A Brief History of the term ‘Civilized’, with a note on ending the right of Manitoba First Nations to vote in Canada, 1874

‘Civilized’ is a word that can be misunderstood when reading historical texts, because the meaning has changed over time. Below I lay out a basic chronology that shows change(s) — though the chronology is somewhat simplistic (the meanings of words at any point in time and over time are always fraught with complexity).

By the time of the ‘Age of Discovery‘ (beginning in the 1400s), in order to govern relations amongst themselves, European rulers (and their legal councillors), based arguments to justify their conduct, or to place limits on the conduct of others, on the jus gentium — also known as the law of nations. This was a body of law, commonly resorted to throughout Europe, which had come about by a combination of custom and written law that traced back to the Corpus Juris/ Iuris Civilus codified by Emperor Justinian of sixth-century Rome. Justinian’s Corpus was based on the writings of such well-known Roman statesmen and jurists as Cicero, Seneca, and Tacitus. The Corpus was also the basis of nonreligious legal education in Europe after the twelfth-century renaissance.  A precept that sixteenth-century Europeans accepted outright, was Justinian’s assertion that land was not to be allowed to exist without a sovereign — hence the European justification for usurping land occupied by ‘uncivilized’ peoples. Once claimed, however, evidence of civilization was required.

‘Uncivilized,’ when used in the Justinian and sixteenth-century sense, meant people who were not subjects of a sovereign/ state. If such people were described as ‘wild’ (or ‘sauvage’ in French) it simply indicated that they had not been ‘domesticated,’ meaning they had not been made citizens restrained by the civil law of a ruler’s state to become useful subjects toiling for the betterment of the state/ ruler. To qualify as a sovereign state, there had to be a monarch presiding over a hierarchically organized subject population that paid tribute/ taxes — or, in France taille/ gaballe etc. — to their ruler.[1]

During seventeenth-century settlement, in what eventually would be known as the country of Canada, in Latin terms (the language of European international law at the time), the missionary orders appointed by the reigning Majesty of France had the political goal of educating inhabitants in civilitas — meaning they were to be instructed on how to properly fulfill their roles as civis/ citizens of the Christian monarch’s state. A good part of the religious mission was therefore dedicated to ‘civil-izing’ new subjects of the realm.

Civil-izing was a process of political and economic importance. Kings in Europe who sought to enlarge their territories by establishing colonies situated an ocean away had to operate in accord with their tenets of international law. An overseas claim would only be recognized as legitimate if the territory’s domestic population was made up of civilized people who supported the European monarch by way of political allegiance and economic tribute — as opposed to politically independent ‘wild people’/ les sauvages who paid no taxes.

In the nineteenth century, the idea that Europe’s peoples ought to engage in a world-wide ‘Civilizing Mission’ became immensely popular. The rise in popularity saw new meanings accrue to the word ‘civilize.’ As before, to be civilized was to be ‘integrated into the economy,’ but, in nineteenth-century usage, the word invoked superiority, in a cultural and social sense. Beyond that, however, the word ‘civilize’ had come to mean pretty much whatever those who spoke or heard it wanted it to mean; for example, it might have been used to imply such different qualities as ‘progressive’ or ‘polite’ or ‘educated.’

From a British imperialist perspective the economy that one was to be integrated into via a ‘civilizing’ process was associated with “the complex social and cultural institutions of Great Britain.”[2] From the French Catholic perspective, however, to become ‘civilized’ was to resist the onslaught of British Protestantism by taking one’s place within an ultramontane Christian empire. By the 1860s, missionaries of the Oblate order in Rupert’s Land held that “the institutional Catholic Church was the one and only source of true civilization — la civilisation chrétienne. The Church alone could inculcate and reinforce ‘civilized’ habits of thought and behaviour that conformed with the divinely willed order of things.”[3]

In 1870 at Red River Settlement, the meaning of the word civilized was not precisely defined, but seems to have been generally understood to mean something along the lines of orderly, productive, cooperative and stable, or ‘settled’ members of the community. [The sense of the word that implied people paid taxes to a monarch or state was not particularly relevant, given the settlement fell under the proprietary government of the HBC.]

First Nations Settlers held the Right to Vote, 1870, as Civilized Folk

At Red River the people of St. Peters Parish were held to be “civilized,” if ‘Indian,’ by residents of other parishes. In 1870 the parish was included as a constituency with an elected representative during the creation and operation of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. The parish inhabitants (men at any rate) had the right to vote. John Sinclair’s position in the Legislative Assembly as representative of the “settled Indians” demonstrates that any male members of the greater Red River community who were considered ‘civilized’ in the Red River sense of the word had a formal say in community affairs. In framing terms for  confederating with Canada (in the successive versions of the List of Rights), the Provisional Government of Assiniboia stipulated that it was only ‘uncivilized Indians’ who were to be denied the vote. Such a clause was included in the Manitoba Act (1870), which was ratified by the predominantly Métis Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.

