The Fight for Indigenous Self-Determination in Canada
Living within a predominant Gitxsan society meant gaffing for red-bellied salmon on the Skeena, collecting soapberries to make frothy Indian ice cream, and climbing rock cliffs hunting pearly pelted mountain goat. But it also meant conducting business in the feast house, creating policy, electing leaders, dividing labour and designing trade and economic frameworks. It’s similar to the experience of hundreds of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in Canada.
But that life, where sovereignty connected the spirit of the land to the people shifted when new policies and legislation threatened to tear Indigenous women, men and children from the land, from each other and from their cultures. Nonetheless Indigenous people challenged these policies and fought to keep the core of their identities alive.
The Indigenous resilience witnessed in Canada today is a reflection of an unwavering determination to oppose assimilation and discrimination and keep distinct cultures alive for future generations, wave after wave. Each song, each dance, each language, and each traditional law flourishing today is a testament to the conquering of assimilation and the championing of self-determination.
Moving Culture Underground 1876-1951
The 1876 Indian Act was unequivocally one of the most pervasive barriers toward Indigenous self-determination in Canada. While amended significantly over the years, it is still a federal law that continues to affect First Nations people, bands and reserves in many ways today.
The legislation created a legal definition of Indigenous people as non-persons and aimed to assimilate Indigenous people into settler society. This was executed by establishing residential schools and the reserve system and by outlawing Indigenous governments and ceremonies. Among the colossal list of exclusionary policies, Indigenous people were also denied the right to vote and not permitted to form political organizations.
Seventy-one-year-old Del Riley is a former Grand Chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, a precursor to the Assembly of First Nations. Riley struggles with words when asked what his elders have shared about challenging such aggressive legislation. He says surveillance and scrutiny at the time were omnipresent.
“A lot of it was difficult. In order to leave the reserve you needed a permit, we had a residential school right in our community and it was constantly patrolled by the RCMP and Indian agents.”
Russ Diabo is a Mohawk Nation member at Kahnawake who got his start in Indigenous politics as a teenager at Wounded Knee and was an advisor to the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ovide Mercredi. For Diabo, opposition to the Indian Act was tough because of the high level of repression and fear instilled in people.
“Iroquois longhouses were padlocked and the electoral system was imposed. Ceremonies like the Potlatch and the Sundance were outlawed and Indians couldn’t hire a lawyer for grievances,” explains Diabo.
He says challenging those policies in the early days was largely about keeping traditions alive, underground. Indigenous people continued to practice traditional political and spiritual structures secretively, away from the glaring eyes of the RCMP and Indian agents.
Changes to the Indian Act came at the end of the Second World War. Canadians’ awareness of human rights was heightened after seeing and hearing about the atrocities of war. Many Indigenous soldiers shed concerns about their own human rights being violated when they came home from the trenches. Partly as a result, amendments to the Indian Act were made in 1951. Ceremonies and traditions were no longer illegal, Indigenous people could dress in ceremonial regalia outside of the reserve, could politically organize and hire legal counsel.
Cleo Reece, a Cree from the Fort McMurray band and a founder of the 1968 Native Alliance for Red Power (NARP), says the fight for the right to vote also came out of the Second World War.
“A lot of Native people volunteered to go to war, but when they came back they were shunned and still treated as second class citizens even though they thought what they did was the ultimate sacrifice. So there was a push then to recognize Native people as being able to have the right to vote.”
Aboriginal people’s right to vote in Canada came in 1960. However, First Nations people could vote at the time of Confederation in 1867, on the condition that they gave up their Indian status or treaty rights.
Reece says the 60’s were also a time when Indigenous people began organizing in Canada’s Red Power movement, fighting for rights that were taken away in the Indian Act.
Red Power Movement 1965-1974
The American Indian Movement, or AIM, was born in 1968 in Minneapolis Minnesota. It inspired the Red Power movement in Canada and was created to address problems of racism and abject poverty, taking cues from the Black Panthers and the US Civil Rights movement.
Fred Kelly was one of many leaders within the Red Power Movement in Canada. He is a citizen of the Ojibways of Onigaming, a community of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty 3 territory. He recalls the impetus behind leading a momentous march to City Hall in Kenora in 1965.
“Race relations were absolutely horrendous. Some of our people in the coldest days of January had to wait outside a bus depot, while white people and dogs were allowed [in]. They allowed dogs, but didn’t allow us. That was in 1965,” Kelly says.
The demands of the 500-person march made national headlines. The group wanted an extension to the fur trapping session in Treaty 3, telephones in many communities that didn’t have indoor toilets, plumbing, or a health care station, programs to deal with substance abuse issues, and a plan to address racism.
“I felt we should be accorded the dignity we deserved, after experiencing the subjection we suffered as a people at the hands of Indian Affairs and the churches, and the treatment we underwent of sexual and physical abuse.”
Kelly says the march exuded Indigenous pride and a people wanting to assert their own identity. The Indigenous-led march through Kenora in 1965 became known as the birth of the Indigenous civil rights movement in Canada, inspiring other Indigenous people across Canada.
