In this essay, I want to acquaint the reader with the work of the Bagot Commission. The Commission’s Report, published in 1845, tells the story of Canada’s colonization from a Euro-Canadian point of view. It is worth reading, if only to rebut many of the claims made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s [“TRC”] 2015 Final Report.
As we all know, the TRC’s Final Report is not kind to Euro-Canadians. The Final Report accuses Euro-Canadians of fraud and coercion in the negotiation of “treaties”; [i] of sexually abusing Indian children in residential schools; [ii] and genocide. [iii] The Final Report also states that the colonizer’s ‘civilizing mission’ rested on a belief of “racial and cultural superiority” [iv] – in other words, racism and white supremacy. It implies that settler governments perpetrated hate crimes.
The TRC’s Final Report mentions the Bagot Commission, but only as a historical starting point on the Indian Residential School timeline. Otherwise, the Final Report all but ignores the Commission. Of the TRC Final Report’s six volumes, Bagot and his Commission are mentioned once, in passing, and only accorded space in a couple of paragraphs. [v]
If the TRC was truly interested in a balanced, and honest reading of Euro-Canadian and Indian history, then it would have explored and responded to the views presented in Bagot’s work, if only to more fully understand the Crown’s policy motives. Instead, the TRC cherry-picked what it needed from Bagot’s Report, and then suppressed the rest.
Having said that, I agree with the TRC in that Canadians should know more about their history; and “to build for the future, Canadians must look to, and learn from, the past.” [vi] I think that people should read the Bagot Commission Report itself, so as to allow our Euro-Canadian ancestors to tell their side of the story.
In the meantime, the article will provide some highlights from the Bagot Commission Report, and summarize them under the following headings:
- Europe’s right to colonize North America
- Civilizing Indians
Lastly, I use the term Indian. If the word was good enough for my ancestors, then it is good enough for me. Also, the quotes from the Bagot Commission Report are not cited, because the original document is not page numbered. Checking my accuracy is one more reason for a person to read the original Report (found here: https://nctr.ca/records/reports/#highlighted-reports)– under heading entitled “Government Reports.
The Right to Colonize
The Bagot Commission Report asserted that Europeans had the right to colonize North America. In support, the Report quoted Emmerich de Vattel’s masterpiece The Law of Nations. De Vattel, a Swiss lawyer, was a highly regarded developer of international law.
With respect to North America, De Vattel stated:
There is another celebrated question to which the discovery of the new world has principally given rise. It is asked whether a nation may lawfully take possession of some part of a vast country in which there are none but erratic nations, whose scanty population is incapable of occupying the whole?
To this de Vattel replied, “The earth belongs to mankind in general, and was designed to furnish them with subsistence.” It was therefore unreasonable for small, nomadic groups to claim possession and exclusive use of vast territories. De Vattel concluded that, “[The Indians’] unsettled habitation in those immense regions cannot be accounted a true and legal possession.”
De Vattel’s reasoning was pragmatic. He noted that, “If each nation had from the beginning resolved to appropriate to itself a vast country, that the people might live only by hunting, fishing and wild fruits, our globe would not be sufficient to maintain a tenth part of its present inhabitants.” In other words, a legal system where small groups claimed large tracts of land was both unworkable and unjust.
It meant that Europeans had as much right to live in and occupy unsettled lands as any other group. This was particularly so, since Europeans were then, “too closely pent up at home.” De Vattel concluded that Europeans, “finding land of which the Savages stood in no particular need, and of which they made no actual and, constant use, [Europeans] were lawfully entitled to take possession of it and to settle it, if with colonies.”
TRC’s Final Report did not contest de Vattel’s reasoning, though it dragged Canada’s colonization experience through the mud by associating it with wars, conquest, slavery, and other violent episodes that occurred in other parts of the world. But what really bothered the TRC was how the right to colonize was also intertwined with the definition of property rights in land.
