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Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia

By Cole Harris

November 4, 2013

Review By Val Napoleon


IN MAKING NATIVE SPACE, Cole Harris describes how settlers displaced Aboriginal people from their land in British Columbia,1 painstakingly documenting the creation of Indian reserves in the province from the 1830s to 1938. Informed by Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Michel Foucault, and E.P. Thompson, Harris develops from this dense historical foundation a spatial perspective on colonialism, skillfully and meticulously transforming the historical documents from the standard unidimensional colonial narrative into a multidimensional story that vividly fills both time and space.

Making Native Space is organized into four parts that outline the major successive waves of colonial activity across British Columbia. Part 1 details British policies regarding Aboriginal peoples and Governor Douglas s land and treaty policies from the 1830s to the 1860s. Part 2 documents the federal and provincial conflict over Aboriginal title and land policy from 1871 to 1880. Part 3 covers the period from 1880 to 1938, during which Aboriginal people increasingly resisted the imposition of reserves. And in Part 4, Harris considers the current circumstances of Aboriginal peoples and proposes options for addressing the continuing land and self-government issues. 

Harris combines empirical research with an analysis of the discourses and political strategies that enabled colonization. In order to explain the complex historical geographies of Aboriginal-settler relations, he interprets the deliberate reshaping of the Aboriginal landscape into a settler reality. This colonial achievement required reimag-ining and reconstructing the landscape from one completely inhabited by Aboriginal peoples into one that contained Aboriginal peoples on reserves. If one imagines British Columbia as a bounded geographic space, one can picture how the Aboriginal presence was forced to shrink as settlers expanded into it. 


Recently, five geographers participated in a review symposium on Making Native Space? Overall, they offered a very positive assessment, praising Harris’s gifted storytelling, painstaking research, ambitious scope, and beautiful writing. The reviewers critiqued Harris’s work from their own perspectives. They suggested that Harris has (1) appropriated the voices of patriarchy and of the colonizer, (2) excluded the circumstances of urban Aboriginal peoples, (3) failed to realize that self-government and returning land are not adequate solutions to the problems of Aboriginal people, (4) emphasized the politics of difference to the point where Aboriginal peoples would require state protection of culture, thereby creating a sharper division between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people than is warranted, and (5) insufficiently considered Aboriginal resistance to the reserve allocation system and the concept of reserves as sites for resistance. They also suggested that Harris should have included sections on pre-colonial British Columbia history and on Treaty No. 8, in the province’s northeast corner. 

A book, Harris responded, can only do so much.4 Harris remains unconvinced that the basic settler attitudes were gendered, since both male and female settlers adopted colonial thought. He argues that since he had worked primarily from the archival records, to include more Aboriginal voices would have required an entirely different study. He maintains, moreover, that he included the Aboriginal voices of protest as much as possible. In response to the criticism about excluding urban Aboriginal people, Harris argues that he has provided suggestions only for easing, not for solving, Aboriginal problems. Furthermore, since in British Columbia Aboriginal people moved to cities later than they did elsewhere in Canada, they may have retained ties with their reserves and so are not necessarily excluded from his proposals.5 On the inadequacies of returning land and promoting self-government as a solution to Aboriginal problems, Harris argues that the land base in British Columbia is rich and that there are many opportunities to open up land for Aboriginal economic development. On this point one might suggest, however, that Harris does not address the structural economic problems that small communities are encountering across the province (such as depleted resources, global market forces, and issues of scale). Finally, regarding future state protection of Aboriginal culture, Harris argues that the real need is to create self-government opportunities and space that will enable Aboriginal peoples to protect their own cultures rather than to pursue the state’s protection. He concluded by stating that, if Aboriginal peoples had more access to land and resources, and more control over their own governments, then “two large steps in the direction of more confident and secure Native societies would be taken.”


