By W. WILLIAMS and S. G.
It is especially
difficult to speak historically and numerically of a people so nomadic
in their habits, and living in so vast a territory, as the Canadian Red
Indians. As settlement has advanced westward and northward, so detailed
and comprehensive particulars have supplemented the estimates and the
reports of Hudson Bay factors and agents. At the present time the
available information as to the Canadian aborigines is fairly adequate,
and as accurate as it is sympathetic.
In 1856, the number of
forts erected and owned by the Hudson Bay Company was 154. These forts
were scattered over the whole country, and were usually the one point of
contact between the red men and the white, forming centres of
civilisation and law. The Red Indian tribes necessarily fell largely
under their influence and government, an influence mainly depending upon
toleration and rigid justice, indispensable qualities where large
numbers of natives are to be successfully controlled by a strictly
limited number of whites.
That the policy of the
Hudson Bay Company towards the Red Indians was based upon a wise
humanity it will be sufficient to quote from the standing rules of the
Company, issued to their officials:—
“That the Indians be
treated with kindness and indulgence, and mild and conciliator}^ means
resorted to in order to encourage industry, repress vice, and inculcate
morality; that the use of spirituous liquors be gradually discontinued
in the very few districts in which it is yet indispensable; and that the
Indians be liberally supplied with requisite necessaries, particularly
with articles of ammunition, whether they have the means of paying for
it or not, and that no gentleman in charge of district or post be at
liberty to alter or vary the standard or usual mode of trade with the
Indians except by special permission of Council.”
Some statistics of the
aboriginal population of Canada were given before a Select Committee of
the House of Commons, appointed in 1857, to consider the state of the
British Possessions in North America. These figures are useful as
affording perhaps the first reliable numerical returns on this subject:—
The above may be
classified according to races somewhere as follows :—
characteristics of the various tribes differ very widely from one
another, although the common constraining influence of the law may cause
such differences to be less apparent. Thus the Assiniboine Indians
acquired a special character for consistent treachery and cruelty, and
the Saulteaux Indians for pride and laziness. Marked characteristics may
also be found among the plain Indians as compared with those tribes
inhabiting the forests.
In 1876, the Canadian
Indians received a great reinforcement by the arrival of a large
contingent from United States territory. Into the causes which led to
the Indian exodus across the frontier it is not necessary here to enter.
During December of that year United States Indians, numbering 500 men,
1000 women, and 1400 children, entered Canadian territory with 3500
horses, and camped east of the Cypress Hills. Towards the end of May, in
the following year, Sitting Bull, with 135 lodges, also crossed the
frontier and joined their friends, and these bands were further
augmented by parties of Nez Perces and other tribes. Considering their
warlike nature, they gave remarkably little trouble to the mounted
police force, showing great appreciation of the kindness of their
reception, the justice with which they were treated, and the absence of
the molestation to which they had perhaps been accustomed. In 1SS1,
Sitting Bull and a portion of his following returned to United States
At the present time the
Canadian Indians give no trouble whatever, except in the occasional
direction of drunkenness, petty larceny, or horse-stealing—offences not
entirely unknown amongst white men.
For some time past the
policy of the Canadian Government has been to group the Indians, as far
as possible, upon reservations, which are as numerous and as far apart
as possible. The advantages of this system have been well epitomised as
The reservations do not
arrest the march of settlement in any one direction, and consequently do
not to any great extent excite the cupidity of settlers.
The Indians, when
congregated in small numbers, cling less tenaciously to their habits,
customs, and modes of thought, and arc in every way more amenable to the
influences of civilisation.
They have less
opportunity for devising mischief, and lack the combination to carry it
The danger of quarrels
among hereditary enemies is avoided.
The game which
contributes to an Indian’s maintenance does not disappear with such
rapidity as in the presence of large numbers of hunters.
The Indians find a
market for produce and for labour, when distributed through various
settled districts, and settlers in turn share equally in any advantage
to be gained through furnishing such supplies as beef and flour, which
can be purchased locally.
The difficulty of
persuading the Indians to settle upon the allotted reservations was
greatly minimised by the sudden disappearance of the buffalo, although
at the same time new difficulties were thereby created. The task,
however, was eventually done, and the government proceeded in its good
work by the appointment of Indian agents, in such numbers that the needs
and capacities of each individual Indian could be personally considered.
A general system of rations was devised and so applied as in no way to
pauperise the recipient or promote indolence, while sustaining him up to
the point at which he might become self-sustaining.
Every encouragement is
given to persuade and to enable the Indian to earn his own living,
whether by hiring out his labour or by the sale of such articles as he
is able to manufacture. He can obtain almost any special instruction
that he may desire, whether it be in manufacturing, in agriculture, or
in cattle-raising. A loan system has been inaugurated by which stock
cattle are loaned for certain periods, to be eventually returned or paid
for. By methods such as this many Indian communities have already become
self-supporting, and many others are making rapid advance in the same
The Indian religions
vary one from another almost as much as their customs, and it would be
out of place to attempt any serious account of them. In the main they
may be said to comprise various aspects of a not undignified nature
worship, and the attempts that are inevitably made to modify or change
their beliefs into those more in accord with the opinions of the white
population around have met with a large measure of failure, and have too
often resulted in the destruction of aboriginal virtues without any more
exalted substitutes. It may well be that the present generation will not
see a merging of the white and red peoples of Canada. For yet a long
time the reservations may continue the most suitable home for the
latter, as much to their own benefit as to that of the dominant race.
But it may be confidently said that the efforts that have been made
toward the instruction and the independence of the Red Indian have been
so far fruitful of success as to encourage a continuance of method and
of work worthy of the best humanitarian efforts of a great nation.