Evaluation Review: Reservations are for Indians

HEATHER ROBERTSON (1942-2014), award-winning author of of fiction and real life documentarian was a Winnipeg native who crafted short form and at least seventeen books. She produced for school newspapers and the CBC, wrote for Chatelaine, Maclean’s and other periodicals. Robertson was a founding member of the Writers’ Union and Professional Writers Association both. Later on she would initiate digital copyright litigation on behalf of the author class. Some of these details only became known to Art & Commodity after beginning this second article on Robertson and her 1970 premier monograph, which wouldn’t have been the case in a perfect world.

Toronto publisher James Lewis & Samuel released the 303 page Reservations Are For Indians a decade after Ontario’s Ministry of Education began accepting submissions for consideration as textbooks. 6-8 copies would have been supplied to the Ministry and shipping costs incurred. The text’s back cover described something that was “different from anything else available on Canada’s Indians,” a print documentary providing readers with a glimpse of “what [was] really going on in Indian communities and reserves in Canada.” Reporting from Hay Lake and AB Norway House, MB and two more reserves [1] after months of first person investigation. The specialness of this publication is evident quickly. Canada’s colonialism becomes more raw in the documentarian’s style, more frank when freed of demands requested by other genres. Chapters are long or short, a bevy of statistics and characters compiled into paragraphs, shades the consequences of Europeans pilfering local peoples’ lands and identity. The journey is unyielding to the story grid.

Immediately it’s clear why Ontario’s textbook censorship infrastructure came for this distinct accomplishment. Canadians in the 1970s didn’t want to understand themselves this way, nor their ancestors would rather have continued believing “now there’s civilization where there were only barbarians.” They didn’t want their children suffering the guilt.

Against national and international regulation, but in search of shelter, an actual cultural icon was hidden away from larger audiences. No, not Margaret Atwood. However stay with Art & Commodity and you’ll come to understand how other bureaucrats warped Canadians interaction with her as well.

This is not to at all suggest that every single Indigenous band or person everywhere became worse off with European colonialism, nor what Robertson conveyed. We live all the way up to the North Pole with Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and Rudolf. Life can be merciless.

Until 1953, the Slaveys had been nomads, following the moose and trapping fur-bearing animals through the bush and across the vast prairies near the Hay River. The people hunted in family groups, each day led by the oldest and wisest man who knew best where to find the game and the best fur. Life was a daily gamble…If game failed, the whole family would starve…

The year followed a regular cycle based on spring trapping, summer fishing, winter trapping. Life was utilitarian and absolutely efficient. Each family unit was stripped bare of everything which did not contribute directly to survival, with no excess baggage allowed. It was a ruthlessly self-disciplined way of life, including the murder or suicide of those who became a burden through illness or age.[2]

Who remembers elementary school tales of granny or grandpa being set adrift on a lonely ice flow, as I do? What a cruel thought. “Bye Nana, we love you.” In Hay Lake, Robertson explains, and elsewhere across the country The Hudson Bay Company (also The Bay, HBC and formally marketed as “Canada’s Life & Style Platform”) reorganized Indigenous life around itself by creating dependencies while averaging or eliminating some unknowns. The British trading company went on converting Indigenous life energy into commerce as it already had been for three hundred years.

One chapter of this debut classic will intimately portray a distinct people fixed in time and place, in a style that adopts parts and pieces of ethnography, while another will step back and seek to amalgamate those findings into conclusions about the “Treaty Indians” who then, it’s quoted, numbered 250,000 people and formed approximately one percent of Canada’s population. With her onsite investigations, if readers encounter more provocative analysis and jarring statements than can be found in Immigration Canada study manuals, there’s nothing objectively in error. This was one of C.R. Wilson’s findings in his 1973 review for journal American Anthropologist. [3] The book was “a personal document chronicling the awakening of a ‘typical Canadian’ to a serious social problem in her own country.”

The message is opposite brand Canada. We can’t expect any three levels of government to portray the country and its corporations this way, not out in the open, not then. Not without help. Back then in young Heather’s case, the stiff-suited bureaucrats in Toronto were not going to be henpecked about what a bad job their kind were doing by this fresh-mouthed rookie just off her Manhattan Ivy League graduate experience at Columbia. Not in front of the kids. It would be an antithetical public relations failure. But we are not them. Relevant questions bubble to the surface. What is public education’s purpose? What is it to become? Is it to explain “what is really going on,” or not? How are documentary observations to be blended with chosen narratives and education’s other purposes to regulate curriculum?

From what I’ve read twenty-eight year old Robertson was angered by what she saw. David Hayes wrote an obituary for The Globe And Mail following her death from cancer, which she sustained in different decades and organs, quoting editor John Macfarlane who referred to her as “sometimes prickly.” [4] Reservations Are For Reservations is sometimes prickly, and became available five years prior to The Unjust Society even, another contentious submission documenting Canadian-Indigenous relations. As a textbook, Robertson’s documentary could incite classrooms of highschoolers to raise their hands and ask difficult questions with pretty good evidence. Canada provides freedom, doesn’t take it away.

5 FOR (3 for reference) versus 1 AGAINST

Reservations Are For Indians was rejected for a second time in 1971  for profanity. An accompanying memo from the assigned officer to department chair asked if a book describing a “chain gang” of girls, an Indian’s penis urinating in a pool, and insult “Shit on you,” could be approved. The answer was no. The lone rejection came from a civil servant reviewer who found the book “enjoyable” but was opposed to the author’s bias and choice of incidents. They could deepen students’ already existing opinions. Another government reviewer, who approved the book for Circular 14, mentioned how it filled in many perceptual gaps. He believed that the concept of a “drink-in” and “internment camp mentality” existed among both “Indians” and Whites important. External reviewers characterized the $3.95 purchase as expensive but also “the price we must pay for original works on Canadian problems” and “worth the money.” Robertson’s research was characterized as thorough.

Jeremy Tompkins’  Canadian Mockingbird: Exposing Censorship and Textbook-Mediated Social Engineering, the 223-page nonfiction book describing a program of covert public school textbook censorship during Baby Boomer and Generation X eras is available. The program regularly ignored the panel consensus of paid subject specialists in defiance of domestic and international civil protections.


[1] The Canadian word “reserve” refers to the Canadian phenomenon.

[2] Robertson, H. (1970). Reservations Are For Indians. James Lewis & Samuel, p.16-17.

[3] Wilson, C. R. (1973). Reservations Are for Indians by Heather Robertson. American Anthropologist, 75(2).

[4] Hayes, D. (2014, April 3). Reform spirit drove writer Heather Robertson. The Globe and Mail.

[5] Photograph of Heather Robertson by Myfanwy Phillips is from the back cover of the author’s 1973 Grass Roots, another JLS publication.


Updated May, 17, 2024.