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11.1:5 Aboriginal Politics at Mid-Century

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  • People sit outside of two teepees. A canoe sits beside them.

    Figure 11.13 Micmac camp near Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1857. Photo by Paul-Émile Miot.

    Important changes in the relationship between Aboriginal and colonial peoples began in the 1830s. As early as the mid-18th century there was an appetite in Britain and in some of the North American colonies for the abolition of slavery, but not much came of it. We have seen how Governor John Graves Simcoe made some modest moves in this direction in the 1790s. In 1807 Parliament in London passed the Slave Trade Act, which put an end to the legal trafficking in slaves across the empire. In 1833 Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act.


    The rise in support for abolitionism in the 1830s pertains to Aboriginal people because it was a landmark in a movement that came to be known as humanitarianism. Generally, British opinion shapers and political leaders were in the process of developing a more egalitarian perspective generally.[1] In part this sprang from the acceptance of individualism as an ideal. The link between individualism and humanitarianism may seem like a contradiction, but the connection was simple: Enlightenment-era individualism stressed the autonomy and value of the individual. If everyone had an equal moral significance then, regardless of race or culture, colour or religion, they were entitled to equivalent treatment or at least respect. This principle played out in many different ways when it came to Aboriginal people globally, but in British North America it mostly took on the flavour of “improvement” and “civilization” of Native societies, one individual at a time.

    After the War of 1812 and the end of Aboriginal power around the Great Lakes, there appeared growing enthusiasm on the part of Euro-Canadians to “improve” Aboriginal peoples by settling them in colonial-style villages, modifying their housing styles, teaching them farming and animal husbandry, setting up European-style schools, and enforcing Euro-Canadian-style gender relations. Missionary activity in British North America had been largely neglected since the Conquest, Protestants being evidently less interested in the task than were the Catholics. But from the 1820s on Protestant missionary activity accelerated in Upper Canada and the Maritimes, as it did throughout the rest of the British Empire. By the 1840s the missionary movement had made it all the way to the West Coast.

    Set in that context of humanitarian thinking and expanding missionary interest in Aboriginal societies, the timing of Britain’s mid-decade Select Committee on Aborigines is important. The Select Committee conducted a study of the treatment and condition of Aboriginal peoples around the empire. What it found, of course, was that settler societies everywhere dispossessed Aboriginal peoples of their lands and their means of making a living. Where Aboriginal lands were at the disposal of indigenous individuals or the community as a whole, there were also sales and further alienation of lands being made.

    This created a potential contradiction. On the one hand Euro-Canadian reformers and Tories alike favoured private ownership of land and implicitly the ability of a landowner to sell whenever they got a good price; on the other hand, the loss of tribal lands in this manner stood to undermine the economic self-sufficiency of Aboriginal communities and so should be stopped.

    The urge to protect Aboriginal peoples from what (imperialist authorities took to be) their own irresponsibility won out. The Crown Lands Protection Act (1839) was thus an important step along the road to converting Aboriginal peoples from neighbours and sovereign peoples into disempowered subjects whose affairs were held in trust by the state as a guardian. This marked the arrival of a new kind of paternalism, one in which Aboriginal peoples had much the same rights as children and usually fewer than Euro-Canadian women.

    The Act prevented Aboriginal landowners from selling off property to newcomers by effectively stripping Aboriginal communities of their title. And people without land in this era were people without citizenship. The colonial authorities had decided to act in what they thought were the best interests of Aboriginal people, who would be guided into citizenship via assimilation. But colonial officials were never certain in these years as to whether and how they could act.

    Administrative Opacity

    Until 1860, responsibility for Aboriginal affairs resided with the British government assisted by personnel on the ground in the colonies to advise and administer matters directly. In other words, the responsibility was in Britain but practical authority was in the field. Funding lines were, moreover, confused and complicated. Aboriginal influence, too, was at a low ebb. Key decisions were being made far away, in London, while day-to-day decisions were being made locally in the colonies for which the imperial regime might not take ownership. Under these circumstances it is easy to see how Aboriginal issues became disregarded or poorly addressed by British North America’s mid-century generation of politicians: it was neither their responsibility nor was it made pressing.

    Olive Dickason, a historian of the First Nations in Canada, made these observations about the situation across the colonies and in London:

    Herman Merivale, permanent undersecretary of the Colonial Office in London, 1847-60, developed the concept of regional approaches rather than an overarching policy applying to all. This meant almost as many policies as there were colonies: in the Maritimes, it was one of ‘insulation’ of the Amerindians; in the Canadas, ‘amalgamation’; in Rupert’s Land and on the Northwest Coast, support of HBC administration, which in the latter case was tempered by [Governor James] Douglas’ concern for Amerindian rights. In other words, in spite of good intentions, centralized imperial administration was not coping very well with the myriad local problems of colonial government. Neither did goals always synchronize: where the Colonial Office was concerned with rationalizing imperial administration in economic terms, in the colonies it was all too evident that Indians no longer fitted into imperial plans and that programs to ameliorate their situations would be costly. Attempts at enforced change were not getting very far, and the voices of the Natives themselves either were not being heard or were being ignored.[2]