Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Canada’s Aboriginal policy was one of aggressive assimilation, based on the false assumption that Aboriginal peoples are doomed to extinction, lest they be “saved” from their primitive culture and savage ways. The ultimate goal of this policy was the assimilation of Aboriginal people into the dominant white culture and the disappearance of their traditional culture.
Residential schools cut Aboriginal children off from their culture, interrupting and preventing the transfer of traditional values and practices to new generations. The removal of children from their families continued in the 1960s, when child welfare agencies were given broad powers to apprehend Aboriginal children. Almost all the children of that generation were sent to white foster homes.
Most ceremonial expressions of Aboriginal culture were banned in the late 19th century by the Indian Act. For decades, the potlatch, sweat lodges and sun dances were banned. The wearing of traditional regalia was made subject to the permission of government officials, which was often arbitrarily withheld. The penalty for failure to comply with these restrictions was jail time and the confiscation of ceremonial objects.
Forced displacement of Aboriginal peoples also played a role in the suppression of Aboriginal cultural heritage. Though some relocation took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Aboriginal peoples were displaced en masse as of the 1940s to make way for hydroelectric dams and other industrial projects. Relocations contributed to the loss of cultural practices by severing the ties between Aboriginal peoples and the lands to which their traditional knowledge related.
Native Americans suffered both ethnic and religious assimilation in the USA between the years 1790 and 1920. George Washington and Henry Knox were the first people to propose the Americanization of the Native Americans to Euro-American culture.
In 1887, the Dawes Act was formulated with the intention to encourage Native Americans to assimilate. Citizenship, land and education were used as bribes, and in exchange, Native Americans were to give their culture and religious views. After the Indian wars were over, it became illegal for Native Americans to practice traditional cultural ceremonies.
Those who decided to become citizens were treated unfairly, as children were taken away from their families and sent off to boarding schools that were typically run by missionaries. At these boarding schools, they were forced to go to church, speak only English, learn standard subjects, and never revisit their old tribal ways. They were also given new Euro-American clothing, haircuts, and names. By 1902, there were more than 25 boarding schools across the nation, and about 6000 children were enrolled.
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no question, and no Indian Department.” – Superintendent-General Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs. (1913-1932)