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This week Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered the opening testimony at a congressional hearing on H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study slave reparations in the United States. If you have never had the pleasure of reading Coates, then I would urge you to read his 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations” published in the Atlantic or his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me. His writing is a gift to our world, and I assure you, reading his work is a well spent investment of your time.
Responding to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who stated that Americans should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since no one currently alive is responsible, Coates concisely articulated the economic and political inheritance of slavery that was cultivated through torture, rape and child trafficking. He revealed how the logic of enslavement and white supremacy extends well into the lifetime of McConnell and every other U.S. citizen living today.
“What this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s ‘something’: it was 150 years ago. And it was right now.”
Like our southern neighbor, Canada is immersed in reconciling the economic and political inheritance of our own something. Land theft and Indigenous genocide created in perpetuity a legacy which I, as a descendent of white settlers, benefit from. The sentiment expressed by McConnell that I cannot be held liable for something from the past is alive and well in Canada. As our country grapples with questions of so-called reconciliation, I have observed the tendency of those who espouse the Canadian version of McConnell’s widely held sentiment to position racial injustice, particularly the violence directed at Indigenous women, firmly in the historic past.
When the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women released its findings this month, particularly the finding of current day genocide, the push back was swift and severe. Canadian mythology claims a peaceful and orderly society and the dismissal of genocide as perpetrated through ongoing violence against Indigenous women, is predicated upon a carefully constructed ignorance of our history and its legacy in our current moment in time.
Historian Sarah Carter has documented the intensive colonization of western Canada, arguing that at the center of these efforts was the control of sexuality. Embodied in Canadian national identity is the idealized monogamous marriage wherein “ideas about sexuality and morality, particularly the restriction of sexual intimacy to one man and one woman who were married for life” was the corner stone of intensive colonization efforts in the late nineteenth century.
Coinciding with the emerging field of anthropology that linked non-monogamy with savagery and barbarianism, efforts to “civilize” western Canada became fundamentally attached to an idealized monogamous model of marriage wherein homesteads were allocated to male heads of household who would ideally have submissive, yet industrious wives, and multiple children. However, western Canada “posed particular challenges to the monogamous model in the late nineteenth century, with its diverse Aboriginal population, lengthy tradition of ‘fur trade’ marriages, preponderance of singe white males [… and] the arrival of newcomers like the Mormons, Doukhobors and Quakers.”
Aboriginal marital practices in western Canada included monogamy, polygamy, and same-sex marriage with divorce easily obtained and remarriage expected. Carter’s historical analysis documents the erosion of alternative marital practices in western Canada through government policy, legislation, surveillance, migration and Christian social mores. Of particular interest are the ways in which Aboriginal women were simultaneously considered ‘victims’ of Indigenous marriage customs, and ‘whores’ or ‘prostitutes’ in need of rescue and deliverance by moral crusaders, missionaries, governing agents, and politicians. The control and policing of Indigenous women’s sexuality performed in the name of ‘protection’ resulted in a staggering loss of culture and human life.
Carter argues that ‘marriage’ was part of the national agenda for Canadian identity in the late nineteenth century as a result of two dominant factors: widespread anxiety about “the state of marriage, family and home: all perceived to be the cornerstone of social order” interwoven with a resistance to “lose and lax marriage and divorce laws of the United States. Resulting policies ensured that Canadian women, unlike their American counterparts, were excluded from homesteading rights, and divorce was near impossible to obtain—even in cases of desertion. These policies reinforced the ideological belief in monogamy, forcing women into lifelong marriages with and financial dependence upon men. As Carter explains, “social stability, at the heart of which were gender roles that were key to this model of marriage, was critical to economic development.”
