Examining the Indian Commissioners

Dr. Brian Titley spends a good portion of his research time delving into the past. That doesn't mean his findings are short on relevance today.

A Faculty of Education professor at the U of L since 1991, Titley just authored his fifth book, The Indian Commissioners: Agents of the State and Indian Policy in Canada's Prairie West, 1873-1932. The themes he explores, such as the implementation of policy through the Indian Act, political patronage, and the manipulation and fraud of treaty settlements still resonate today.

"If you're trying to get at the roots of present-day circumstances, whether it's poverty or unemployment or even patterns of abuse that have been learned in residential schools, I think you have to go back and start at the beginning and ask how did we get here," Titley proposes.

"These issues that are still going on, you can go back and see their roots right here."

Titley tells his story through a series of biographical portraits of the individuals who held the position of Indian Commissioner – the men in charge of operations in what are now the Prairie Provinces between 1873 and 1932, with the exception of one decade. By sketching their lives, what they did and how they implemented policy, he creates a portrait of the blueprint from which many of today's issues stem.

"I'm not sure most people understand how we got into the present situation. Why are reserves there and what is their purpose," Titley asks. "Treaties, a lot of people don't know what they are all about. Residential schools are another topic that has been in the news in recent years, but how much do people really know about them other than they were 'bad'?"

The University of Lethbridge has a unique understanding of Aboriginal issues. As Titley's book was being released, the campus was celebrating Native Awareness Week and with a vibrant and growing Native American Studies Department, there continues to be a thirst for knowledge of Aboriginal culture. He says his research greatly adds to his ability to teach.

"I think it's just a different level of understanding when you've actually done the research," Titley explains. "You just understand things so much more completely than if you simply read someone else's work."

He's able to apply this research knowledge in a variety of ways but his work is most apparent in a required Professional Semester II course he instructs, Education 3603, Social Context of Schooling. Exploring the social and cultural influences that affect learning, teaching and the process of schooling, Titley says teaching must adapt itself to students and take into account the societal influences that shape their behaviour.

"The Aboriginal population is the fastest growing young demographic group in the country," he says, noting more than half of the country's status Indians are now living off reserves.

"Our (education) students are increasingly going to encounter them in the classroom, so what does that mean? How do you relate to them; how do you relate the curriculum to them? I try to emphasize the notion that traditional schooling can work but they have to be a little bit creative, they have to find a way to understand the young people of today and find a meaningful learning experience for them so that students have a sense of success."

With a basic understanding of what has shaped a student's culture and values, a teacher is therefore better equipped to connect with that student.


• Titley, a native of Cork, Ireland, spent 10 years teaching at the University of Alberta before coming to the U of L in 1991

• He was appointed the Faculty of Education's first University Scholar in 2008

• The Indian Commissioners is published by the University of Alberta Press. Two of Titley's earlier books were published by McGill-Queen's University Press, and two others by the University of British Columbia Press

• Titley has served as a historical consultant on Aboriginal issues for a number of media outlets, including CBC's The Fifth Estate

• His latest research is on the history of Magdalene asylums in North America