50 Years Later– Celebrating the New Indian Problem

It’s been 50 years since the Government of Canada tabled the Statement of Indian Policy of the Government of Canada known now as ‘The White Paper’. It’s also been 50 years since the establishment of Indigenous Studies at Trent University. As the government was proposing to repeal the Indian Act and to narrowly interpret the treaties, seen then as historic relics inconsistent with a modern nation state based upon the principles of a just society, Indians, in collaboration with allies throughout Canadian society, pushed back and the policy of extermination and assimilation was withdrawn. 

At Trent University in Peterborough, the newly minted discipline of “Indian and Eskimo Studies” provided a site for a disciplined and passionate discussion of Indigenous rights, culture, tradition and knowledge that would lend support to a new Indigenous political consciousness emerging across North America. The program name was changed to Native Studies, then Indigenous Studies, and has contributed to the development of what I call ‘the New Indian problem.”

I was sixteen years old and living at Six Nations of the Grand River. I remember the fear and anxiety generated when the policy was tabled. My family did not know what would happen; we did not know what the future held; our homes were not secure nor was it clear what would happen to our community. This period was time of great uncertainty. I am constantly amazed at what has happened over the last half century and the foundation that has been built for Indigenous communities. None of the things that I see around me were contemplated at that time.

Since the arrival of Europeans and the establishment of governments in Canada after 1763, government officials have been trying to decide what to do with the Indians: each government over the years has had a particular view of ‘the Indian problem’ as it were.  At various times, the problem was whether or not we were human and had souls; how to make us into good Christians, how to live next to us, how to get our land, how to get us to enter into military alliances, how to civilize us, how to assimilate us, or how to get us to become an ethnic group as part of the multi-cultural environment of Canada. Each of these views of the Indian problem has led to a particular policy solution and a set of actions by government officials.

After half a century of effort to solve the Indian problem, what is the Indian problem at the early part of the 21st century, ie what is the new Indian problem?  Is it a problem of new Indians or a new problem about Indians?

There have been remarkable achievements over the last half century, in politics, in arts, in social services among other areas. And we often forget what we have achieved and how we have achieved it.  It has been achieved by Indigenous peoples speaking, organizing and pushing hard for their own ideas and winning in the public debates of courts, legislatures, policy fora and through the creative use of political allies: Indigenous support groups, Churches, academics, writers, etc. Trent Indigenous Studies’ graduates are leaders in all of these achievements, often at the forefront pushing the boundaries and proposing collaborative decision-making processes.

There is a confident, aggressive, savvy, educated, experienced Indigenous leadership that has emerged over the past two decades who know how to push hard and get what they want.  Behind them are more than 50,000 students who are in post-secondary education institutions across the country and who are moving into positions of leadership in many communities. These people are determined, well-educated, and courageous and want the world to be different for them and their children. 

These leaders and students see self-government within their grasp: they will have experienced aspects of it: in education, in health care, in economic development, in social work, in housing, in cultural programs, in language training and education. These students also understand their own cultures, traditions and histories, are learning their own languages and understand how Canadian society and power work as a result of their university studies. Trent’s embrace of Indigenous Elders and Indigenous Knowledges has contributed to cultural revitalization. 

One of the most difficult challenges will be fostering the development of positive public attitudes towards Indigenous peoples and their governments.  RCAP recommended that there be major public education effort aimed at helping Canadian citizens to understand Indigenous aspirations, cultures, communities and ways of living.

We forget that all the good work that Indigenous leaders undertake takes place within a Canadian context that has had a hard time coming to terms with a continued Indigenous presence, let alone a modern, educated Indigenous one that will challenge it and assert itself and insist upon its own place and possess the legal clout to achieve it. The Indigenous Studies program at Trent has educated more than 10,000 non-Indigenous students on Indigenous issues over the last half century. These students understand Indigenous peoples and the issues that we face and are advocating and working on solutions, oftentimes quietly and out of sight.

A new Indigenous ethos has emerged which I call ‘post-colonial consciousness.’ An individual imbued with this ethos understands what happened, why it happened, the impact of what happened and has the desire and skill to ensure that the damage is repaired and that what happened never happens again.

And so we come to the New Indian Problem.  The problem is what to do with the New Indians.  The New Indians have a post-colonial consciousness and the skills and knowledge to act upon it. Are Canadians ready to deal with the new Indians?

Join us in conversation on February 18 – 21, 2020, when the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies will host the 33rd annual CINSA conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of Indigenous Studies; the 20th anniversary of the Indigenous Studies Ph.D. program and the 10th Anniversary of the Indigenous Environmental Studies Program at Trent University. www.trentu.ca/indigenous