The Final Report noted that
Seventeenth-century British political thinker John Locke held that ownership of land belonged only to those who improved its productivity. When one considered the profit that a Native American received from the produce of a fertile acre of land in North America compared to what an English landlord received from an acre in England, it was clear, he wrote, that the American acre was not worth one-thousandth of the English acre. Given such a disparity, the North American acre under Aboriginal control was little more than waste. Under this logic, it was not only permissible to seize the Aboriginal land; it was virtuous if, by so doing, the land would be rendered more productive and therefore more profitable. The legal writer Emeric de Vattel in 1758 argued that since the people of the Americas ‘rather roamed over them than inhabited them,’ the French colonization of their land was ‘entirely lawful.’” [vii]
The Final Report does not rebut the analysis, per se, other than to label it as a “civilizing mission”, which it claims was an elaborate cover for racist thinking and ideas. [viii] But if deriving property rights from productivity is unfair and “racist”, what then is the basis for Indian land claims? The short answer: Treaties.
As noted above, Euro-Canadians did not see Indians as having ownership claims to land. Indians occupied and possessed the land, but did not have title. Instead, Indian lands were held in common, and the title to them was vested in the Crown.
This being the case, Bagot’s Commissioners described treaties as a tool to facilitate the colonization process. The Crown wanted Indians to make way for new European occupants in an orderly and equitable fashion. Changes occurred incrementally, only by agreement and only with compensation.
Compensation was generous. Under British protection the Indians received annuities, gifts, buildings, agricultural implements, and other considerations. The Indians could also continue their way of life in other uninhabited areas, or on lands reserved for that purpose.
The Commissioners also addressed government critics, who among other things, “…alleged that these agreements were … extortionate, as rendering a very inadequate compensation for the lands surrendered.” The Commissioners disagreed. They countered that the exchange looked one-sided only because White settlers had added considerable value to the land.
The Commissioners explained that
Nor can the friend of the Indian claim for him a monetary compensation based on the present value of the land, which has been created solely by the presence and industry of the white settlers. It’s only value to the denizen of the forest, was as a hunting ground, as the source of his supply of game and furs.
The Commissioners added that
these agreements have been faithfully observed by both parties. The Indians have not disputed the title of the Crown to the lands, which they have surrendered; and the annuities have always been the first charge up on the revenue derived from the sale of Crown lands, and have been punctually paid up to the present time.
In summary, the Commissioners concluded that the government’s policy was a success, in that it policy resulted in “…the speedy and peaceable settlement of the country.” They also concluded that Indians had lost little and gained lots. They wrote that
the Indians are now in possession of advantages which far exceed those of the surrounding white population, at which afforded them the means, under a proper system of mental improvement, of obtaining independence, and even opulence.
The Indians were not thriving, however.
The Bagot Commissioners noted the decline. They wrote that, initially
the physical formation of the red man in his native state, the sole inhabitant of his ancestral hunting grounds, and stranger to the practices and vices of civilization, is of the finest description. Height, beauty of proportions, nobility of carriage, activity, strength and suppleness, are its general characteristics.
Unfortunately, “These [characteristics] have all decreased with civilization and the progress of settlement, and the present race exhibit but faint traces of their former organization.” The Indians were now indolent, weak and sickly. The Commissioners observed that, “The untutored Indian is inordinately fond of liquor”, and concluded that, “intemperance may be cited as the chief cause.”
The question now was what to do with a population that was simply unable to fit into Canadian modern institutions?
The question divided the Euro-Canadian political establishment. One faction believed that Indians had been amply provided for, and that they should be left to sink or swim . A second faction believed that Indians needed further instruction in the “habits of civilization”, so as to transition into successful landholders and farmers independent of the government. Only then would it be morally defensible to let them sink or swim. Both factions agreed that the government did not owe Indians an indefinite nor unlimited amount of material support.
The matter came to a head in 1835, when a select Committee of the British House of Commons resolved that the Indian Department be greatly reduced, if not altogether abolished. The Select Committee also inquired into whether or not future annuity payments could be commuted and paid out in present money.
The resolution stoked the debate between the two Euro-Canadian factions. The one side, represented by people like Francis Bond Head, Lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, argued that further education was futile. Sir Head wrote that:
First, … an attempt to make farmers of the Red men has been generally speaking a complete failure. Second, … congregating them for the purpose of civilization has implanted many more vices than it has eradicated; and consequently 3rd … the greatest kindness we could perform towards these intelligent, simple-minded people, is to remove and to fortify them as much as possible from all communication with the Whites.
