Prof traces unsettling history of aboriginal welfare

Jason Guriel, a second-year York graduate student in English who writes about research at York University, sent the following article to YFile.

Scholars are often driven into research after witnessing the effects of disturbing social realities first hand. Professor Hugh Shewell (left) at the Atkinson School of Social Work is no exception. Shewell’s interest in aboriginal welfare began in 1983 when he took a job with the federal Indian  and Northern Affairs Department overseeing welfare services in British Columbia.

“Whenever I visited reserves,” says Shewell, “I was always given this short jarring history lesson concerning injustices suffered by aboriginals.” Other members of Shewell’s delegation would check their watches or glaze over, bored. Shewell, however, listened carefully. “Our aboriginal hosts wanted to remind us that they weren’t just the vague subjects of some government policy on a piece of paper,” he says.

Over time, the history lessons sunk in, and two decades later, Shewell’s research efforts have yielded the first major history of aboriginal welfare in Canada, ‘Enough to Keep Them Alive’: Indian Welfare in Canada, 1873-1965.

But far from simply a history of aboriginal welfare policies, Shewell’s book – released earlier this year and now selling briskly – charts a troubled relationship, assimilation and resistance.

The book begins by tracing how the Hudson’s Bay Company gave aboriginal fur traders relief during difficult winters in which fur was not easily obtainable. “Over time,” says Shewell, “aboriginals became dependent on this early form of social assistance. Eventually the Bay transferred this responsibility to the federal government, and relief policies evolved into welfare policies.”

These welfare policies were largely based on 19th-century English poor laws – archaic laws that viewed social assistance as a last resort when an individual had failed in the marketplace because of ineptitude or laziness.

“But aboriginal philosophies were not based on the individual’s ability to make it in some capitalist marketplace,” explains Shewell. “Aboriginals were much more communal, much more community minded. And so our attempts to apply English welfare policies to their way of life represented nothing less than an attempt to assimilate them – an attempt that many have ironically resisted by accepting welfare and refusing to participate in our capitalist economy.”

Demonstrating York’s commitment to progressive, untraditional research, Shewell decided not to conduct the typically intrusive anthropological tour of the reserve but chose to spend much of his time in Ottawa’s National Archives, assembling a story that had never before been told – an indictment of the Canadian government’s aboriginal welfare policies using its very own documents.

Shewell’s research was funded by the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Aid to Scholarly Publications Program, and the Health and Welfare Canada Welfare Grants Program.