BUSINESS WATCH

Haunted by history’s lively ghosts

When dealing with Indians, a people who have nothing left to lose, none of today’s rules apply. A price will have to be paid

Peter C. Newman August 6 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

Haunted by history’s lively ghosts

When dealing with Indians, a people who have nothing left to lose, none of today’s rules apply. A price will have to be paid

Peter C. Newman August 6 1990

Haunted by history’s lively ghosts

BUSINESS WATCH

When dealing with Indians, a people who have nothing left to lose, none of today’s rules apply. A price will have to be paid

PETER C. NEWMAN

The war at Oka has as little to do with a golf course as Elijah Harper’s obstruction in the Manitoba legislature had to do with Meech Lake.

The issue is dignity and pride, a retroactive attempt to compensate for centuries of neglect by white Canadians who have treated Indians like the unwanted residues of a geographical accident: they may have got here first, but they have ranked last in our national priorities.

Indians are the lively ghosts of Canadian history. They’re always there, like the vegetation or the weather, but up to now, no one has taken their complaints or aspirations seriously. To be Indian in this country is to be dispossessed.

Canada’s Indian tribes were not conquered like the American Sioux or massacred like the Andean Incas. Yet their lives were—and still are—torn apart by white people who refuse to acknowledge their distinctiveness and their rightful claims to parts of a continent that once was fully their own.

Having spent most of a decade researching and writing the history of the Hudson’s Bay Co., which made fortunes for succeeding generations of British investors by trading pots, pans and blankets for valuable furs, I’ve documented many examples of injustice that took place in those early days. That’s ancient history, and it may defy common sense that Canadians in 1990 ought to feel guilty and pay reparations when we had no hand in cheating Indians out of their original land and possessions. But Indians operate on a different calendar; yesterday’s insults are only aggravated by the passage of time. They view the present as a prologue for the future; not to act now might snuff out the Indians’ flickering hopes of justice ever being done.

One of the practical problems of settling land disputes is that, with some exceptions, only the whites can document the precise history of each claim. Because they had no written language, Indians have had to rely mostly on tribal myths and memories; their elders chanting

long and detailed reconstructions of events to justify some of their more contentious demands. That’s a great irony because the early Indian cultures were much more highly evolved than those of the invading whites. Bands would stage four-day-long miracle plays from memory and family heads could recite prayers by the hour without missing a syllable. Now, it will be for the courts to decide how legally valid memories can be.

A relevant example of how two cultures can misunderstand one another was the fur trade itself. The Hudson’s Bay Co. could claim with considerable justification that its presence was a positive influence on the frontier, that Canada was one of the few places on earth where the white man’s commercial ambitions had come to terms with an indigenous population without much bloodshed. Company traders took great pride in their unofficial motto: “We never shoot our customers.”

The Indians, of course, were their customers and for that matter their free labor force, because they killed the animals, skinned them and brought the pelts into Hudson’s Bay Co. posts to trade for goods that made their bush life easier. There are many instances of Company men keeping Indians (and later Inuit)

alive during periods of malnutrition and epidemics. But their motive was the simple realization that starving or sick Indians can’t be out on the traplines, turning profit for the Company.

Still, it was a far more humane way to settle a country than in the United States, where the absence of any bureaucratic infrastructure like the Hudson’s Bay placed the fur trade in the cruel hands of “the mountain men” and similar renegades. They killed the natives outright and sparked 69 Indian wars. “Sniping redskins to watch ’em spin” was a popular American frontier pastime.

But even in the relatively peaceful landscape of early Canada, a cultural gap pervaded the fur trade. The Hudson’s Bay Co. regarded the animals—and the natives, for that matter—as merely a factor of production. To Indians, however, hunting was a spiritual experience. They saw themselves as part of an interlocked universe in which animals were treated as their relatives. They meditated with sacred “keepers of the game,” who told them where to hunt and later sought the animals’ own permission to kill them. When the Hudson’s Bay Co. factors demanded that the Indians slaughter virtually every furry beast in the forest, they destroyed the spiritual balance of Indian life.

The worst abuses occurred in the early 1800s when liquor became the currency of the fur trade. The booze itself was a primitive mixture of raw, 132-proof gin, flavored with a few drops of iodine or a squirt of chewing tobacco to make it look more like rum. (“I’ll fix up some coffin varnish so strong, you’ll be able to shoot an Injun through the heart, and he won’t die till he’s sobered up,” boasted one Prairie whisky merchant.) The traders diluted this rotgut with water and Indians tested the mix by spitting out a swallow on a fire. If it flared up, it was okay; if it sputtered out, they demanded a stronger brew. (That, incidentally, is where the term “firewater” came from.)

The damage caused by the introduction of alcohol to Indian life, then and now, cannot be redeemed. But pretending that the Indian problem will go away or placing ineffective idiots like Tom Siddon in charge of Indian Affairs will only perpetuate the current crisis. (Siddon already proved his incompetence as fisheries minister, but unlike fish, Indians can talk back.)

Apart from the justice of their cause, dealing with the Indians at Oka—or the many other flash points across the country—will prove to be a new kind of experience for white negotiators. When you are dealing with people who have nothing left to lose, none of the existing arbitration rules apply. While it’s true that we can’t undo historical crimes against Indians, we can’t pretend they didn’t happen either. A price will have to be paid.

If the federal government was willing to compensate Japanese-Canadians for past injustices, that token compensation package— which could reach $300 million—was nothing compared with what we owe our 700,000 Indians.

It’s time we paid up.