Sculpture by Brian Jungen

Every Indian in B.C. who could and would work was employed, yet Aboriginal people were defined as lazy and irresponsible

On March 15, 1843, the fur trader James Douglas arrived at the south end of Vancouver Island on board the steam ves­sel Beaver to estab­lish Fort Victoria for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The arrival of Douglas and his men occurred on the exact day that a bright comet with an extremely long tail appeared in the sky. Known to pos­ter­ity as the Great Comet of 1843, it was so bril­liant that it could be seen in day­light and it was vis­i­ble for more than a week. It is not known whether the Lekwungen (Songhees) peo­ple who inhab­ited south­ern Vancouver Island asso­ci­ated the arrival of strangers with the sud­den bright light in the sky. They had been hav­ing inter­mit­tent con­tact with Europeans for some time and must have known the new­com­ers were not mys­te­ri­ous gods. On the other hand, as John Lutz points out in his book Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (UBC Press), Lekwungen cos­mol­ogy did pro­pose that the first human had fallen from the sky in the form of a meteor. The local inhab­i­tants might well have given spe­cial mean­ing to the coin­ci­den­tal arrivals of comet and pale-skinned intruders.

Brian Jungen scultpure

Prototype for understanding #8, sculpture by Brian Jungen, from the cover of Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations

Contact between Aboriginals and whites in British Columbia, as in North America gen­er­ally, was fraught with mis­un­der­stand­ings on both sides of the cul­tural divide. Early fur traders were fear­ful of the coastal First Nations, sus­pect­ing them of great feroc­ity, even can­ni­bal­ism. Douglas him­self wrote that he expected trou­ble on his arrival because the natives were “numer­ous and dar­ing, hav­ing as yet lost no trait of their nat­ural bar­bar­ity.” Yet the Lekwungen greeted Douglas and his com­rades warmly and co-operated with them to build their fort. As it turned out, it was the Natives who had much more to fear from the new­com­ers than vice versa. Smallpox, measles, sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease, tuber­cu­lo­sis and in­flu­enza arrived with the Europeans and took their toll among the Lek­wun­gen, reduc­ing the pre-contact pop­u­la­tion of 1,624 to 182 within thirty years of Douglas’s arrival.

Still, Lutz con­tends that con­tact was not the unmit­i­gated dis­as­ter for the First Nations that it is often made out to be. The indige­nous peo­ple were active par­tic­i­pants in their own his­tory, not its vic­tims. They found many ways to take advan­tage of the new eco­nomic oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sented to them. After all, they formed the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion in British Columbia until at least 1885. White set­tlers could not have got along with­out them. Far from being excluded from the new econ­omy, Natives pro­vided the labour that made it pos­si­ble. In the begin­ning they kept the trad­ing posts going; later they worked in the can­ner­ies, as farm labour­ers, as min­ers in the Island coal mines, pack­ers, seal­ers, road and rail­way builders, hop pick­ers, sawmill work­ers and log­gers, deck­hands on river steam­ers, domes­tics and longshoremen.

So how did it come about that the indige­nous peo­ple acquired a rep­u­ta­tion for irre­spon­si­bil­ity and lazi­ness? Lutz explains that it was first a mat­ter of def­i­n­i­tion. When Euroamericans asked them­selves what an Indian was, they answered using the famil­iar stereo­types of the wilder­ness. An Indian was some­one who hunted, fished, explored the woods and lived off the land. When an Indian held down a reg­u­lar job and took home a pay­cheque, as many did, he or she was, by def­i­n­i­tion, no longer an Indian. As Lutz writes, “real Indians did not ‘work’.”

