Throughout most of Canada, the federal government, through the Indian Affairs administration and particularly through the Indian Agents, played a direct and deliberate role in the attempted assimilation of the aboriginal population into the mainstream of Canadian society. In the areas covered by Treaties 6 and 7, this meant transforming hunters into farmers In the Treaty 8 area, as seen in the Athabaska Indian Agency, the Indian Agents played a very different role. The agents there used whatever influence they had to help the Cree and Chipewyan people to maintain their hunting and trapping-based lifestyle as long as possible. Where earlier, southern agents had tried to force the people in their agencies to change their lifestyles, the agents of Fort Chipewyan and area never established strong control over the lives of their “wards”. Instead, they fought a rear-guard and ultimately doomed battle to maintain the Native people’s ways in the face of a variety of outside forces. This paper examines, in brief, the work of the Indian Agents of the Athabaska Agency from 1911 to 1967.
Indian Agents in Canada were the Indian Affairs department’s “men on the spot” in aboriginal communities until the late 1960s. They were the primary points of connection between status Indians and the federal government. Their job had two major facets; to act as advocates for the Indians with the federal government and other outside forces, and to interpret and enforce the government’s Indian policies, including the assimilation of native people into the mainstream of Canadian society. Indian Commissioner David Laird described the Indian Agent’s position and importance in 1876, thus:
…in each superintendency there shall be two or more resident local Agents who, besides paying the Indians their annuities and distributing the annual presents, may it is hoped be otherwise useful in instructing the Indians in farming and aiding and encouraging them in their efforts to help themselves. The moral and industrial influence which such local Agents, if carefully selected, may exercise on the Bands among whom they reside it is difficult to over-estimate.(1)
For Indian Agents in the southern parts of the Prairie provinces in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of this one, the government’s assimilationist policies formed the primary focus of their position. The Indian Agents were to use the many sources of influence at their disposal to encourage their charges toward “civilization”. The Agents controlled food rations, medical care and band funds; they presided over Chief and Council; and any travel off-reserve had to be approved by the agent. All of this made the agent the most powerful person in the community. Using these powers, Indian Agents on the Prairies established themselves as “patrons” in authority over their aboriginal “clients”. Those clients who wanted or needed the favour of the patron would have to behave as the patron saw fit. Anyone who needed food rations or wanted to visit relatives on another reserve would have to stay away from bars or pool-halls. If an able-bodied man wanted food from the agent he would have to show that he was willing to work, preferably on the Reserve farm. In this way, the government used the Indian Agents to encourage European, agrarian and Christian values and generally guide the Status Indians toward assimilation.(2)
In the Treaty 8 area and other northern regions, things were not quite the same. The changes that did take place in the lives of northern aboriginals between 1899 and the mid-1960s had more to do with outside forces and the Indian Agents’ failure to protect the Aboriginal people from them than from any active assimilationist plan on the government’s part. Through these years, the Indian Agents of the Athabaska Agency did not try to force the local Cree and Chipewyan people to change their ways of life. Rather, they supported the fur-trade-based bush lifestyle, putting most of their efforts into helping the trappers deal with a growing array of officials, regulations and external factors that were infringing on their promised freedom to hunt and trap as they always had. Though powerless to affect the larger issues such as international treaties, Alberta provincial regulations and world fur markets, the agents did have some success in helping their “wards” deal with other local situations.
Until the Second World War, the agents of the Athabaska (and the earlier Ft. Smith) Indian Agency neither tried to change the Native peoples’ way of life nor established “patron-client” relationships with the Status Indians of the agency. For the first few Indian Agents in the Fort Chipewyan area, this was due partly to Indian Affairs policy (or lack thereof) and partly to their own situations. The time from the signing of Treaty 8 until the early 1940s was a period in which the federal government had little interest in the Indians of the sub-Arctic. The land of northeastern Alberta was not wanted for agricultural settlement or any other significant use. As well, by the time that Treaty 8 was signed, the effectiveness of the Reserve system was already in question. Moreover, there was no employment to offer to those who had grown up as trappers and hunters. As a result there was no push from Ottawa to change the Cree and Chipewyan hunters and trappers of the Fort Chipewyan area into anything else. Rather, the federal government’s policy focussed clearly on helping Native people remain independent of government support. One circular sent to Indian Agents in 1932 spelled this out quite clearly:
Relief issues are only for old, sick or destitute or those who, through misfortune, are unable to provide for themselves… the measure of your usefulness to the Department depends largely on the success you have in making your Indians self-supporting.(3)
This view was reinforced the following year in the Department of Indian Affairs’ “General Instructions to Indian Agents in Canada”: “It may be stated, as a first principle, that it is the policy of the Department to promote self-support among the Indians and not to provide gratuitous assistance to those Indians who can provide for themselves”.(4) In the sub-arctic context, this meant providing support for the fur trade and the bush-based way of life that went with it.
