Looking back

By Greg Clarke

Times have changed in Canada, and no one knows it better than the First Nations.

On Mon., Oct. 15, Dr. Alice Kehoe addressed a packed room to provide her personal memories on the Plains First Nations in Canada in the 1960’s. Kehoe, an internationally-renowned anthropologist did her first fieldwork among First Nations in Saskatchewan in the early ’60s, and completed her doctoral thesis at Harvard University on the Ghost Dance among the Dakota tribe of Saskatchewan.

Kehoe emphasized the importance of the Plains First Nations history, and expressed the belief that in order to move forward, Canadian citizens must understand their past circumstances. Kehoe described some of the changes that have occurred since the ’60s.

“It’s like night and day” she said. “In the ’60s, the Indian people were simply outside Canadian society. The whole reserve looked like it was 1880. Everyone lived in log cabins they built themselves. No electricity, no telephones, kerosene lanterns.”

Kehoe explained that in many ways the situation has improved. There was some momentum for change in 1969, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau published the famous White Paper. In it, Trudeau suggested the Canadian Government eliminate the Indian Act, abolish the concept of Indian Status and reserves and integrate Indians into mainstream society. Backlash to the proposal from both Natives and non-Natives was intense.

“I think the critical thing to point out is that when Trudeau made his blunder there were a large number of ambitious, highly competent, politically savvy First Nations men and women ready to jump upon it,” said Kehoe. “They were fighting that heritage of Anglo belief that Indians were an inferior race, and they were going to die off.”

Kehoe related anecdotes demonstrating how ingrained the “Anglo” attitude was.

“I was walking down a sidewalk, and an older [Native] couple was coming towards me,” she said. “I stepped off the sidewalk so the older people could pass. They saw me, a white woman, and stepped off the sidewalk so that I could pass. I was shocked that a respectable older couple would expect to have to defer physically to some young white woman in jeans.”

Since then, the situation has changed “immeasurably,” however there is still a lot of work to be done.

“As the First Nations say, they never gave up sovereignty, and the Crown recognizes that,” said Kehoe. “They have to go to the point where federal and provincial governments recognize sovereignty from the ground up.”

Kehoe’s presentation was sponsored by the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Leave a comment