, op. cit., p. 179.

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