Manitoba History: Review: Olive P. Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times

by Frieda Esau Klippenstein
Canadian Parks Service, Calgary

Number 25, Spring 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Olive P. Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 590 pp., illus., maps, 1992. ISBN 0-7710-2800-8.

In Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Olive Dickason alludes to and disparages the popular idea that Canada does not have much history. She points out that history did not begin with the relatively short occupation of literate, record-keeping European colonizers. In fact, “Profound large-scale social and cultural changes had been under way long before the arrival of the Europeans;” (102) and “New World prehistory was as filled with significant developments as that of the Old World in the fascinating story of man’s cultural evolution” (62). Yet Dickason’s text differs from previous writings more in point of view than in sources. In the acknowledgements and introduction, she identifies as her sources an impressive list of libraries, archives, museums, conferences and individuals, clearly placing her work in the mainstream of academic scholarship, and a largely traditional historical investigation in methodology, format and style.

Dickason comments on the problems of evaluating and interpreting the surviving written sources, problems which, in true historian style, she is willing to deal with. In general, however, she does not tackle the question of how Native oral tradition could have contributed to the picture she is attempting to reconstruct. Her explanation is clear, albeit somewhat perfunctory: “Many Indians believe this is the land of their origin, and their myths, with their metaphoric descriptions of the genesis of humans and the present world, are many and varied; their different perceptions of time and nature place these tales at another level of reality than of this work” (21).

In fairness, however, Dickason’s omission is forgivable in light of her willingness to indicate that she is undertaking a task within the conventions of her discipline, and in light of the fact that what she has undertaken is indeed itself monumental. Under one cover she presents the history of Canada’s First Nations in chronological survey form from ice age migrations to the constitutional crisis of the early 1990s. In the first four chapters, she outlines present academic knowledge of pre-contact history including the theories of the first human occupation of the Americas, the development of agriculture and the rise of city-states. She adeptly leads us through the prominent debates and clearly explains the relevant principles drawn from archaeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology. While Dickason calls this “a history of founding peoples from earliest times,” this is largely a history of Native/European relations in Canada. With lucid prose in the remaining twenty-three chapters she guides the reader through the centuries, from the accounts of first contacts between old and new world peoples, to the colonial wars, the fur trade, treaty making, settlement, Confederation, the Indian Act and the present “rocky road to self government”. One hundred pages of notes and an extensive bibliography make this a useful reference work.

A central theme of the book is that the Amerindians and Inuit are in the truest sense Canada’s “founding nations.” The first chapters are essential not only as background, but to emphasize the ancient occupation of North America by aboriginal inhabitants. Another recurring theme is that throughout this country’s history, the Native peoples played a role as active participants rather than passive respondents weakly conceding to domination. They were not ‘primitives’. Throughout the book are such comments as, “More than 500 drugs in the medical pharmacopoeia today were originally used by Amerindians” (44), and “Amerindians led full and satisfying social lives within the framework of complex cosmologies, despite the simplicity of their tools” (81). Neither were they ‘simple savages’ “waiting to be moulded by a civilizing hand.” The many accounts of the organized and powerful attempts by agents of church and state to “civilize,” control, and assimilate the native peoples show the folly of such a perspective. Yet other related themes are that adaptation has always been and still is the key to survival, and that “... change of itself does not automatically alter identity” (104).

Dickason has an interesting approach to bringing across these themes. Despite the danger of getting into the realm of stereotypes, she argues that it is valid to make generalities about Amerindians. Pointing out the shared aspects of their civilizations—for example the unity of world view and ideological approaches—she asserts that in spite of the dazzling variety of cultural particularities, “one can speak of an American civilization in the same sense that one can speak of a European civilization” (82). She goes on to carefully contrast the European and Amerindian systems of understanding, for instance their concepts of discipline, authority, property, and trade rituals. The attempt to articulate a Native point of view on each of the events and topics is unusual, and while this necessarily involves conjecture, it challenges the reader to try to understand what would have made sense within the cultural framework of the aboriginal peoples. Respect for the Native voice is shown by using the Native terminology for the naming of places, groups and Native individuals. Continuity through the book is achieved by Dickason repeatedly referring back to incidents in the earlier chapters, making comparisons and drawing parallels in order to explain and make sense of the events.

While on one hand this work is on the cutting edge of scholarship on Canadian Native history, Dickason sometimes comes across as surprisingly traditional. The book’s chapters are divided into five parts: “At the Beginning,” “The Outside World Intrudes,” “Spread Across the Continent,” “Toward New Horizons;” and “Into the Contemporary World.” One wouldn’t expect from the titles that there is anything groundbreaking here. As well, of the pre-contact history Dickason says that “since little is positively known about those distant events, various theories are described without attempting to nail down the ‘truth’.” She seems uncomfortable with such uncertainty, however, and expresses optimism in the ability of academia to eventually nail down the truth. She writes, “A challenging aspect of our very early history is that so much remains to be found out.” One must wonder how much like fanciful myths our own respected scientific theories of origins must seem outside the orthodoxy of the scientific community.
The reader is left with several striking impressions. For one, it becomes clear that there is nothing new about the grievances which Native peoples are today vociferously bringing to public attention. Also striking are the endless obstacles that the various outside authorities placed in the way of Native peoples’ maintaining cultural health. What echoes through centuries is the consistency of the Amerindian position towards the land, and tenacity with which they pursued redress for its appropriation.

Dickason’s text is sure to become required reading for university students, a valuable resource for teachers, lawyers, and community leaders, and an eye-opening backgrounder for others interested in the story of Native peoples in Canada.

Page revised: 27 March 2011