E. Brian Titley. The Indian Commissioners: Agents of the State and Indian Policy in Canada's Prairie West, 1873-1932. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009. xi + 266 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-88864-489-3.
Reviewed by Liam Haggarty (University of Saskatchewan)
Published on H-Canada (May, 2010)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth (King's University College, UWO)
The Indian Branch in Biography
Like the sequel to a best-seller, Brian Titley’s The Indian Commissioners replicates much of what made its predecessor popular but does not live up to the original. Released twenty-three years after A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada (1986), Titley’s latest work is characterized by a similarly strong narrative, rich detail, thorough research, and, of course, biography. Its conclusions--namely, that bureaucratic incompetence impeded Indian Affairs’ goal of total assimilation--are also familiar, but the shine of these once innovative insights has faded as new, more sophisticated frameworks have been introduced to the field in intervening decades. The contribution of Titley’s book is therefore limited largely to its content.
The Indian Commissioners begins with a short introduction that surveys important events in Canadian history prior to and shortly after the creation of the federal Indian Branch (1868). Of particular interest here is the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and its recognition of Aboriginal land title, colonial land treaties and reserves, legislation regulating relations between Natives and settlers, the first legal definitions of “Indian,” and early attempts at assimilation. Each of the subsequent seven chapters is dedicated to one of the six Indian commissioners with the exception of David Laird, who gets two chapters, one for each term in office. This approach, which seeks to capture “the confluence of the personal and the political--that elusive space in which individuals and structures intersect and the course of events is shaped,” evokes Donald Creighton’s adage that history exists where character meets circumstance. “The extent of their [the commissioners’] influence,” Titley argues, “was determined in large measure by political connections, force of personality, and ability to articulate positions and concerns that resonated with the temper of the times” (p. x).
After a career in journalism and a brief tenure as commissioner of Indian affairs in Manitoba, J. A. N. Provencher became in 1873 the first Indian commissioner. Chapter 2 focuses on his actions on the Board of Indian Commissioners, his antagonistic relationship with the lieutenant governor of Manitoba and treaty negotiator Alexander Morris, and his minor role in negotiating Treaty 3. Described as lazy and indulgent, his treatment of Indians was unjust and his administration of government policy and treaties haphazard. In 1876 he became the acting superintendent general of Indian affairs in Manitoba before being formally investigated on charges of incompetence, neglect, fraud, and corruption, which eventually led to his dismissal in 1878. Having failed in politics, he then returned to journalism before succumbing to liver failure at age 44. In contrast, Provencher’s successor, David Laird, was known for his industriousness, work ethic, and loyalty to the crown despite being a “reluctant Westerner.” Having served as minister of the interior and superintendent general of Indian affairs before becoming commissioner, Laird was also appointed lieutenant governor for the territories during his first term in office, 1876 to 1879. During this relatively short tenure, Laird took an active role in the negotiation of treaties 4, 5, 6, and 7 and the implementation of the Indian Act (1876) and served as liaison between the government and American Indian refugees following the Battle of Little Bighorn. Throughout his term in office, Laird continually struggled with the “underfunded, understaffed, and unimaginative policy emanating from Ottawa” (p. 60) before temporarily returning to journalism in 1881.
Edgar Dewdney also combined the position of Indian commissioner, which he held from 1879 to 1888, with the lieutenant governorship, beginning in 1881. As Dewdney was a central figure in some of the most dramatic events in the department’s history, chapter 4 focuses specifically on his relations with Indians and his strategic use of rations leading up to the Rebellion of 1885. Like those of his peers, Dewdney’s actions, according to Titley, were heavy-handed and often cruel, but in him his superiors found little fault. In fact, Dewdney maintained a close relationship with John A. Macdonald and, after the end of hostilities, continued to implement oppressive policies and laws that limited Natives’ freedom and expanded the residential school system. In 1888, Dewdney was promoted to minister of the interior before becoming the lieutenant governor of British Columbia in 1892. His successor, Hayter Reed, shared Dewdney’s stern approach to Indian affairs. Having served as an Indian agent and assistant Indian commissioner to, and confidante of, Dewdney since the early 1880s, he had already earned the nickname “Iron Heart” by the time he took office in 1888. Although he took a somewhat more moderate stance on industrial schools, Reed’s agricultural reforms and peasant policy, rooted in a particularly pessimistic view of Indian culture, were remarkably strict and destructive. They also are the most enduring legacies he left after being appointed deputy superintendent in 1893.
