First Nations & Their Slaves

Slavery in the Pacific Northwest

IN THE LUSH rainforests of the upper and isolated inlets and interior of the Pacific Northwest and Canada’s West Coast, the moral stain common to the rest of humanity – Slavery – was also present. “Slavery was a permanent status in all Northwest Coast societies,” wrote anthropologist Leland Donald in his 1997 book, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. Slaves could end up in that predicament for any number of reasons: captured as part of inter-tribal warfare, after inter-tribal raids, born to an existing slave, or if they were an orphan (which could lead to enslavement even in one’s own tribe, as occurred among the Clayoquot, Lummi, Chinook, and Puyalup-Nisqually). A wife could be sold and enslaved through a deliberate attempt by her husband at humiliation (recorded among the Haida, for example). One could even end up in slavery voluntarily, this to pay off one’s debts, a practice that occurred in other societies where slavery was present. As with slavery elsewhere in the world, captives in the Pacific Northwest were considered property. They were sometimes given as gifts, including at potlatches; on other occasions slaves substituted as payment for fees due to shamans. 

Slavery in the Pacific Northwest developed at some point between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, long before European contact, and at contact, slaves were clearly set apart from the existing tribal ranking system and prestige-seeking in the region. Early indigenous peoples also possessed other practices that predated contact with the British and Europeans: cannibalism and the killing of slaves, the latter of which also occurred and for a variety of reasons: funeral feasts, the building of a new home, a new title, the erection of a totem pole, or as part of the ceremony at potlatches. A Russian Orthodox priest recounted how in one Sitka ceremony where a new clan chief was appointed, four slaves were strangled as part of the ritual. 

On another occasion, among both the Mowachaht and the Clayoquot, a slave was killed to celebrate the first whale kill of the season. In Tlinglit folklore, a memorial potlatch was necessary so fellow spirits in the village of the dead would not despise the newly deceased. The memorial included the murder of a slave. Among the Nuu-cah-nulth, a wolf dance also occasioned the taking of a slave’s life. Lastly, in one account of a ceremony at Fort Rupert, British Columbia, two female slaves were burnt as part of a ceremonial display, though they volunteered in the belief they would be resurrected four days hence. The regional slave trade was numerically smaller in absolute terms, though similar as a proportion of some local populations, ranging from almost nil to as high as 40%; the average was 15% of the local population.

ABOVE: Master and slaves. DETAIL BELOW: “Smiling Slave” in the B.C. Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver.

“THE SMILING SLAVE” in the B.C. Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver.

How slavery ended: evangelical Christians

ANTI-SLAVERY advocacy and animus in the United Kingdom and around the world was driven by evangelical Christian anti-slavery societies, whose religious objections to slavery were grounded in their view of men as made in the image of God regardless of race and equal in his eyes. Such abolitionists also found a political champion in William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian whose decades-long efforts to abolish slavery were inspired by his own evangelical faith. Wilberforce’s first known act of opposition to the slave trade occurred in 1773, when he was 14 years old, in a letter to a York newspaper where he wrote “in condemnation of the odious traffic in human flesh.” 

Seven years later, Wilberforce was elected as a member of parliament. Wilberforce’s early convictions showed publicly in his first major assault on slavery in 1789 with his May 12 speech in parliament on the matter. In it, Wilberforce condemns not the slave-holders first but instead takes responsibility himself and also for his nation: “I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself in common with the whole Parliament of Great Britain for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under our authority,” said Wilberforce. It was a long, eloquent, and even charitable speech meant to persuade slaveholders and their parliamentary supporters with reason and an appeal to conscience. Wilberforce then moved 12 resolutions including an early plea for abolition, though that and the others failed. The independent member of parliament followed up with anti-slavery bills in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, 1805, 1806, and 1807. Due to his efforts and others, in one month alone (in 1807), parliament received 800 separate petitions calling for an end to slavery, with 700,000 signatures. At the time, the population of Great Britain was just 10.9 million.

Wilberforce would expend his entire parliamentary career and ultimately his life to effect abolition. One of Wilberforce’s first abolition bills, in 1793, fell short by just eight votes, but successes included the Foreign Slave Trade Bill (in 1806) and the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (in the House of Lords, in 1807). While the trade was outlawed in 1807, slavery in the empire was still allowed until 1833, when the government finally introduced the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery and freed slaves across the British Empire effective the following year. That was eight years after Wilberforce left parliament due to ill health. Gravely ill in 1833, when the Whig government introduced the compromises necessary to obtain passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, Wilberforce was informed of the government’s plans, and in what seems to have been a self-induced will to live until his cause reached fulfillment, Wilberforce would die just two days later on July 29, 1833, at the age of 73.

