The Past Shapes the Present

How Colonialism Impacted the Indigenous Economy in Canada (and still does).

By Qwastånayå (L. Maynard Harry)

It is well known that colonialism has had a devastating impact on Canada’s first peoples. Attempted cultural assimilation almost decimated First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, and the consequences have reverberated across generations.

If we’re to effect real reconciliation and work with Indigenous communities in the Indigenous economy, it’s vital for us to understand not only how colonialism affected the First Peoples’ psyche, but also how it affected how they did, do, and will do business. When we wonder why Indigenous communities can’t ‘just get over it,’ or why they seem unwilling to engage with non-Indigenous business, it’s important that we acknowledge how things came to be this way.

As owner and founder of Indigenous Insight it’s my job to help non-Indigenous businesses effectively engage with communities for mutual trust, and to foster an environment where economic and personal reconciliation can occur. I usually start by explaining our past, our present, and what we hope will be our future.

Life Before Colonialism

Indigenous peoples in Canada have been here for well over 10,000 years. Life prior to contact with European settlers was very different than it is today. Indigenous peoples had active lifestyles, healthy traditional diets and community systems that functioned efficiently, including health and education, culture/heritage/social (winter ceremonies, dancing), justice (naming ceremony, witnessing), environmental sustainability and land management.

Individual Indigenous families were given authority by their leadership to manage sustainable areas called watersheds. These watersheds were not defined by lines on a map but determined by height of land or ‘as far as the eye could see.’ All parts of each watershed were patrolled and monitored and all its natural resources (i.e. animals, water, fish, birds, plants) utilized. In times of war, these families formed many allegiances. Part of this territory management included sharing. This territory management allowed thriving economies to develop.

First Nation cultures in Canada were varied and many, are grouped according to six linguistic- cultural areas: Northwest Coast (i.e. Coast Salish, Halkomelem, Haida); British Columbia Interior (i.e. Tlingit, Interior Salish); Plains (i.e. Blackfoot, Plains-Cree); Plateau (Okanagan, Secwepemc); Western subarctic (Dene; Tahltan; and Woodland & eastern subarctic (i.e. Innu, Mi’kmaq).

Indigenous languages were not written. All Indigenous cultures relied on oral methods to transfer traditional knowledge (i.e. legends, stories, wisdom and direction) from generation to generation. Many oral legends and stories have accurately described documented world events and disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

Life After Contact with Europeans

At first, European settlers regarded Indigenous peoples as allies, especially in teaching them to cope with Canada’s harsh winters and in sourcing food and shelter. As their numbers grew, their attention went from simply surviving to exploitation of the land’s valuable natural resources. A consequence of this shift was a change in the role of Canada’s Indigenous peoples from hosts and allies to European settlers to ‘wards’ of the federal government, paving the way for assimilation and elimination.

The original purpose of the Indian Act was to ‘administer Indian Affairs in such a way that Indian people would feel compelled to renounce their Indian status and join Canadian civilization as full members; a process called enfranchisement. The Indian Act applies to First Nation peoples and not to Inuit or Métis peoples. It allowed the government to control most aspects of First Nation life including Indian status (i.e. membership), leadership identification, land, resources, wills/estates, education and general band administration.

As a result, they were forced to learn to read, write and speak new and alien languages and to abandon their traditional tongue and culture. The way they elected leadership changed from a hereditary system to a democratic one. They were made to live in parts of their territories not of their choosing and their children taken from them to be assimilated into European culture.

How Colonialism Affects Economic Development for Communities

Prior to the arrival of the European settlers, the First Nation peoples of Canada roamed their traditional territories, freely participating in traditional activities such as hunting, fishing, gathering, travelling, etc. These territories belonged to individual families or entire tribes and were thousands of acres large. The colonialists soon realized counting and monitoring the activity of its ‘Indian Problem’ had to be prioritized and part of the ‘final solution’ turned out to be the development of the Indian Reserve System.

When Indian Reserves were allocated, they were generally barren and of low commercial value. This continues to negatively affect economic and business development initiatives put forward by First Nations peoples. The Indian Act allowed the removal of Indian Reserves that were within a certain proximity (i.e. 8 kms) to towns of more than 8,000 inhabitants, one of the reasons most Indian Reserves are located away from populated urban centres, making it difficult to meaningfully participate in local, regional and provincial economies.

Indian Reserve lands in Canada are managed as a collective by each Indian band and held in trust by Her Majesty. It is impossible for individual status Indians to own Indian Reserve lands. Houses on-reserve belonging to status Indians cannot be used as collateral for a bank loan or mortgage application without having the Minister of Indigenous Affairs Canada co-sign that application.

For 162 years, approximately 150,000 Indigenous (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) children were forcibly removed from their homes, families and communities and sent to one of more than 130 government funded, church administered Indian Residential Schools across Canada. In addition to ‘killing the Indian in the child,’ these churches purposely eliminated any parental involvement in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual development of Indigenous children. The last residential school closed in Canada in 1996 – not that long ago.

Residential school survivors struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and experience substance abuse, self-sabotage/self-harm or harm to others as well as dissociation.

Their trauma and abuse severely affected the mental and physical health of our Indigenous peoples, and it did so in a way that hampers their ability and desire to participate and be part of our mainstream culture and economy.

Despite this, Indigenous peoples are emerging from a dark history to become among the most engaged and most active players in the Canadian economy.

Today there are 634 ‘Indian bands’ in Canada (as recognized by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and numerous Métis and Inuit communities).

The 2016 Canadian census recorded 1,673,780 registered Indigenous People in Canada (977,230 First Nations; 587,545, Métis; and 65,025 Inuit) representing 4.9 % of the Canadian population.

Indigenous communities are experiencing rapid population growth, with an average age of 26 that is much younger than the Canadian national average of 40. They are ready to do business, with a focus on sustainable, environmentally aware economic development that supports their families and provides a high-quality standard of living.

At ABM events you’ll find plenty of opportunities to meet and learn about our Indigenous communities. Now, hopefully, you’ll understand a little of what they’ve faced in their past. We encourage you to attend our ABM Uncensored events, so we can continue to work towards reconciliation and create mutually successful business.

Qwastånayå (L. Maynard Harry) is a producing partner of ABM, the founder and owner of Indigenous Insight and former Chief of the Tla’amin Nation. He is also a Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business Certified Cultural Awareness Trainer.


Indigenous Peoples of Canada – Government Site

Indigenous Peoples of Canada – Wikipedia

First Nations Health Authority – Our History

The Indian Act – Wikipedia

Pre-Colonialism – First Peoples History

Where Are The Children

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation


Photo: Pulling Together Canoe Journey 2019, courtesy of Tla’Amin Nation.

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