Reading Making Native Space raised several critical issues for me. First, Harris recreates, from a settler perspective, BC history as it unfolded for roughly a century. I had previously read about the establishment of reserves in British Columbia, as well as about the various commissions of enquiry and the jurisdictional disputes between the federal and provincial governments. Harris filled in the “how” of this history for me: the reserves did not appear all at once or overnight but, rather, grew over several decades around the edges of a dominating colonial agenda of making British Columbia a settler colony.Harris’s treatment enabled me to develop a much more textured, dynamic, and human sense of BC history, which includes a better appreciation of some of its convolutions, tensions, and multiple relationships. 

Second, Harris describes how the colonial government purposely avoided setting out large reserves in order to prevent the emergence of large congregations of Aboriginal people. He cites the observation of 1876 Joint Indian Reserve Commissioner Gilbert Malcolm Sproat that large reserves would have enabled Indians “to combine against whites.” Thus, Sproat concluded, “the safety of the Settlers in BC lies in disunion among the tribes.” The other commissioners concurred: Natives should not be concentrated on a few large reserves.8 Another rationale for the fragmentary reserve allocation was to ensure that Aboriginal labour was widely distributed and available to colonial undertakings.

What is fascinating about this colonial tactic is how it still informs and shapes the Aboriginal political landscape in British Columbia today. Arguably, the current conflicted treaty process continues to reverberate from the early colonial policy of intentional fragmentation of Aboriginal groups and lands. For example, the treaties are being negotiated with bands that vary in membership from 136 to 7,517, with an average size of 1,782 and a median of 800.10 Given issues of scale and the complex demands of self-government, it is extremely difficult for such small groups to effectively negotiate treaty agreements or to implement substantive self-government. Unfortunately, in his discussion of possible ways to resolve the land question in contemporary British Columbia, Harris does not explore this thread. 

Third, Harris’s detailed cartography demonstrates the Aboriginal dispossession from land at a visual and physical level. The reserves are actually tiny fragments of land scattered over a vast province, “displayed rather like insects on pins.”11 Harris says that this fragmentation resulted in reserves that acquired “a fixed place in the Cartesian space of the survey system and in the minds of officials and settlers.”12 The size of the reserves is in stark contrast to the original ownership patterns of Aboriginal peoples. For example, the reserve land base for the Gitksan people amounts to about 114 square kilometres, while their land claim area is 30,417 square kilometres.13 In pre-contact times, the Gitksan people were owners of their territories: that is who they were. But, from a colonial perspective, the Gitksan people’s identity was distorted when they became mere residents of the minimal reserve lands under colonial administration. The reserves became the “Native space” of British Columbia. The gift of Harris’s book is that he is able to interrogate and articulate how this happened not only to the Gitksan but also to other Aboriginal groups across the province. 

Fourth, I found Part 4, “Land and Livelihood,” to be somewhat incongruous with the rest of the book because here Harris moves from the archival record to argue that many of the problems that Aboriginal peoples currently experience result directly from the early colonial history set out in the first three parts of Making Native Space. That is to say, since Aboriginal peoples were dispossessed of land and self-government, this dispossession is what must be redressed in building a new relationship between Aboriginal people and settler society today. The land problem, Harris argues, emerges at every turn. The conclusion, I think, is inescapable: a seriously pursued politics of difference entails a considerably more generous allocation of resources to Native people, and a fair measure of collective Native control over them.14 

He also argues that the other essential ingredient of a politics of difference is “local Native self-government.”15 While Harris grounds his proposed politics of difference in the recognition of the unique legal and constitutional relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown, use of the concept of difference in this way is nonetheless problematic. Gordon Gibson illustrates this in a recent BC Studies “Forum” on Harris’s final chapter when he asks what constitutes a legitimate “difference” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Over time, Gibson argues, cultural differences between the groups have lessened: “Native peoples are just ordinary human beings like the rest of us.”16 This comment suggests that locating Aboriginal rights in “difference” is both politically and legally problematic because it can limit the possibilities for development of the Aboriginal political project within the judicially or politically constructed difference.17 The relationship of Aboriginal peoples with the Crown is constitutional and is born of history. Speaking as a First Nations person, I do not believe that it matters whether Aboriginal people are the same as everyone else; we still have a special place in Canada. 

