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Pre-Contact

First Nation’s people of Canada were made up of several tribes that included the Dene, Inuit, Algonkin, Pacific Coast nations and Iroquois.[1] Each of the Nations had their creation myth explaining their existence and the origin of the world, as well as other creatures. During the pre-contact era, these nations had their ways of life that differed from the Europeans. The First Nations had their cultures, politics, societal norms, economies and gender factors that differed from those of Europeans. The nations were divided geographically with the borders within Canada. Although the nations had different social organization as well as economic activities, the differences were not too diverse.

Social organization

Towards the 16th century, the First Nations of Canada were living in societies that ranged from egalitarian tribes in the sub-arctic area to those who owned slaves with a highly stratified society in the West Coast. Most of the woodland First nations were organized into several independent groups that had their hunting grounds. The groups had less than 400 people, and the leader was chosen for his abilities in hunting as well as bravely. These groups migrated with seasons as the animal migrated for food. On the other hand, Iroquoian First nations were good farmers and planted their crops hence did not need to migrate for food. This allowed them to settle permanently and establish complex government systems. In the plains, the First Nations migrated depending on their neighbors for trading. These tribes had their own chiefs and performed spiritual ceremonies. The pacific coast, on the other hand, had distinct social order that comprised of an aristocratic class regarded as superior by birth. The basic social order was made up of extended families that identified all the members.

On the other hand, European social organizations were more complex considering that they had settled earlier as well as densely populated at the time they were exploring. Exploring had come as a need to seek more products from other areas. Most of the European nations were organized into complex government systems as well as countries ruled by the king. The social system was characterized by Feudalism, a system of reciprocal obligations with the top at the pyramid consisting of the king[2]. Although he was not fully absolute, he depended on goodwill of the secular as well as ecclesiastical princes, powerful military organizations and nobles who were at the middle[3]. The majorities were serf, considered subordinates and had to pay tribute through money of labor and crops for protection. However, due to increased warfare when financial problems arose as well as other conflicts the social organization changed where the kings became absolute towards 16th century.

Economic activities

The economic activity of the First Nations of Canada was mainly hunting and gathering before the innovation of crop planting. At this time, the First Nations depended on animals. The tribes would hunt and gather plants that were available for food. Much of their food, including meat, fruits, plants and fish depended on what was available. The different Nations had their different sources of food. Where some were reliant on animals on land, those near the ocean relied on fish such as the salmon, shellfish, octopus, crabs, whales and herring amongst others. However, not all the First Nations tribes relied on hunting and gathering. Tribes such as the Iroquoian First Nations had many animals within their territories, but much of their food came from the crops they planted. Other areas such as in the plains, the First Nations there had a highly specialized hunting culture[4].

From the food gathered, some were eaten fresh while others were smoked and preserved under hides especially for hunters in order to carry along on their hunts as well as during trading. For instance, women in the plains prepared the meat by drying it and pounding it into powder and then mixed it with hot melted fats from the buffalo. This was called Pemmican and most of the hunters as well as traders used it as the staple food since it could be stored for long during their journey.

Unlike the hunters and gatherers in Canada, the majority of Europeans lived on land, meaning their economic activity was mainly farming. At this time, farming had become precarious due to crop failures associated with exhaustion of land after long years of planting. Many generations would be forced to move to marginal lands after fertile fields were taken for planting, thus making it difficult to earn a decent living for the ordinary people. Additionally, unlike the First Nations of Canada that owned land communally, the Europeans had a land system that allowed private ownership of land especially for the noble and rich people. This forced the serfs to work for the nobles in return of food and pay. Even with people providing their labor for livelihood, the few fields were never enough to sustain the immense population at the time. This made it harder for many people to get work considering that 105 of French people were beggars while 25% of English people was quite poor[5].

The differences in land ownership was one area that would cause conflicts between the Europeans and the First Nations people of Canada who owned land communally, allowing every person access to its resources. Private ownership would mean limiting access to land for the natives, especially if not all would have it. This would most likely cause a conflict when the Europeans tried to change this issue or take land from the First Nations tribes. Further, this would mean that the people of the First Nations of Canada would have to clear way for the Europeans, who would use the land for farming and displace the food resources for the tribes.

Political organization

The First Nations people of Canada did not have one common political system especially because they were hunters and gatherers largely. However, this did not mean they had no political systems. Some of the nations had distinct political systems of governments that laid rules of interacting. All the tribes were independent and did not require paying any tribute to a king who ruled a central government. The tribes were organized into groups, most of them with a chief or a leader. Other tribes had some aristocratic forms of government where leaders were born. The groups were tied together by social and cultural rules that everybody knew and did not have to be written. People lived more independently without a central rule or reporting to one central government.

On the other hand, Europeans were organized into complex government systems with the king as the leader of the whole nations. All the people paid tribute to the king. The king had the support of the military organizations that enforced the written rule of law. Down the ladder, the king had other leaders such as the nobles that were responsible for regions within each country and reported to the king. This ensured that all the people were governed by the same rule. This is in contrast to the people of the First Nations of Canada who were free to practice their cultures, and carry out their activities without worrying about such formal structures.

Culture

The First Nations had their own beliefs and values as well as traditions, which they believed were gifts from their creator. One of their culture was living in harmony with nature and respecting it as well as what was contained in it[6]. All their beliefs and cultures were reflected in their songs, ceremonies, dances, and even festivals. All that was in nature was respected including the animals. For instance, upon killing an animal the hunter would talk or sing to the dying animal in thanks for the food. Ceremonies were held for good harvests, and rituals performed thanking gods, as well. For instance, farmers would hold several ceremonies within the year for different purposes such as planning and ripening of fruits.

On the other hand, the Europeans had a different culture and rarely saw nature as a sacred thing to hold much value. Largely, the Europeans were concerned with the commercial benefit of nature. The popular culture believed by most of the peasants was that their destiny was controlled by outside forces.[7] Many had come to believe in magic and a hunt for witches who were associated with causing bad things community intensified, with many of them being killed. Many were helpless old women who were blamed for the terrible things happening to the community. Many thousands ended up dead. Culture was another factor that would cause conflict considering that Europeans would not have much respect for nature as the First nations; as such they would not give regards to their culture that was so dear.

Gender role

Within the First Nations, women were supposed to do the domestic works such as cooking and looking after the family. The women did not go out as much as men did. Women were left to do the easier tasks such as planning within the tribes that practiced crop cultivation while the men cleared the fields by cutting down the tree. In Europe, things were not very different considering women were given lesser tasks that men considered easy. Majority of their tasks were around homes such as planting as well and trading[8]. However, the only difference is that women did some of the tasks that men did although they got lesser pay[9].

Bibliography

Conrad Margaret and Finkel Alvin. History of the Canadian Peoples, Volume 1. New York, N.Y: Longman Publishing Group, 2005. Print.

[1] See Margret Conrad and Alvin Finkel, especially chapter 2 for details on the various first nations of Canada.

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