Lord Bury's civilization scorecard for Canada's First Nations, 1855

In December 1855, the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in the Province of Canada (from 1867, Ontario and Quebec), published an index of civilization among the aboriginal communities under his charge, awarding them marks on a scale from 0 to 15.

From a twenty-first century perspective, scoring First Nations according to their convergence with European practices and values seems a staggering act of presumption.[1] It comes as an even greater surprise to find that the league table was the work of a twenty-three year-old English aristocrat, an officer in the British Army, who had lived in Canada for little more than a year.[2]

The eldest son of the sixth Earl of Albemarle, William Coutts Keppel was known as Viscount (colloquially, Lord) Bury. Since this was a courtesy title, he was eligible for election to the House of Commons and, in 1857, following his return from Canada, it was in the natural order of things that he became a British MP. This is a bonus to historians, since one of his earliest speeches was on Canadian Indian affairs.[3] It was not Lord Bury's fault that he was an Army officer. The decision had been taken for him by his father, a veteran of the battle of Waterloo, who purchased a commission for the boy when he was eleven, although he probably did not commence his military life until he was sixteen, when he became a lieutenant in the Scots Guards. In 1852, Lord Bury went to India (where his father had served) as aide-de-camp to the commander of the Bombay (Mumbai) garrison, Lord Frederick FitzClarence. (Lord Frederick was one of William IV's illegitimate children; Lord Bury was similarly descended from Charles II.) The posting was unhealthy (it killed Lord Frederick in 1854), and within a year Lord Bury returned home on sick leave. At this point, he resigned his commission – possibly the first in a series of gestures of rebellion against his father – and soon set off for Canada.[4]

Given his family connections, it was more or less automatic that Lord Bury would become the guest of the Governor-General, Lord Elgin. Elgin's term of office was coming to end in 1854 and his successor, Sir Edmund Head, was impressed by the young man. "He is clever & has learned a great deal of the country during the last 5 or 6 months." As his Indian Affairs report would demonstrate, Lord Bury was intelligent and articulate, although his formal education seems to have consisted of just two years at Eton, where the famous public school taught little more than Latin and Greek, in those days both of them badly. Head needed to appoint a Superintendent General of Indian Affairs to replace Lord Elgin's secretary, who was returning to Britain with his employer. With Canada now a self-governing colony, it was something of an anomaly that the appointment should go to an Englishman, and a newcomer at that, but "Indian affairs" (I use the contemporary term for simplicity) were still funded by the British government, which was attempting to transfer the responsibility – and the cost – to the province. When relations between Head and Bury cooled a year later, the Governor-General claimed that there had been "literally no alternative" to the appointment. Not surprisingly, a bachelor in his early twenties found women attractive, and a titled aristocrat – let alone one who was young and personable – was an alluring rarity in North America. "He is a young man & has been getting into some very young scrapes which have bothered me considerably," Head wrote disapprovingly. Nonetheless, "I hope he will do well yet. He has great abilities." The Governor-General's goodwill was not reciprocated. In 1858, when Sir Edmund Head came under criticism for his handling of a Canadian political crisis, a senior Colonial Office official warned that his former protégé was a "private enemy ... who will not make the least of any untoward circumstances".[5] It seems that he had steered close the wind: Canadian newspapers alleged that Lord Bury had attempted to seduce a woman in his private cabin aboard a St Lawrence steamboat. Worse still, the Governor-General and Lady Head had also been passengers. Lord Bury indignantly denied the charge, claiming that he had handed over his cabin to the woman and her servant to ensure her privacy. Three months later, he was removed from temptation by marrying Sophia MacNab. Her father, Sir Allan MacNab, was the Premier of Canada, and about to be ousted by his own cabinet colleagues. MacNab attempted to live like a landed gentleman (and did indeed acquire a baronetcy) but was constantly plagued by financial problems. His  biographer described his new son-in-law as "talented and indiscreet". Lord Bury's choice of a colonial bride – he was almost certainly expected to marry within the British upper classes – may have been a further act of rebellion against his own father. Sophia had been reared as a Roman Catholic, and the couple had an ecumenical but slightly eccentric double wedding ceremony, taking their vows before both a priest and a clergyman of the Church of England. Their marriage was a success. Sophia sometimes acted as her husband's private secretary, as well as producing ten children: one of their descendants is King Charles III's consort, Queen Camilla.[6] Perhaps she helped write his Indian report, which must have been completed during their honeymoon.