The first agents for what would become the Athabasca Agency, A.J. Bell (1911-15) of whom there is not much recorded and his successor Gerald Card (1915-32), a former Anglican Minister, were based in Fort Smith. They were responsible for several communities, spread over a large area; from Fort McMurray in the South to Fort Smith in the North, including what is now Wood Buffalo National Park and the shores of Lake Athabasca. They served this area at a time when people travelled by boat in the summer and dog sleigh in the winter, with occasional emergency flights by the later years of Card’s career. These agents also had a number of other responsibilities. Card, in addition to his agency duties, was an agent of the Canadian National Parks Branch; Mining Recorder for the Mining, Lands and Yukon Branch; Recorder of Vital Statistics; Coroner; Justice of the Peace and Issuer of Marriage Licenses.(5)
All of this increased the agents’ potential power but reduced their contact with most of the people living in the agency area. Even though they spent much of their time travelling, they could not visit every community in the agency very often. Most Cree and Chipewyan people around Fort Chipewyan at the time probably never met the Indian Agent, except perhaps when he handed them their annual five dollars. Card and his successors certainly did not have time to spend checking to see which men from the agency were spending their time in the pool hall, as other agents elsewhere did.(6)
The next three Athabasca Indian Agents, Drs. H..W. Lewis (1933-37), P.W. Head (1937-41) and John Melling (1941-43), all based at Fort Chipewyan, were doctors first and agents second. The hiring of doctors as Indian Agents was a fairly common practice, particularly in the North, up until the 1940s. One of the reasons can be seen in simple economics. In 1931-32, Gerald Card received a salary of $2,040.00 and Medical Superintendent Lewis Received $3,120.00, totalling $5,160.00 for the two positions. In 1936-37, Dr. Lewis received $3,159.00 as Medical Superintendent and just $570.00 for his part-time post as Indian Agent. Total salary: $3729, or $1,431 less than the two separate people had cost.(7)
The respective rates of pay illustrate the relative importance of the two aspects of the doctor/agents jobs. The agency journals show that all of the doctor/agents spent most of their time seeing to the health of the local population rather than to administrative matters. Typical journal entries include “visiting sick” and: “Several Indians in for Med. Treatment.” Perhaps more telling was Dr. Melling’s entry on February 8, 1942: “No medical work whatever today – first such day since my arrival.”(8) He had arrived on December 11, 1941. With a division of work like this, it is not surprising that the doctor/agents’ jobs did not establish controlling, patron-client relationships in the Athabaska Agency.
Without taking on the role of patrons, and without working to assimilate the local population the early Indian Agents of the Athabaska Agency appear to have put much of their effort into an attempt to help the Cree and Chipewyan people maintain their bush-based, hunting and trapping way of life. In this, the Agents had, at best, mixed success. They often helped the Status Indians deal with local authorities but, in the long run, they were unable to protect them from the major factors that impacted on the fur trade and on the freedom to hunt and trap as before that had been promised in Treaty 8. Those factors included federal and provincial game laws and competition from outside trappers.
The Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1917 provides a good example of how the Agents of the day operated within the parameters of their job. This Act, resulting from a treaty with the United States, made it illegal to hunt fowl that migrated over international boundaries. Agent Card could not change the law but, given his various responsibilities, he did have some power over its enforcement, much to the annoyance of other authorities. One Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch official complained to his director:
Regarding the Indian Agent, Mr. Card, giving the Indians permission to kill game in and out of season when hungry, he has consistently done this for the past few years and adopts a very antagonistic attitude towards the police in general whenever we are concerned with any Indian. It is utterly impossible to enforce our game regulations under such conditions.(9)
While the Agents could influence the local enforcement of laws they could not change the laws themselves. More than once, provincial officials in Alberta banned the hunting of beaver. This was particularly hard on northern native people in 1928 when they were already suffering from an influenza epidemic but Alberta refused to allow Indians any hunting and trapping privileges that it would not grant to the non-Native population. According to the provincial government, the needs of the Status Indians were the responsibility of Ottawa, not Edmonton.(10)
From the signing of Treaty 8 through the 1930s, the biggest threat to the Indian trappers’ way of life came from a series of migrations of white trappers from the south. The latest wave came escaping the ravages of the Great Depression. They came with planes that allowed them to cover more territory than the resident trappers could. They also came with no interest in the long-term viability of the fur trade; they wanted to make as much money as possible, then head back down south. As a result, they over-hunted their legal traplines in addition to trespassing on others’ lines, sometimes stealing from Natives’ traps or bullying Native trappers off of their own lines. All of this activity put immense pressure on animal populations that had natural fluctuations as well. The beaver and muskrat populations never did recover fully from the cyclical lows of the mid-1930s, made worse by over-trapping.
Through the Indian Agents, missionaries and direct appeals to Ottawa, the Status Indian trappers of the region asked repeatedly for a Native hunting and trapping preserve in northeastern Alberta. Card and the doctors passed their requests onto the Department regularly. This idea had the support of the Indian Agents, missionaries and even the Department of Indian Affairs.(11) The government of Alberta, however, consistently refused to discriminate against non-Status trappers and never agreed to an Indian-only preserve. At this time, the federal government was not inclined to put the interests of aboriginal trappers ahead of federal-provincial relations. Chipewyan Chief Jonas Laviolette complained about the Indian Agents’ lack of action in this situation but, in all fairness, there was little that the Agents could do when the federal government was unwilling to put pressure on Alberta.(12) In fact, the Department of Indian Affairs was not likely to offer much help to anyone in the 1930s and 40s: As Superintendent Jack Pickersgill said in 1956, “… the pre-1939 Canadian policy regarding Indians consisted of kindly isolating them within a structure of forgetfulness.”(13) Even had the Branch been inclined to act, Alberta MLA Jim Cornwall’s description of the Branch in 1937 suggests that they may not have been able to:
The whole Indian Department is in a state of indecision. They do not appear to have any plan of action worked out… It would take them some time to come to any decision, if they ever do… The Indian Department is so thoroughly confused and without a policy.(14)
When Dr. Melling left Fort Chipewyan in 1943, the Cree and Chipewyan people of the region did not enjoy the freedom that they had a generation previously but they did live bush-based lives that their grandparents would have recognized. However, the war years saw the beginning of more dramatic changes in the lives of the people of the Fort Chipewyan region. The war-time need for northern raw materials, such as uranium from the north shore of Lake Athabasca, and the development of northern infrastructure such as the Alaska and Canol Highways opened Canadian eyes to the potential of northern resource exploitation. This activity also inflated the prices of southern commercial products shipped to the North. All of this happened at the same time that the market for furs crashed, putting the bush-based, fur-trade economy in peril. As a result, the Treaty 8 area in the post-war years was, in many ways, not unlike the Treaty 6 and 7 areas in the 1870s and 80s. The animal-based economy was disappearing at a time when the federal government and other Euro-Canadian interests were taking an active interest in the development of the region. Where the government tried to turn Plains hunters into farmers, they now had an interest in turning woodland trappers into a “northern proletariat”, replacing their fur trade earnings with paid labour.(15)
Into this scenario stepped Jack Stewart, a new Indian Agent for the Athabasca Agency. A former trapper, fur trader and Wood Buffalo Park Warden, Stewart had a Metis wife from Fort Vermillion and he spoke fluent Cree. Jack Stewart fit the description of an Indian Agent provided to the House of Commons in 1938 by then Superintendent General for Indian Affairs, T.A. Crerar:
…one of the most important cogs in the wheel of Indian Administration is the Indian Agent… some of the necessary, almost indispensable qualities that he needs are firmness, sympathy and understanding, and a little bit of missionary spirit. He must win the confidence of the people he is looking after; for in many ways they are like children.(16)
Unlike his predecessors in Fort Chipewyan, Jack Stewart did try to take on the role of a patron with his Cree and Chipewyan clients. He was a full-time Indian Agent (Superintendent from 1947 on). His ability to speak Cree gave him a level of credibility with the local people that no other Agents had. And he did use his control over money, food and other aid and his role as employment counsellor to persuade people to behave as he approved. The difference between Jack Stewart and other agents who developed patron-client relationships lies in how he used the power of his patronage. Rather than force assimilation on his clients, Stewart pushed them to stay in the bush where they might retain as much economic independence as possible.
