Cultural Safety Module 1: Peoples Experiences of Colonization

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Pre-colonial History (Pre-contact)

Prior to Europeans coming to what is now known as North America, Indigenous populations were strong and healthy, with diverse and complex societies. Women were valued and held leadership roles,1 children were raised according to the values of the sacred circle,2 and resource-rich environments, particularly in British Columbia, provided abundant, healthy food.3 About one third of Canada's pre-contact Indigenous peoples lived in what we now call British Columbia with 24 languages and 7 language families represented.4

Very little has been written about pre-colonial history, but there are a number of articles on the early-contact period, in particular on women's roles. Read the articles by Van Kirk and Brodribb for more information.

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Colonial History (Post-contact)

To understand cultural safety it is important to understand history, particularly the colonial history of former British colonies such as Canada and New Zealand. (See Colonialism Timeline for B.C. and Canada.) Colonialism continues to influence Indigenous communities to the present day.5 Colonialism — the policies, laws, and systems associated with controlling people or geographic areas — has been characterized by both cultural and population loss.

Smallpox had the most profound post-contact negative effect on Indigenous peoples. Loss of knowledge, particularly of Indigenous plants, and animals and of healing practices also occurred,6 and was reinforced by the establishment of reserves and residential schools.7

Values consistent with patriarchy, or male-dominated power structures, influenced Indigenous communities, interrupting existing family and social relations.8 Many of these values influence our health and education systems to the present day9 and are explored further in Modules 2 and 3. Specifically, Modules 2 and 3 focus on how colonialism and oppression have contributed to the current health challenges of Aboriginal people, particularly those related to mental health, parenting skills, substance use, and family violence.

Post-colonial history is referred to throughout these modules. The term "post-colonial," however, does not mean that the colonial period is over. Colonial practices, often referred to as "neo-colonialist," exist today and continue to contribute to inequities in our society. An important example of neo-colonialist policy is the Indian Act.

Originally drafted in 1876, the Indian Act continues to determine the rights, choices, and opportunities for status Indians in Canada. According to Smye (2004):

European worldviews, including their medical systems, have achieved social, economic and political dominance over Aboriginal people through enactment of its policies. This piece of legislation, passed in 1876, delved into every facet of Native life: education; health services; welfare; taxes; livelihood, including hunting and fishing rights; the consumption of alcohol; citizenship, including the right to vote; "Indian" identity, status or non-status, treaty or non-treaty; organizational/ruling structures; spiritual practices; "even the right to loiter in a poolroom."10

In addition, there is debate about how Aboriginal peoples refer to themselves. The term "Aboriginal" is a word used by the Canadian government to describe people and does not reflect how all First Peoples across Canada identify themselves. Aboriginal includes status and non-status natives, Metis, and Inuit persons. Some people still refer to themselves as Indian or Native. Some prefer to call themselves First Nations or Indigenous. Still others identify themselves according to their community or nation, for example, Haisla or Nuu'chahnulth.

Listen to the following clips to hear how Roger John identifies himself in terms of his Aboriginal heritage.

Click to watch video clips/read text transcripts.

Roger John, Roger's Introduction
Roger John,
Roger's Introduction

[Text Transcript]
  vertical line   Roger John, Ucwalimicuw
Roger John,

[Text Transcript]

Anyone who is not a status Native person, as defined by the Canadian government, has no rights under the Indian Act. For example, Aboriginal women who married non-Aboriginal men in the past lost their status under the Act, but Aboriginal men who married non-Aboriginal women did not. This reflected the male-dominated nature of the legal system when the Indian Act was passed into law. Although women had been empowered in pre-contact societies, they were not allowed to vote in Band elections or participate in public meetings until 1951. Men and women were not granted the federal vote until 1960.

In the "Power to Define" clip, Roger describes how the power to define themselves and make decisions was taken away from Aboriginal people.


Roger John, Power to Define
Roger John,
Power to Define

[Text Transcript]


In 1985,

the passage of Bill C-31, an Act to Amend the Indian Act, which restores Indian status and band membership rights to a large number of Indians (particularly women), ...had a significant impact on the registered Indian population. By 1990, the registered Indian population was estimated to have increased by 19 percent over and above the rate of natural increase.11

However, despite its passage, debate continues in regard to its benefit to families, particularly women, because there are limitations to its application.

Many believe that the Act continues to marginalize Aboriginal people and to have a profound negative effect on their health. Some Aboriginal people and groups now consider their rights under the Act to be the starting point for discussions of Aboriginal self-determination.

Current efforts toward self-determination and the treaty process in British Columbia are closely linked to improving health and access to education. Peggy Christie, who grew up on the Okanagan Reserve near Vernon, had these thoughts on the evolving status of Aboriginal people:

I look at three events in our past that have been turning points. First of all, the most significant event in my people's time was getting the federal vote because it allowed us to be part of the system governing the country. Rather than the politicians driving by our reserves, they had to stop. We had a vote. The next significant event was Section 35 being included in the Constitution, stating that Aboriginal and Treaty rights were recognized. And the third was the Delgamuukw case; I am not sure that we would have had the same judgement on this case without Section 35. One of the most outstanding aspects of the Delgamuukw case was that the message was loud and clear, namely that Aboriginal Title is alive and well in British Columbia. We must have our people take advantage of every opportunity available to the rest of the human race. It will take us around the world. The world will be our oyster. It has to be our choice, which we have never had before. We have been so marginalized. Our great talents must have opportunities.12

Take a few minutes now to do Activity 1, Your Family's Connection to Colonization.

Prepare yourself for the upcoming topics of changes in diet, residential schools, and Indian hospitals by reading from the Recommended Readings for this section.

