This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.
By Kelly Ferguson
In the Sir John A. Macdonald fonds, there are a series of letters exchanged between Macdonald and Dr. Peter Edmund Jones (Kahkewaquonaby). These letters offer a small glimpse into the work of Jones as well as organizations like the Grand General Indian Council of Ontario and Quebec in the struggle for the rights of First Nations during the 1870s and 1880s.
Jones was born in 1843 to Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and Elizabeth Field. In 1866, Jones earned a medical degree from Queen’s College in Kingston, becoming one of the first licensed Anishinaabe (and First Nations) doctors in British North America. After graduation, Jones worked as a practicing physician in Brantford, Ontario, Niagara, Ontario, and New York City. He eventually set up a practice in Hagersville, Ontario, next to the New Credit reserve. He served as Chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit (now the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation) from 1870 to 1874, and again from 1880 to 1886.
Beginning in 1874, Jones served as part of the Grand General Indian Council of Ontario and Quebec. The Grand Council first met in 1870, and one of its primary tasks was reviewing the Indian Act and other pieces of legislation that related to the rights of First Nations.
By 1884, the Grand Council’s focus was on the Indian Advancement Act. The Act enforced significant changes to regulations and governing systems for First Nations in Eastern Canada, including limits on the size and functions of councils and the appointment of local Indian agents to preside over the councils.
The Grand Council continued to debate the new Indian Advancement Act from 1884 to 1886. There were major objections to the Act, particularly the limits to the size of councils and the limits to their function, as well as the appointment of local Indian agents as chairmen. In 1887 Jones, then a delegate on the Grand Council, sent Macdonald a letter with suggestions and comments about both the Indian Act and the Indian Advancement Act. Jones’ recommendations included granting power to local councils to make decisions when the Indian agent was not there, extending equivalent powers to the chiefs, as well as increasing the number of councilors.
Jones also wrote to Macdonald with recommendations on the Electoral Franchise Act. Although, in theory, First Nations men had been able to vote since 1867, enfranchisement meant that they were required to give up their status under the Indian Act, as well as the accompanying treaty rights. Jones was supportive of enfranchisement, but not at the expense of status. He saw the Electoral Franchise Act as an opportunity to support a version of enfranchisement that maintained a person’s status under the Indian Act and protected treaty rights.
In the end, the Macdonald government ignored Jones’s recommendations regarding the Indian Advancement Act, and Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government later repealed the Electoral Franchise Act. The franchise would not be fully extended to status Indians under the Indian Act until 1960, and subsequent amendments to the Indian Act throughout the 19th century continued to assert increased control over the lives of First Nations. That said, these letters still provide a small glimpse into the work of organizations and individuals in the struggle for the rights of First Nations. Both in the 1880s and today, Indigenous Peoples have fought for the right to self-determination and the protection of their Indigenous, Aboriginal and treaty rights, and these letters offer a small window into one of many examples.
Kelly Ferguson is a political archivist in the Science and Governance Private Archives Division of Library and Archives Canada.