Following the northern example set by earlier agents, Stewart adapted federal policy to suit the local situation. As seen above, Agent Card had taken local situations into account when enforcing game laws and other regulations. Likewise, Jack Stewart used his isolation from Ottawa to adapt federal rules to the local situation. Family Allowances provide one such example. It has been said that Family Allowance was used as a tool to bring families into town and off the trapline as part of the creation of a northern proletariat. Ottawa’s rules stated that in order for parents to receive the “baby bonus” for a child, that child had to be in school. With their children in school, families were more likely to stay in town to be near them. Jack Stewart did not want people to move to town. He knew that there was not enough wage labour available to support the local population and that, even with prices dropping, the fur trade was still the best income source available. As a result, he interpreted the rules to support trapping. As the official in charge of determining who was eligible for Family Allowance, Stewart said that as long as one child was in school, the family could receive benefits for all of their children including those who were in the “bush”.(17)
This is not to say that Stewart did not support education, rather that he acted in what he thought was the most practical manner. Stewart spent a fair bit of time each September encouraging families to put their children in the Holy Angels Residential School. Journal entries such as this from September 1948 were common: “Still many pupils not yet returned but have got the word out to most of the parents now.”(18) Once again though, his motives were practical rather than assimilationist. Father Lucien Casterman, OMI, aptly described the agent’s support for the school when he wrote that Stewart had the “twofold purpose of seeing (the children) progressing in their education and at the same time being well-fed and under constant medical supervision.”(19) With at least one child cared for in school, a family was less likely to need relief aid from Indian Affairs.
At a time when the government was supposedly trying to create a “northern proletariat,” Jack Stewart tried to keep people on the traplines. When the government openly encouraged Status Indians to become enfranchised, trading their Indian status for Canadian citizenship, Jack Stewart persuaded would-be citizens to keep their status. He did not do this to preserve native culture. He did it to preserve Native independence. Jack Stewart believed in personal self-sufficiency and he had his instructions which emphasized the importance of “making your Indians self-supporting”. While he encouraged the people in his agency to adopt a “Protestant work ethic” it was not in order to assimilate them but to keep them from depending on him for support.
To keep his charges from depending on him, Jack Stewart used a combination of cajoling, relief support and advocacy to keep them on the traplines. Stewart’s agency journals are full of entries like the one from March 1958 which reads: “Our weather is ideal for rat hunting, I got after some hunters about not being out hunting, some had wonderful excuses.”(20) Other entries describe the material aid that he gave to hunters. From October 1954: “We are being forced to issue some emergency rations to families moving out to the bush so that they will have something to keep them until they have killed some fur.”(21) Stewart began advocating for Indian trappers early in his career. In December 1944, he wrote:
A report came in today of an old Indian being paid a very small price for 7 pelts by a HBCo. Post Manager in Wood Buffalo Park. I spoke with the HBCo. Post Manager here and he promised to look into the matter and if the fur was worth more he would see that the Indian was paid the difference. It looked very much like a good-natured Indian being taken advantage of.(22)
Stewart followed the same pattern of persuasion, support and advocacy when it came to wage labour in fisheries or forestry. June 1949 found him “Still trying to round up fishermen but they have a multitude of excuses.”(23) Those who took the jobs when available were rewarded. Former Cree Chief Albert Gladu remembered Jack Stewart as being very helpful to him and his family in times of illness. He attributed this help to the fact that he (Albert) worked hard to support his family, taking on whatever jobs were available.(24) Agent Stewart made sure that local employers treated the Native workers fairly. In July 1946, Stewart wrote: “Had to wire McInnes (Fish) Products to have Indians’ fishing accounts in by next mail. They had promised to have cheques within a week and it is now three weeks.”(25) When sawmills operated in Wood Buffalo Park, the Agent took treaty money to the men at the mill so they wouldn’t lose any working days to come back to town for five dollars. This of course, ignores the historical social gathering aspect of treaty time but, once again, practicality and self-support were the agent’s priorities. For Jack Stewart, the type of work that people did was not as important as the fact that they worked, and did not depend on his “good offices” for their support.