In British politics, the Keppels were Liberals. However, in ideological terms, we should not make too much of this. More specifically, the Albemarles were Whigs, who believed that Britain was best governed by a network of wealthy and enlightened aristocrats like themselves. Indeed, the family had come over from the Netherlands with William III in 1688, and the constitutional principles of the Glorious Revolution were dynastically hard-wired into them. As an MP, Lord Bury would show no interest in emerging issues such as parliamentary reform which were to shape a new, popular Liberal party after 1859 and, in the eighteen-seventies, he joined the Conservatives.[7] His Liberal values were essentially paternalist, attitudes that were reflected in his assessment of Canada's indigenous peoples.

Lord Bury was an Imperial official reporting to the Governor-General of Canada who, under responsible government, was substantially advised by the local ministry. The British government sought to eliminate this anomaly and – more important – the costs involved to the Imperial Treasury. It was even possible that the Indian Department would close altogether. Lord Bury argued that "the strongest argument" against outright abolition was "the total ruin in which it would involve the Red race. Left to their own resources the Indians would have no longer any defence against the whites, who forcibly squat upon their lands and plunder their timber."[8] As he would tell MPs in 1857, "his principal reason for objecting to such a measure was the total ruin in which it would involve the red men".[9] He agreed that the administration of the Indian Department "was by no means satisfactory" but insisted that it "might easily be amended by putting the whole charge of the Department upon the Canadian Legislature". (In his report, Lord Bury optimistically examined the possibility that the bureaucracy might be supported from "Indian funds" – land sales, made under duress – but the solution seemed implausible.) Westminster and Whitehall, he insisted, could not simply abandon the Empire's commitments: "Great Britain, in dealing with the aboriginal tribes, had recognized a species of sovereignty in the red population, and had promised them protection in return for the territory they had ceded. During the American wars we had petted the Indians and made them most glowing promises, but when they were no longer useful as military allies our sympathy for them seemed to have ceased." Lord Bury's reference to "a species of sovereignty" is striking, but there is no indication that he had pondered its implications. Indeed, in his report, he implied that Britain had shown more deference towards the autonomy of the Indian than concern for his welfare: "the attention of the authorities was much more anxiously devoted to making him a faithful ally in war than to ameliorating his condition in peace". Following the 1842-44 Bagot Commission, military influence in the Indian Department had been eliminated, a shifting of priorities that Lord Bury thought much overdue. "It may almost be said, that till 1845 the civilization of the Indians was never the object of a definite and well organized scheme".[10] Hence the idea of mentoring or supporting Native communities towards modernisation was barely a decade old – and had hardly been pursued in overdrive. In 1857, Lord Bury condemned those who looked eagerly towards the extinction of the aboriginal identity: "some persons said that the Indian tribes were in a moribund state, and the sooner they were destroyed the better; but the weakness of a dependent [sic] was no reason, in his opinion, for withdrawing all support after this country had assumed the care of them". Equally, he deplored the British government's wish to excise the relatively small expenditure involved in its obligations: "if for the purpose of saving a trifling expense, they took this small sum from the remnant of a great people, they were submitting this country to great degradation".