Much of Makúk is spent over­turn­ing this myth by show­ing just how exten­sive was the involve­ment of Aboriginal peo­ple in the British Columbian eco­nomy fol­low­ing ini­tial con­tact. As one gov­ern­ment offi­cial remarked: “Every Indian who could and would work — and they were numer­ous — was employed in almost every branch of indus­trial and domes­tic life, at wages which would appear exces­sively high in England or in Canada.” Yet for the most part, this record of work achieve­ment dis­ap­peared from the his­tor­i­cal record and was replaced by the myth of the lazy Indian.

One of the rea­sons that Aboriginals were con­sid­ered to be shirk­ers is that they did not have to put up with low wages and harsh work­ing con­di­tions. They had alter­na­tive, more tra­di­tional ways of mak­ing ends meet. When employ­ers com­plained that they could not rely on Aboriginal work­ers, what they meant was that the Aboriginal work­ers were not depen­dent on the white econ­omy. Lutz makes this point by com­par­ing Aboriginal peo­ple to British Columbia’s immi­grant Chinese pop­u­la­tion. The Chinese were dis­crimi­nated against in many ways, but in the work­place employ­ers invari­ably found them to be more indus­tri­ous and reli­able than Aboriginals. What this meant was that because of their mar­ginal social sit­u­a­tion with few ways to make a liv­ing, Chinese work­ers accepted star­va­tion wages and ter­ri­ble work­ing con­di­tions. In the eyes of their employ­ers, this made them ideal employ­ees, unlike the Aboriginals who could, and did, walk away from jobs they did not like.

As time passed, Aboriginal partic­ipation in the econ­omy declined. But as Lutz observes, this had less to do with a dis­in­cli­na­tion on the part of Aboriginal peo­ple to find wage employ­ment than it did with a vari­ety of polit­i­cal and eco­nomic fac­tors. As salmon can­ning con­sol­i­dated in fewer and fewer plants, for exam­ple, the indus­try pro­vided fewer jobs both for inside work­ers and com­mer­cial fish­ers. Hop pick­ing in the Fraser Valley, which used to give sea­sonal employ­ment to thou­sands of Aboriginals, went into decline. As log­ging oper­a­tions came to be dom­i­nated by large cor­po­ra­tions, hir­ing of log­gers became cen­tral­ized in the union halls of Vancouver, and Aboriginal log­gers liv­ing up the coast lost out. And so it went, for indus­try after industry.

But the de-employment of Abori­ginal peo­ple was also gov­ern­ment pol­icy. Lutz describes a series of laws that even­tu­ally mar­gin­al­ized the First Nations. He con­cludes that the fea­tures that char­ac­ter­ize the Aboriginal econ­omy today — high unem­ploy­ment and chronic wel­fare depen­dency — have only arisen in the past fifty years. We have taken this con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion and writ­ten it back into the his­tory as the stereo­type of the “lazy Indian.”

John Lutz reminds us that boun­daries between “races” were, and still are, like fences. First of all the fence is con­structed to cre­ate a dif­fer­ence between us and them; then it must be main­tained by con­stantly rein­forc­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics that put some­one on the other side of the fence to begin with. Lutz sug­gests that it would be bet­ter to talk across the fence, or tear it down alto­gether. A good place to start would be to acquire a more accu­rate view of the role of Aboriginal peo­ple in our shared history.

This article originally appeared in Geist Magazine.

Daniel Francis is a writer and his­to­rian. He is the author of two dozen books, most recently Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918 – 1919, Canada’s First War on Terror (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010) Find him online at and read more of his work for Geist here.

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About Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis, a North Vancouver-based writer, is the editor of the print and online editions of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia. He has written more than twenty books of history, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, and National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History. His biography of Vancouver mayor Louis D. Taylor won the 2004 City of Vancouver Book Award and in 2008, Operation Orca, a book about killer whales on the West Coast which he co-authored with biologist Gil Hewlett, was named Foreword Magazine's Nature Book of the Year. He is a regular columnist with Geist magazine and blogs regularly on all things British Columbian at KnowBC. His latest book is Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-19, Canada's First War on Terror (Arsenal Pulp Press).

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