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COLUMN: Canada's first chance was not its last chance

Bridges are built by those who recognize there is a gap that must be crossed
Nickel and leaf

Today, there will be many opinions on the greatness and great shame of Canada. 

Though futures are uncertain and the present is apt to change, the past is established. It is carved in stone and impossible to alter. 

If the future is a second chance, the past was the first. 

The past is truth and facts, though some are buried deep. 

Today, instead of opinions I offer some historical facts that begin with the beaver – a quintessentially Canadian symbol.

One of the fundamental shapers of the nation we know today was the fur trade.

This geographical region now known as Canada had the longest and most extensive and complex fur trade in the world. And the trade began with the first relationships between First Nations and Europeans.

“Canada would not have existed, could not have come about without the fur trade. And the fur trade would not have existed without the participation of First Peoples,” explained historical geographer Frank Tough in his lecture for the University of Alberta Indigenous Canada course. 

Fur was the first export commodity of a national scale from what is now Canada, and trade began in the early 1400s. Among the most sought-after was the beaver pelt. 

“These furs were produced by the skills, talents, and labour of aboriginal people. From trapping, knowing where to find them, how to transport them, and then how to support the Europeans that were living here,” explained Tough. “The fur trade never would have existed with the import of a lot of European labour. It was something that required native labour.” 

The fur trade followed Indigenous transport routes, and outposts were built where First Nations communities congregated. Those outposts became places like Edmonton and Winnipeg.

A long-lasting fur trade is also the reason Canada walked a different route to independence than our US neighbours. The economic connection to the London fur market was a deterrent to all-out war for independence.

“Our distinctiveness as a people reflects the fact that the fur trade laid an economic basis that was eventually added to by a political basis and the process of nation-building,” said Tough. 

It was the Northwest Company (formed in opposition to the monopoly of the British Hudson Bay Company) that laid the foundation for what would become confederation. 

Eventually, European dependence on Indigenous people for the fur trade shifted so settlers took the upper hand, to the detriment of Indigenous peoples. 

In the end, the fur trade weakened traditional Indigenous economies, it nearly wiped out beavers and bison, it brought diseases like smallpox that killed huge portions of Indigenous communities, and it changed the social organization of some First Nations. 

What Indigenous people depended on from Europe was now used to control and manipulate and weaken. 

Instead of recognition for their partnership, for their absolute necessity in laying the foundation of the nation, Indigenous people were used for knowledge and resources then targeted for erasure. 

In 1920 the deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs in Canada said the goal of the Indian Residential School system was to continue until there is “not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department.”

Over 125 years, 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes and put into residential schools. As early as 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, a medical inspector for the Canadian government, raised the alarm (and made national headlines) about the horrific conditions at the schools. 

He estimated death rates at the school at close to 42 per cent. 

“Even war seldom shows as large a percentage of fatalities as does the education system we have imposed on our Indian wards,” said Bryce. 

These are the truths of Canadian history. 

Truth does not require acknowledgment to be true. It does not require anyone to feel shame, guilt, anger, or pain. 

It is plain facts.

Reconciliation, however, does require acknowledgment of the truth. 

Bridges are built by those who recognize there is a gap that must be crossed.

In the words of Anishinaabe Wab Kinew, “true reconciliation is a second chance at building a mutually respectful relationship.” 

Reconciliation requires that people be more important than nationalism.


University of Alberta Indigenous Canada course (free) 

The First Nation Child and Family Caring Society - A charity working to ensure the safety and wellbeing of First Nations youth and families through education initiatives, public policy campaigns, and providing quality resources to support communities. 

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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