Early in his December 1855 report, Lord Bury had made the striking declaration that it would be "hopeless to attempt suddenly to merge the Indians in the general mass of the population". The underlying theme of his analysis was that Canada's indigenous people were at a half-way point between the traditional and the modern, and at a point where they were more acquainted with the vices than the virtues of the latter. They could not yet be left to fend for themselves. "They have too much of the sullen pride of the savage, on the one hand, to endure life as helots, the only terms except beggary which would be open to them, and, on the other, are too much accustomed to the first lessons of civilization to relapse completely (even if they had not been deprived of their hunting-grounds) into their primitive barbarism. Want and disease would hasten for a few short years what I believe, notwithstanding all the care now bestowed, is fast coming to pass, the extermination of the Red man." Thus the question was whether they could be fully assimilated into the European world before they were overtaken by extinction. In 1844, Lord Bury believed there was still a chance to save Native people. "Old officers of the department, and persons who for a long series of years have been connected with them look with hopeful eyes on the efforts of the Indians to attain self-civilization."

Lord Bury's scorecard, then, was part of his attempt to assess the possibilities of easing Indian communities into the modern world, and of identifying the methods required. His own tour of inspection had convinced him that language was the key: "the only obstacle to intellectual equality between the White and Red races is to be found in the difference of language. Till the obliteration of the native tongue, or at least till every Indian speaks the language of the country he inhabits, the Indian can, I think, never be merged on equal terms and with an equal chance of success in the mass of the Anglo-Saxon or French-Canadian population. If that could be effected, the rest would follow. There is no want of mental capacity in an Indian." Perhaps, had it been pointed out that there was no single "native tongue", Lord Bury would have retorted that this only proved his point. But his insistence that every aboriginal person should speak "the language of the country he inhabits" suggests that he would have had difficulty with the concept of First Nations, even despite his acknowledgement of their claims to prior possession. He emphasised that "the most civilized Indians are those who speak the English or French languages. Indeed no degree of improvement ever takes place in an Indian's condition and mode of life till he learns the language by which he is surrounded." Hence "a knowledge of the English language should have a more prominent place than it has at present" in the education system. However, he also recognised that two European languages were spoken in Canada, and restated the point in bicultural terms: only by learning English or French, could Native people place "on an equality" with the surrounding population."  An Indian, ignorant of these tongues, labours under insuperable difficulties." Indeed, the best example he could cite was that of "the Hurons of La Jeune Lorette" (now the Wendat of Wendake). "Their proximity to Quebec has forced them to learn French, and indeed has obliterated the Indian language" with the result that they were able to "treat on equal terms with their white neighbours, and have lost almost entirely the distinguishing characteristics of Indians". Not surprisingly, they secured the highest score on the league table of partial civilization, although it was still only ten out of fifteen.

Lord Bury regarded the adoption of Christianity as another prerequisite of the civilising process: the survival of pagan beliefs in the south-western community of Walpole Island (where intrusive Jesuit missionaries had been driven out only five years before) earned its inhabitants the very low score of one out of fifteen. Lord Bury particularly praised the Methodists, whose missionaries lived among the people they sought to convert. This seems to be the only trace in the report of the remarkable personality of the Reverend Peter Jones, a fully assimilated Mississauga Ojibwa and Methodist minister.[11]  In Lower Canada, the Catholic Church dominated missionary work. Lord Bury paid tribute to the priests' zeal and their self-denial, but he was unhappy about the fruits of their labours. "They christianize, but they can hardly be said to civilize in an equal degree", because their "mode of instruction ... fails in sufficiently inculcating self-reliance". Their flocks were "taught to look so exclusively to the missionaries for guidance, that in their absence they are almost entirely helpless". In the promotion of civilization, it was "almost useless" to preach Christianity unless "that healthy spirit of self reliance be inculcated which constitutes the great distinguishing difference between the blind follower and the reasoning convert". This represented standard Protestant distaste for the activities of the Church of Rome. In 1879, probably under Sophia's influence, Lord Bury would convert to Catholicism, and even took on Gladstone in defence of the Vatican authority.

