Title graphic of the Moonspeaker website. Small title graphic of the Moonspeaker website.

Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

The Name Game

Names are important. This may seem trivially obvious, even for those who have never felt perturbed by patriarchal naming practices that erase women or had to face such programs as project surname in the arctic. There may not be widespread agreement about whose identity or what social role a person's name should reflect, but that it does and that this is important socially and culturally is widely agreed on. A different strand of ideas about the importance of names affects beings who are not humans, since the judaeo-christian religion complex in particular argues that the ability to impose a name demonstrates ownership and absolute power over the named. See the first few versions of the creation, including the infamous "Adam names the animals" sequence. Then read Thomas King for a hysterically funny take down in Green Grass, Running Water in which Ahdamn attempts to tell the animals what their names are, and they deal with him patiently. Then there is the whole genre of naming organizations, currently often called "branding" and held up as a service that only a consultant or public relations company can do really well at developing, but can be done in house with care.

Women taking part in the Treaty 4 negotiations in manitoba. Women taking part in the Treaty 4 negotiations in manitoba.
Photograph of women taking part in the Treaty 4 negotiations in manitoba. courtesy of the archives of manitoba via the treaty relations commission of manitoba, taken in september 1884.

In canada the current liberal government's urge to "reconciliation" with Indigenous nations on northern Turtle Island has led to a variety of public relations moves and publicity stunts. Among these is the decision to, as described on the department website, dissolve the current department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) into two new departments, "Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada" and "Indigenous Services Canada." The "Indigenous and Northern Affairs" department had already been renamed from the department of "Indian and Northern Affairs and Development" also known as "Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada." Name changes of this type tend to promptly propagate as domain name changes that break thousands of links and cause general chaos, and that's just on the websites. The changes internal to the affected department are something else again. In any case, for our purposes here, what is most important is what the names of these entities reveal about the federal government's views of Indigenous nations on northern Turtle Island. Let's take a quick run through the names of the predecessor organizations and then follow the federal body designed to manage Indigenous nations through the years to the present. For the years up to 1966, I have drawn on the paper The Historical Development of the Indian Act, and after that on the INAC website already mentioned and linked above.

  1. Prior to confederation in 1867, relations with Indigenous nations were generally handled by an Indian Affairs department under the authority of either the crown's representative, or later the "Commander of the Forces."
  2. 1867 - the secretary of state controls "Indian Affairs," a cabinet position that remained in existence until 1993 and officially handled communications between canada and the british government along with a grab bag of other duties that varied over time
  3. 1873 - "Indian Affairs" moves to the Department of the Interior, Indian Lands Branch
  4. 1880 - a separate "Department of Indian Affairs" is established, still under the authority of the minister of the interior
  5. 1936 - the "Department of Indian Affairs" is downgraded to branch status and placed under the Department of Mines and Resources
  6. 1949 - the "Indian Affairs Branch" is moved to the "Department of Citizenship and Immigration"
  7. 1965 - the "Indian Affairs Branch" moves again, this time to the "Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources"
  8. 1966 - a new reorganization spawns the "Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development," also known as the "Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada"
  9. 2011 - no reorganization, and "Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development" remains the name and basic portfolio of that part of the federal bureaucracy, but it is given a new alias that is then used to rebrand all of its communication materials, "Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada"
  10. 2015 - the department gets renamed outright to "Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada"
  11. 2017 - "Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada" gets split into two brand new departments, "Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada" and "Indigenous Services Canada"

Having set all these name changes out, some interesting, not so pleasant, and all too unsurprising aspects of the canadian federal government's views of Indigenous nations are evident. For the reader interested in more detail, it is possible to check who was officially responsible for "Indian affairs" over this period and earlier by reading over a page no longer available directly from the current website of the responsible department. The on-line article Individuals Responsible for Indian and Northern Affairs in Canada, 1755 to 2006 (alternate link) was originally provided from the "Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada" version of the site, now archived on the wayback machine.

