Beginning in 1967 psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier inflicted pain by electrical shock on three groups of dogs in an experiment designed to probe depression and behaviourism at the University of Pennsylvania. Three groups of dogs were placed into harnesses, the first group received no shocks, and were simply released after a period of time. The other two groups of dogs however did receive the electrical shock which could be stopped by the pressing of a lever at the second group’s will. The lever provided to the third group’s however did nothing, giving these dogs no way to control or stop their experience of the painful shocks administered, making it seem as if it stopped or started at random. The first two groups recovered from the experience quickly, but the third group exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression. The experiment did not end here. These dogs were then tested in a shuttle-box apparatus divided into two sides by a low partition. One side was electrified, but it could be easily escaped by jumping over the partition into the safe side of the shuttle-box. The first two groups of dogs quickly learned to jump the partition escaping their cause of pain and suffering. The third group of dogs made no attempt to escape the electrical shock, instead they lied down and whined in pain. They had learned from their previous experience that they had no control, nor could they effect their situation, their trauma uncontrollable. They could not escape their harnesses, the lever provided did nothing; why would the other side of their shuttle-box suddenly provide any relief?
What than have the aboriginal populations of Canada learned after centuries of genocide, the severe abuses of our person, and children, the abuse of our rights, and cultures, of our agreements, and treaties, many of which are still not honoured, or circumvented by legalities to this day. This coupled with the complete lack of education of the general population has bred ignorance leading to animosity on both sides of aboriginal and non-aboriginals towards each other; while the elected officials of the Canadian government sitting on the side lines benefit from our division and ignorance. We are given a ‘lever’ which does nothing: our agreements on the colonizer’s terms and through their avenues of complicated and intricate legal languages in which their politicians and hired lawyers continue to hold strengths in. We suffer from a lack of sufficient experience in these new systems when our understaffed and under educated governments and bands try to express our wills, hopes, and dreams through this complex system while they serve as our ‘harnesses’.
A system in which does not posses a human heart, in which cannot dream, eat, drink, or celebrate our way of life, our dreams, and aspirations, in sacred circles we struggle to keep to this day. As a population we have not had the same amount of time to familiarize ourselves with colonial education structures and are at a severe disadvantage at pursing this education when our populations are reeling in the pains and traumas of residential schools, the 60’s scoop, and under funding at every level on reserves. These current and inter-generational traumas serving as our ‘electric shock’. We have smaller populations to draw upon for higher education which would serve us in our bands and governments allowing us to properly address the onslaught of the Canadian government which clearly holds the advantage, again on their terms, through their laws, from their perspectives. What have we been taught by this past and how do we get to the safe side of this shuttle-box?
Lets start from the beginning shall we? When the first permanent European settlers arrived in what is now western Canada in the 16th century, the indigenous people often helped them to survive in the unfamiliar lands. Early wampum belts depict our intentions of peace and sharing, like that given to William Penn at the “Great Treaty” in 1682. Very quickly the indigenous people fell into league with a people they couldn’t fully understand, a people bent on acquisition, driven by long ensuing politics as their empires strived for resources to fuel their machines of war and industry. It wasn’t long before their wars followed them to the America’s. New France and the British America gave way to the Seven Years’ War from Virginia to Nova Scotia over control of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers or ‘the Forks of Ohio’.
The indigenous populations fought with their allies, thus solidifying their way into a new era by violent birth. As time continued there were many proclamations and shifts in power, but one thing did not change, the continual loss of land and rights of the indigenous peoples. Even when settlers had arrived in Virginia the escaped pigs, and tobacco plantations transformed the landscapes, leaving them unrecognizable and uninhabitable. These colonies failed many times over before taking root like that of Jamestown, Virginia; where the fallacy of Pocahontas comes from (Really a preteen child of the chief Powhatan, her real name Matoaka; Pocahontas a nickname meaning “wild child”). There was also the Royal Proclamation of 1763, following Great Britain’s acquisition of French Territories, assuring British culture and laws were applied to upper Canada after 1791 and the governance of the continued cession of indigenous lands and rights. This document is the first legal recognition of Aboriginal rights by the British Crown and is even mentioned in section 25 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Almost a century later the Indian Act of 1876 was signed.
The Indian Act has a very large scope, addressing issues like health care, education, governance, and land use. The original Act also did two things affecting indigenous peoples: It dictates how reserves and bands can operate, and it defines who is, and who is not recognized as an “Indian”, notably of course on the colonizer’s terms, and legal systems. From the beginning First Nations thought that we were making a deal that would create equality, that together we would wield this equal power to create a new country, but instead reservations, residential schools, small pox blankets, and the 60’s scoop were wrought from this agreement among many acts of betrayal. In the negotiations we asked for and were promised: land, agriculture, traditional pursuits, freedom from conscription, assistance in times of need, annuities, coats and medals, no liquor on reserves, The “Queen’s Peace”, Red Coat protection, taxes, education, medicine, and housing.
Do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian Peoples…
Through amendments we found ourselves not able to leave our reservations, celebrate with ceremonies, to dance, hire lawyers, and entering pool halls, to touch on a few. Every detail of their life was prescribed by a law without anyway or form of complaint, from a federal government that quite overtly stated that the 1876 Indian Act was passed to solve the “Indian problem”; from a Prime Minister that stated, “Do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian Peoples…” (-Sir John A. MacDonald). Today few of the promises have been honoured. Reservations receive under-funding of Indigenous peoples welfare, housing, health care, and education compared to other Canadians. Not to mention the lack of education in public high schools and the higher education of our general populations on any of these issues. Students walk into university classrooms today with only common misconceptions and stereotypes of Canada’s first peoples, knowing next to nothing of our own countries anti-aboriginal agenda. The government has yet to address these issues in our education systems in a meaningful way, but many are beginning to make this change; change demanded by indigenous people who continue to face the ignorance of the public, us who sit through high school, collage, and even university classrooms whose own professors could benefit from this narrative. A country that told us of a dream, a countries culture that preaches it’s values so loudly, and of our right of equality and peace in which we base our own dreams from, our identity, our very being.