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.
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 www.knowbc.blogspot.com and read more of his work for Geist here.