With Good Intentions: Euro-Canadian and Aboriginal Relations in Colonial Canada
November 4, 2013
Review By Theodore Binnema
We might as well name the elephant in the room. The editors did. The book’s first sentence, back cover, and promotional material all imply a fear that it will be received as “an apologist text” or at least that it will give heart to apologists of the Canadian state (our work does take on a life of its own once published). The im passioned dis cussion that followed the publica tion of Derek Whitehouse-Strong’s review of With Good Intentions on H-Canada (see the discussion log at http://www. h-net.org/~canada/ starting on 17 July 2006) suggests that these worries were not unreasonable. But scholars should welcome this collection as a nicely focused examination of an important but under-explored historical phenomenon in Canadian history, even as they should reflect upon the circumstances that have made the editors’ fears so understandable.
With Good Intentions explores the legacy of non-Aboriginal people who, by working with and advocating for Aboriginal people in Canada between the mid-nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, were out of step with the prevailing attitudes of the day. Twelve articles follow the editors’ introduction. Those who study British Columbia will be particularly interested in the articles by Jan Hare and Jean Barman on Emma Crosby, Mary Haig- Brown on Arthur O’Meara, and Wendy Wickwire on James A. Teit. The authors of the other nine articles include David A. Nock (Horatio Hale and E.F. Wilson), Michael D. Blackstock (Aborigines Protection Society), Thomas S. Abler (Silas T. Rand), Alan Knight and Janet E. Chute (Allan Macdonell and Simon J. Dawson), Celia Haig-Brown (Christian humanitarian advocates for Nahnebahwequa [Catherine Sutton]), Sarah A. Carter (Amelia McLean), and Donald B. Smith (Honoré Joseph Jaxon).
The three articles directly relevant to British Columbia include some of the most important articles in the collection. Two deal with non-Aboriginal men at the centre of the Indian land question in British Columbia during the pivotal years between 1908 and 1928, one as an ethno grapher who increasingly became an activist and one as a missionary/ lawyer turned advocate. Perhaps the best article in the collection is Wendy Wickwire’s piece on James A. Teit. Wickwire argues that Teit was unique among the many ethnographers on the Northwest Coast in that he involved himself in Aboriginal peoples’ political and legal struggles. Although scholars have long acknowledged Teit’s activism, they have focused on his ethnographic work. Drawing heavily upon an article she published in the Canadian Historical Review in 1998, Wickwire convincingly argues that Teit’s activism reveals (and was rooted in) a rejection of many of the assumptions held by the ethnographers of his time. Thus, Wickwire allows us to better understand Teit’s activism and ethnography. Arthur O’Meara was active during the same years as was Teit. In Mary Haig-Brown’s fine portrait of O’Meara, based largely on research in the British Columbia Archives, this man emerges as an irascible, persistent, and effective advisor and advocate for Aboriginal peoples despite the fact that, shortly before his death in 1928, Aboriginal land claims had been dealt some of the most significant setbacks in their history.
Jan Hare and Jean Barman’s look at Emma Crosby’s Home for Aboriginal Girls is also very informative, although weaker than Wickwire’s as an interpretive piece. Emma Crosby (wife of the Methodist missionary Thomas Crosby) ran a home for troubled Abo riginal girls from 1874 to 1897. The authors argue that “by the time she left the north coast … her good intentions had gone dreadfully awry” (183). The argument that the purpose of the home evolved from protection to confinement to incarceration is plausible, but the authors do not present sufficient evidence to make their case convincingly. Nevertheless, they provide a useful glimpse into the role of the wives of male missionaries in the late nineteenth century.
Space forbids an examination of each of the articles in the volume, but all make valuable contributions. Overall, they suggest that the sympathies of many who would have considered themselves “friends of the Indian” (although the editor and a number of the authors are at pains to emphasize that many of these people were mis guided) were rooted in worldviews that put them out of step with the broader society. For example, some people examined in this collection were influenced by feminism (Hale), by socialism (Jaxon and Teit), and by deep commitments to Christianity and anti-racist interpretations of human behaviour.
Rest assured, this is not an apologist text. Ironically, the anxiety that the book would be interpreted as such actually appears to have weakened it. The observation that the people explored in this book were out of step with the broader society suggests that a title such as “Out of Step” or “Ahead of Their Time” might have worked better than “With Good Intentions.” However, fear that the book would be viewed as apologist appears to have caused the editors and many of the authors to emphasize their belief that their good intentions (however awry they may have gone) are what set these people apart from the vast majority, whom we must assume were malevolent. But the American literature, at least as far back as F.P. Prucha’s Americanizing the American Indians (1973) and perhaps, most soberingly, in William Hagan’s The Indian Rights Association (1985) and his Theodore Roosevelt and Six Friends of the Indian (1997), as well as a lot of evidence in Canada shows that the road to hell, in the form of some of the most tragic Indian policies in North American history, was paved with good intentions.
The fact that the introduction offers little new insight into the nature of anthropological thought in Canada, and even less into the rationale behind Indian policy, casts yet more doubt on the book’s implied assumption that the vast majority of Euro-Canadians had evil intentions. The introduction is insufficiently precise about what biological racism and social Darwinism were, and its discussion does not allow the reader either to understand how these “isms” manifested themselves among Canadian intellectuals and government officials or how they influenced government policy during the period under study. It is important to understand that then, as now, many who rejected the racial theories of the time disparaged Aboriginal societies on other grounds. Furthermore, those who accepted racial theories were not necessarily genocidal or even hateful. Many would have considered themselves as much “friends of the Indian” – in their own way – as did Arthur O’Meara and James Teit. Scholars who try to explain the subtleties of non-Aboriginal perceptions of and attitudes towards Aboriginal people without resorting to Manichean language should not fear being labelled apologists. More broadly, scholarly work should not be evaluated according to the degree to which it conforms to real or imagined scholarly orthodoxies but, rather, according to the evidence presented in its defence. Indeed, the maturity of any intellectual community can be gauged according to whether its members can critique provocative and contrarian work dispassionately.
If With Good Intentions is successful, then one of the most important things it will do is teach us humility. The collection offers us valuable insights into some of the most interesting and important non-conforming “friends of the Indian” in Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A num ber of these people are tolerable to us today because many of their beliefs, which were unconventional in their time, are now widely accepted. Perhaps we should also seek to better understand the powerful and influential people whose beliefs and actions are so repugnant to us today. Until we do, we may underestimate the gulf between intentions and execution, intentions and effect. One of the most insidious effects of simply condemning the actions of the past is that it reinforces a natural tendency to see ourselves as morally superior to the people who committed them. Such an anti-historical approach, by arrogantly minimizing the very real challenges and difficult choices that earlier generations, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, had to make, tends to blind us to the inevitability of our own failures. It tends to make us assume that, in our day, good will and good intentions will produce less tragedy and pain than they did in the days of our forebears. Today we can honestly and rightly recoil at the racism, the ethnocentric intolerance, the sex ism, and the colonialist narrowness of government officials and everyday citizens in the past; however, if our reaction blinds us to the fact that our generation may very well perform as poorly in our day as they did in theirs, then it will produce self-righteous complacency rather than humility.