From Treaties to Reserves

The Federal Government and Native Peoples in Territorial Alberta, 1870–1905

Reviewed by Jean Barman

May 25, 2017

Canada’s history is integral to who we are as a nation and to our senses of self. We live in the present as a result, at least in part, of what came before. Nowhere is this more visible than in respect to the lives of Indigenous peoples. Two complementary volumes respecting Canada’s Indigenous peoples are a welcome help to understanding ourselves as a nation and as individuals.

In From Treaties to Reserves, D.J. Hall focuses on Alberta and details the critical period during which the newly formed Canadian state transformed Indigenous peoples from their own selves into menials confined to reserves for the convenience of white newcomers who were determined to have their land. Moving forward in time, Greg Poelzer and Ken Coates offer an accessible primer to the many ways Canada’s Indigenous peoples are retaking charge of their lives. Beyond the value in reading these books, both can also become active agents in our understanding of these important topics on our own terms.

Hall’s book describes and explains a sequence of events occurring well over a century ago — from 1870 to 1905 — that, by means of treaty making, brought into being the Alberta and the Canada we know today. He usefully points out how Alberta’s Indigenous peoples were already in an unequal position, set upon by introduced diseases and by white people’s overhunting the allimportant buffalo, which functioned as a source of food and clothing.

His approach to describing treaty making gives readers a participatory lens into these events. Early in the book Hall alerts readers that, “when Native leaders wanted to communicate with government, their messages were subject to some loss of cultural meaning in translation, [and] more was lost when they were interpreted and contextualized.” He forewarns us as to how, given different sets of assumptions about each other, “frequently neither really heard what the other was trying to communicate, especially at the level of wider purposes and ultimate goals.”

Hall’s detailed, straightforward narrative can be read rather like a detective story. Even though the end result is known, we are given the tools — including subheadings keeping us on track — to dissect, critique, and interpret for ourselves the process of getting there. We as readers become our own historians, reaching our own conclusions as to whether Indigenous peoples’ displacement from lands they knew as their own was or was not justified, and on what basis. In the second half of the book, Hall narrates the aftermath of treaty making for Alberta’s Indigenous peoples, which is cause for reflection.

From Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nation is a different proposition. Where Hall goes for depth on a single historical topic, Poelzer and Coates opt for breadth respecting events of the past several decades. As well as providing a useful primer, a principal reason for their broad approach is to enable those of us interested in one or the other aspect of their “road map” to acquire just enough information to be able to search other sources, including the Internet, for detail and depth.

Following a long introduction laying out the authors’ perspectives on a wide variety of topics relating to Indigenous peoples in Canada, the first section narrates the views, one after the other, of a dozen each of Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers. This serves as a way of moving forward while respecting Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations. The former group is divided between traditionalists, supporters of “treaty federalism,” and those “bridging the solitudes”; the latter writers are grouped by their emphasis on legal rights, moral rights, well-being, or politics.

The book’s second section turns to what  are described as “Aboriginal success stories.” The authors’ long list ranges from events to persons, cultural settings, spiritual and community renewal, educational sites, business and entrepreneurship, and governance and civic engagement, including friendship centres, self-government, and land claims. The third and final section, entitled “Steps towards Social, Political, and Economic Equality,” describes a half dozen directions the authors propose for moving forward.

The excitement of these two books on Canada’s Indigenous peoples lies in interrogating their subjects alongside the authors. The goal in our doing so is not so much to agree or to disagree with what is on the page as it is to understand the topic in ways that make meaning for ourselves. We become active readers.

D.J. Hall makes this possible by virtue of his clearly written, detailed text; Poelzer and Coates allow readers to link the book with their own curiosity and research interests. Whichever the pathway, we need always to be mindful that Canada’s history belongs to all of us so long as we make it so.

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