These dominant beliefs, engrained in Canadian policy intersected the lives of Aboriginal women in severe and disproportionate ways. Long enduring Aboriginal kinship systems were complex and varied between bands, but overall ‘marriage’ was an important component of Aboriginal life, albeit with much more flexibility. Marriages were not necessarily life-long commitments and could be entered into and out of with much flexibility. Likewise, marriage configurations varied in numeracy, and polygamist unions were not uncommon. Marriage was entered into with the exchange of gifts between two families, and the joint residency of the husband and wife. The ease by which an unhappy wife (or husband) could exit a marriage through the act of moving back with her parents or other kin, provided a semblance of stability and personal autonomy that mandatory life-long partnership could not. If a woman was unhappy or mistreated in her marriage, or if she felt that her partner was lazy, or unable to provide, she was free to leave. Divorced women took their property with them, and divorced persons were free to remarry.
Enshrined in Canadian jurisprudence and enacted in the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) policy until the late 1800’s was recognition of the marital customs of Indigenous kinship systems, including marital arrangements. However, as mounting pressure to colonize western Canada became an economic and political priority in the later part of the nineteenth century, disruptive changes to Indigenous marital customs ensued. The federal government’s intervention into Aboriginal sexuality and marital practices, specifically the leveraging of economic power to root out the practice of Indigenous polygamy, is specifically linked to the arrival of (white) Mormon polygamists to Southern Alberta, and the coalescing threat of “barbaric” non-monogamy posed to the Christian nation.
Two stringent modifications that disproportionally disadvantaged and disempowered Aboriginal women were enacted— the disallowance of both divorce and polygamy. These changes in conjunction with the Indian Act that inscribed Aboriginal lineage exclusively through patriarchal lines, and the emergence of residential schools that violently separated children from their parents and kinship groups, tragically coalesced in a manner that stripped Indigenous women of protective and empowering customs.
Investigating the lineage of Canada’s grafting of Christianity to Aboriginal marriage, Carter points to the 1887 Report of a Committee of the Privy Council, written as a response to social purity groups who were mobilizing politically against non-marital and non-reproductive sexuality, claiming widespread immorality in the Canadian west, with specific allegations of the sale of Indian girls to white men. Carter argues that although the original intent of missionaries was to draw attention to the treatment of Aboriginal women, the result “was to entrench the representation of Aboriginal woman as immoral harlots and prostitutes who were a dangerous threat to the emerging settlements.”
The same year, building upon the findings of this report, the Department of Justice advised the DIA that Aboriginal marriages were to be considered as legally valid. However, this consideration was only binding on Aboriginal marriages that conformed to Euro-North American definitions of marriage “as the union of one man and one woman for life.” In other words, the Canadian government would recognize Indigenous marriage, but it would not recognize Indigenous divorce, nor would it recognize marriages beyond the numeric dyad. As Carter argues,
The policy was intended to eradicate non-marital, non-reproductive sexuality, particularly among Aboriginal women [… yet the policy] served to keep women under the control of their husbands, and they were now only to have one husband. The problem of women’s numerous partners, perceived to be at the heart of the 1886 ‘traffic in Indian girls’ outcry, was thus solved. As Aboriginal divorce and remarriage was not to be recognized as valid, the control of husbands was enhanced, and the alleged promiscuity of Aboriginal women, their freedom to form new relationships, was significantly diminished. […] The policy would assist to impose Euro-Canadian gender roles of submissive and subordinate wives under the control of their more powerful husbands.
The federal government’s provisions to recognize the Aboriginal marriage only so much as it conformed to Euro-centric notions of marriage disadvantaged Aboriginal women and the DIA became an agency of surveillance empowered to withhold financial entitlements.
The linkage of sexuality (and adherence to monogamous ideals) to financial entitlements decodes the threads of Christian patriarchy woven into the tapestry of the Canadian nation. Women’s monetary entitlements were given to their husbands, and men with multiple wives, or men who had divorced prior wives through traditional customs, could be denied payment.
The federal government’s invocation of such policies demonstrates a reckless disregard for the wellbeing of Indigenous women. In the name of protecting Aboriginal women against the so-called harms of polygamy, divorce and desertion, the federal government used women as financial leverage—they were expendable pawns in a cultural crusade against Indigenous populations and customs.
As Carter states, “colonial intervention in the marital, domestic affairs of Indigenous people [… was] performed generally with the professed goal of enhancing the status of women, although these women were seldom consulted. Indeed, they were manipulated as a political and rhetorical strategy, and an enhanced independence for Indigenous women was ultimately seen as undesirable in many colonial locales.”