Lord Sydenham, Governor General of Canada, echoed Sir Head’s comments. In a candid, (and in some ways prophetic opinion), he wrote:
The attempt to combine a system of pupilage with the settlement of these people in civilized parts of the country, leads only to embarrassment to the Government, expense to the Crown, a waste of resources of the Province, and injury to the Indians themselves.
Thus circumstanced, the Indian loses all the good qualities of his wild state, and acquires nothing but the vices of civilization. He does not become a good settler, he does not become an agriculturalists or a mechanic. He does become a drunkard and a debauchee, and his females and family follow the same course. He occupies valuable land, unprofitably to himself and injuriously to the country. He gives infinite trouble to the Government, and adds nothing either to the wealth, the industry, or the defense of the Province.
The second faction replied that Indians could learn languages such as English and French, along with other rudiments. According to the Commissioners:
The aptitude of the Indians for the acquisition of knowledge, is as great as that of the Whites, or may even in some respects be said to surpass it.
But it was also clear that Indians had acquired bad habits; many of them from “vicious white neighbours.” These included: Intemperance; a “proud aversion of labour”; indolence, inertness and idleness. In other words, unstructured contact between Indians and a class of allegedly bad White settlers had left the former in a “half civilized state.”
The Commissioners noted that Indians could not go back to their ancestral state. Therefore, the government was honour and duty bound to “fully civilize” them. If the Indians could be inculcated with the habits of civilization – habits such as sobriety, thrift, hard work and industry – then they would be on their way to prosperity, health, and independence.
It was this second view that prevailed. The Ryerson and Davin Reports subsequently expanded on the idea of a residential school system. The Reports argued that the best way to “civilize” an Indian, i.e. instill a new set of habits, was to start young and to educate intensively. The Reports recommended that schools separate children from their parents – basically separating children from their “semi-civilized” parents, so as to protect and fully complete the civilizing process.
Euro-Canadians have nothing to be ashamed of. Europeans had a legal right to colonize. Colonization was not driven by war and conquest. Instead, it was peaceful, and operated on the principles of legality, compensation, and consent. And lastly, the “civilizing mission” was not genocide. Instead, it clearly intended to help Indians move from a semi- to a fully-civilized state; and to thereby enjoy healthy, prosperous lives.
Many Indians today are not thriving, however. Unfortunately for them, the TRC decided to side-step any serious inquiry into the causes, and scapegoated Euro-Canadians instead. For the TRC, Indians were fine until Europeans came along; it was only in the context of a “racist” civilizing mission that Indians began to fail and fail hard. In their narrative the consequences of this mission continue to this day.
The TRC never explains what was wrong with this civilizing mission, however. Was it wanting Indians to get up early in the morning and go to work? Punctuality? Sobriety? Thrift? Industry? The TRC is never clear.
The TRC’s watchword seems to be that ‘work is for chumps.’ They disdain civilization and the Euro-Canadians who built it. But they are not shy in claiming its benefits. For example, their famous “Calls to Action” represents a 94-point one-way street, demanding that all levels of government, the churches – even the Pope – pitch in and do everything for them.
The TRC represents a low point. They celebrate character flaws. They champion mediocrity. And they are very, very proud of their dependence on the various levels of government. Their warrior ancestors would blush; and Lord Sydenham would certainly be rolling his eyes.
In response to this sad state of affairs, Euro-Canadians should find and read the best of their ancestors. They were honourable and just. Their voices deserve to be heard!
[i] TRC “What We Have Learned – The Principles of Truth and Reconciliation” (2015) at p. 5.
[ii] Ibid. at p. 7.
[iii] Ibid. at p. 5.
[iv] Ibid. at p. 18.
[v] TRC, Final Report Volume 1, Part 1 (2015) at page 74-75.
[vi] Supra note 1 at p. 114.
[vii] Supra note 5 at page 17-18.
[viii] Supra note 5 at page 18.