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Indigenous Law Bulletin

Indigenous Law Bulletin
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Jull, Peter --- "Book Review - Losing the Plot, Rewriting the Plot - Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian - White Relations in Canada" [2001] IndigLawB 6; (2001) 5(5) Indigenous Law Bulletin 25

Book Review:

Losing the Plot, Rewriting the Plot

Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada

by J.R. Miller
3rd ed, University of Toronto Press
CAD$29.95, 481pp, index, notes

Reviewed by Peter Jull

This revised, expanded, and comprehensive history of indigenous-white relations in Canada is full of cautionary tales and insights. It should also clear up misinformation on international comparisons. For instance, the notion that the law constitutes the basis for Canada’s relatively recent policy achievements is demonstrably wrong. Rather, it was after the end of World War II that Australia and Canada (and other countries) attempted a new start, encouraged by United Nations membership, experience in remote indigenous territories during wartime and broadening educational opportunities for indigenous and non-indigenous citizens. Both countries had a long and stifling policy tradition to live down.

Miller’s clear narrative makes the book accessible to Australians whether they have a rough sketch of Canada’s regions and place-names or not. Beginning with the modern era of European contact, cira 1500 AD, Miller describes how ‘Europeans came to Canada for fish, fur, exploration, and evangelization.’ Things went well enough in all those pursuits because the whites needed indigenous cooperation. Later, the Indian nations proved invaluable allies in war as first France and Britain and then British Canada (including French, British, and Indians) and the USA, fought for control of the continent, its fur trade routes, and the territories of its Indian allies. ‘Canada’, very much the underdog against the much larger USA, would not exist today without the Indians and their leaders such as Joseph Brant and Tecumseh.

The last of these wars ended in 1815, with the Americans quick to settle when they saw the Duke of Wellington’s army and the late Lord Nelson’s navy at loose ends after dealing with Napoleon. From that time, authority in Indian matters passed from military leaders who respected their Indian allies or enemies to civil authorities eager to encourage white settlement and clear the Indian ‘nuisance’ off the land. Since the second edition, Miller has researched Indian schooling, resulting in his much acclaimed book of 1996, Shingwauk's vision : a history of native residential schools. That research has given him an even sharper edge for his account from 1815 to the 1960s, the long and awful time in Indian history whose effects are all too much with us today. Government officials cut back Indian lands, cut down budgets and were as coercive as necessary to displace the Indians, while chiefs usually tried to stick to their promises of goodwill until, too late, they saw that the White Man would not stick to his. Laws were passed and enforced to prevent Indians from cooperating with each other or pursuing injustices or claims. Again, the appearance of Canada’s past laws and their reality were very different. As is clear throughout Skyscrapers, social attitudes and contexts more than fine words in law are the key determinants in indigenous policy, with the law and mainstream political systems a helpful adjunct when times are right.

The discussion of Canada’s white incorporation and settlement of the Plains or Prairies, the two rebellions of 1869 and 1885 and how the Canadian situation was relatively happier than the indigenous-white bloodshed and war going on across the nearby border with the US is interesting and thought-provoking. If Ned Kelly is Australia’s historical charismatic figure, Louis Riel, the Métis leader of those rebellions is Canada’s, with the sound and fury surrounding him and the many attempts by all sides to claim him, honour him, or disdain him continuing to generate controversy.

Miller has no illusions about the depth of problems facing indigenous peoples or the shallowness of non-indigenous sympathy and understanding. The difference between Canada and other countries in recent decades has been more government recognition, policy movement, negotiated reform, and resulting hope in indigenous communities. Whether change can keep up with revived indigenous expectations and demands remains unclear, especially in indigenous urban ghettos. Both countries have learned that any success requires that indigenous peoples ‘own the process’. Going back is not an option in Canada, nor in Australia.

Peter Jull is Adjunct Associate Professor, Government, University of Queensland, and a former adviser to Canadian indigenous political organisations.

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