Randy Fred

Are you tired yet of hearing the name “Trump”? He has sparked much controversy and much discussion. His talk of building a fence across the US−Mexican border is strange but brings to mind the long history of migration of First Nations workers on the BC coast and interior.

For Indigenous people, there is no absolute border. The political US−Canada border virtually splits every Indigenous nation along the line: British Columbia nations from the Nuu-chah-nulth on the west side of BC to the Kootenay on the east side all stretch beyond the 49th parallel in both directions. The Jay Treaty, signed November 19, 1794, by the United States and Great Britain, confirmed the right of “Indians” on both sides of the US−Canada border to cross the line for employment, education, investing and other purposes. This right was transferred to the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, revised in 1965. Today, surprisingly, the “Indian” terms eliminating the border are honoured by the US but not by Canada. So it is no hassle for a Canadian First Nations person to work in the United States, but a huge hassle for an American Indian to work in Canada.

The fur trade changed the lifestyles of First Nations people all across western North America. By the time a trading post was established in Fort St. James in BC’s north, in 186, the maritime harvest and trade of fur-bearing animals had been active from Alaska to Mexico for years. Several countries had ships all along the coast buying sea otter and sealskin pelts, among other furs. First Nations hunters were recruited to head north to areas as far away as Alaska to harvest seals and sea otters with their specially designed canoes. Alaska was still owned by Russia in those days, so there was no concern about migrant workers.

This migration of First Nations people for economic reasons, along with contact with Europeans, affected the lifestyles and cultures of the Indigenous peoples. New styles of dress were adopted, as well as new kinds of food; and the capture of large quantities of wildlife for the enrichment of European traders put nature off balance. First Nations people were introduced to new forms of trade based on greed rather than need.

Large migrations of Indigenous people also took place well into the 196s. Berry farmers, vegetable farmers, fruit orchardists and hops growers from Washington State hired BC Natives to pick their fruits and vegetables for commercial sale. These employers had to provide food and lodging for their pickers, so many individuals and whole families from BC moved to Washington State for entire summers and into the fall season to harvest the produce.

The Nez Perce tribe often moved from Washington State to Vernon, BC, to pick fruit and hops. This trek must have seemed straightforward for this group. In 1877, after refusing to leave their ancestral lands and relocate to a reservation in Idaho, the Nez Perce had attempted to reach Canada from Oregon and barely escaped slaughter by the US Cavalry. They had nearly made it when Chief Joseph was forced to surrender, and the tribe was forcibly divided and relocated to various US states.

In the 196s, when I was a youngster on the Tseshaht Reserve in Port Alberni, BC, a school bus went riding around picking up residents to move to Vachon Island and other Washington State farms to harvest produce, earning money for the summer and into the fall. I was too young to go along, and I was envious of my older brothers and sisters who got to go on such an adventure with our aunt. One of my brothers, a fun-loving teenager, told me it was more fun than work. I heard several stories about illegitimate children being conceived at berry farms. I also heard some scary stories about physical fights amongst pickers of different races.

The migration of BC and US workers in the agriculture and fur trades gave rise to an interchange of cultures among First Nations people, and contact with Europeans affected daily life. Fortunately, the fact that Canada and the US relied on each other’s workers for their economies did not generate a desire to build a wall between us.

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Randy Fred

Randy Fred is a Nuu-Chah-Nulth Elder. He is the founder of Theytus Books, the first aboriginal-owned and operated book publishing house in Canada. He has worked in publishing and communications for forty years. He lives in Nanaimo.


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