Traditional materials and clothing styles were among the many aspects of Indigenous cultures that were targeted in residential schools. Source: J. F. Moran, School Children—Residential at R. C. Mission, [Fort] Resolution, N.W.T., ca. 1928, photograph, Online MIKAN no.3381466, Library and Archives Canada/PA-102519. Public Domain.

After public enquiries, journalists’ investigations, official apologies, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and novels and movies devoted to the subject, it is difficult to ignore the historic arc that produced a campaign of cultural genocide. A century of residential schools fractured generations of Indigenous families, severed links with traditional languages, hollowed out communities. There were egregious abuses of children in the care of adults in the schools and the existence of what can only be described as systematic tortures. Physical and mental health issues, along with substance abuse and chronic addiction, are other legacies. It is a grim tale and, given ongoing truth-seeking and truth-telling efforts, it is not yet complete. These experiences of despair and tragedy have generated an outcry, as well as renewal and strength born of resilience. Residential schools are, however, only one part of a lengthy history of cultural transformation, some of which was imposed by settler colonialism and some of which was initiated and managed—with varying degrees of success—by Indigenous peoples themselves.

This section explores Indigenous experiences under settler colonialism at the community and personal level. Missionaries—agents of European Christian ideologies—appear in New France in the early 1600s; they continue to inform settler-Indigenous relations to this day. The European urge to change Indigenous cultures is demonstrable and consistent, although its meaning and methods vary widely across four centuries and thousands of kilometres. What purpose were imported Christian beliefs meant to serve? What did Indigenous peoples see in the settlers’ creed that allowed them to tolerate the presence in their midst of these alien spiritualists? What strategies were deployed by Europeans to “convert” and “save” Indigenous peoples, and what tactics were used by Indigenous peoples to resist, recast, comprehend, and make use of agendas of cultural change?

This introduction sets the stage for state-sponsored efforts to Christianize, Westernize, modernize, and eliminate Indigenous cultures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The topics that follow focus on the highly disruptive tactics, laws, and experiments imposed by the settler regime and colonial agents since Confederation that had, ultimately, the goal of eradicating Indigenous cultures, identities, and distinct communities. These will include the residential schools and bans on (and the policing of) traditional cultural practices, including the speaking of Indigenous languages. The abduction of children by state agencies occurred beyond the residential school system in the form of what is known as “the Sixties Scoop.” Children were thus at the frontlines of the cultural genocide project, as is explored in Chapter 9. Women were targeted as well. The experiences of Indigenous women under settler colonialism are explored in Chapter 10. Indigenous peoples across “Canada” mounted a variety of political responses to federal and provincial policies and agencies over the last 200 years, their efforts becoming more visible in the last 40 years of the twentieth century. Chapter 11 situates these events and trends historically. Indigenous health—physical, spiritual, community, and mental—is largely a product of settler colonialism’s obsession with modernity. Chapter 12 explores the question of health, with a focus on fresh water supplies. How is it possible, we must ask, that one First Nation after the next, living in areas absolutely saturated with lakes and rivers, cannot get a glass of clean water to drink, even now? How did it come to pass that settler colonialism and modernity became literally toxic?

This section is followed by reflections on Truth and Reconciliationboth the official report and the challenges it presents for historians and for histories. Educators, civil servants, Indigenous and settler-community leaders, the media, social workers, and “Canadians” in the broadest sense have been presented with a challenge. The gauntlet has been dropped. In picking it up—in whichever community we belong to—we have to be aware of our obligations to tell the truth about the past as best we can, to refract new light on our histories, and to refuse to take shelter behind simplistic and reassuring tales. If the nation of Canada is built on a series of stories of explorers, voyageurs, soldiers, nurses, engineers, farmwomen, scientists, suffragists, politicians, and novelists, then we must be ready to ask what it means if those characters were involved in something that was (and is) objectively inhumane. If Canadians have chosen to look the other way, then this is the time to be Idle No More.

What is “Cultural Genocide”?

The word “genocide” was minted during the Second World War to describe attempts to murder entire “races” of human beings. Racism—as a policy and an ideology and a way of seeing the world—mutated in the nineteenth century from a way of cataloguing different cultures into something sharper and inherently hostile. Little discriminations grew into barriers; barriers sprouted barbed wire. Attempts to eradicate the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) began in the mid-nineteenth century and culminated in the wholesale slaughter of 1.5 million people during and after the First World War. Twenty years later, the Jewish population of Europe was systematically destroyed, principally by the National Socialist government in Germany. Some six million were murdered. In both instances, these were non-combatants, and the motivation of the regimes responsible for the exterminations was “purification” of their own—and not enemy—populations. These two horrors of the twentieth century gave birth to the word “genocide” in 1943.