Language and religion naturally pointed to education, Here Lord Bury had little to say but, nonetheless, his comments may be read as a grim portent of a tragic future. It was "idle" to hope that Indian children would attend classes "with even tolerable regularity" throughout the school year. "They almost invariably accompany their parents on their hunting and fishing excursions, as well as to the sugar bushes, at the season for making maple sugar." It followed that children "must be ... removed from the moral influence of that constitutional apathy which distinguishes their parents, and, if not checked, will descend on themselves, before they can be permanently benefited". The further they were sent away from home, the better, for "if the school be too near the habitation of the parents of the pupils, the difficulty of enforcing their constant attendance will be much increased". At the time, the province maintained only two boarding establishments for Aboriginal children, but the seeds had been sown for the residential school system that was introduced in 1879 and would create a century of misery for its inmates.[12]

This, then, was the thinking that inspired Lord Bury to produce his league table of indigenous progress. He offered his scorecard "with much diffidence" and an awareness that "even the scanty observation it gives must depend in some degree upon hearsay evidence, or necessarily imperfect observation". It is not clear why he adopted fifteen as "expressing the average standard of civilization among the general mass of the white population", describing the number both as "arbitrary" and "convenient ". The clustering of so many communities at between 6 and 8 suggests that he might have made his point as effectively on a scale of nought to ten. Nor was there any explanation of these marginal differences. It is obvious that the survival of paganism relegated Walpole to a single mark, while the Innu / Montagnais / Naskapi who maintained their nomadic lifestyle on the north shore of the St Lawrence were written off as "Savages" who merited nul points. It is likely that even the settled communities failed to break into double figures because they practised communal ownership of land: Lord Bury made clear that he regarded individual title as the hallmark of modernity, but he could see no safe mode of managing the transition. Perhaps the scale was carefully calibrated, calculated through some formula that balanced agricultural, commercial, educational, linguistic and spiritual advancement – but, if so, the methodology is lost. As a result, Lord Bury's civilization index looks uncommonly like an expression of cultural arrogance.

Despite Lord Bury's opposition in the House of Commons, Britain transferred its responsibility for Canada's indigenous peoples to the colonial parliament, which was compelled to define its own attitude to their survival and development. The result was legislation passed in 1857 and styled "An Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Canadas".  Its optimistic provisions were belied by a parliamentary commission of investigation which concluded the following year that "any hope of raising the Indians as a body to the social and political level of their white neighbours" remained "a glimmering and distant spark".[13] But, by then, Lord Bury himself had moved beyond the cautious concern about the risks of immediate immersion in European society that he had voiced in his report. Writing in a popular British publication, Fraser's Magazine, in July 1857, he bleakly accepted that "it is impossible to prevent the gradual and total extinction of the aboriginal tribes in all the countries into which our more civilized people bring their enterprising spirit and restless thirst for extended dominion. However much one may feel for the hard lot of those unhappy races, that event is coming gradually nearer; and it is every day more evident that it is impossible to ward it off, or even materially to postpone it." The gradual process of civilization would be inexorably overtaken by the increasingly rapid onrush of extermination.[14] The decade would close with the publication, in 1859, of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, with its challenging theory of evolution by natural selection of the species. Darwin's work was not intentionally racist, but it provided a tempting intellectual framework in which white Canadians could reassure themselves that the obstacles to integration were not simply cultural, which might be overcome, but insuperably ethnic.

Lord Bury's scorecard may also prompt us to peer further into the Canadian future. At Confederation, in 1867, the institutions of the Province of Canada became the civil service of the new Dominion. Three years later, this underpowered machine of government took charge of the Hudson's Bay Territories, the future prairie provinces, and became responsible for their inhabitants. Here we may note that, if Lord Bury's index is stripped of its objectionable implications of cultural superiority, his concept of "half-civilization" did have some factual basis. First Nations in Ontario and Quebec were mostly settled communities, engaged in agriculture, trading and otherwise interacting with their white neighbours. They did have high levels of conversion of Christianity and there were representatives on each reservation who could communicate in Canada's two European languages. Beyond Lake Superior, the Dominion encountered an entirely different situation. In the West, Native peoples were semi-nomadic hunters who had little contact of any kind with Europeans and were largely unresponsive to missionary endeavour. The Ottawa bureaucracy had found it challenging enough to manage communities who had taken a few steps up the ladder of modernisation. They had no collective experience of dealing with tribes who, like the Innu of the lower St Lawrence, did not even register on Lord Bury's scale – and, by extension, were even less well equipped to respond to the catastrophic collapse of their buffalo-based lifestyle. "Comparative degree of improvement in the different bands of Indians in both sections of Canada" was the marginal title of his table. Its content and its very existence tell a great deal about the mental constructs that shaped and confined government policy on race relations in the dramatic decades that followed.

