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  • Battle Grounds: The Canadian Military and Aboriginal Lands
  • Desmond Morton
P. Whitney Lackenbauer . Battle Grounds: The Canadian Military and Aboriginal Lands. University of British Columbia Press. 368. $29.95

The title would seem to tell it all. Seeking space for its target practice and war games, Canada's military, with the full complicity of federal Indian Affairs administrators, ignored solemn treaty rights, seized the ancestral lands of Canada's First Nations, and played an active role in creating the miserable destiny of Aboriginal peoples across the country. NATO's low-flying fighters over Innu lands near Goose Bay, the demand of the Tsuu T'ina that soldiers must clean every scrap of alien iron from their Sarcee reserve but must leave their barracks intact, the killing of Dudley George at Camp Ipperwash, and the continuing struggle of Saskatchewan and Alberta First Nations to regain hunting grounds bombed and rocketed by the USAF at the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range near Cold Lake are merely the media headlines for a transcontinental struggle to rescue Native territories from post–Cold War militarism. And why, in an eco-conscious world, shouldn't a shrunken defence budget be spent on restoring Aboriginal land to its pristine condition, even if the occasional imported charlatan swallowed illicit profits?

Or so the story has been told, by journalists, Lackenbauer's fellow historians, and even RCAP, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. And why not? If the European invader's perspective has shaped our understanding of the past and present, isn't it time to privilege the viewpoint of the First Nations? That was certainly the conclusion of some RCAP members. Weary from years with Canada's biggest and most expensive royal commission, they concluded that it might be fair as well as labour-saving to let their Aboriginal colleagues have their way with both facts and ideas. After all, in a postmodern age, what was history but a subjectively selected collection of facts? And, after all, weren't the military known to be authoritarian and arrogant? In the post–Cold War years, what need did the military have for land to play with tanks, guns, and rockets?

This is not Lackenbauer's view. Instead, he bravely invites some prominent fellow historians to take the trouble to get their facts straight and chooses the theme of rival military and Aboriginal land needs to illustrate his point. Yes, Canada's military took Aboriginal land, but [End Page 397] where else would the government provide them with space to learn their jobs in two world wars and a very long cold war? And yes, Indian Affairs, under various governments and departments, sometimes helped the Militia and National Defence departments to get reserves and hunting territory the military needed to do its job. And why not, when the land seemed to be neglected, and prevailing opinion agreed with renowned anthropologist Diamond Jenness that Canada's Indians were on their way to extinction? Much as in our own day, Lackenbauer argues, Canadians tended to act on prevailing beliefs, even when the beliefs reverse themselves.

Even more controversially, Lackenbauer insists that Indian Affairs did not invariably and eagerly sell out its charges. There were exceptions and he usually lets deputy superintendent-general of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott play his increasingly familiar role as villain-in-residence for Aboriginal policy. However, far more often, Scott and his officials forced the military to look elsewhere for land or to negotiate such costly or limiting concessions that the Aboriginal land was not worth having. Military efforts to secure a training area in the British Columbia interior came to naught when a militia colonel, Charles Flick, pulled rank on an Indian agent, John Freemont Smith, who happened to be Black. 'We in the west,' Flick proclaimed, 'have an idea that races subject to the whiteman are better when governed by a whiteman.' Duncan Scott dealt with such nonsense by upholding his agent and ignoring Flick as far as his political superiors allowed.

In most human affairs, much depends on specific circumstances and on obscure or long-forgotten conflicts that historians ignored or never bothered to unearth. Nor did military stubbornness always come without reason...


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pp. 397-399
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