Cleo Reece and other Indigenous youth from the West Coast of Canada were inspired by actions like Kelly’s and started the Native Alliance for Red Power (NARP) in 1968. The group held study groups on social and political movements taking place around the globe.
“It made me realize there are names for this; it’s called colonialism, it’s called racism, it’s called capitalism, and that really made me understand myself in the broader context of people in the world.”
But coming to terms with her own identity as an Indigenous woman is what gave Reece a sense of empowerment.
“I was really inspired by Métis author Maria Campbell and Secwepemc activist Art Manual. We went to meetings and protests, and held discussions. Some activists took longer than others, but we all went back to our own cultures,” Reece explains.
The Red Power movement also set off a slew of responses to government injustices.
In 1974, Ojibwe youth from Treaty 3 and other treaty areas occupied Anicinabe Park in Kenora, Ontario. They were protesting the federal government’s 1959 sale of the park to the city of Kenora, without the permission of the Ojibwe.
It was the first time during the Canadian Red Power movement that First Nations people used arms to increase pressure to pursue their rights. The occupation didn’t end in getting the park back, but it did lead to a new dialogue and analysis about asserting self-determination.
From Red Power to Red Paper 1968-1971
In response to Indigenous people’s concerns about systemic racism, poverty and injustice, the federal government began token consultations with the National Indian Brotherhood. In the name of creating equality, Ottawa proposed a policy to axe the category of “Indian” through a federally enacted policy on Indians.
The 1969 policy paper sought to abolish the Indian Act and Indian status and dissolve Aboriginal Affairs. The official “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy” also proposed to convert reserve land to private property that could be sold by the band or its members.
Indigenous people viewed the policy largely as part of Canada’s goal to assimilate Indians into Canadian settler society and coined it not just a but the White Paper. Many of the people who worked to oppose the White Paper are now passed away, but their children remember the undertaking well.
“My father [George Manual] opposed the White Paper because it was going to terminate Indigenous rights legally and constitutionally,” said Art Manual, an activist and author of the book Unsettling Canada.
Responses to the White Paper were swift. It was rejected by Indigenous people across the country, specifically by the Indian Association of Alberta. The group denounced the paper in a document called Citizens Plus – coined “The Red Paper” in 1970.
The Red Paper famously stated, “There is nothing more important than our treaties, our lands and the well-being of our future generations.” In other words Indigenous people’s culture and connections to their communities and lands was paramount. Assimilation, as long stated, was not a remote goal.
The late Harold Cardinal was one of the editors of the Red Paper. His daughter Tanya Kappo says the effects of stopping the White Paper are evident today.
“It’s hard to say and maybe I don’t even want to imagine where we’d be if they didn’t mobilize in 1969. There are hardly ever any gatherings of First Nations, that don’t make reference to it,” Kappo said.
The Trudeau government formally withdrew The White Paper on March 17, 1971.
The White Paper controversy sparked a new era of political organizing in British Columbia. Out of many of the actions came a new organization – the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), formed the same year the White Paper was being proposed.
Indigenous Rights and Title
On the Ground 1980-1982
Born out of the Indian Child Caravan at the UBCIC Annual General Assembly in 1980, the Constitution Express was a movement to push for the recognition of Indigenous rights and title in the Canadian Constitution. It culminated in a 3000-mile trek, bringing 1000 people to Ottawa to pressure then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to honour the relationship between Indigenous people and the British Crown.
Conferences, workshops and protests were organized along the way to educate and build momentum.
Wayne Christian was one of the Chiefs selected to lead a delegation from Vancouver to Ottawa and headed another from Ottawa to the United Nations in New York in the same year. A year later he led a 100-person delegation to seven different countries in Europe. All trips were aimed to lobby against the patriation of Canada’s Constitution.
“Pierre Elliott Trudeau had a total disdain for any Aboriginal rights or title in Canada. We wanted the country to know that we had rights that needed to be recognized in the Constitution of Canada,” Christian said from his home in Salmon River British Columbia.
He says the Express was one of the most important and powerful movements in the fight for Indigenous self-determination in Canada.
“We’d be out in the middle of nowhere, and Indigenous people would be waving to us and putting up signs and thanking us when we arrived at different places. They’d show up with their drums and welcome us, because we were giving them some hope, that we will not be forgotten.”
Christian says the movement was a process to awaken Indigenous people and express to the world that Indigenous people did not cede nor surrender their land.
“It was really a people’s movement and a lot of people sacrificed a lot of things to stand up. They sold furniture, they sold horses, they sold everything, it was done because of the passion our people have for the land.”
As a result of their actions, Section 35, recognizing Aboriginal title and rights, was enshrined in the Canadian Constitution in 1982. But Christian says more work needs to be done to ensure a Nation-to-Nation agreement in Canada between Indigenous people and the government of Canada.
Combat in the Courts 1973-2014
Bill Gallagher, author of Resource Rulers, Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources, says Indigenous people have won 170 legal victories – the biggest winning streak in Canadian legal history. He says the wins are underpinned by Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, 1982.
