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The Red and Black Series

By Sean Darcy


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Administration of the First Nations: 1782-1844

The lack of direction in early Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) policy was reflected in the contemporary record-keeping practices of the department. Former DIA registrar G.M. Matheson noted that "from the date of Sir John Johnston's appointment as superintendent general of Indian Affairs in 1782 up to 1821 there had been no letter book or letter register kept in his office in Montreal." (1) For the most part, departmental correspondence was "irregularly kept, and the account books of the annuities and other funds belonging to the several Indian tribes were without system of arrangement." (2)

In 1830 jurisdiction over "Indian" matters was transferred from the military authorities to the civilian governors of both Lower and Upper Canada. The Indian Department of Lower Canada was placed under the control of the military secretary of the governor general, stationed at Québec, where Lieutenant-Colonel Napier served as the secretary of Indian Affairs. Historian Douglas Leighton observes of Napier that:

aside from a few missionaries in Indian communities who conducted departmental business and a resident at St. Regis under the control of Montreal, Napier had no means of contacting the Indian population of an area which extended from the Gaspé to the Upper Canadian border and from the St. Lawrence Valley to an undefined northern limit.

(Leighton, 1975)

Napier, in fact, carried on most of the department's business in Lower Canada single-handedly.

In the Province of Upper Canada, the Indian Department was placed under the lieutenant-governor, where James Givens was made chief superintendent. Givens held this post until he retired in 1837 and was succeeded by Samuel Jarvis. The situation in Upper Canada was similar to Lower Canada. The chief superintendent exercised little or no control over resident superintendents: "…it [has] not been the practice to require any periodical reports from them, nor any account of the monies entrusted to them for distribution." (3) Haphazard record-keeping mirrored the administrative system. Only in 1829 was the first systematic record-keeping system introduced in the form of letter books recording outgoing correspondence. (4)

The Bagot Commission (1842-1844) was charged, in the context of the union of the Canadas, to thoroughly review the operations of the Indian Department in Canada and to identify necessary reforms to improve the standard of living of "Indians" while examining ways of reducing expenditures. (Leslie 1982) It was also the catalyst for a reorganization of the Indian Affairs record-keeping system. The Commission noted that prior to 1830 there was no clerk belonging to the department, record-keeping was haphazard and occasional at best, and the correspondence and other business was done occasionally by one of the secretaries in the Government Office, or by one of the officers of the Commissariat.

In the end, the Commission recommended that the office of the chief superintendent employ a chief clerk to enter all correspondence of the department in a book with an alphabetical index, as well as a bookkeeper responsible for maintaining the account books for each "tribe." (5)

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