Upon his departure, Reed’s assistant, A. E. Forget, who also served as secretary to David Laird, ascended to the commissioner’s office. In contrast to his predecessor, Forget was French-Canadian and an ardent Catholic who sympathized with Louis Riel and advocated bilingual education. However, he did little to address allegations of physical and sexual abuse at industrial schools against church officials and actively sought to erase all remnants of Native rituals and ceremonies. Later in his commissionership, he also contributed to the “radical restructuring of the department’s Western operations” (p. 137) prior to being appointed lieutenant governor of the Northwest Territories in 1898 and then of Saskatchewan in 1905. His departure marked the return in 1898 of David Laird after an almost twenty-year absence. Unlike his previous and comparatively short time in office, Laird’s second tenure, lasting almost a decade, was relatively long and, like the first, included the negotiation of numbered treaties (8 and 10). During this time, Laird advocated the surrender of reserve lands and relocation of Indians in favor of land speculators and setters. He also continued Forget’s assault on Native traditions, especially religious ceremonies and marital practices, and downplayed claims of poor health and abuse at residential schools. In 1909, the position of Indian commissioner was abolished and Laird returned east to work as an advisor to the federal government.
When the commissionership was reinstated eleven years later, the position went to William Morris Graham, a lifelong department employee who had previously worked as and clerk, Indian agent, inspector of Indian agencies in southern Saskatchewan, and solicitor general. During the First World War, he had also led the Commission for Greater Production, a program he continued to support after the war by leasing or selling reserve lands to the government, settlers, and returning soldiers. He is best known, however, for the creation of the File Hills Colony, a model community established in southern Saskatchewan to mold Natives into good Christian farmers. Like his predecessors, Graham, a close friend of Duncan Campbell Scott, continued the assault traditional Native practices and rituals but was more critical of the residential school system. Following a scandal in the final years of his term, he was denied the position of superintendent general upon leaving Indian Affairs in 1932. That the position of Indian commissioner was then abolished suggests Aboriginal resistance was successful, at least in part. By the twentieth century Natives, according to Titley, had caused the department to lose faith in its goal of assimilation and its aims became “more limited: keeping costs down, minimizing trouble, and retaining control. They took on a custodial rather than a developmental role and pursued policies that lacked more than ever coherence and consistency” (p. 211).
In tracing these biographies, Titley adds depth to our understanding of Indian Affairs and the Canadian state in general. Rather than an anonymous monolith, the department is depicted by Titley as a rather precarious, even chaotic, organization of men, each pursuing his own personal agenda. Patronage and personal relationships, which often trumped agency objectives, were particularly damaging. In retrospect, Titley concludes, “A flawed organization implementing a flawed policy could not have expected success” (p. 211). But in the chaos there was also continuity. The extension of Canadian rule over the prairie West, Titley observes, was an important part of both national policy and imperial destiny. Indian Affairs, and assimilation in particular, greatly contributed to the larger project of British global dominance as well as the growth of Canada. The Indian commissioners were agents not only of Canadian nation-building but British imperialism and global colonialism.
These conclusions are important to the history of Native-Newcomer relations in Canada and of the Department of Indian Affairs. The usefulness of the approach that frames them, however, is more limited. Although Titley believes biography, which allows for an engaging and accessible narrative, is making a comeback, other methods continue to make important historiographical contributions. For example, institution and policy histories, such as Sarah Carter’s Lost Harvests (1990), J. R. Miller’s Shingwauk’s Vision (1996), and Hugh Shewell’s “Enough to Keep them Alive” (2004), all of which adopt a broader view of state policies and actions without overlooking individual agency, contain many of the insights offered by biographical analyses and are largely immune to the gaps they sometimes create (in this case, 1909-20 and after 1932). Similarly, alternative frameworks, such as Carter’s study of identity and representation in Capturing Women (1997), Julie Cruickshank’s analysis of knowledge construction in Do Glaciers Listen? (2005), and Keith Smith’s analysis of power relations in Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance (2009) offer more fruitful avenues of inquiry into the sociocultural contexts within which Natives and Newcomers live and interact. These frameworks, which also do not preclude the use of biography, focus more explicitly on the larger structures that contextualize human action and give it meaning. The Indian Commissioners and other largely descriptive histories are, therefore, most likely to be used primarily as reference books or, if used in undergraduate or graduate instruction, I would recommend revisiting A Narrow Vision. In this case, the original is still the best.
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Liam Haggarty. Review of Titley, E. Brian, The Indian Commissioners: Agents of the State and Indian Policy in Canada's Prairie West, 1873-1932.
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