Assimilation Through Incarceration: the Geographic Imposition of Canadian Law Over Indigenous Peoples
Jacobs, Madelaine Christine
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The disproportionate incarceration of indigenous peoples in Canada is far more than a socio-economic legacy of colonialism. The Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) espoused incarceration as a strategic instrument of assimilation. Colonial consciousness could not reconcile evolving indigenous identities with projects of state formation founded on the epistemological invention of populating idle land with productive European settlements. The 1876 Indian Act instilled a stubborn, albeit false, categorization deep within the structures of the Canadian state: “Indian,” ward of the state. From “Indian” classification conferred at birth, the legal guardianship of the state was so far-reaching as to make it akin to the control of incarcerated inmates. As early iterations of the DIA sought to enforce the legal dominion of the state, “Indians” were quarantined on reserves until they could be purged of indigenous identities that challenged colonial hegemony. Reserve churches, council houses, and schools were symbolic markers as well as practical conveyors of state programs. Advocates of Christianity professed salvation and taught a particular idealized morality as prerequisites to acceptable membership in Canadian society. Agricultural instructors promoted farming as a transformative act in the individual ownership of land. Alongside racializing religious edicts and principles of stewardship, submission to state law was a critical precondition of enfranchisement into the adult milieu. When indigenous identities persisted, children were removed from their families and placed in residential schools for intensive assimilation. Adults and children deemed noncompliant to state laws were coerced through incarceration. Jails were powerful symbols of the punitive authority of the Dominion of Canada. Today, while the overrepresentation of Aboriginal persons in prisons is a matter of national concern, and critiques of systematic racism dismantle ideologies of impartial justice, the precise origins of indigenous imprisonment have not been identified. The DIA was so intimately invested in assimilation through incarceration that lock-ups were erected with band funds on “Indian lands” across Canada. Archival documents and the landscape of Manitoulin Island make this legal historical geographical analysis of assimilation through incarceration possible.