We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Indigenous Women, Work, and History 1940-1980

By Mary Jane Logan McCallum

Review By Carol Williams

April 15, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 162-164

Historian Patrick Wolfe has foregrounded the contradictory condition of Indigenous labour within Euro-American settlement by arguing that mythic narratives of settler diligence coexisted with a heavy reliance on colonized Indigenous labour. As he observes in “The Settler Complex,” settler schemes avoided revealing their “reliance on a population [they were] simultaneously seeking to eliminate.” Wolfe convincingly suggests that “Natives” were deemed unsuitable to settlement schemes even when they “remained in their own country.” Consequently, market reliance on Indigenous labour was backed by state imperatives to territorially dispossess or remove the people from their land at the same time as constructing Indian workers as “lazy, dishonest, and unreliable” (2). Once removed from their territory, Indians were re-conceived by the state, and its bureaucracies, as good or suitable workers.

The removal of Indigenous people — whether from their own territory, or into occupationally organized residential schools, or by the 1950s into restrictive urban employment programs — grounds the concrete research unfolded by Mary Jane McCallum in her outstanding monograph, Indigenous Women, Work, and History 1940-1980. McCallum deftly reveals a sequence of federal schemes and polices implemented to mobilize women’s labour. In these decades, aggressive reform modalities endeavoured to “uplift” Indigenous workers from the perceived depravation and absence of economic opportunity on reserves.

McCallum considers the reform and re-education doctrines and programs that targeted Indigenous women and argues that historians cannot underestimate the state’s impact on the condition and histories of Indigenous labour from 1940 to the 1980s, with “aboriginal women’s lives inescapably involved in modern labour that was highly regulated by the Canadian nation-state” (239). Following Wolfe, she shows that economic policy depended on Indigenous removals into residential schooling and other educational schemes whose curricula aimed to recruit and confine women to occupations demanded by government and private markets.

Yet women, as McCallum counters, were not passive in the face of such imperatives. Training in feminine-specific occupations, including hairdressing, afforded self-sufficiency and sovereign-modern identities; and professional advocacy organizations emerged, such as the Aboriginal Nurses Association of Canada (ANAC, formed in 1975 from the Registered Nurses of Canadian Indian Ancestry, or RNCIA). The ANAC become “keen critics” of state-operated and “racist discriminatory health services,” including the federal Community Health Representatives Program, analysed in Chapter Three (228).

McCallum’s book is extraordinary in detail, breadth, and depth. Chapter One, for example, examines domestic labour as a basic prerequisite to the assimilation of Indigenous women. In domestic capacities, women laboured in “federally-run, segregated Indian schools and hospitals and the homes of the non-local and mostly itinerant workforce of church and government officials” (23). They also served in hotels and tourist resorts, non-Indian hospitals, and elder care facilities (24), while the “Ottawa Experiment” placed residential school students in private households including those of prominent women such as Senator Cairine Wilson (49-50). 

By the late 1950s, a widening range of bureaucrats participated in “broad efforts of surveillance of Native Labour” (65). Indian placement and relocation programs were transparently assimilative, with bureaucrats estimating that “permanent employment would facilitate Indian integration — and thus also equality within — Canadian society” (66). The Placement Program of 1957, supervised by Indian Agents, Indian Health Services, missionaries, and school staff, was “the first organized national labour program and it sought to place First Nations people in permanent positions in urban areas” (67).

All four chapters are grounded in regional and federal sources that allow a critical intersection of topics such as Indigenous sovereignty, labour, empire, settler colonialism, gender, history, education, and assimilation. Yet the book is rooted in real events and showcases the organizational structures and federal labour programs experienced by Indigenous workers. As such it will be of interest to health practitioners and students of labour history, transnational women’s history, Canadian history, and Indigenous studies. In her concluding chapter, “The Wages of Whiteness and the Indigenous Historian,” McCallum discusses labour disparities in Canadian university history departments, reflects on the professional status and glaring absence of Indigenous historians in academia, and proposes a critical revision of historiographical methods and pedagogy in Indigenous and Canadian history.

While McCallum’s study is geographically specific to Manitoba and Ontario, the research is relevant to all provinces and regions because, as she reminds us, bureaucratic schemes to capture Indigenous women’s labour were governed by national agencies. McCallum is not preoccupied with any “single set of records” (14) but sustains her focus on Anglophone women who were registered Indians. Some records deployed are from what Wolfe calls “settler-conceived bureaucracies” that generated “a colonial system of identification that aimed to integrate, segregate, and penalize aboriginal people” (14). Nonetheless women, many of whom self-identified as Indians, “eluded, avoided and/or resisted this system” (14). But McCallum is not overly reliant on government and health service records, many of which are inaccessible due to restrictions of confidentiality, and chooses instead to collaborate with leading professionals from public health and nursing associations who granted full access to records and offered rich qualitative data through a telling of their own experiences.


Wolfe, Patrick. 2013. “The Settler Complex: An Introduction.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal: 37, 2: 1-22.

Indigenous Women, Work, and History 1940-1980
Mary Jane Logan McCallum
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014. 336 pp. $27.95 paper