Assimilation can be described as a process whereby an individual or group is incorporated into a dominant group of a nation such that whatever differences existed between these two is no longer clearly identifiable. Assimilation can involve the adoption by the individual or group in question of the language, customs, institutions, worldviews, laws, and practices of the dominant group. In contrast to strict eugenic notions of segregation or sterilization to avoid intermixing or miscegenation, but with the similar goal of ensuring the “disappearance” of a group of people, the goal of assimilation is to have an individual or group become absorbed in to the body politic so that they are no longer identifiable as such. A certain form of assimilation is sometimes voluntary, as might be the case through deliberate immigration, when an individual willingly adopts the culture or way of life practiced in his/her new place of residence or when an individual or group freely incorporates elements of another culture while continuing to practice their own ways. The latter is sometimes also referred to as acculturation.
Through the process of colonialism, assimilation is often carried out in a forceful or coercive manner on Indigenous populations inhabiting the lands in question. This was the case, for example, with the Absorption Policy in Australia, or policies imposed by the French government in its colonial possessions in West Africa, which sought to remake Indigenous populations by having them adopt the ways of the colonizer. The Nazis also engaged in the absorption or Germanization of those in its newly annexed Eastern European territories who were considered racially proximate because of their purportedly Aryan-Nordic traits. Following the founding and settlement of Canada, the federal government openly undertook a policy of assimilation toward Aboriginal peoples with the goal of gaining access to Indigenous lands and resources, and of reducing federal obligations to Aboriginal and indigenous peoples.
Although nation-to-nation treaty making and the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty could arguably be said to have initially underscored Indian policy in Canada, once settlement of lands and the establishment of Canadian borders was increasingly secured, the federal approach toward Aboriginal peoples quickly changed to one of domination and assimilation. The federal policy of assimilation was set out early on, prior to the formation of Canada. As early as 1834, a report commissioned by the British House of Commons outlined that the Indian Department, established to distribute annual payments to some Indigenous peoples in North America in exchange for their military alliance, was to be greatly reduced, if not entirely abolished. Officials hoped that the specific costs associated with the Indian department could be reduced over time and, if this solution was successful, Indigenous peoples would both be contained and civilized. Over the long term, this strategy of containment would make it easier for colonial officials to buy and resell lands previously occupied by Indigenous peoples since these would no longer be central to their subsistence.
Assimilation is based on the idea that once contained Aboriginal peoples will adopt Western practices and be absorbed into Canadian society. This was the stated purpose of Indian policy as indicated by Duncan Campbell Scott, former Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, in his much repeated quote: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.” With these goals in mind, first the colonial government, then the Canadian government, enacted legislation and policies to ensure the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples. The Indian Act, amended numerous times since it was enacted in 1876, outlawed many central aspects of Indigenous ways of life including political institutions, laws, and social and cultural practices which served as means of forging alliances between nations. Settling Aboriginal peoples on reserves was vital to disconnecting them from their traditional lands and cultural practices, and made it more likely that these would be replaced with ways that were conducive to their assimilation into Canadian society. The residential school policy was also enacted in the mid-late 1800s, operating until the late 1900s, and consisted of forcibly transferring thousands of Aboriginal children away from their communities and into church run institutions where they could be indoctrinated in Western ways. In this respect assimilation is a twofold process involving the imposition of a particular way of life at the expense and with the destruction of the former.
Assimilative policies toward Aboriginal peoples share a similar goal to eugenics in the desire to eliminate the characteristics that make a group unique, or that are considered problematic to the interests of those in a position of dominance. Both also serve the political economic interests of the state, in relation to Indigenous populations, because they undermine the ability of these groups to exist on their own terms, as well as the immediate connections these groups have to lands and resources traditionally relied upon to do so. It is debatable to what extent assimilation policies were influenced by eugenic ideology. If one adopts a strict Mendelian view, the assimilation of so called inferior races contributes to degeneracy. However, more explicitly eugenic policies were also imposed on Indigenous peoples in North America, like coercive sterilization in order to eliminate the ability of Aboriginal women to reproduce, which also reduces the number of those who, in future generations, are able to claim Aboriginal rights and/or title to lands and resources; or, the definition of an “Indian” under the Indian Act based on notions of “blood quantum,” or the percentage of Indian “blood” one has as determined by a person’s ancestry, as the factor in whether one is recognised as an Indian under Canadian law. These racist policies worked in concert with other assimilative policies more generally to undermine Aboriginal connections to their territories, to absorb Indigenous populations, and to reduce the number of those to whom the federal government has obligations.
For Aboriginal peoples, assimilation serves, first and foremost, to separate them from their lands and resources to enable these to be more easily incorporated into or exploited under the existing capitalist mode of production of the Canadian state. As a result of the history of federal Indian policy, many Indigenous societies have gone from subsisting as the original occupants of the land to being relegated to reserves which, when taken together, total approximately 2.6 million hectares (26 000 km2), or 0.2 percent of the total land mass of what is now known as Canada. By and large, Indigenous peoples have not enjoyed any of the benefits resulting from the wealth that has been extracted from their territories. Life on reserve is greatly affected by poverty, high mortality rates, and other dire social issues directly linked to the longstanding assimilative policies of the federal government and the continued chronic underfunding of basic social services. Assimilative policies have disrupted and continue to disrupt the continuity of life in Indigenous societies and fail to respect Indigenous sovereignty. Some also argue a connection between the assimilation of Indigenous peoples and genocide, as both ultimately result in the destruction of a group as such.
The federal policy of assimilation shares with eugenics the goal of “disappearing” a group as such. Although racism and eugenic ideology influenced some aspects of Indian policy, many policies implemented with the goal of assimilation in mind ran contrary to strict eugenic notions by promoting the absorption of Indigenous peoples into Canadian society. Yet all these policies met the political and economic needs of the Canadian state by undermining Indigenous connections to land and reducing federal obligations to Aboriginal peoples.
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