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Indian Fall: The Emerging Dominion

Perhaps it is only natural for writers of history to focus on those who have won rather than those who have lost, on that which was built rather than that which was destroyed. And yet, we cannot escape the fact that, before the transformation of the West could occur, two conditions had to be met: the great herds of buffalo that fed, clothed and sustained the native peoples had to be exterminated; and the people themselves had to be subdued, made to surrender their ancestral lands, and forced to settle on reserves.

We frequently find comfort in the notion that our forefathers were neither as ruthless nor as unscrupulous as their American counterparts. But to do so is really to focus on the means rather than the objectives. For the objectives in both countries were the same: to create new societies in territories that were immense but sparsely populated. In both countries, these new societies were built on the ruins of older aboriginal communities. Some might argue that this was inevitable, that there was a cultural chasm that could never be bridged, that natives and whites lived in worlds as different as summer and winter. Yet for all our genius for compromise, there was no compromising with the natives of the Great Plains. Their world had to go.

The men who fathered the Dominion of Canada dreamed of turning a runt of a country-four thinly settled colonies, clustered on the eastern half of a continent-into a dynamic and prosperous nation stretching from Atlantic to Pacific. A mari usque ad mare. He shall have dominion also from sea to sea.

Those words, which come from the eighth verse of the 72nd Psalm, became our national motto thanks to Samuel Leonard Tilley, a teetotalling New Brunswicker and devout Anglican who trained as an apothecary but chose politics as a career. Tilley supported prohibition, promoted railways and won a bare-knuckle, backwoods, wildly partisan fight to lead his province into Confederation. Tilley read his Bible every morning, and when he and his fellow fathers of Confederation were gathered in London in early 1867 to finish drafting the document that would become the British North America Act, he remembered the line from Psalm 72. And so it was that our fledgling nation acquired a title, a motto and a purpose.

The first order of business of the new government was to achieve dominion over those lands of immense horizons and unbounded potential that lay north of the forty-ninth parallel and stretched from the western end of Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains. Before there could be railways and homesteads, before there could be cities and towns, before this new nation could hope to fulfil its purpose—to stand from sea to shining sea—Canada had to acquire the North-West from the Company of Adventurers, who had been "the true and absolute Lordes and Proprietors" since May 2, 1670, according to the charter issued to them on that date by the distant monarch, King Charles II.

Negotiations involving Canada, the Company and Great Britain began in December of 1867 and ended in the spring of 1869 with an agreement to transfer the North-West for the grand sum of £300,000. The dry legalese of the document conceals the true purpose of the agreement—the pursuit of a national dream—and fails to mention that the pursuit of this dream would create a dispossessed class of people and lead to the destruction of their nations. It makes no mention of the Plains Cree, the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Assiniboines and others; they were not signatories to the agreement because, to use a contemporary phrase, they were not consulted. And the swirl of events unleashed by this accord, an armed uprising and open challenge to the legitimacy of the new confederation and the resolve of its leaders, ensured that the thoughts, feelings and positions of those we had dispossessed would never be considered.

From pgs. 6-8 of Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy, by D’Arcy Jenish. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

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