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Alberta's Indians and the Second World War

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James Dempsey

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryThis incident demonstrates the powers and control Indian agents held over their reserves and the variety of problems that arose over treaty rights in relationship to conscription, income tax and land surrenders.

After the war, efforts were begun to clarify the Indians' position in Canada. A movement towards re-evaluating the status of Indians was mentioned by Crerar as early as 1944, when he stated that the government should examine the idea of providing means by which Indians would become self-supporting, by first instilling a desire aimed at eventual self-support.62 A year later the government proposed setting up a study that would look into the treatment of Indians in Canada. Areas of concern included payment of old age pensions, building hospitals, day schools, nursing stations, administrative buildings and the construction or repair of Indian homes. A problem arose about what course the government should take to study the native question. The use of a royal commission would mean that commission members would have to be approved by the government, the Indians and the religious denominations that operated the schools on the reserves. Obtaining agreement from all the interested parties would prove difficult. The alternative was to set up a House of Commons committee and give each of the Indian organizations a hearing.63 The problem with a House Committee centered upon which organizations the government should recognize as representing the opinion of Canada's natives.

By 1946, the government acknowledged that the war had helped bring natives into their own, by broadening the outlook on life for Indians who had served overseas, as well as on the home front. The government further believed that this change indicated a willingness to understand and to get to know the white man's ways better through education. It was felt that Indians did not want to be confined on their reserves any longer; they wanted to participate in the development of Canada because they had earned that right.64 To one member the fact that the older members of the bands were the only ones who dressed in the old style while the younger members dressed "like the white men" was proof that changes had occurred. To him it was an intelligent generation of well-developed youth.65 This statement indicates that that member had missed what Indians were striving for. They did not want to simply look like white men; rather they wanted equality with white men, while retaining their Indian heritage. This view, still predominant today, fits in with the official policy that Canada is a cultural mosaic, made up of different ethnic groups, not a melting pot.

The Members of Parliament decided that Indians were entitled to more recognition in the future than they had been in the past. Mines and Resources Minister J.A. Glen stated the entire Indian question would be thoroughly studied, and their future would be brighter.66

The optimism of 1946 became a reality, when later that year a House Committee was set up to look into Indian Affairs. The findings were set out in a government report in 1948; based on the conclusions of this report, a new Indian Act was proposed in 1950. This new Act was totally unacceptable to Indians because they felt it gave too much power to the Minister of Indian Affairs, and with the help of the Conservatives the proposed Act was rejected. A revised Indian Act was proposed in 1951, and this version has remained virtually intact to this day.67

The postwar future looked bright for Canada's Indians; with most other Canadians, they avoided the expected postwar unemployment problem. Higher prices for Indian products and high employment raised the native standard of living noticeably. Life on the reserves was finally put into the hands of the band councils, a step forward in the desired native movement toward self-determination. The position of Indians improved remarkably compared to the postwar era following the Great War of 1914-1918. Hopes for self-determination were high in 1919, but never were realized. Indians in the 1920s remained caught between being government wards and Canadian citizens; the decline in their standard of living and population led the government to wonder if they would die out. A true optimism surfaced in the 1950s, and the goal of self-determination now seems more possible than ever.

Notes

62. IMR, Vol. 7, No. 7, [October 1944].

63. IMR, Vol. 8, No. 11 [November 1945].

64. IMR, Vol. 9, No. 1, [January 1946].

65. IMR, Vol. 5, No. 7, [September 1942].

66. IMR, Vol. 9, No. 1, [January 1946].

67. In 1985 an amendment to the Act, which has become popularly known as Bill C-31, was passed. This change, while minor in relation to the overall Act, had major consequences for Canada's Indian population.

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