Settlement

Homesteaders_thuThe final force that effected the dismantling of fur trade society and changed the role of Aboriginal and mixed blood women in Western Canada was settlement. In 1869, the HBC sold Rupert's Land to the Canadian government, signifying the decline of the fur trade. This decline was mostly due to a drop in demand for furs on the North American and European markets and it resulted in the closing of many of the forts. The Canadian government began divvying up its newly acquired land, reserving most sections for settlement. It also began signing treaties with the Aboriginal tribes in order to place them on enclosed pieces of land called reserves. A campaign in the 1870s and 1880s was initiated to attract settlers to Western Canada from Eastern Canada, the United States and Europe.

In particular, this campaign was targeted at women - that is white women - as it was soon realized that men greatly outnumbered women. This campaign was a significant change from the fur trade times when white women were discouraged and even sometimes banned from migrating to the West because it was believed that their nature was too delicate for the harshness of the Canadian wilderness and would thus interfere with business. Of course, some white women had ventured out to the West prior to settlement period; however, they were viewed as adventurous exceptions. It was really with the settlement period that white women began to arrive in significant numbers and with their arrival the perceptions and roles of aboriginal and mixed blood women changed most significantly.

As was discussed above, the British middle-class men who were hired as officers by the HBC brought with them Victorian ideals of love and marriage. Most of these ideals centred on the white woman and the qualities that supposedly made her a perfect wife and mother. Most white women did not even fit into this ideal mold; however, with their arrival, the ideal became more strongly enforced in Western Canada and Aboriginal and mixed blood women were increasingly viewed as being outside the ideal. Historians Sylvia Van Kirk and Sarah Carter argue that there is a direct correlation between the arrival of white women and the rise in racism against women of native descent. Derogatory words like "squaw" and others that frequently referred to skin colour were increasingly used to describe Aboriginal women. These terms tended to suggest squalor, promiscuousness, dishonesty and laziness. Also, reports on women in reserves carried out by Indian agents of the new Department of Indian Affairs tended to portray them as being poor housekeepers and bad mothers - all qualities in direct opposition to the perceptions of ideal womanhood.

Indian_woman_thuMuch of this racism came from the women settlers. In a world where a woman's lot in life depended on her success in marriage, the Aboriginal and mixed blood women who had previously been the ideal wife of Western Canada was perceived as a threat. Most white women considered themselves to be morally and racially superior to women of native descent and the fact that they had married men of the highest rank in fur trade society was unacceptable. Through gossip and public accusations, some white women worked to socially alienate Aboriginal and mixed blood women, particularly those who had achieved higher status. However, women were not the only ones who expressed hostility: many high ranking officials in the HBC, like Governor Simpson, worked to abolish native women from "white" society. Also, Van Kirk argues that with the arrival of white women prejudices were awakened in fur traders that had previously remained dormant. In particular, a belief grew that it was necessary to keep white ladies from having contact with Aboriginals, since their delicate nature could easily be corrupted. This reason was yet another that served to motivate the segregation of aboriginal and mixed women from the dominant white middle-class society that was emerging.

Previously, in fur trade society these women were considered the ideal wife. They provided an essential economic link with the Aboriginal tribes, they were skilled labourers in the construction of the supplies necessary for survival in the Canadian wilderness and they were loving wives and mothers in a world that was characterized by its harshness and loneliness. However, changes in the 19th century reversed their role; sexual exploitation and racism served to increasingly alienate them from the new society that was developing in Western Canada.

Sources:

Carter, Sarah. "Categories and Terrains of Exclusion: Constructing the 'Indian Woman' in the Early Settlement Era in Western Canada." Telling Tales. Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.


Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1980.