Of the later career of Lord Bury, this paper offers merely a tailpiece. In 1865, he published a two-volume history of the Americas, The Exodus of the Western Nations, which culminated in hailing the ongoing process of the unification of the British North American provinces. One again, the book gave evidence of an intellectual ability that transcended his scanty formal education. Believing that Britain and "The New Nation" (even Canada's  name was still open to debate) would inevitably diverge, he proposed a mechanism, a form of sleeping treaty, which would set out the terms and define the process of separation, and could be invoked at any time by either party to avoid yet another transatlantic war of independence. His historical narrative naturally included a certain amount of Indian warfare, but he offered no assessment of the future of aboriginal peoples. (Nor did he mention Sir Edmund Head's contribution to the early stages of the movement for Confederation.)

A shooting accident in 1867 placed Lord Bury's formal political career on hold for some years, but he was a central figure in the formation of a London-based Colonial Society in 1868 to operate both as a club for visiting colonists and as an organisation dedicated to raising public awareness of Empire issues.[15] After switching to the Conservatives, he twice held junior government positions, both of them at the War Office, under Disraeli in 1878-80, and in the short-lived administration headed by Lord Salisbury in 1885-6. In 1884, he was briefly at the centre of Tory attempts in the House of Lords to block Gladstone's latest Reform Bill.[16] His last years saw a switch towards business and leisure activities. Interested in the new medium of electricity, he became chairman of a power generating company and, in 1890, initiated a public debate by calling for a verb that would describe the driving of electric vehicles. An informal consensus supported the creation of "to motor", a coinage that the Oxford English Dictionary insists only emerged six years later. He also became an enthusiast for another new form of locomotion, and was co-author in 1888 of a guide to cycling, which went through five editions in seven years.[17] And so we bid farewell to the Victorian British aristocrat who felt entitled to assess the progress of aboriginal peoples of Canada as he pedals into the mists of History.

For a full list of material relating to Canadian history on this website:
"Canadian history on www.gedmartin.net"

Three essays explore aspects of Ottawa policy towards First Nations in the two decades after Confederation:
"The Department of Indian Affairs in the Dominion of Canada budget, 1882"

"How much did Canada 'pay' First Nations for the prairies?"

"M.C. Cameron's indictment of Canada's Department of Indian Affairs, 1885-1891: the pitfalls of contemporary evidence"


 [1] The document, Indian Department (Canada). ...  Copies or Extracts of recent Correspondence respecting Alterations in the Organization of the Indian Department in Canada was submitted to the British House of Commons on 30 May 1856: British Parliamentary Papers, 1856, xliv, 247. Lord Bury's report, dated 5 December 1855, is at 17-31. The document, which is well worth reading, is available through various digital versions: https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_01074/2



[2] It is naturally tempting to agree with the correspondent of the Toronto Globe who asserted that "Lord Bury is a scion of nobility, appointed under Imperial authority, and therefore cannot by any chance have capacity for his office." However, it should be noted that, in the writer's eyes, Lord Bury had proved his unfitness for office by sympathising with his charges. Globe, 16 July 1855.