Subsequently, the historical references in the List(s) of Rights and the Manitoba Act led to the misapprehension that the Métis of Manitoba were opposed to allowing any First Nations individuals to vote. This was not the case. ‘Civilized and Settled’ First Nations had the vote, as full citizens of Red River, who adhered to its laws and participated in organizing the community and determining its values (and they did not lose the vote until several years after Manitoba became a province). Denying the vote to First Nations people who did not behave as the other settlers did in fact recognized that the primary allegiance of those First Nations people was to their own nation: having never agreed to abide by the laws of a foreign state and accept its governance, or having never been forcibly subjugated by a foreign state, they belonged to politically independent nations subject only to their own laws.

Subsequent Disfranchisement of First Nations Citizens, 1874

Inclusion in the Manitoba Act not only gave First Nations settlers the right to vote in Manitoba, but granted them the federal electoral franchise as well (eligibility to vote was determined by voting lists at the provincial level). First Nations settlers (including, apparently, a number of those who took treaty in 1871, along with Métis who did the same), continued to to be recognized as provincial voters (their names being registered on voting lists for the 1871 election of a provincial legislature).

In 1873 (under the government house leader Henry Joseph Clarke), E.H.G.G. Hay (formerly of the Legislative Assembly of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia), introduced a motion in the provincial legislature to “disfranchise” First Nations voters.[4] Hay’s move, which met with expressions of astonishment and severe criticism, did not go forward immediately.

Indian Franchise“The Legislature,” Manitoba Free Press (15 February 1873), 8 column 4.


In 1874 (under the government of  Marc-Amable Girard), Hay’s motion that First Nations voters be disfranchised again figured in legislative debate.[5]

Indian franchise 1874 1“Manitoba Parliament,” Manitoba Free Press (18 July 1874), 8 column 1.


Again, there were objections, and dismay at the idea that rights previously enjoyed — and protected — by and for fellow citizens of Manitoba would be taken away (including objections by Thomas Bunn, Métis, formerly of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia).

Indian franchise 1874 2Indian franchise 1874 3

“Manitoba Parliament,” [discussion, Wed.15 July 1874] Nor’-Wester (20 July 1874), 2.


The legislators took a break, but the bill respecting the registration of voters was taken up again that evening. It passed. Newspaper accounts of this legislative proceeding made no reference to the clause by which First Nations voters were disfranchised.

Indian franchise 1874 4“Manitoba Parliament,” Nor’-Wester (27 July 1874), 2.


The Legislative Council passed the Bill without any amendment. The common knowledge — that First Nations settlers were citizens who contributed to the creation of Manitoba, and thereby held voting rights in the province and by extension federally, up until July of 1874 — seemed to simply disappear, as quickly as had the franchise. Only two ‘classes’ were seen to exist in the new voting order — the ‘English’ and the ‘French.’ There was no space within this newly imposed body politic to accommodate an Aboriginal base.

By 1880, the Manitoba  franchise not only disqualified First Nations voters, and Métis voters who had taken treaty, but officially threatened a $500 fine would be levied against any among them who tried to vote.[6]

The Emptiness of Civilized Rhetoric

After the creation of the province of Manitoba, into the present, the word ‘civilized’ has been widely regarded as the antonym of ‘savage.’ Savage (and also ‘sauvage’) no longer means wild/ not tamed/ not domesticated so much as it has become synonymous with vicious and ignorant. Civilized is understood to mean showing evidence of moral and intellectual advancement — being humane, ethical, and reasonable.

From the turn of the 20th century onwards, people have found the term ‘civilized’ to be increasingly objectionable. It has, after all, been trumpeted by so many combatants in so many slaughters that it has become empty of meaning.[7]

[1] See Edward J. Dudley, and Maximillian E. Novak eds., The wild man within: an image in Western thought from the Renaissance to romanticism (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972); and Richard Bonney, ed., “Introduction,” The rise of the fiscal state in Europe, c. 12001815 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1-17.

[2] A.A. den Otter, Civilizing the West: The Galts and the development of western Canada (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1986), x.

[3] Timothy Paul Foran, “Les Gens de Cette Place: Oblates and the Evolving Concept of Métis at Île-à-la-Crosse, 1845 – 1898,” PH.D. diss. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 2011), 23-24. See also Oblates in the West, http://oblatesinthewest.library.ualberta.ca/eng/index.html.

[4] See “The Legislature,” Manitoba Free Press (15 February 1873), 8 column 4.

[5] See “Manitoba Parliament,” Manitoba Free Press (18 July 1874), 8 column 1.

[6] Thomas Hodgins,ed., The Canadian Franchise Act: With Notes of Decisions on the Imperial Acts
(Toronto: Rowsell and Hutchison, 1886), 195, 197.

[7] See Cathrine Lavender, “Modernism — A Working Definition,” for a description of the rejection of the Victorian era’s ‘civilized’ vs. ‘savage’ dichotomy.


Published: 28 February 2013


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