- Confederation and Maritime First Nations
WHILE ATTENDING THE 1864 CHARLOTTETOWN CONFERENCE, George Brown penned a letter outlining what he projected as the domains of the new federal and provincial governments. That Brown's exhaustive list makes no mention of First Nations people – and that the papers of all of the other "Fathers of Confederation" are similarly silent – offers a stark reminder of how marginalized were First Nations people, including the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island as well as the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Peskotomuhkati (Passamaquoddy) of New Brunswick on the eve of Confederation.1 Even though it did not occur to the architects of the British North America Act to consult with First Nations people, Section 91(24) of the 1867 legislation, which gave Ottawa jurisdiction over "Indians and lands reserved for Indians," came to profoundly shape their lives. By 1876, the framework of federal Indian policy was in place with the passage of the Indian Act. Defining who was an "Indian," the act gave to Ottawa authority over many specific aspects of First Nations peoples' lives while also extending to federal officials wide discretionary power. By the mid-1870s local federal Indian agencies were in place, and in 1880 a separate federal Indian Affairs bureaucracy – the Department of Indian Affairs – was established.
The histories of Maritime First Nations in the years since Confederation have only just begun to catch up to what has tended to be a more robust scholarship pertaining to the pre-Confederation era.2 The divide between pre- and post-Confederation [End Page 155] Atlantic region scholarship on First Nations has been reinforced by policy-centred approaches that have drawn researchers to separate colonial and post-Confederation archival collections. However, the lived experiences of First Nations people suggest that the dividing line between pre- and post-Confederation that has been sketched by scholars was largely irrelevant to their daily lives. For the Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqiyik of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and, in 1873, for Prince Edward Island's Mi'kmaq, the coming of Confederation did not mark an abrupt shift in their lived experiences. Rather, the decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that spanned Confederation was an era marked by continuity and were what historian Donald Soctomah calls "invisible years."3 The four decades following Confederation, much like the preceding colonial years, was an era in which First Nations people existed on the margins of Maritime society, where they suffered from "turmoil and personal anguish."4 Neglected by a federal government, whose preoccupation with westward expansion meant that Indian Affairs in the "settled east" was not prioritized, the Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqiyik, who had grown quite accustomed to fending for themselves under negligent colonial regimes, continued to live lives rooted, out of both necessity and choice, in Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqiyik cultures. While the early years following Confederation saw the intensification of such issues as reserve squatters and restrictive fish and game laws adversely affect Maritime First Nations, it was not until the second decade of the 20th century, with the arrival of Duncan Campbell Scott at the helm of the DIA, and with the increased interest of non-First Nations Maritimers in the affairs of First Nations people, that the weight of federal policies came to bear more fully upon Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqiyik communities. Only in the 1910s did federal policy become a force that demanded sustained and concerted resistance.5
The westward focus of the new federal government goes a long way to explaining these "invisible years." Since the Fathers of Confederation imagined a Canada from "sea onto sea," the immediate concerns of John A. Macdonald's new government was the westward expansion of the Canadian project – the building of a western railroad and the settling of the west by Anglo-European settlers. The biggest obstacles to this agenda were western First Nations, whose occupation of their [End Page 156] traditional territories stood in the way of rail lines and immigrants. "Clearing the plains" became a top priority of the new federal government, which worked feverishly through the 1870s to negotiate a series of western numbered treaties designed to...