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Strange Visitors: Documents in Indigenous-Settler Relations in Canada from 1876

By Keith D. Smith, editor

Review By Hamar Foster

January 13, 2015

BC Studies no. 188 Winter 2015-2016  | p. 118-120

This is a timely, thoughtful, and useful collection of primary documents on the history of the interactions among Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people, and the Canadian state. Given what is currently available, it will be invaluable to those teaching Native Studies, Canadian history and, at least as background material, Indigenous law. I must make this clear at the outset because no collection is immune from criticism: no matter the reviewer, he or she will have included this document, or excluded that one, and expressed bafflement at the editor’s choice. Because I am going to indulge in a similar sort of nit-picking in the latter half of this review, I want to be clear straight off: this is a book that everyone interested in the topic should have on their shelf.

One of the strengths of Strange Visitors is editor Keith Smith’s emphasis, in his introduction, on how students should read the documents (with care) and the sort of questions they should ask (lots). Another is Smith’s attempt, at least in some chapters, to comply with that old adage about every story having three sides: yours, mine, and the truth. To my mind, it is also sobering to consider what a distinguished historian of the Christian missions said about these issues. “To an extent that is seldom recognized,” wrote John Webster Grant in Moon of Wintertime (185), “the assault on Indian culture bemoaned by social activists today was led by social activists of an earlier era.”

Strange Visitors contains fifteen chapters, ranging from material on the Indian Act of 1876 through to treaty-making at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In between are chapters on the numbered treaties on the prairies; the 1885 Resistance (or Rebellion, depending on your point of view) in the North-West; restrictions on cultural practices (such as the potlatch) and movement off reserve (the pass system); assimilation policies and opposition to such polices; residential schools; the World Wars; the Indian Act of 1951; the High Arctic relocation of 1953; the 1969 White paper; gender equality and the Indian Act; the 1982 Constitution and Charter of Rights; the Constitution and the Courts; and the Ipperwash inquiry.

One of the most powerful documents is the lengthy excerpt from Dr. P.H. Bryce’s frustrated and damning indictment of federal health policy in residential schools on the prairies from 1904 to 1921. Familiar to scholars but worthy of being read and reread, it serves to remind us that, disturbing as individual incidents of abuse may be, the systemic neglect and even criminal negligence of the federal government on this score was much worse. Bryce called it a national crime, and it was made much worse by the refusal to address it once he had brought it to official attention. On one reserve, 75 percent of the pupils who had attended the school over the sixteen years of its existence were dead. Bryce’s anger fairly steams off the pages (see also Milloy, “A National Crime” and Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision).

But now for some quibbles. While it is valuable and necessary to include legislation in a collection of documents, it may be a tough go for students and perhaps they should have more editorial help. For example, Indian Act amendments dealing with the potlatches are excerpted (96-97), but the difference between indictable offences and summary ones, and the significance of reclassifying the former as the latter, is not explained. In fact, this reclassification was one of the ways of increasing the authority of the Indian agents that the editor refers to only in general terms. And although the Indian Act amendment (1927-1951) restricting land claim activity is quite properly featured (149), it would have been useful to include the Criminal Code provisions, since repealed, that made it a crime to incite or “stir up” three or more Indians or “half-breeds” to “make any request or demand of government in a disorderly manner.”[1]   

It is true that “important waves of activism” followed the First World War (113), but this was also true of some parts of Canada before 1914. The First Nations of British Columbia, for example, generated a wave of petitions between 1901 and 1913, and the Friends of the Indians of British Columbia and the Indian Rights Association very nearly got their title claim into the courts in 1911. Indeed, in a sense it was downhill after that, although the struggle continued until 1927. And although it is not inaccurate to speak of “a large cadre” of employees on reserves (114), it is potentially misleading: the Indian Department, for much of the period covered by the book, was small, underfunded, and run (almost) off the side of the desk of larger departments. As for individuals, although Allied Indian Tribes of British Columbia secretary Andy Paull gets a mention in the biographies at the end, I find it odd that Peter Kelly, who was the chairman of this organization for its entire existence, does not.

The chapter on the High Arctic relocation is a good one, but the editor (256) gives the impression that “relocation” was more common than it was. For example, and notwithstanding all the faults of successive colonial, provincial, and federal administrations since 1849, certainly in British Columbia relocation was not a policy. Quite the reverse. And although there was widespread opposition to the 1969 White Paper (288), interestingly one of its supporters was Nisga’a Frank Calder of the Calder case (see Sanders, “The Nishga Case”). However, to his credit, the editor has included an excerpt from Cree lawyer William Wuttunee’s book, Ruffled Feathers (1971) as evidence that there was at least some Indigenous support for the policies behind the White Paper (302-307).

Some editorial context would be helpful elsewhere in the collection. For example, when the 1996 Royal Commission Report spoke (432) of Justice Reed’s statement that “every schoolboy” knows the treaties were a sham, beginners might not know that Reed was a US Supreme Court justice and that he was referring to treaties in the US.[2] Reed was also taking a poke at Felix Cohen, the leading American scholar on Federal Indian Law at that time (see Cohen, “Original Indian Title”).

I conclude with a final complaint followed by more praise. My complaint is that the four Supreme Court of Canada cases in the chapter on the Constitution and the Courts are surprisingly “presentist;” they are more like what a lawyer would choose than a historian.[3] The Constitution, after all, includes more than what happened since 1982; it would have been better, in my opinion, to look farther back, and at the very least to include the pre-1982 Calder case.[4]  Focussing only on cases decided since 1984 risks creating the mistaken impression that the law of Indigenous or Aboriginal title originated in the late twentieth century. The fact that, until quite recently, such title was referred to as “Indian” title is but one piece of evidence that this legal idea is much older. Having said that, this is truly a marvellous collection for which the editor and publisher deserve our praise and thanks.


Cohen, Felix. 1947. “Original Indian Title,” Minnesota Law Review 28: 28-59.

Grant, John Webster. 1984. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Miller, J.R. 1996. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Milloy, John S. 1999. “A National Crime”: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Sanders, Douglas. Autumn 1973. “The Nishga Case,” 19:  BC Studies 19: 3-20.


[1] Criminal Code, RSC 1906, s.109.

[2] The case is Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 US 272 (1955).

[3] The included cases are excerpts from Guerin v. The Queen, [1984] 2 SCR 335, R. v. Sparrow, [1990] 1 SCR 1075, R. v. Marshall (No.1) [1999] 3 SCR 456 and R. v. Powley, [2003] 2 SCR 207.

[4] Calder v. A.-G.B.C. (1973), 34 DLR (3d) 145 (SCC).

Strange Visitors: Documents in Indigenous-Settler Relations in Canada from 1876
Keith D. Smith, editor
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. xxiv, 487 pp. $49.95 paper