Keith D. Smith. Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance: Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877-1927. The West Unbound: Social and Cultural Studies Series. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2009. 324 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-897425-39-8; (e-book), ISBN 978-1-897425-40-4.
Reviewed by Liam Haggarty (University of Saskatchewan)
Published on H-Canada (June, 2010)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Indians under Surveillance
Power relationships are the focus of Keith D. Smith’s Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance. Informed by Michel Foucault and other postmodern “map-makers,” it examines important social, economic, and political mechanisms introduced by Canadian settler society to silently seize power from the country’s indigenous population and institute a new ruling order. Crucial to these processes are “ways of seeing and knowing” and discourses of exclusion, all of which have had profound, devastating consequences for Aboriginal peoples and communities. Surveillance, conducted by government agents, police officers, church officials, and other settlers, was particularly important to this enterprise, its expansion of the market economy, and the spread of Western liberalism. Of course, Aboriginal people did not accept these changes passively; as Smith notes, they actively resisted, both overtly and less obviously, malicious state policies and programs. Today, this resistance persists in land claims, treaty negotiations, and other sites of power where liberalism and surveillance continue to challenge Aboriginal people’s autonomy.
The book’s organization is both thematic and chronological with the first half devoted to peoples and places and the second half to change over time. The opening chapter introduces readers to Foucault and how his ideas can be used to interpret the history of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations in western Canada. Smith pays particular attention here to definitions of and relationships between “imperialism,” “colonialism,” “capitalism,” “liberalism,” “surveillance,” “coercion,” and “resistance” so as to contextualize his study within broader historiographical debates and to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered by other scholars of Aboriginal history. Although Smith could have emphasized better the original contribution he makes to our collective understanding of this topic and demonstrated how his study differs from other analyses of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations, this broad philosophical discussion implicitly connects his work to many studies published in the last three decades, especially those focusing on state relations with Aboriginal people (the work of J. R. Miller, Sarah Carter, and Cole Harris immediately come to mind).
Following this introduction, chapter 2 describes the peoples of Treaty 7 (the Blackfoot, Tsuu T’ina, and Nakoda) and of the Kamloops and Okanagan regions (the Secwepemc, Okanagan, and Nlha7kápmx), and their extensive traditional territories, land use, economic and political structures, leadership strategies, and gender relations to establish a starting point or “baseline” for his analysis. Although sensitive to cultural differences between groups, Smith finds that prior to contact with Europeans, they all demonstrated relative equality between both classes and genders; fostered free movement and mobility; and practiced flexible social, economic, and political systems. Smith then briefly describes the violence done to these traditional societies by the spread of disease and extension of colonial rule that accompanied settlers across North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of particular interest here, Smith notes, is the creation of reserves, “places where ‘Indianness’ would be instructed, cajoled, legislated or, if necessary, coerced out of the original inhabitants of western Canada. This is where colonialism was and remains at its most obviously aggressive and in contradiction to the stated goals of liberalism” (p. 50).
Critically important to this assault on Aboriginal people were strategies of surveillance, as demonstrated in chapter 3. Although the tactics and agents of surveillance varied from one location and time period to another, the fundamental goal of surveillance--to normalize and civilize Indians--remained constant through time and space. The virtual panopticon was omnipresent: Indian agents and other government officials, provincial and mounted police, church officials, and even civilians and Aboriginal “scouts” kept careful watch not only of Indians but also of each other. Buttressed by the pass system and other policies that increased surveillance by restricting movement, these agents facilitated the expansion of liberal Canada and its marginalization of Aboriginal peoples. According to Smith, no other group of Canadians at this time was under such intense and pervasive surveillance. Aboriginal people for their part actively resisted aspects of government surveillance and often exploited disputes between state agents to their own benefit. Although significant at the local level, this resistance, however, could not effectively combat "such a net-work of machinery" (p. 1).