Given the potent and visceral history of the word, it is not brandished lightly. Settler society in Canada adjusted its racist attitudes and policies as regards many non-Anglo-Celtic or non-French groups in light of what became widely known (from about 1945–50) of the Jewish “holocaust” in Europe. It did not, however, rush to examine the impacts of assimilationist policies on Indigenous peoples. The term “ethnocide” was developed in the 1940s to address cultural attacks on identifiable groups, but it failed to gain much traction. And there was little sense in settler Canada that “ethnocides” had ever occurred here. By the 1970s and certainly the 1980s, Indigenous leaders were weaving the terms “genocide” and “cultural genocide” into the Canadian conversation, albeit in the face of tremendous resistance from non-Indigenous people. By 1994, the term had acquired legitimacy at the United Nations, specifically in a draft of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Thereafter, a progressively wider slice of the world’s population was prepared to recognize that this is what had happened to Indigenous people—that this is what Canadian governments had perpetrated.

Definitions of cultural genocide vary. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) addressed inconsistent use of the term by defining it on the first page of their report. The TRC thus forefronts this concept so as to tell us that it is embedded in the settler-Indigenous relationship:

Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.[1]

As the topics ahead reveal, “cultural” is a modifier. The point of settler efforts in this regard was to eliminate Indigeneity, and several means were deployed to that end.

Culture Campaigns

Conscious efforts by non-Indigenous peoples to change Indigenous cultures are relatively easy to highlight. Most of them arise from policies that are clearly articulated by clergy, empires, militaries, and local administrations. There are, of course, changes that occur less directly: the adoption of European technologies (which may include anything from metal scraping tools, copper pots, guns, and alcohol to electronic media) might be encouraged by non-Indigenous peoples, but rarely with the goal of causing cultural change, let alone erasure. So we shall set these aside and focus on the explicit efforts to impose transformation.

Whether the goal is assimilation or subordination—that is, re-crafting Indigenous cultures so as to be effectively a part of settler society, or degrading the same cultures to the point of being no obstacle to settler goals—the tools are largely the same. Indigenous leaders in the sixteenth century were prepared to exchange individuals (sometimes hostages) with Europeans so as to acquire a greater understanding of the culture with which they were coming into sustained contact. Samuel de Champlain famously proposed a symbiosis between the French colonists and the Wendat in 1633 when he promised them that “our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people.” At least one historian advises us to consider the possibility that Champlain was “proposing closer relations between the two groups by using marriage as a metaphor of political and economic alliance and cooperation.”[2] This may be splitting hairs and it may, too, be moot: Jesuit missionaries supported intermarriage only when it involved Catholic sacraments and led to (or was even preceded by) Wendat conversions to Christianity. The diplomatic and economic goals thus became bound up in cultural and religious agendas.[3]

For the most part, however, the first two hundred years of contact was not characterized by aggressive policies associated with assimilation. Missionaries in New France concentrated their efforts in the St. Lawrence Valley, and so those Indigenous peoples who spent more time in that region were exposed to greater cultural risks. The same is true of Acadia, wherein the Catholic clergy were very active. One has to keep in mind that the clergy had their own marching orders: the conversion of souls and holding the Protestant English/British influence at bay was their literal job. Colonial regimes, however, were not consistently enthusiastic. In New France, there were conflicts between military leadership, fur traders and merchants, and the “black robes,” the Recollet and Jesuit missionaries who inserted themselves into every key element of colonial life and business. Conversions among the Wendat were incentivized with the promise of more and better trade goods, but new religious alignments in Wendake Ehen created factionalism that wasn’t in anyone’s best interests and which could be exploited by the Haudenosaunee. There was among the missionaries, too, disagreement as to whether Indigenous people had to be changed into Europeans before they could become “real” Christians, or whether conversion to Christianity under Indigenous terms would lead to closer relations. Historian of New France, Peter Moogk, offers insights into what attracted Wendat converts and where they drew a line. The Wendat perceived:

. . . Jesus of Nazareth as a protective spirit who was supposed to bring good fortune to the devotee and to avert misfortune. This utilitarian approach to Christ explains the quick abandonment of the new faith when the Hurons were beset by imported diseases and by Iroquois attacks. Native Christians fared no better than traditionalists, and so, when Jesus failed as a guardian spirit, disillusioned converts reverted to aboriginal practices and beliefs. Their initial view of Jesus explains why there were so many apostates among the Hurons.[4]

Indigenous engagements with Christianity were not, however, always strictly strategic. After all, “Christianity” was bound up in European ways of doing things, some of which could be adopted and adapted without much compromise to existing and traditional practices. Flipping that particular coin, there were aspects of European belief and values that simply did not fit within Indigenous practices. For example, the Algonquin “eat-all” or “leave-nothing” feast (also common to Wendat culture) followed a successful hunt and made sense in the context of community obligation, a largely nomadic society in which food preservation and freighting posed challenges, and the seasonality of protein supplies (something that would not worry, say, sedentary pig-farmers). But such feasts looked to European Christians like gluttony, a sin in their eyes.[5] What might look to a Jesuit missionary like immorality or resistance to the Christian message was, in such instances, common sense coupled to valued ritual.

