Seen But Not Seen: Influential Canadians and the First Nations from the 1840s to Today

By Roger Epp

by Donald B. Smith, University of Toronto Press, 2021/$32.95/488 pp.

Seen But Not Seen is an eminent historian’s portrait gallery: faces of the long century in which Canada was constituted, treaties made, the West settled, residential schools established and Indigenous peoples shunted to the margins of public awareness—treated as an inferior and doomed race, in the comforting pseudo-science of colonialism.

The book begins from rival impulses. The first is personal, almost confessional. Donald B. Smith, professor emeritus of history at the University of Calgary, recalls a postwar boyhood in southern Ontario in which Indigenous peoples were absent from his schooling and his acquaintance; they survived mostly in the mock-rituals of summer camp. Newspapers, books and university courses mirrored that “long-established blindness.” By the late 1960s, he notes, that would change, in ways that surprised governments and Canadians, and set a course for Smith’s own lifework.

The competing impulse is that of the academic historian, wary of “presentism”—the “judgment of the past through the lens of the present,” the kind that would now topple statues or rename schools. Curiously, the choice to start with Sir John A. Macdonald suggests the pull of those same debates.

Smith presents a “complex” prime minister who enjoyed close relationships with Mississauga leaders at New Credit, but who was still the Macdonald of enfranchisement, bad-faith negotiation, starvation and the cultural superiority of white, Christian civilization. On those counts, he faced little opposition in Parliament. He was the “most important politician in the formation of Canadian Indian policy”; he was also a man of his times.  

The subjects of Smith’s gallery are close-up representations of that same civilizational presumption. Some were inspired by it: the notorious poet-bureaucrat Duncan Campbell Scott, or John A. Boyd, the judge who, though he kept a cryptic notebook of Indian lore, decided the St. Catherines Milling case in 1885, rejecting the idea of Indigenous rights in land, while Toronto’s newspapers were roiled by accounts of “red devils” in the North-West. Others, like prairie Methodist John McDougall, who was said to be more fluent in Cree than in English and lived a quarter-century with the Stoney at Morley mission, were limited by that presumption despite their deep and sympathetic involvement with Indigenous peoples.

In the book’s epilogue, Smith retreats to the “lesson” that “in judging the past those responsible were individuals of their times, and the times were not ours.”

True enough. But his gallery contains better lessons and more striking small portraits. Some of them involve people, raised in the same times, who stepped outside the dominant ideology and its relational solitudes. They include Kathleen Coburn, Coleridge scholar, Georgian Bay cottager and fierce critic of Canadian Indian policy; Maisie Hurley, publisher and activist, who taught a young lawyer in her husband’s Vancouver firm, Thomas Berger, about aboriginal title; and John Laurie, the Calgary teacher and Indian Association secretary who lies buried in the Wesley First Nation cemetery.

Others involve Indigenous figures who confounded the narrative of inferior and doomed, as well as the invitation to assimilate. Among them are Fred Loft, Grand River Mohawk, Ontario civil servant and founder of the League of Indians of Canada, which drew 1,500 people to Maskwacis in 1922 and provoked more federal restrictions; and Edward Ahenakew, Cree, Anglican priest, one-time medical student in Edmonton and active in the League, whose Voices of the Plains Cree was not published in his lifetime. It was too critical of government, not romantic enough.

In presenting all of them, Smith has painted a vivid pre-1969 history—one that has much to teach the present moment.

Roger Epp is a professor of political science at the University of Alberta and the author of We Are All Treaty People (UAP).

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