In chapter 4, Smith explores the early history of the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), its surveillance network, and the imposition of mainstream Canadian values. Relying on the work of Indian agents and others, including farm instructors, the DIA actively eroded traditional Aboriginal social, political, and economic practices, replacing them with more progressive Canadian systems and a more “civilised” morality. Even seemingly progressive initiatives, such as the introduction of an elected system of chieftainship on reserves, contributed to the expansion of Euro-Canadian structures, practices, and values. Nowhere is this cultural transformation more obvious or damaging than in the alienation of traditional Aboriginal lands and resources, the topic of chapter 5. Although less direct or dramatic as American strategies used to acquire Aboriginal lands and although the tactics used in the Treaty 7 area differed from those used in the Kamloops and Okanagan regions, the broad Canadian approach and its use of mapping, boundary making, and other elements of scientific geography embraced the same goals and produced similar results: the appropriation of lands and resources and the assimilation of its custodians. Again, Smith emphasizes Aboriginal resistance, which, although unable to prevent the spread of liberal capitalism, was constant and widespread.
Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the accelerated alienation of Aboriginal lands and the extension of liberal capitalism between 1877 and 1927 within each of the case study areas. In British Columbia, the provincial reserve system prevailed despite friction between the province and Ottawa, occasional disagreements within the DIA, and ongoing resistance by Aboriginal people that contributed to the creation of two official commissions: the McKenna-McBride and the Joint Reserve commissions. As Smith notes, these and other seemingly progressive democratic initiatives effectively masked the exclusionary and oppressive nature of Canadian liberalism. Meanwhile in southern Alberta, where Aboriginal rights were supposedly guaranteed through treaty, the Nakoda, Tsuu T’ina, and Blackfoot First Nations were denied access to certain traditional lands and resources and forced to surrender portions of reserve land for lease or sale to non-Aboriginal people or for commercial harvesting of mineral resources. In some instances, rations and other benefits guaranteed by treaty were withheld to ensure compliance with DIA directives. Thus, although the tactics used varied in each case, the result was the same: through increased surveillance, Aboriginal rights became increasingly restricted and were gradually replaced by the tenets of mainstream Canadian society.
Ironically, this oppression did not stop Aboriginal people from supporting Canada’s war effort in Europe, as demonstrated in chapter 8. Despite facing oppressive measures at home, Aboriginal Canadians eagerly enlisted in the military, increased domestic production, bought war bonds, and ceded lands required by the government. In response, the government continued and even expanded its exclusionary agenda. Soldiers were denied the benefits available to their non-Aboriginal counterparts and Aboriginal people at home faced ongoing alienation of lands and increased surveillance. Today, liberalism continues “to exclude particular groups and individuals from access to its benefits and to deny them to choose their own lifeways” (p. 235). For Aboriginal people in Canada, the history of liberalism is one of exclusion and inequality, and it is ongoing.
As an introduction to postmodern ideas and analysis, the contribution Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance makes to Canadian Aboriginal history is significant. Sophisticated, thoroughly researched, and readable, it provides a very useful framework for analyzing familiar events in the history of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations in Canada and colonialism everywhere. When applied outside the colonial context in chapter 2, however, Smith’s approach is less effective. Rather than providing critical insights into the lifeways of Aboriginal cultures before the appearance of European liberalism, it paints a general, rather simplistic, portrait of indigenous politics, economics, and social relations that lacks the innovation found in the rest of the book. A more interesting and provocative approach would have been to examine relationships of power between elites and nonelites and the use of surveillance within Aboriginal communities prior to and after contact, a topic that Smith mentions but does not pursue (p. 84). Not only would this type of analysis be more consistent with Smith’s overarching methodology, it would add significant depth to his insights into Aboriginal people’s perceptions of and interactions with liberalism as well as the means adopted to combat it. A deeper, messier understanding of indigenous societies (and liberalism) would also help undermine the agency/coercion binary and better emphasize instances of resistance by resituating surveillance and other coercive measures as implements of the powerful rather than of Euro-Canadians exclusively. Although the “net-work of machinery” employed by colonial societies were of a much greater magnitude, indigenous communities have never been without tools or strategies of power. This criticism notwithstanding, Smith’s book is a very worthwhile read and would make an excellent text for senior undergraduate or graduate courses on the history of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations in western Canada.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Liam Haggarty. Review of Smith, Keith D., Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance: Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877-1927.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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