Canadian abolitionist actions

CANADA’S COLONIAL governors and justices took their lead from London and from Wilberforce. John Graves Simcoe, the governor of Upper Canada between 1791 and 1796 (under Lord Dorchester, the 23rd Governor General of Canada), was himself inspired by Wilberforce and pledged from the start of his governorship that any laws and policies in his domain that provided a framework and supported slavery were henceforth under attack. Thus, two years after his arrival, Simcoe introduced a “frontal assault” on slavery within the province, which made the importation of any more slaves illegal, a first step often used by abolitionists to erode slavery as an institution. While that act did not free existing slaves—there were yet businessmen and others who held slaves and supported the practice—Simcoe’s action set in motion slavery’s decline in Upper Canada, including placing slave-owners on the moral defensive. 

JOHN GRAVES SIMCOE as a young army officer

On the other side of the country, it was the British along with Americans who would end slavery in the region, though given the remoteness, the practice would continue for another six decades before it was fully abolished. As one example, in British Columbia, in 1840, six years after the Slavery Abolition Act took effect (it was passed in 1833 and effective in 1834), Sir James Douglas, later a governor of Vancouver Island but then commanding Fort Vancouver, wrote of how the Taku Tlingit prized slaves above all other property, slaves being “the most saleable commodity here.” He noted that in the case of the Haida, many predatory raids for slaves were undertaken not to revenge past battles, “but simply with a sordid view to the profits that may arise from the sale of the captives taken.”

Why it matters

IN THE CONTEXT of today’s grievance history narratives, the worldwide history of slavery including the forgotten captured from the shores of England and Europe aboriginal- on-aboriginal slavery in the Pacific Northwest are useful to recount to make this point: Any sensible person alive today should rather “break bread” with almost anyone in any country now rather than over-celebrate one’s ancestors, given almost everyone’s  ancestral tree has the awful mark of slavery on it, or worse. And a secondary point: It was only the colonial-era British who were determined to wipe slavery from humanity’s list of acceptable practices. That matters in an age where victim narratives are driven by a focus on the sins of Western nations but rarely those of other civilizations. Just as rarely do the critics consider what the world might look like had the West and its ideas and actions, including its positive contributions such as the abolitionist movement, been absent. Everyone’s ancestors, at some point, made everyone else’s life as per Thomas Hobbes’s description: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It helps to recall that truth, lest modern victim-cults continue to be enamoured with long-dead tribes.

Slavery touched nearly every corner of our world, and until very recently. Two centuries ago, few desired its elimination and even fewer were willing to fight that assumption. The modern bias against the colonial British is often one- sided, tallying up colonial ills but not benefits. That makes history incomplete: That nation and imperial power was the first to even attempt to remove a longstanding scourge of mankind from mankind and over the objections of rulers and populations in much of the rest of the world, who only recognized such civil rights later. It is also why romanticizing our own tribes is often faulty and folly: We too easily ignore the benefits another tribe introduced into ours. 

The earliest abolitionists, British and imperial, helped rescue all of humanity’s tribes—be they European, those in the Americas, in Africa, and in the Arab world—from humanity’s most enduring sin and from their own contemporaries who practised it. It was a significant accomplishment. It is also why those of us alive today should prefer the company of each other, over too-easy identification with those of an earlier era, merely because they share some family bloodline, ethnicity, or national heritage. It is preferable to identify specific, heroic people in any society in any era and identify with them; after all, many of our ancestors were ignoble in comparison.

This is an excerpt from Mark Milke’s book, The Victim Cult: How the grievance culture hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. Published by Thomas & Black. Copyright 2021 by Mark Milke. Foreword by Ellis Ross. Published here with permission. A different excerpt will appear in the print edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW.

Not One corpse has been found in ‘mass grave’ of indigenous children in Canada

Remember last summer when a mass grave containing the remains of hundreds of children was found on the grounds of a former government boarding school for indigenous children in British Columbia, Canada?

In the seven months since this shocking news broke, not one body has been found, and not a single shovel-full of dirt has been excavated from the site in question. Contrary to the worldwide media coverage last summer, nothing, in fact, has been “discovered” on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

In a healthy society, this would be a scandal. A story that grabbed headlines for a week and inspired arson attacks that destroyed dozens of churches in Canada turns out to be based on flimsy, unexamined evidence at best, and an outright, pernicious lie at worst.

You might remember the overblown coverage. CNN breathlessly reported on what it called the “gruesome discovery.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation appended a warning label to its coverage, saying “this story contains details some readers may find distressing.” The Washington Post declared that news of the mass grave had “dragged the horror of Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people back into the spotlight.” Every corporate outlet took it for granted that a mass grave containing hundreds of corpses had indeed been discovered—corpses of children, no less. They reported it as fact.