In the centuries that followed, the attractions of the Judeo-Christian traditions would ebb and flow among Indigenous peoples. The imposition of these beliefs by a much more aggressive—and yet, ironically, a much more secular—state after 1867 would serve to cripple Indigenous cultures and plunge the churches into a moral crisis of their own creation.

State Making and Guardianship

The British North American colonies modeled many of their “Indian policies” on initiatives launched by the British. Imperial objectives (in London) and colonial objectives (on the ground in either the former British colonies to the south or in what became British North America after 1783) were not always consistent, nor were they consistently in agreement. Policy and perceptions on the part of colonial and imperial interests so often took sharp turns that it is probably unwise to think of it as an evolutionary path or some carefully considered developmental process. Jennifer Pettit surveys some of the key landmarks in the history of Indigenous-colonist relations and shows how there were important detours and fads along the way from the pre-revolutionary years to Confederation.

Aboriginal – Newcomer Relations before Confederation (CC BY 4.0)[6]

Jennifer Pettit, Mount Royal University

Cognizant of the value and importance of military alliances with Indigenous peoples, in 1755, the British government established the British Indian Department, which was divided into two parts: a Northern Department under Sir William Johnson (1715-1774) who was named Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and a second department that was to manage affairs with Indigenous peoples farther south. Both departments were under the jurisdiction of the Commander of the British Forces in North America. Shortly after the creation of the Indian Department, the Seven Years’ War broke out in which rivals Britain and France fought for control not only of what would become the country of Canada, but beyond on a global scale. The main goal of the Indian Department during these battles was to ensure that various Indigenous groups were allies, or at the very least remained neutral. In the end, the British would gain control of Canada from the French, and Indigenous peoples would officially fall under British imperial authority.

In 1763 shortly after the end of the Seven Years’ War, the British passed the Royal Proclamation that set aside a large territory west of the British-American Thirteen Colonies and that more importantly, also recognized inherent Indigenous land tenure rights or Aboriginal title to the land. The Proclamation set out a fiduciary or protector relationship in which the Crown would act as a trustee who would supposedly act in the best interests of Indigenous peoples, overseeing the policy that Aboriginal title could be extinguished only by treaty with the Crown. The Royal Proclamation also promised that Indigenous peoples would “not be molested or disturbed.” Alongside these changes, the Indian Department grew in size and complexity, in part, because of the failure of the Royal Proclamation to keep colonists off Indigenous lands, but primarily due to a series of other battles including the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Thus, the main goal of the British government remained to maintain Indigenous peoples as allies.

The end of the War of 1812 (1812-1815) initiated a new era of relations with Indigenous peoples. As the threat of future North American wars retreated, increasingly, Indigenous peoples were seen as a “problem.”[7] This situation was exacerbated by the decline of the fur trade in some areas, growing demand for Indigenous land by settlers, and increasing costs of supplying presents to First Nations groups to ensure their loyalty. With costs rising and returns dwindling, the British government sought a new direction for their interactions with Indigenous peoples. Thus, in 1829 under Major General H.C. Darling, Superintendent of Indians, a new plan was proposed that would supposedly address the “Indian problem.”

Darling proposed a plan to “civilize” Indigenous peoples by assimilating them into Euro-Canadian society. This plan would shape Canadian Indian administration thinking for many years. Whether or not this plan was assimilation or genocide has been debated, although assimilation did become a justification in Canada for colonialism. The plan to civilize and protect Indigenous peoples resulted in significant changes to the Indian Department in 1830, including moving control of the Department from the military to the civil arm of government.

This new “civilization” plan sought to turn Indigenous peoples into self-sufficient Christian farmers who would integrate into settler society and no longer be a costly expense for the government. To keep up with the economic, technological, and social changes in the Canada, Indigenous peoples were to be converted to Christianity; taught to practice a trade (usually farming); and educated on how to live, act, and dress as Euro-Canadians. As a result, model farming communities such as the one at the Coldwater Narrows reserve near Lake Simcoe were built. In addition, treaties moved from a model of largely peace and friendship to treaties whose goal was land cession in which First Nations peoples would be placed on reserves. The government argued that this was for the protection of Indigenous peoples until they could assimilate or until they disappeared completely (what many at the time saw as an inevitability). It also, of course, helped clear the path for non-Indigenous settlement.

