"What Makes the Indian Tick?" The Influence of Social Sciences on Canada's Indian Policy, 1947-1964


  • Hugh Shewell


The continuing objective of state policy towards First Nations in Canada has been their assimilation into the dominant society. Until World War II the strategy had been to subjugate them through transparently harsh statutory and administrative measures. After the war, a new ostensibly more humane approach to assimilation was introduced. An analysis of archival documents from the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs reveals the role of the social sciences in influencing this approach. Knowledge from the social sciences, applied to Indian policy, reflected the biases of modern liberalism. The social sciences pointed to the required direction of Indian adaptation — the market, individualism, self-reliance, and the family — and to what aspects of Indian culture had to change — collectivism, extended kinship, and gendered roles reflective of traditional rather than modern cultures. Although these state policies enjoyed wide public support, First Nations refused to be mere objects of science and research.