Politicians quickly fell in line. Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau tweeted that the discovery “is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.” British Columbia Premier John Horgan said he was “horrified and heartbroken.” The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called it “a large scale human rights violation,” and called on Canada and the Vatican to investigate.

Tribal leaders in Canada went further and said the discovery was evidence of “mass murder of indigenous people,” that it was an “attempted genocide.” Some of them compared the priests and nuns who ran the boarding schools to Nazis, implying that, like the Nazis, these people should answer for their crimes.

Flags were lowered to half-mast. Calls were issued for an inquiry. Important and serious people said there must be a reckoning with Canada’s racist past. Lamentations poured forth from Catholic bishops for the church’s role in running these government boarding schools.

And then came the arson. In June, dozens of churches across Canada, most of them Catholic and some of them more than a century old, were burned to the ground. No church was safe. As my colleague Chris Bedford reported at the time, “In Calgary, 10 churches of various denominations were vandalized in a single night. A few days later, a Vietnamese church was set on fire — just hours after it held its first full service in more than a year.”

Overall more than two dozen churches in Canada have been targeted over the past few weeks — and people are cheering it on. Not just anonymous people, either: On June 30, Harsha Walia, the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, responded to a story of another church arson, saying ‘Burn it all down.’

Others rallied to her defense. Naomi Sayers, a lawyer and blue Twitter checkmark, said ‘I would help her burn it all down … and also, I would help anyone charged with arson if they actually did burn things.’

At the heart of all this was a press release issued at the end of May by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, saying that ground-penetrating radar had revealed the remains near the site of the Kamloops school, one of the largest such schools for indigenous youth that operated from the 1890s to the 1970s. “It’s a harsh reality and it’s our truth, it’s our history,” Chief Rosanne Casimir said at a news conference. “And it’s something that we’ve always had to fight to prove. To me, it’s always been a horrible, horrible history.”

The investigation was supposed to continue in conjunction with the British Columbia Coroner’s Office. The radar findings were only preliminary, and the eventual discovery of the “mass grave” containing the remains of children “as young as three years old,” which no one seemed to doubt, would confirm what “was spoken about but never documented” in the community.

That was more than seven months ago. Not a single corpse has been exhumed from the site since then. No human remains, of children or anyone else, have been found and confirmed as a result of the radar search.

The person who performed the ground-penetrating radar survey, a “conflict anthropologist” named Sarah Beaulieu, said at news conference back in July that the “probable gravesites” could not be confirmed unless excavations were done. Her investigation covered only two acres of the total 160-acre site and, she said, had “barely scratched the surface.”

Professor Jacques Rouillard, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the Université de Montréal, recently published a detailed essay in The Dorchester Review on what has been found at this and similar sites — and what hasn’t. There is no evidence, writes Rouilliard, in any of the historical records kept by the government, that deaths of indigenous children at these schools were ever covered up, or that any corpses were ever deposited in mass, unmarked graves which were kept secret, and parents of the children were never informed, as tribal groups repeatedly charged and the media dutifully repeated last summer.

There are indeed individual graves on the grounds of the Kamloops school, which includes a still actively used cemetery. Children who died at the school when it was still in operation — most often of tuberculosis but also of influenza, yellow fever, and typhoid — were sometimes buried in that cemetery in individual marked graves, alongside priests and nuns who were buried there.

The history of this and other residential schools is admittedly complex and includes, as most historical episodes do, a dark side. Often indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend these schools, which the government left chronically underfunded. When children died, the government often refused to pay to have their remains transported back to their communities, so they were buried at the school cemeteries.

Many of the grave-markers at these schools are now gone, not because anyone was trying to hide them but because it was common in these remote areas to make grave markers from wood, and many of them simply disintegrated over the years.

What all of this suggests, especially in the complete absence of any confirmed evidence of a “mass grave” or a coverup, is that the whole story is a giant fiction. Its purpose was to provoke a moral panic, demonize the Catholic Church, and make global headlines by peddling historical grievances. And it worked exactly as planned.

But understand this: seven months on from this manufactured moral panic, there will be no backtracking from the media, no following up about the hundreds of corpses “discovered” in a “mass grave.” There will be no questions asked, and no demands for evidence.

Ian Austen of The New York Times, for example, who back in May wrote about the nonexistent “evidence” of a “mass grave containing the remains of 215 children,” has not followed up on his reporting. The closest he came was in October, when he wrote a story about Pope Francis expressing a willingness to visit Canada for “indigenous reconciliation,” and repeated his earlier claim that, “the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children were found on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.”

No, they weren’t. Nothing has been found there, because no one has looked. Probably no one ever will.