Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 141 years

Manitoba History: Review: Kerry Abel and Jean Friesen (editors), Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects

by Patricia A. McCormack
Ethnology Program, Provincial Museum of Alberta, Edmonton

Number 24, Autumn 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Kerry Abel and Jean Friesen, eds., Aboriginal Resource Use in Canada: Historical and Legal Aspects. Manitoba Studies in Native History. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1991, viii, 343 pp. ISBN 0-88755-150-5.

Aboriginal peoples throughout Canada are concerned about their access to and control over the resources of the land, the plants and animals used historically and in the present for subsistence and commercial purposes. Those groups which signed treaties believed that they were promised the right to continue their uses of these resources, without interference, although the formal (written) treaty texts do not contain such promises. Without exception, Canadian Natives have seen their resource base eroded over time, in the past through over-harvesting and, within the last century, from expanding, restrictive government regulatory systems, from pollution, and from habitat decline.

This volume addresses a wide range of topics related to Aboriginal resource use, ranging from the pre-contact period to the present. The papers were originally presented at a conference held in 1988 at the University of Winnipeg. Co-editor Kerry Abel has written an introduction that outlines the main themes of the book. She points out that it is difficult to know what the enshrinement of Aboriginal rights in the Canadian Constitution means without knowing exactly what constituted the Aboriginal interest in the land past and present. She also summarizes some of the developments in the rapidly evolving concept of Aboriginal rights.

The papers are divided in terms of subject into several broad areas. Most are historic, considering resource use during the years of the fur trade and the expansion of the Canadian state into Aboriginal territories. The book is organized into five parts, a structure that may reflect the organization of the conference and that results in some section redundancy; the relationship between the conference and the organization of the book is not discussed and there are no section introductions. An index would have been helpful. As well, there is a curious split in the papers, resulting in somewhat uneven coverage of the topic. Most of the historic papers deal with peoples of the Great Lakes region, especially the Saulteaux or Ojibwa, and of the northern Plains, while the papers dealing with more con-temporary issues are concerned primarily with the North.

Part 1, entitled “Plenty of Fish and Fruits,” is presumably intended to examine resource use in the pre-contact, early-contact periods. Olive Dickason presents evidence for botanical knowledge and use by Iroquoians and Aztecans. Although the latter is somewhat removed from the theme of Aboriginal resource use in Canada, the comparison strengthens the view of Iroquoian plant use as extensive and systematic. She points out that historians have underplayed or disregarded Amerindian plant expertise, focusing instead on hunting and trapping. This theme is picked up by Wayne Moodie, who shows that the Ojibwa not only harvested wild rice, but also had a solid empirical understanding of its ecology, managing plant stands and seeding new lakes to extend its geographic range. To refer to these techniques as “incipient agriculture” seems too limited, since he is discussing a sophisticated environmental management system typically ignored by Europeans. His subject parallels an extensive literature on Aboriginal manipulation of landscape and management of plant and animal species by controlled burning.

Brian Smith also asks the reader to reconsider Aboriginal Plains economies. While the literature has stressed the bison as the key Plains food source, his excavations at the Labret site east of Regina revealed that its occupants had been fishing. His lesson is that ethnographers should beware of their own biases in reporting and should be cautious in their interpretation of the literature.

Finally, John Milloy considers the significance of the bison to the Plains Cree identity and sense of territory, both before and after the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876. He presents information related to Cree efforts to control access to the bison once the resource was threatened in the mid-1800s.

Part 2, “Fur Trade Economics and Resource Use,” opens with an introductory overview paper by Irene Spry on 19th century Aboriginal resource use in the northern Plains, the destruction of the bison, and the European approach to competing land uses.

Both Eleanor Blain and Laura Peers both challenge the notion that fur trade involvement produced Saulteaux dependency. High levels of consumerism may not imply dependency, and a new examination of Saulteaux behaviour suggests that they coped creatively with changes in resource availability. In fact, Peers suggests that the very behaviours that have been interpreted as indicators of dependence can be read anew as signs of adaptive responses.

A paper by Tim Holzkamm, Victor Lytwyn, and Leo Waisberg anticipates the themes in the next part; it discusses the importance of the Rainy River sturgeon fishery and the impact of its depletion in the late 19th century. Although the local Ojibwa believed that they had protected their resources by signing Treaty 3 in 1873, the fishery was thrown open to non-Indian commercial fishermen and the resource depleted. Fishing is today of little significance because industrial expansion and pollution have prevented fish stocks from recovering.

Part 3, “Governments and Resource Access,” is particularly useful, in that its papers show the erosion of Aboriginal access to and control over resources, despite treaty promises. Jean Friesen discusses Manitoba Indian beliefs about the nature of their treaty guarantees and the attacks on these presumed rights that began in the early 1880s, when the Province of Manitoba introduced conservation measures which it sought to apply to all residents. David McNab presents material on how provincial laws and regulations led to the alienation of Aboriginal resource lands, extinguished a reserve, and nullified treaty promises in northern Ontario, a set of events that was instrumental in the creation of Quetico Provincial Forest Reserve and Park. Indians were seen as “inimical” to the implementation of conservation and preservation. Nigel Bankes examines the water rights of Indian reserves in B.C. and the loss of water resources critical for reserve economic development.

Ken Coates discusses similar problems for the Yukon, a region not covered by treaties. He points out that resource issues have been a persistent concern of Yukon Aboriginal peoples since the time of the Gold Rush and are integral to the Yukon land claims process. Aboriginal access to resources began to erode earlier in the century and accelerated greatly after World War II.

Peter Clancy approaches this topic from a different perspective. He documents the destruction of the trapping industry in the NWT following World War II, showing how the Canadian State shaped the relations of production and impacted the economic viability of wildlife harvesting through its policies.

Part 4 consists of two papers about the St. Catherine’s Milling case. Barry Cottam shows how this important piece of case law about Native resource use was a by-product of a jurisdictional dispute between the Province of Ontario and the federal government. Anthony Hall interprets the case as one affected by a pervasive 19th century racism, which continues to inform legal judgments to the present.

The final part, “Courts and Claims,” comprises three wide-ranging papers on Aboriginal claims and issues. Rick Riewe discusses a process of land use and resource identification used in a modern Inuit comprehensive claim. Arthur Ray gives an account of historic land use in the upper Skeena River country by the Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en and considers the court case in which he testified as an expert witness. Finally, Barry Barton addresses the highly contentious issue of modern trapping, including the ideological bases of the anti-trapping movement and the responses by government to both the moral and the legal challenges.

In sum, readers will find papers of wide-ranging interest in this volume. They challenge traditional scholarly and popular understandings about Aboriginal resource use, present detailed information about creative responses by Aboriginal peoples to increasingly constrained situations, and document the role of the State in undermining Aboriginal resource use, despite the treaties, which provided little or no protection.

Cree family with travois near Calgary, no date.
Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta

Page revised: 27 March 2011

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations Policy

© 1998-2020 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.