By Jill St. Germain, Carleton University, Ottawa

Jill St. Germain teaches Aboriginal History at Carleton University. A graduate of Carleton University and the University of Calgary, she is the author of Indian Treaty-Making Policy in the United States and Canada, 1867-1877 (Nebraska, 2001) and Broken Treaties: Implementing Treaties with the Lakota and the Plains Cree, 1868-1885 (Nebraska, in press).

The association between military forces and Canada’s Aboriginal peoples is a long-standing one with an impressive catalogue of alliances dating almost from the appearance of Europeans on the St. Lawrence in the early seventeenth century, and manifested in the twentieth century in collaboration in the World Wars. In Battle Grounds: The Canadian Military and Aboriginal Lands, P. Whitney Lackenbauer, an Assistant Professor in the History Department of St. Jerome’s University, offers an assessment of a different but no less significant aspect of military-Aboriginal interaction in Canada.

Battle Grounds is an examination of the circumstances, development, and impact of military interest in and exploitation of Indian reserve and other Aboriginal lands in the twentieth century. Lackenbauer pursue this topic through a comparative case study approach in which seven of his nine chapters focus on specific examples of military acquisition of Aboriginal lands for training purposes, spanning the period from the pre-First World War years through the 1990s. Examples include high-profile cases involving the Sarcee Reserve near Calgary, the Tyendinaga Mohawk Reserve on the Bay of Quinte, Camp Ipperwash on Lake Huron, and the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range at Cold Lake, Alberta. The less well known story of the fruitless question for a training base in British Columbia in the first third of the century and an examination of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan’s demands during the Second World War, are also considered in detail. These focused analyses are supplemented by two additional chapters which bring up to date the issues examined historically, and also consider additional examples more briefly. Although Lackenbauer writes here only of those cases in which Aboriginal lands were acquired for military training, Appendix A provides a comprehensive list of all examples where the military secured Aboriginal lands, for a variety of purposes large and small, in the twentieth century. Battle Grounds is a national story but the focus of military interests and the geographical location of Aboriginal peoples and their lands leads to an emphasis on experiences in British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta.

In Battle Grounds, Lackenbauer combines the fields of military and Aboriginal history, and makes important contributions to both. This is an unconventional work of military history. Across a century in which Canadian military operations have unfolded almost exclusively in international arenas, Battle Grounds offers an examination of an explicitly domestic issue. Lackenbauer draws attention to a fundamental, though seldom appreciated, aspect of military operations in the struggle to secure appropriate training facilities to support those far-flung efforts. In combining this perhaps mundane issue with the more widely contentious question of Aboriginal lands use, the author opens the specialized and often-marginalized field of military history to a wider scholarly readership. Lackenbauer also takes on a long-standing theme in Aboriginal history - the encroachment on and exploitation of Aboriginal lands by non-Aboriginals - and brings to it a twentieth century variant, the challenge in this instance coming from the military, rather than from those interested in settlement or resource exploitation.

The book has several strengths which derive largely from the comparative case study framework Lackenbauer employs. His detailed analysis of discrete examples of military-Aboriginal interaction fosters appreciation for the depth of diversity in that experience. Lackenbauer explicitly rejects the monolithic constructions of entities such as “the government,” “the military,” or “Aboriginals,” and through several specific studies illustrates the point. In Battle Grounds we see decisions regarding Aboriginal lands unfolding in conflict and cooperation, with the Department of Indian Affairs pitted against the Department of National Defense and working in favour of Aboriginal interests, at least as often as it cooperates with the military against Aboriginal communities. These communities are themselves sometimes divided, for economic, political, and patriotic reasons, in responding to military demands. The fact that different interests are at work at every level and within each of the organizations or units involved in negotiating Aboriginal land use helps to explain the several instances of cooperation among them, as well as to expand understanding of the conflicts which do arise.

The examples Lackenbauer uses span the twentieth century, a feature which contributes to an appreciation of specific historical circumstances as a factor in military and/or Aboriginal success in negotiating land use. As the author points out, the fortunes of both the Canadian military and Aboriginal interests have shifted erratically over the past hundred years. The military had a higher profile and more positive public image in earlier years, particularly in wartime, than was the case in the 1990s. At the same time, Aboriginal concerns knew limited public interest or awareness until the post-Second World War era, but in the 1990s had secured a degree of sympathy and support hitherto unknown. These changing circumstances had an impact on the issue of military use of Aboriginal lands best illustrated in the case of Camp Ipperwash. In 1942, there was strong public support for the coercive application of the War Measures Act to gain the use of Stoney Point Reserve on Lake Huron for the construction of a training camp. In the 1990s, public sympathy was strident in support of the return of those same lands to the aggrieved Chippewa, and viewed the ongoing presence of the military on their lands as an historic injustice. Circumstances also played a role in shaping Aboriginal perspectives, as Lackenbauer illustrates in the example of the flying school established on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Reserve, where patriotic commitment in war-time trumped concerns usually generated by non-Aboriginal interests in Aboriginal lands. Even then, war did not always tip the balance in the military’s favour, as events on the Six Nations Reserve, also during the Second World War, indicate.

Lackenbauer does not make light of either military impositions or Indian Affairs negligence or indifference. Nor does he exaggerate Aboriginal agency. He readily acknowledges the unevenness of the playing field for Aboriginal peoples in a non-Aboriginal state, but he also categorically rejects a “one-size-fits-all” interpretation of military-Aboriginal interaction as ahistorical and demeaning to the Aboriginal participants. His study vividly illustrates the importance and utility of examining discrete experiences on their own terms, paying particular attention to the specific circumstances of time and place. This results in a more complex and nuanced depiction of the encounters between and among the military, other government departments, and Aboriginal communities, and produces a more accurate picture of a dynamic and ongoing historical relationship.

In writing Battle Grounds, Lackenbauer had privileged access to Department of National Defence files, both classified and unclassified, although only the latter are cited in the notes. His success in securing Aboriginal sources on the issues addressed was more uneven, although not for lack of effort on his part. Some communities and individuals, identified in his acknowledgments, were particularly forthcoming, while others were less so, for various reasons. The overall impression is that Lackenbauer was as comprehensive as it was possible to be with regard to both military and Aboriginal sources.

Twenty maps and thirty photographs and illustrations break up the text and add materially to the reader’s appreciation for the circumstances and issues discussed. The maps are especially helpful to a reader with a limited understanding of things military, as in the layout of the camps at Sarcee and Ipperwash. In other instances, the imposition of the military ranges over a map of Aboriginal lands, as at Cold Lake, brings a clarity words cannot convey. Photographs of individuals, both famous and ordinary, give a human face to an issue-driven narrative, while photographic depictions of military bases and Aboriginal communities or lands provide visual insight into the concerns at hand.

Battle Grounds is a well-written, cohesive study of a difficult issue. Taken in its entirety, it will likely appeal largely to those interested in the fields of military and Aboriginal history, perhaps more to the latter. As important as the book is as a whole, readers interested in specific subjects will find that individual chapters stand alone. Those looking for insights into the historical complexities of the Ipperwash conflict, for example, would do well to start with Lackenbauer’s account of it. One of the attractions of the case study approach is the information offered on particular Aboriginal communities. On a broader canvas, Battle Grounds should be read for the approach adopted. It brings insight not only to the content addressed, but also the way in which a large and contentious topic may be developed so as to illuminate the peculiarities and uniqueness of its individual components, thereby to a convey a more accurate assessment of the whole.


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JMSS is a publication of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.