  1. from the 17th to early 19th centuries, when french and british officials handled Indigenous relations, the officials in charge held some military rank and acknowledged that they were dealing with nations, even if they didn't want to give Indigenous peoples much credit for their legal systems
  2. after the end of the "war of 1812," Indigenous nations were no longer viewed as useful military allies and Indigenous relations was first turned over to a civilian department full time
  3. after confederation, the new canadian government tried to behave as if somehow all Indigenous nations spontaneously dissolved into a random goo of unorganized, lawless people who had to be removed and/or civilized as much as possible before their inevitable extinction
  4. the department of the interior's portfolio of duties was all about land surveying, land management, "resource extraction," and "Indian affairs"; this all went together because Indigenous nations own the land, and canada wanted to remove the land and any resources from Indigenous control
  5. forced into what became a substantial period of treaty making that would eventually yield Treaties 1-11, after nine years of negotiations and growing Indigenous resistance to the new settler colonialism, canada created an actual department to handle the work of negotiations and administering the treaties
  6. by the time the of the great depression, Indigenous people had been stripped of access to all of their lands and imprisoned on reserves across what was now nine provinces and two territories, so the department was downgraded and shoehorned into a department focussed on "resource" exploitation
  7. after world war ii, having discovered that for some reason not only had Indigenous people not died out, they were not assimilating, the federal government decided that they were effectively a recalcitrant sort of ethnic group like the various immigrants pouring in from war-shattered eastern europe; efforts to involuntarily enfranchise Indigenous people generally and force Indigenous children into residential schools re-intensified; the official federal position did not even mention any combination that could be synonymized with "Indigenous nation"
  8. since Indigenous people still weren't dying out or assimilating away, and still kept proving an obstacle to unlimited exploitation of "resources" until the pips squeaked, especially in the arctic where canada now nervously wanted to assert "sovereignty," "Indian Affairs" were returned to a resource-focussed department; in 1951 after intransigent Indigenous resistance the federal government sheepishly stopped enforcing and then printing the section of the Indian Act that banned Indigenous ceremonies
  9. by now the "Indian problem" is more than entrenched as far as the federal government is concerned, and unnecessarily as far as the latest liberal government was concerned; the new reorganization in 1966 was an intimation of the infamous 1969 White Paper which proposed in effect the mass enfranchisement of all "status Indians" and the final declaration that there was no such thing as Indigenous nations, laws, or lands in canada
  10. well, the 1969 White Paper ended in a federal fiasco as furious Indigenous nations rose up to challenge every premise it held, building on the successes that first began to come to fruition in the 1950s, but the federal government's focus remained on taking and keeping control of Indigenous lands and exploiting any and all available resources on those lands
  11. but 2011 reveals that the federal government is getting a bit uncomfortable about the appearance of things, and so switches the branding of the department that deals with Indigenous affairs to refer to "Aboriginal Affairs" as it is more inclusive, and meets the federal desire to claim that it has total authority over "Indians, Inuit, and Métis" including defining who counts as "real" members of all three, not just the "Indians" and drive them to assimilate at last and get out of the way of resource extraction
  12. still refusing to give up on its hopes of ending Indigenous resistance to the destruction of the land and interference in their efforts to manage themselves and their lands, the federal government takes up parts of an older approach by talking about "Indigenous nationhood" and making some other cosmetic changes to "INAC"
  13. still trying to manage if not neutralize Indigenous resistance somehow, the federal government is now trying to separate the land and resource bits from the bits that have to do with providing "services" that are in fact aspects of its treaty obligations that it views as somehow separable from the land

Pious declarations of its intentions to "reconcile" with Indigenous nations in northern Turtle Island under the pressure of wanting to look good for the sesquicentennial aside, it remains to be seen if the canadian federal government will do better than fiddling with names. I don't recommend holding you breath, especially since old legislation and assimilationist ideas keep getting represented as "new and revolutionary" proposals. This can only be true if we conflate "new" with doing the old thing again at a different time, and "revolution" with returning to the starting point, which admittedly seems to go well with the "what's old is new again" modern Trudeau cabinet.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:14