In previous columns, I’ve related the barbaric activities of many “illustrious” 18th-century British officials involved in the shaping of Nova Scotia, such as Governor Edward Cornwallis and Captain John Gorham. In the early 1750’s, both were intimately involved in an effort to exterminate the Mi’kmaq by out and out genocide.
However, Nova Scotia’s history is not devoid of compassionate white individuals who made, in view of the prevailing racist attitudes of their day, courageous efforts to help the Mi’kmaq survive. In acknowledgement, I’ll dedicate this column to them and relate a small sample of the activities of two of their outstanding members, Joseph Howe and Abraham Gesner.
Both would be considered white supremacists by today’s standards. They passionately believed that “white made right.” But, they were willing to accept the equality of people of colour, providing they accepted the superiority of white civilization, especially English.
Howe and Gesner were appointed as Nova Scotia Indian commissioners in the 1840s, pursuant to the provisions of An Act to Provide for the Instruction and Permanent Settlement of the Indians. The act, passed in 1842, was a belated attempt to end the starvation and prevalence of rampant contagious diseases among the Mi’kmaq.
Joseph Howe, later a father of Confederation, was the first commissioner. His first report, on Jan. 25, 1843, listed the deprivations being suffered by the Mi’kmaq, and he included a prediction that they would be extinct within 40 years without adequate aid.
He ended his report with this:
“I have been able to give to such preliminary measures as seemed requisite for their ultimate mastery, only the leisure hours which could be borrowed from other and various duties, both of public and private nature âe¦
I trust, however, that should your Excellency not be satisfied with the results of these first experiments, the blame may be laid upon the Commissioner, rather than be charged upon the capacity, or urged against the claims of, a people, for whose many good qualities a more extended intercourse has only increased my respect, and who have, if not by Treaty, at least by all the ties of humanity, a claim upon the Government of the Country, which nothing but their entire extinction, or their elevation to a more permanent and happy position in the scale of Society, can ever entirely discharge.”
Abraham Gesner, 1797-1864, was a Nova Scotian, medical doctor, fellow of the Geological Society, scientist, inventor and an author. His most famous achievement was the development of kerosene, and he became Indian commissioner after Joseph Howe.
His reports also condemned English neglect. This caused him to predict in 1847 that without generous assistance forthcoming from the government, the end of the Mi’kmaq was probable.
The following descriptions of 19th-century Nova Scotia society’s cruelty were extracted from Allison Mitcham’s The Best of Abraham Gesner:
“Unless the progress of their annihilation is soon arrested, the time is close at hand, when âe¦ the last of their race, to use their own idea, ‘will sleep with the bones of their fathers.‘ Unless the vices and diseases of civilization are speedily arrested, the Indians âe¦ will soon be as the Red Men of Newfoundland, or other Tribes of the West, whose existence is forever blotted out from the face of the Earth.”
A few quotes from his reports:
“It might be supposed that after their wars âe¦ and encounters with the whites had terminated, the Aborigines would multiply, yet experience has proved exactly the reverse âe¦ Exposed to the inclemency of the weather, and destitute of the proper diet and treatment required for contagious diseases, numbers are swept off annually by complaint unknown to them in their state âe¦
From the clearing and occupation of the forests, the wild domain of the moose and caribou has been narrowed. Being hunted by the dogs of the back settlers, these animals have become scarce — thus the Indian has been deprived of his principal subsistence, as well as the warm furs that in olden times lined his wigwam. Indigenous roots once highly prized for food have been destroyed by domestic animals. . . . These united causes have operated fearfully, and have reduced the whole tribe to the extreme of misery and wretchedness âe¦
Almost the whole Micmac population are now vagrants, who wander from place to place, and door to door, seeking alms. The aged and infirm are supplied with written briefs upon which they place much reliance. They are clad in filthy rags. Necessity often compels them to consume putrid and unwholesome food. The offal of the slaughterhouse is their portion. Their camps or wigwams are seldom comfortable, and in winter, at places where they are not permitted to cut wood, they suffer from the cold. The sufferings of the sick and infirm surpass description, and from the lack of a humble degree of accommodation, almost every case of disease proves fatal âe¦
During my inquiries into the actual state of these people in June last, I found four orphan children who were unable to rise for the want of food – whole families were subsisting upon wild roots and eels, and the withered features of others told too plainly to be misunderstood that they had nearly approached starvation.”
Shouldn’t the truth by these honourable men be taught in school?