Government officials felt it would be best to begin “civilizing” at an early age, which would take place in schools in which children would be removed from the influences of their parents. While day schools existed, there was not yet a manual labour or industrial school system in place in which students would receive basic academic instruction and also be taught a trade. Soon, the first of these industrial schools, the Mohawk Institute, opened in Brantford, Ontario in the 1830s under the auspices of the New England Company. While there would be an initial outlay to construct and maintain the schools, these costs were borne largely by the churches, and it was assumed that assimilation would happen quickly. Some officials such as Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head (1793-1875), however, argued in the mid-1830s that any attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples were folly and that the Indigenous peoples of what is now Ontario should be gathered up and moved to Manitoulin Island. Bond Head’s plan failed to gain support, and the government forged ahead with Darling’s civilization plan instead.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, the British government also undertook a number of investigations into Aboriginal affairs in the newly created united Province of Canada. As was the case up to this point, these inquiries were made without any consultation with Indigenous peoples. One of the earliest of these studies, the Bagot Commission, reported in 1844, argued that changes needed to be made to a number of areas including the management of Indigenous land. A number of Acts followed, including the Gradual Civilization Act (1857), which promoted voluntary enfranchisement and the gradual dissolution of reserve lands. Another significant change took place in 1860, when the British government transferred the control of Indian affairs to the Province of Canada.

In 1867, that responsibility for building and maintaining relations with Indigenous communities was passed to the new Dominion of Canada. Pause to contextualize this change: relationships—good, bad, and indifferent—had been built up by settler authority (and settlers) and Indigenous peoples over centuries in what was now New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Québec and then, in the first decade after Confederation, the influence of these settler societies would extend across almost half of the continent in a leap. The Niitsitapi, to take one example, in 1867 could be found in the foothills of the Rockies, more than 2,000 km from the nearest part of “Canada.” They had dealt with the HBC and they knew Canadien and Canadian fur traders out of Montréal, as well as Iroquois, Abenaki, and Métis participants in the fur trade. But that’s a far cry from being governed by a colonial political elite housed in Ottawa (a further 1,500 km to the east). In terms of distance and difference, it would be roughly comparable to Regina coming under the authority of Mexico City. The Canadian declaration that Indigenous peoples like the Niitsitapi were now “wards” of Ottawa seems, in this light, almost absurd. The consequences, however, were very real.

Rather suddenly, Indigenous peoples found themselves faced with strident and forceful critiques of ancient spiritual practices. Efforts to undermine systems of creating and disseminating knowledge across generations were underway. These campaigns had their roots in the nineteenth-century expansion of missionary crusades, the growth of evangelical movements within Protestantism and Catholicism, and the appearance of the first “Indian schools.” In this phase—which extends through the twentieth century to the present day—we can see evidence of that third aspect of settler colonialism cited earlier: “settler colonization [seeks] the ending of colonial difference in the form of a supreme and unchallenged settler state and people.”[8] Colonial difference could also be erased through a vigorous campaign of assimilation and the consequent effective disappearance of Indigenous people.

Additional Resources

The following resources may supplement your understanding of the topics addressed in this section:

Dickason, Olive, and David McNab. Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, 4th ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2009. See esp. pp. 258–457.

MacDonald, David B. The Sleeping Giant Awakens: Genocide, Indian Residential Schools, and Challenge of Conciliation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019).

Miller, J. R. Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Native-Newcomer Relations in Canada, 4th ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018. See esp. chap. 8, 11–16.

Pearson, Timothy. “Reading Rituals: Performance and Religious Encounter in Early Colonial Northeastern North America.” In Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada, edited by Tolly Bradford and Chelsea Horton, 21–37. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016.

  1. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), 1.
  2. Leslie Tuttle, Conceiving the Old Regime: Pronatalism and the Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern France (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), 87.
  3. Ibid., 88–9.
  4. Peter Moogk, “Writing the Cultural History of Pre-1760 European Colonists,” French Colonial History 4 (2003): 2.
  5. Timothy Pearson, “Reading Rituals: Performance and Religious Encounter in Early Colonial Northeastern North America,” in Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada, Tolly Bradford and Chelsea Horton, eds. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016), p.27; Denys Delâge, Bitter Feast: Amerindians and Europeans in Northeastern North America, 1600-64 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993), p.76.
  6. Jennifer Pettit, “Aboriginal-Newcomer Relations before Confederation,” in John Douglas Belshaw, Canadian History: Post-Confederation (Vancouver: BCcampus, 2016), section 11.4. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
  7. See Noel DyckWhat is the Indian “Problem”: Tutelage and Resistance in Canadian Indian Administration (St. John’s, NF: Institute of Social and Economic Studies, 1991). 
  8. Adam Barjer and Emma Battell Lowman, “Settler Colonialism,” Global Social Theory, accessed October 2, 2018,


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada by John Belshaw, Sarah Nickel, and Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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