IT’S A PITY the words of Chief Poking Fire, the wellknown spokesman for the Indians of Caughnawaga, Quebec, could not be broadcast in South Africa as well as in Canada. They would present our sister dominion with an interesting study in contrasts, and an answer to the question occasionally put to Canadians: “Why should you criticize South Africa’s policy of apartheid when you Canadians treat your own Indians in the same way?”
Indians in Canada, like Africans in South Africa, have not had the right to vote. They too live in special areas called reservations, which in the main are pretty shabby and slummy places. They too are a depressed group economically, with lower living standards and a higher disease and death rate than the white population. How, in the face of these damning facts, can we Canadians be selfrighteous about how other people deal with the problems of race and color?
Chief Poking Fire did not set out to answer these questions. He may, for all we know, have shared the grievances that they imply—grievances which we admit the Indians of Canada can justly hold, for our record in Indian affairs is no matter for overweening national pride. But whether he meant to or not. Chief Poking Fire did in fact destroy any presumption that South Africa’s record is one comparable to ours. He was speaking about one grievance in particular, arising out of the Speech from the Throne last month—and the grievance was the apparent threat by the government of Canada to give equality of status to the Indians.
To the Indians of Canada, equality is not enough. They have something that they think is better—not mere equality, but special privileges. They have lands of their own, special hunting and fishing rights of their own, in some cases annual payments of money to each man, woman and child, and these privileges are secured by treaty between them as one nation and Canada as another. In the minds of many Indians, the franchise which Ottawa now offers them might erode their claim to separateness, their cherished status as a privileged people with special and guaranteed rights.
We don't blame the Indians for harboring these doubts, though we do think they are unfounded. Certainly the Indian and the Eskimo still need special treatment, even if it were not pledged to them by treaty. Perhaps they are entitled to feel that the special treatment they have been getting is inadequate—that we as the strong and supplanting group owe them more help than we have given, in the colossal task of bridging the gap between a primitive and a modern way of life.
But to equate this failure, if it is a failure, to the active oppression and near-slavery now imposed on the unhappy natives of Black Africa is worse than absurd, it is monstrous. We in Canada may not be doing enough for the Indians, but at least we’re not doing anything to them.
No Indian in Canada will be arrested for walking a street by night without a pass. No Indian is barred by law from holding any job, or living in any house he can afford to rent or buy. Far from being excluded from the full rights of citizenship, he is exhorted to assume them—and this new offer of the federal franchise is the latest in a long tradition of persuasion. He can have equality of status, any time he wants it. When the blacks of South Africa can say the same, the Western world will have taken another long step toward solving its color problem.
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