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The pre-contact population of Aboriginal peoples in British Columbia is estimated at between 80,000 and 125,000.13 By post-contact 1929, the population had dropped to 22,000.14 Smallpox had the most immediate and profound effect on Aboriginal peoples. According to Acheson, "Smallpox was a reoccurring pandemic resulting in the progressive and, in many localities, catastrophic decline in population from the outset of culture contact, and in some instances, even in advance of direct contact."15 The disease affected Aboriginal populations in the "late 1700s, in 1837-38 and 1862-63."16

Other infectious diseases, including "measles, influenza, whooping cough, tuberculosis and scarlet fever"17 also played a major role in the decimation of the people. The Epidemic History table summarizes the impact of introduced epidemic diseases on particular populations in British Columbia.

Listen to Roger describe the impact of disease on his community.


Roger John, People Lost to Disease
Roger John,
People Lost to Disease

[Text Transcript]


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The governments of the day relocated Aboriginal peoples from their traditional lands to protect them from "the ravages of alcohol, trade, and even Indigenous practices such as the sun dance."18 Beginning in the 19th century, "Native land fueled Canadian and American economic growth"19 by providing resources for industry and farming. Government policies had disastrous consequences for Aboriginal people. The most fertile land was given to white settlers, the government took control over water, and the environment was altered to the disadvantage of Aboriginal peoples.

By this time, European contact had profoundly disturbed Aboriginal peoples' lives. Disease had also contributed to "the major dislocation and disruption of individuals, communities, and entire social systems."20 Concerned about the survival of their people, Aboriginal leaders decided to negotiate with the government, and "as compensation for the use of their land and resources, they agreed to relocate their people into villages and reserves if the Crown would guarantee the welfare of future generations."21 These negotiations laid the foundation for the ongoing debates regarding federal versus provincial responsibility for Aboriginal peoples and their health status.

Aboriginal peoples in British Columbia were among those relocated from their traditional lands onto reserves. Issues of land rights are central to understanding the effects of their dislocation.

Listen to Roger describe the challenges faced by Aboriginal people in this regard.


Roger John, Rules Change
Roger John,
Rules Change

[Text Transcript]


The loss of traditional land, changing "rules," and dislocation severely limited the personal and collective choices and health opportunities of Aboriginal peoples. Travel was also limited, leading to intermarriage on reserves22 and the loss of multi-community identities. Before the reserve system was established, travel and trade occurred between communities, and some people had multiple residences in different locations.23

Some Aboriginal people find it ironic that government officials attempted to assimilate or absorb Aboriginal peoples into the mainstream population with the objective of destroying their culture by segregating them onto reserves. Listen to how Sheila Dick describes this irony and the racist beliefs underlying the ideas of assimilation and segregation.


Sheila Dick, Shame-based society and laws
Sheila Dick,
Shame-based Society and Laws

[Text Transcript]


Take a few minutes now to reflect on the idea of assimilation. Do you think assimilation is a good thing? A bad thing? Or is it something you really don't understand? If you don't, check out the definition of assimilation in the Glossary. How might assimilation affect a person's identity?

Today, approximately 49% of the First Nations population in B.C. live off reserve and 51% live on reserve.24 Eighteen percent live in areas requiring special access, and 4% live in areas considered remote. B.C. has the highest number of Aboriginal peoples living off reserve in Canada. Many seek employment, education, and other opportunities in the larger urban centres (e.g., Vancouver, Victoria).

Once regarded as tools of colonialism and subjugation, reserves are now perceived by Aboriginal peoples as central to Aboriginal identity, self-determination, and self-government.25

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Changes in Diet

Hopkinson, Stephenson, and Turner described the possible "health-protecting" characteristics of pre-contact societies that may have contributed to their overall good health.26 These included small size, relative isolation, reasonable mobility on land and water, seasonal excursions, intimate knowledge of the local environment, environmentally friendly subsistence practices, and the availability of a variety of foods. After contact, colonization and the establishment of reserves and residential schools interrupted all of these factors and were major contributors to a substantial change in traditional Aboriginal diets.

There is evidence that increases in the consumption of "saturated fats, sugars and starches, refined salts, alcohol, and caffeine"27 have contributed to health and social problems. In addition to a loss of cultural knowledge about available foods and medicines, alcohol use in particular, has resulted in family violence, loss of parenting knowledge between generations, as well as physical and mental health problems.

Many of these changes in diet occurred quite recently, and they are still occurring. Listen to what Joan Morris has to say about growing up on Chatham Island about 40 years ago.

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Impact on History

The introduction of infectious diseases such as smallpox and the changes in Aboriginal peoples' diets are direct results of colonization, reinforced by colonialist policies enacted on reserves, in residential schools, and in Indian hospitals. The health status of Aboriginal people today is rooted in the colonization process. Colonialism has interfered with people's ability to make informed choices about diet, exercise, and health because of assimilationist policies. In the following clip, Sherry Hunt-Humchitt describes the impact of history on her people.

Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1920, stated some 45 years after the Indian Act was implemented:

Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.28

Campbell Scott was advocating that Aboriginal culture be purposefully and intentionally destroyed to prevent it from interfering with a vision of nation-building for Canada that was based on white, European, patriarchal, Christian, and capitalist values. Some Aboriginal people still refer to the six R's of assimilation: racism, religion, relocation, residential schools, reserves, and the RCMP (and the former law enforcement agencies), who supervised the removal of Aboriginal children to residential schools.29


Sherry Hunt-Humchitt: on impact of history
Sherry Hunt-Humchitt,
On Impact of History

[Text Transcript]


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