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Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance: Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877-1927

By Keith D. Smith

November 4, 2013

Review By Heather Devine

The negotiation and signing of the numbered treaties with First Nations groups in Western Canada, followed shortly thereafter by the opening of the territory to Euro-Canadian settlement, served to consolidate the country’s sovereignty over the vast territories beyond the Great Lakes in the face of American expansionism by the late nineteenth century. The treaties also functioned as a means to provide unfettered access to the land and natural resources needed for the expansion of free market capitalism. Unrestricted markets, facilitated by a limited form of government, became the means by which ambitious, energetic individuals might fully realize personal prosperity, and enjoy the democratic freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly with their fellow citizens.

Or so the tenets of classical liberalism would have one believe. But as Keith D. Smith points out in the introductory chapters of Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance, the benefits of liberal ideology were unevenly distributed amongst the masses. In particular, the colonization and subjugation of indigenous peoples, and the expropriation of their ancestral lands, was what made liberal ideology, and market capitalism, feasible for the Euro-Canadian majority. In order to sustain the new status quo, federal and provincial governments created interconnected governance structures intended to limit indigenous resistance to these changes. One of these governance structures was the Indian Act, a powerful piece of legislation that has regulated most aspects of daily life in First Nations communities since its inception. The Indian Act was enforced with the help of a far-reaching system of surveillance that employed Indian agents, police, clergy, non-native citizens, and even First Nations people themselves to spy on their associates and report back to the authorities.

Smith’s book examines the relative effectiveness of government surveillance through a comparative analysis of how these intelligence-gathering programs were instituted in two adjacent, but very different jurisdictions. He compares government administration of the southern Alberta region, comprising the reserve communities of Treaty Seven, to the southern interior area of British Columbia that later became the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) administrative region known as the Kamloops-Okanagan Indian Agency.

Smith concludes that the First Nations of the British Columbia interior had far more freedom of movement and cultural autonomy in their own traditional territories due to the lack of a DIA bureaucracy in the region, which resulted in looser policy enforcement and community surveillance. Because the First Nations of the region lacked the protections negotiated through treaties and enforced via the Indian Act, however, their traditional lands were constantly under threat by encroaching settlers. Conversely, the Treaty 7 communities were confined to reserves, a regional DIA bureaucracy was present, and policy enforcement and other intrusions on aspects of daily life were far more oppressive. On the other hand, they were able to fend off large-scale seizures of their territory.

Overall, Smith concludes that “disciplinary surveillance” of aboriginal people as employed by the federal government has persisted to the present day, despite the evidence of sporadic resistance by individuals and groups. What makes this book even more timely, is that the Canadian government continues to monitor the activities of aboriginal people who resist incursions on their indigenous rights and territories. Evidence of this persistent surveillance was exemplified by recent newspaper advertisements placed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in the spring of 2012, seeking to hire speakers of aboriginal languages for intelligence-gathering activities.

Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance: Indigenous Communities in Western Canada, 1877-1927
By Keith D. Smith
Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2009  324 pp. $39.95