Aboriginal Contact History in Canada

Aboriginal history in Canada is rich and diverse, stretching back long before the initial contact of European settlers. Tension rose when European settlers arrived and sought to take over our land for agriculture and settlement. The timeline below summarizes the history of Aboriginal people in Canada from the initial contact of European settlers to the present state of Aboriginal people.

  • During the fur trading era, relationships were relatively amicable as the Europeans required furs for trading and relied upon Aboriginal guides and hunters and in return, Aboriginal people received European trade goods.
  • Tensions grew when settlers arrived and sought to take over lands for agriculture and settlement.
  • Diseases such as cholera, leprosy, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and whooping cough decimated Aboriginal populations as they had no immunity to these new invaders which came in with the ships and in goods traded to the local people.
  • As violence escalated over control of land, the government of Canada introduced the Indian Act in 1876. This Act (while amended periodically) remains in force today.
  • The goal of the Act was to assimilate Aboriginal people into colonial culture and make them give up their traditional ways – this included language, culture and regalia.
  • Rather than assimilating the Aboriginal peoples who held on tightly and desperately to their culture through these dark times, the Indian Act created a two-tiered system in Canada based upon race.
  • Residential schools are arguably the darkest part of the history of contact. Furthering the assimilation policy set out in the Indian Act, children as young as six years old were taken from their families and placed in the “care” of strangers at residential schools starting in the 1880s.
  • Subject to malnutrition, child labour, sexual and mental abuse, and even scientific testing, the residential school system horribly scarred those who survived and created intergenerational social issues that remain today. The last residential school closed in 1996.
  • The Government of Canada has made a public apology to residential schools survivors and healing continues – repairing lost culture and language and restoring community has been the pinnacle of this healing process.

Initial European contact in BC:

  • 1741 Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in the service of the Russian navy, discovered sea otters along the Alaska coast.
  • Spanish explorer Juan Perez Hernandez traded with the Nuu-chah-nulth for sea otter pelts in 1774 as did Captain James Cook four years later.
  • In 1792 George Vancouver charted parts of the Pacific coast from California to Alaska.
  • In 1793 Alexander MacKenzie set out for the second time to find a river route flowing from east to west into the Pacific. MacKenzie and three other Europeans were guided by Aboriginal people. He received help from the Dunne-za, Tsay Keh Dene, Wetsuwet’en and Dakelh-ne nations. When he arrived on the coast he was welcomed by the Nuxalk and the Heiltsuk. Aboriginal peoples had been trading amongst themselves for countless years along the ‘Grease Trails’ between the Coast and the interior so they were excellent guides.
  • In the 1800’s fur trading posts were established in the west by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company.

While Aboriginal people are still recovering from the residential schools and the discrimination set forth by the Canadian government, their culture is still very much alive. The Supreme Court has recognized Aboriginal rights and titles to their traditional territory. From first contact, Aboriginal people welcomed explorers to their lands, and now many communities are finding ways to invite visitors once again for unique and authentic travel experiences that can be found nowhere else in the world.

Aboriginal culture is thriving through these tourism offerings. Many Aboriginal communities and entrepreneurs are keen on sharing their culture, values and traditions that have been passed down through generations. Creating a sustainable tourism economy that respects culture and Mother Earth is an important priority for most First Nations communities – many of today’s travellers – your clients – wish to feel that their travel is not ‘consumptive’ but rather contributes to local health and well-being – you can help them achieve this by including an Aboriginal cultural experience in your itinerary options.

Totems in Alert Bay Big House

> U’mista Cultural Centre