[3] Although Lord Bury was an interesting and able person, there is not much biographical information about him. He received only a brief entry in the original Dictionary of National Biography (Supplement, iii, 59-60). This was by A.F. Pollard, who was laying the foundations of a career as a Tudor historian by working on the DNB staff. Pollard did little more than transcribe key facts and dates from the obituary in The Times, 29 August 1894. This entry was slightly reworked for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by the general editor, Colin Matthew: A. F. Pollard / H. C. G. Matthew, "Keppel, William Coutts, seventh earl of Albemarle and Viscount Bury (1832–1894), politician", ODNB. Lord Bury was evidently regarded as not long enough in Canada to justify an entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, in which he receives just one passing mention. Donald B. Smith has partly filled the lacuna with an entertaining podcast for the Ontario Historical Society: "Lord Bury, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in the Canadas, 1855": https://ontariohistoricalsociety.ca/podcast/in-hindsight-episode-09/. The Earl of Albemarle also had lesser titles which he did not use. By convention, the eldest son of an earl was addressed by the second of these, e.g. Viscount Bury. To complicate matters further, in 1876 he was "called up" to the House of Lords during his father's lifetime (i.e. making him a peer in his own right would not permanently add to the size of the Upper House, since his new title would eventually be merged with his father's earldom). For this purpose, he was given his father's third title, Baron Ashford. However, he continued to be known as Viscount Bury until he succeeded to the earldom in 1891, since the viscountcy, even though fake, outranked the genuine barony. 

[4] However, he continued to take a close interest in military matters throughout his political career.

[5] National Library of Wales, Harpton Court Collection, C/1537, Head to G.C. Lewis, 15 November 1854; C/1544, same to same, private, 14 November 1855; C/2028, Herman Merivale to Lewis, 23 September 1858.

[6] D.R. Beer, Sir Allan Napier MacNab (Hamilton, 1984), 356. Donald Smith's podcast is amusing on the scandal. Lord Bury's denial (Globe, 30 August 1855) may be regarded as pro forma.

[7] For Lord Bury's parliamentary speeches  between 1857 and 1865:

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/people/viscount-bury-1/index.html. His decision to change parties was hailed by a prominent Tory as "of some importance on account of his Whig connexion, which may lead others similarly circumstanced to follow". J. Vincent, ed., A Selection from the Diaries of ... 15th Earl of Derby ... [1869-1878] (London, 1994), 213-14 (1 May 1875). See also D. Southgate, The Passing of the Whigs 1832-1886 (London, 1962), 79.

[8] This section draws upon Lord Bury's report in Copies or Extracts of recent Correspondence, 17-31 and his speech to the House of Commons, Hansard, 2 July 1857, 847-9.

[9] The colour "red" was applied to indigenous people in North America, as in the now-dated "Red Indians". As with other contemporary usage (e.g. the term 'Indians' itself), it is retained here for convenience and to convey the attitudes of the time.

[10] J.R. Miller pointed out that Britain had shifted from military to civilian administrators as early as 1830: Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens… (Toronto, 1989), 93-4. For pre-Confederation Indian policy in the province of Canada, O.P. Dickason, Canada's First Nations... (Toronto, 1992), 247-56.

[11] Peter Jones was known as Kahkewaquonaby (sacred feathers) in Ojibwa, but his Mohawk name, Desagondensta (he stands people on their feet) better expresses his contribution to Lord Bury's civilising process. In the late twentieth century, he was regarded as a national hero. In the twenty-first century, his total commitment to assimilation makes him less popular with First Nations activists. Donald B. Smith, "Jones, Peter", Dictionary of Canadian Biography, viii: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jones_peter_8E.html.

[12] J. Milloy, "A National Crime"... (Winnipeg, 1979), 11-22.

[13] Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, 110-13; Milloy, "A National Crime", 12.

[14] Fraser's Magazine, lvi (July 1857), 97. Confusingly, he then went on to plagiarise his own report (97-9) arguing that assimilation was possible.

[15] The organisation has passed through several name changes, becoming the Royal Colonial institute in 1870. For Lord Bury's role, T.R. Reese, The History of the Royal Commonwealth Society 1868-1968 (Oxford, 1968), esp. 14-19.

[16] A. Jones, The Politics of Reform 1884 (Cambridge, 1972), 146.

[17] The Times, 29 August 1894; Viscount Bury and G.L. Hillier, Cycling (London, 1888). The engraving, based on a photograph, is at 392.