When state legislation stops you from forming political organizations, creativity is essential.
At a June 17 presentation on the Indian Act in Smithers, Bob Joseph explained how one historic Indigenous group found a creative workaround.
“[They] would sing Onward, Chrstian Soldiers because the Indian agent would allow you to meet in groups of three or more for expressed religious purposes, but not for political purposes.”
Sometimes, they would even break out The Bible.
“If the agent [wasn’t] giving up somebody [would] break out the good book and they would read from the scriptures and when the Indian agent was satisfied they weren’t doing anything political they would leave,” he said.
“Then the land claim maps would come out.”
Joseph is the author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, a 2018 bestselling book on the controversial legislation first passed in 1876.
Drawing from his own history and experience as an Indigenous man and as someone who has studied the legislation extensively, Joseph explained to more than 120 people at the Della Herman Theatre a number of ways in which the Act negatively impacted the lives of Canada’s Indigenous people.
Discussing a timeline exercise he has done in the past, Joseph said he has noticed many people know lots of historical facts about Canada’s Indigenous people, as well as a number of contemporary facts, but the masses are unaware about Indigenous history in the bulk of the period between when the Indian Act was first passed and now.
“There will be lots of early dates — Jacques Cartier, Christopher Columbus, those kinds of dates — and then we find a whole bunch of recent dates: Oka, Ipperwash, the 2010 Winter Olympics,” he said.
This is one of the major things Joseph had in mind when writing the book, which is based on a viral blog post back in June 2015.
“I think that’s what 21 Things tries to address [and] fill in a couple of the blanks for people, just so they can see how pervasive the Indian Act is and what it was designed to do.”
Audience members heard about a number of restrictions placed on Indigenous people by the state, from the banning of potlatches to forcing Indigenous people to give up their previously-held styles of hierarchy and leadership for a unilaterally and arbitrarily state-imposed one without regard for the varying government structures of Canada’s Indigenous people.
Joseph explained how another way Indigenous people had their identity erased was through the European and Christian-centric naming process undertaken by Indian agents who worked for the state.
Discussing his own name, he gave the example of how he is often asked if he is related to other families with the surname Joseph across the country.
“I usually reply, ‘No, but I’m sure we had the same Indian agent’.”
There was an element of audience participation throughout the talk, with Joseph encouraging the audience to ask him questions if any came to mind and, at times, asking questions of them himself.
At the start of his talk, he asked audience members a simple question about a complex subject. Did settlers “conquer” Indigenous people?
“A better word would be subjugated,” Joseph said.
In detailing the various and diverse number of Indigenous peoples across the continent, he explained that not only did settlers only make treaties with a relatively small number, but that virtually all groups had pre-existing and long-honoured treaties among themselves, for generations before Europeans came to the continent.
Discussing reconciliation, Joseph explained that one of the toughest challenges in implementing the idea is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the 634 Idigenous governments or bands across the country.
“People will say, ‘Bob, what do they want? If you tell me what they want I can make some decisions.’ Honestly, I don’t know, we got 206 bands right here in B.C., seven major language families, 30 different dialects [and they] all want different things and have different perspectives.”
With regard to what reconciliation means to him, however, he did suggest one common theme he has heard from talking with other Indigenous groups across the country is a desire for self-governance.
“What communities are thinking is self-determination, nobody in Ottawa gets to tell us who our people are anymore. I think that’s a pretty big movement for people across the country.”
After the talk Joseph signed copies of the book for audience members.
21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act was the second best selling book in the province for 2018.
It also spent 26 weeks on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list, and another two as Canada’s top-selling non-fiction book.