The emergence of residential schools coinciding with government laws and policies aimed at regulating sexuality and imposing Christian monogamy onto Indigenous populations in the late nineteenth century further disenfranchised the autonomy of Indigenous women. In an effort to keep girls out of residential schools, parents promised or betrothed their children in marriage at an early age.
Early betrothal was an act of resistance to residential schools, yet DIA agents hypocritically justified the forced removal of young women and children from their polygamist marriages and/or homes with relocation to residential schools without consultation or permission from the very women/children they were intending to liberate. Efforts to eliminate polygamy in western Canada included not only the withholding of financial entitlements to second wives, but also their physical relocation (if they were young) or the physical relocation of their children to residential schools by virtue of compulsory attendance legislation.
The indignity and injustice of sexual control did not end with the removal of children from their families to residential schools. Indian agents, missionaries and school principals perpetuated control of the sexual lives of Indigenous men and women by arranging suitable marriages, and subsequently disallowing non-suitable marriages among graduates of residential schools. Carter cites stories of mass weddings arranged by residential school officials for their Indigenous graduates with the hopes of facilitating Euro-Canadian gender roles. Match-making efforts sought to pair ‘civilized’ Indigenous men with appropriately submissive Indigenous women who would industriously homestead according to the Euro-centric gender roles.
Additionally, agents of the DIA employed another tool of sexual control and surveillance of Indigenous sexuality with the authority to determine the morality of widowed Indigenous women deeming them worthy (or unworthy) of inheritance and entitlement payments. A woman could not inherit the property of her deceased spouse unless she was a “woman of good moral character.” The definition of moral character was somewhat ambiguous, and DIA officials were granted the power of discretion (a situation rife with abuse) to make judgments regarding a woman’s morality.
Appropriate expressions of sexuality were at the heart of moral assessments and sexual relations with any man other than a woman’s first husband was considered immoral putting inheritance rights and annuity payments at risk. This meant that women who married or divorced according to Aboriginal custom, including remarriages to Aboriginal men, were stripped of much of their rights and children from these unions were legally illegitimate receiving neither a guarantee of band membership nor inheritance rights.
Through the imposition and policing of life-long monogamy (through marriage), the federal government enacted destructive policies that stripped away the financial entitlements of Indigenous women, violently relocated children to residential schools, and dismantled traditional gender and kin relationships that challenged western cultural assumptions of patriarchy. Recognizing Aboriginal marriage (as long as it conformed to Christian monogamy) while denying Aboriginal divorce created a confusing conundrum of policies and practices that disempowered Indigenous women.
Monogamy, as a tool of colonization in western Canada, justified the surveillance and policing of Indigenous sexuality, particularly female sexuality. The colonial legacy of using Indigenous women to facilitate Indigenous erasure in the process of land theft shares a common logic of white supremacy and enslavement with our American neighbors. In a larger conversation about reparation and reconciliation Canada would do well to considered the question posed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the something of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”
- Carter, Sarah. 2008. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press at 25. ↑
- Ibid at 28. ↑
- Ibid at 59. ↑
- Ibid at 5. ↑
- Ibid at 4. ↑
- Ibid at 56. ↑
- Ibid at 59. ↑
- Carter questions the universal application of the term ‘marriage’ suggesting that some scholars argue that terms such as ‘marriage,’ ‘husband,’ ‘wife,’ and ‘divorce’ are colonial impositions. However, Carter believes that the words are useful for describing and inscribing meaning to Indigenous relationships. Ibid at 125. ↑
- Ibid at 111. ↑
- Ibid at 112. ↑
- Ibid at 204. ↑
- Ibid at 149 and 151. ↑
- Ibid at 153. ↑
- Ibid at 163. ↑
- Ibid at 167. ↑
- Ibid at 174-175. ↑
- Ibid at 200. ↑
- Ibid at 210. ↑
- Ibid at 228. ↑
- Ibid at 235. ↑
- Ibid at 240. ↑
- Ibid at 243. ↑
- Ibid at 221. ↑