In my view, where historical enquiry gives way to thought about the future, Harris should have incorporated contemporary Aboriginal voices into his discussion. Such inclusion is desirable because the consequences of colonial history are extremely complex, and often the reality within Aboriginal communities is fraught with conflict, contradictions, and infernal messiness. It is from within the experience of this conflicted and contradictory milieu that strategies for future change must be developed and tested, not from without. 

What I appreciate most about Making Native Space is Harris’s argument that the colonial approach to land was less about legal or moral principles than about the varying self-interests of the colonizers.18 Citing the differing on-the-ground policies of New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, he describes Aboriginal land policies around the world as a “jumble.” In other words, colonization was not a linear, orchestrated, grand plan but, rather, something that emerged from a multiplicity of shifting and opportunistic acts of self-interest. 

Overall, Harris skillfully and knowledgeably describes the colonial theatre of power that gave rise to the current ongoing disputes over Aboriginal tide, fisheries, forestry, and land use. Making Native Space is a valuable resource for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples as communities try to work out how to live together. I have already recommended the book to people from several different Aboriginal communities. 

[1] Cole Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in BritishColumbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002). 

[2] Ibid., 274, 47, 50, 268, 270, and 267 respectively. 

[3] Evelyn Peters, ed., “Focus: Making Native Space: A Review Symposium,” The Canadian Geographer 47, 1 (2003), <http://8o-www.blackwell-synergy.com>. 

[4] Ibid., 12. 

[5] I think this point in particular requires additional thought because of the divisive and exclusive colonial membership codes that many Aboriginal communities have implemented in lieu of broader citizenship policies. See also John Borrows, “Measuring a Work in Progress: Canada, Constitutionalism, Citizenship and Aboriginal Peoples,” in Box of Treasures or Empty Box? Twenty Years of Section 35, ed. Ardith Walkem and Halie Bruce (Penticton, BC:Theytus Books, 2003),223-62. 

[6] Peters, “Focus,” 14. 

[7] Harris, Making Native Space, 68. 

[8] Ibid., 102,121. 

[9] Ibid., 101, 265. 

[10] Paul Chartrand, “Toward Justice and Reconciliation: Treaty Recommendations of Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996,” in Negotiating Settlements: Indigenous Peoples, Settler States, and the Significance of Treaties and Agreements(Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press, forthcoming). 

[11] Harris, Making Native Space, 271. 

[12] Ibid. According to Harris, “Implementation of the reserve system in British Columbia .. .left Native peoples with more than 1,500 reserves comprising slighdy more than one-third of 1 percent of provincial land”. See Cole Harris, “Forum: Revisiting the Native Land Question,” BC Studies 138 and 139 (2003), 137. 

[13] Kathy Holland (former librarian of the Gitksan resource library, Hazelton, BC), in discussion with the author, 14 October 2003. 

[14] Harris, Making Native Space, 316. 

[15] Ibid., 318. 

[16] Gordon Gibson, “Commentary,” BC Studies 138 and 139 (2003), 156-60 (emphasis added). 

[17] This is a complex issue that is far beyond the scope of this review. Basically, I think that both the rights framework and the politics of difference raise serious questions that require further analysis. For one thoughtful treatment of this issue, see Patrick Macklem, Indigenous Difference and the Constitution of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2001). Macklem argues that the concept of difference should be expanded to denote an “indigenous difference” that is reflective of the social facts that are exclusive to Aboriginal peoples – namely, cultural difference, prior occupation, prior sovereignty, and participation in a treaty process. Furthermore, the concept of indigenous difference is useful in promoting constitutional protection of four sets of rights: (1) rights to engage in practices, customs, and traditions, (2) rights relating to territorial interests, including Aboriginal title, (3) rights related to interests of Aboriginal sovereignty and self-government; and, (4) treaty rights (ibid., 4-6). 

[18] Harris, Making Native Space, 14.