Indian Agent Stewart wielded a great deal of political power in Fort Chipewyan, in spite of the new direction of federal policy. The new Indian Act of 1951 brought some changes to Ottawa’s Indian policies. Among other things, it encouraged Band councils to take over more of their own administration. This was not about to happen in Fort Chipewyan. Jack Stewart controlled political life in the agency. While former Chiefs Albert Gladu and Fred Marcel spoke well of Stewart, saying that he cooperated well with the Chiefs and Councils, he did so where and when he saw fit. For example, in one 1953 meeting with Chipewyan band members, Stewart did allow them to set their own muskrat quotas on the reserve.(26) Three years later, however, when the Band asked for annual allowances that they could distribute rather than having people go to the Agent for relief, he did not give over that power.(27) In addition, the agent held a strong position of influence over the Native leaders such as Cree Chief Albert Gladu and Chipewyan Chief Fred Marcel. As noted above, Gladu received much of his work through the agent and Marcel worked directly for the agent, piloting the Agency boat.(28)
Still, for all of the power that Jack Stewart wielded in his agency and for all of his efforts to keep people independent and on the trapline, he was not truly successful as an agent or as a patron. As an agent, he failed, like the others, to protect the people from the collapse of the fur trade and the other forces that changed their way of life. He also failed to obtain a Reserve for the Cree Band, just as others had failed to secure a trapping preserve. As a patron, Stewart was unable to prevent the large-scale migration of people from the bush into Fort Chipewyan.
The people of the Fort Chipewyan area had never surrendered their sovereignty to any of the authority figures in the region; not the Hudson’s Bay Company, not the Church, not the earlier agents and not Jack Stewart. Between the early 1950s and the mid-60s large numbers of hunters and trappers moved from the bush into Fort Chipewyan. At first, widows moved to town to receive support from the agency so they would not have to remarry. They were joined by tuberculosis patients who returned to Fort Chipewyan from the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton. Then, low fur prices and low animal populations drove trappers from the fur trade toward wage labour in town. Many also moved to town to be close to their children who were in school.(29) Stewart’s efforts to stem this tide are noted in his journals. For example, in July 1954 he remarked that, “Quite a few have been unable to procure work and I have been after them to move out of the village back to their camps where there is good fishing.”(30) His continued efforts proved unsuccessful in the face of widespread social change.
As Stewart feared, there was not enough wage labour to support the local population. By the mid-1960s the Cree and Chipewyan hunters and trappers had become part of what has been called a “permanently unemployed, underclass in Canadian Society”, dependent to a large degree on aid provided by the Indian Agent.(31) Once again, the agent had failed to protect his “wards” from the forces threatening their way of life. And, once again, the local leaders looked beyond the Indian agent for help. In May, 1963, a group wrote to Alberta Premier Ernest Manning asking him to send them an “organizer” to teach the community how to move ahead because, “… we have never been taught to organize so that we, through our learning, can do these things we mentioned by ourselves.”(32) In 1966, Father Joseph Dauvet commented that, “L’agence Indienne est en regression tres nette d’influence.”(33) Even more telling though, was the earlier letter from Chiefs John Cowie and Fred Marcel to the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. “We need help and we need it badly” they wrote, “Where is it to come from? Can you send us a leader?”(34)
In 1967, the Athabaska Indian Agency was combined with that of St. Paul and Jack Stewart left Fort Chipewyan. Two years later, the federal government ended the system of agents and agencies. For the Cree and Chipewyan people of Fort Chipewyan, this system had never fully protected them from the market and broad social forces that would wreak havoc with their lives. Still, as it operated locally, it allowed them to maintain more control over their own lives, for a longer period, than it had for First Nations on the southern Prairies. This may help to explain why the Mikesew Cree First Nation of Fort Chipewyan, as they are now known, was one of the first Aboriginal groups in Alberta to apply for self-government.
3. A.S. Williams to all Agents, September 26, 1932, quoted in Taylor, J.L., Canadian Indian Policy During the Inter-War Period, 1918-39 (Ottawa, Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. 1984), p.107.
15. Abele, Frances, “Canadian Contradictions: Forty Years of Northern Political Development” in Ken Coates and William Morrison, Eds., Interpreting Canada’s North: Selected Readings (Copp Clark Pitman Ltd., 1979), p.314.