To mark the recent publication of Strange Visitors: Documents in Indigenous-Settler Relations in Canada from 1876, editor Keith D. Smith provides some insight into the importance of reading "against the grain." Drawing from his book, he uses the example of the High Arctic relocation of the 1950s to demonstrate the wide range of perspectives that can be found in primary sources, and why students and instructors must be critical when evaluating historical documents. For more stunning examples, grab a copy of his brand new reader! Or, to download the full table of contents, excerpted directly from the final manuscript, click here.
My experience working with university students in both History and Indigenous Studies classes is that they have a remarkable potential for critical thinking. At the same time there is a keen and mounting interest among students in all things Indigenous and a growing recognition that the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada is badly in need of reconstitution. Students have the interest and intellect but need the tools with which to draw their own conclusions about the ways in which the relationship went off course and, by extension, how it can be repaired. The primary purpose of Strange Visitors, then, is to encourage students and other interested individuals to assess for themselves some of the building blocks in the history of the relations between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society.
For example, the readings in Chapter 9 of Strange Visitors discuss the controversial 1950s relocation of Inuit families from their homes in northern Quebec to Ellesmere and Cornwallis islands over 1,200 kilometres north in the High Arctic. In 1990, in response to growing public concern and a damning report tabled by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, the Canadian government hired an Ottawa-based consulting firm, the Hickling Corporation, to investigate the allegations of the committee. The resultant Hickling Report concluded "that the main reason for the decision by the Government to encourage some Inuit families to relocate to the High Arctic at that time was a concern to improve the living conditions of the Inuit…that the project was conscientiously planned…and that the Inuit…benefited from the experience."
On the other hand, testimony provided by one of the 1953 relocatees, Markoosie Patsauq, to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) in 1992, offered the contrasting view "[t]hat the Nunavik area [the original Quebec home of the Inuit relocatees] could no longer support its population was false….To us who call this area our home, this land, this is the land of plenty and to tear us away from our roots was uncalled for. The suffering we have been forced to take over the years are unacceptable. To use us as experimental objects is illegal." According to Patsauq, neither the relocatees nor their new home were adequately prepared: "We did not know where to hunt and the fact was there was no daylight from November to February. We survived mostly on the garbage of the white man. If the dump had not provided us with these edible garbages, we would have had faced serious hunger or maybe even starvation…."
Also testifying before RCAP was Bent Sivertz, the executive assistant to the deputy minister responsible for the relocations in the 1950s, who referred to himself as "the person who carried out the plan from justification of the idea... to arranging space on the ship for the Inuit who decided to go." Sivertz claimed in response to a question posed by RCAP Commissioner Mary Sillett that "There was no hardship, madam. There was no hardship in 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958. There was only very great satisfaction expressed by all the Inuit people of Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord…." Along with considering the many other controversial and debated issues presented in this chapter, readers are asked to account for the very different interpretations of the relocation experience itself.
In further contrast to Inuit and other observers, both Sivertz and the Hickling Corporation claimed that concern for confirming Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic was not a determining factor in the relocation experiment, with the Hickling Report concluding that "Canada felt secure in her claim of ownership of the Islands at that time… because the Canadian Government had consistently displayed its sovereignty in that area for so long and in so many ways as to firmly establish its title to all of the Arctic Islands in a manner consistent with International Law." In order to present further information for readers, the High Arctic relocation chapter of Strange Visitors also includes a 1952 memorandum from the Privy Council confirming that "It is government policy to attach importance to the maintenance of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic" and then going on to document "incidents" in which Canadian sovereignty appeared to be challenged in various ways by the United States. While there is no mention of the High Arctic relocation in the memo, readers are asked to consider to what extent, if any, direct or indirect concern for sovereignty played a role in the decision to move Inuit families north.
As the previous example illustrates, the documents in this collection were drawn from a variety of sources and include multiple themes and perspectives. Further, a variety of different kinds of primary sources have been included here, each with its own potential strengths and weaknesses. Readers will have the opportunity not only to interrogate individual letters, transcripts of oral accounts and testimony, official reports, reminiscences, legislation, poetry, photographs, and other materials provided but also to consider the relative value of different kinds of sources to the different sorts of projects that a historian or other researcher might undertake.
Strange Visitors emphasizes the point that since no document is created without a purpose or without a particular agenda in mind, none can be considered absolutely neutral. The problem, especially for students, is that intent is not always easy to determine, and sometimes it is purposefully or unconsciously obscured. Even professional researchers have to be alert to possible embellishments, oversights, and misrepresentations, even if these might be unintentional. Strange Visitors encourages readers to critically evaluate the documents included by reading them "against the grain" to uncover hidden or unintentional elements imbedded within them and to reveal what is left unsaid. This method can give a voice to people reduced to silence, uncover Indigenous agency and action in pursuit of an independent political destiny, economic future, and cultural survivance, and highlight events that have often been ignored.
There are few topics in Canada today that elicit more controversy than those involving Indigenous people. Everyone seems to have an opinion to offer on the political, economic, or social position of Indigenous communities, even if that opinion is based on faulty conceptions, misinterpretations, or confused understandings of the historical relations between Indigenous people and the descendants of those who came from other places. By the time a non-Indigenous person reaches university she or he has had decades of being inundated with distortions of both the history and current status of their Indigenous neighbours and classmates. They have read, watched, and listened to news reports, popular accounts, and even textbooks that sensationalized difficulties in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, presented treaties and settlements as unreasonable burdens on non-Indigenous taxpayers, or simply misrepresented or ignored Indigenous perspectives. On the other hand, by the time they reach university, and probably long before, many Indigenous students will have recognized that the history of their peoples’ relations with settler society as recounted by their families was often at odds with what they learned in high school or saw on TV.
There should be little doubt that learning to read critically is a life skill, perhaps even a duty in a democratic society. My hope is that this book will provide some of the tools that will help readers examine the contours in the relationships between Indigenous peoples and the relative newcomers to their territories in the period after 1876. Hopefully, too, it will help readers to evaluate for themselves the reasons behind the headlines of the present.
Keith D. Smith teaches in the Department of History and is Chair of the Department of First Nations Studies at Vancouver Island University.
Note: If you are an instructor and would like to consider adding Strange Visitors: Documents in Indigenous-Settler Relations in Canada from 1876 to the required reading list for an upcoming course, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an examination copy.