"History's blinkers" : resituating 1950s aboriginal socio-economic history within anomie theory
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Colonial discourse has typically defined and limited understandings of Aboriginal history. By analyzing the educational, housing and employment issues found in the fieldnotes compiled during the research of Harry Hawthorn’s 1958 report, The Indians of British Columbia: A Study of Contemporary Social Adjustment, this work attempts to sidestep some of the binaries inherent in colonial discourse and uncover perspectives that have commonly been overlooked. It does this by adopting Émile Durkheim’s analytical lens of anomie. But whereas standard anthropological and sociological models of anomie used to understand social dysfunction within Aboriginal communities have been limited by a superficial understanding of the factors that lead to social disintegration as societies transition from mechanical or organic organization, this study uses an alternate definition of anomie (informed by Robert Merton’s conception of goals and means) to challenge common historical understandings of Aboriginal people’s relations to education, housing, and steady employment. Contrary to lingering stereotypes and common portrayals in historical scholarship, the analytical lens of anomie allows us to appreciate that Aboriginal people placed a great deal of importance on education, desired and invested considerable resources to improve their housing conditions, and wished for steady employment and the security and predictability it offered. The fact that these goals were often not realized is attributed in part to the limited means Aboriginal people had available to them. Higher levels of education were difficult to attain because schools were insufficiently resourced and difficult to access, and attempts to improve homes were often stymied by lack of materials and an income to pay for them. Finding steady employment in the 1950s was especially difficult for people restricted to fishing, logging, ranching or trapping, as primary industries, already undependable by their very nature, underwent technological changes and consolidation that made them even less accessible to Aboriginal people. The more critical factor in limiting the achievement of goals, however, may have been the government’s role, as explained by Durkheim in The Division of Labor In Society. Durkheim argued that solidarity could be compromised as societies transitioned from mechanical to organic organization if certain criteria were not met. Such a scenario would most likely be brought about by inappropriate state regulation, which Durkheim characterized as the over-extension of regulation, constraint and inconsistency. Each of these factors was clearly visible on Aboriginal reserves in the 1950s as the Department of Indian Affairs and its Indian Agents attempted to control minute aspects of people’s lives, prevented them from taking an appropriate role in governing their own communities, and failed to create and carry out consistent policies. In the end, Durkheim’s understanding of state regulation opens an avenue of enquiry that enables us to challenge the notion that Aboriginal people were unable to transition from traditional to modern life, and allows us to appreciate the fuller significance of the state’s failure to enable effective governance for Aboriginal people.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
Copyright DateNovember 2013