Among the key Aboriginal rights and title cases in history are the Calder case of 1973, the Delgamuukw case of 1997 and the Tsilhqot’in (or Williams) case of 2014.
The 1973 Calder v. Attorney-General of British Columbia was a Supreme Court decision that ruled that Aboriginal title existed at the time of the 1973 Royal Proclamation. Frank Calder and other elders of the Nisga’a Nation brought the case forward. It was the first time in history that Canadian jurisprudence recognized that Aboriginal title to the land was not simply derivative of colonial law. The case paved the way for the comprehensive land claims process – a procedure for Indigenous groups to assert title to their traditional territory.
The 1997 Delgamuukw vs. the Queen case was, at the time, the most important Aboriginal rights and title case in history. Delgamuukw, also known as Earl Muldoe, on behalf of members of the Gitksan and the Wet’suwet’en Nations, brought the case forward.
Seen as a turning point for treaty negotiations, the Supreme Court of Canada decision proved that Aboriginal title does exist in British Columbia. It stated that when dealing with Crown land, the government must consult with and compensate First Nations whose rights are affected.
Fast-forward almost two decades and another groundbreaking case for Aboriginal rights and title landed in the Supreme Court of Canada. In Tsilhqot’in Nation v British Columbia, Roger William on behalf of members of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government and members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation gained access and rights to 1700 square kilometers of territory. The case spelled out that consent of a First Nation is needed prior to economic development on land where title is established. Failing that consent, the government must prove that development is substantial and meets its fiduciary responsibility to the Aboriginal group.
Many Indigenous leaders have referred to the case as a game changer, however it is still being discussed and assessed as to how it will be interpreted by governments, industry and the courts in the future.
The Oka Crisis 1990
The 78-day standoff at Oka was sparked over a golf course being constructed on top of a Mohawk burial ground, intact with visible tombstones, on the Kanesatake reserve, known as the Pines.21 After years of their concerns not being heard or acted upon, in order to halt construction, Mohawks set up barricades, blocking access to the area.
Mohawk artist Thomas Deer had just turned fourteen when the crisis began. “My parents reluctantly agreed to let me help out at the barricades, on the condition that I wouldn’t carry a firearm. As the conflict intensified, I had to renegotiate those terms when it was announced that the Canadian army would be deployed here,” he recalls.
People from surrounding Mohawk communities joined the struggle to stop construction in The Pines, and as the conflict escalated, Indigenous people from all across Canada came to support the cause. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people held protests and rallies across Canada. Newspapers exploded with sensationalist headlines about “Native warriors,” Canadian soldiers and violence.
Injunctions to remove the blockades were ignored and the Oka mayor asked the provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) to step in.
On July 11, 1990, the SQ intervened, using tear gas and grenades. During the gunfire that ensued, an SQ Corporal was killed and the SQ retreated.
Eventually, the mayor of Oka cancelled the golf course expansion. “As ugly as the events of 1990 were, it was worth the fight,” said Deer.
During the standoff, Deer realized it wasn’t just about land. It was about his culture, worldview, experience, and language. He says that in the decade that followed, most of his Elders, who conducted ceremonies and handled political affairs in the community, began to die off one by one.
“By about 2000, the responsibility fell upon the ‘Blockade Generation’ and the younger ones to carry on the ceremonies and our traditional political affairs. I believe this makes Mohawk communities like Kahnawake uniquely strong in the sense that our Longhouse is young and vibrant because of our young people who were inspired by 1990.”
The Oka crisis sparked nationwide conversations about land rights and First Nations in Canada. For many, Oka instilled a sense of Indigenous nationalism and self-determination under the auspices of their own traditional governments.
“For the government of Canada, 1990 taught them that Indigenous Peoples could no longer be trifled with,” concludes Deer. “Like kicking a beehive, the government learned that they must respect our inherent right to self-determination or get stung suppressing it.”
Control of Indigenous identity 1951-2015
Indigenous women have fought in their communities, nationally and internationally for equality for decades, yet gender discrimination continues to exist in the Indian Act today.
In 1951, under section 12(I)(b) of the Indian Act, a woman who married a non-Native man lost her Indian Status and had to surrender her rights as an “Indian” immediately.
This meant that a woman who married a non-Status Indian man would be forced to disassociate from her community and cease to be “Indian.” She would lose her house on reserve and her children would not be recognized as Indian, denying them access to cultural and social amenities of the community. Even her body could not be buried in the community with her ancestors. A non-Indian woman, who married an Indian man, would conversely gain those rights and become a Status Indian.
In 1977, a Maliseet woman, Sandra Lovelace filed a complaint against Canada at the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, calling section 12(I)(b), a human rights violation. Lovelace married a non-Native man, moved off reserve and had a son. When she divorced and returned to the reserve, she was no longer entitled to Indian Status nor rights to housing and was forced to sleep in a tent in her home community in the middle of winter.
The case dragged on until 1982 when the UN determined that the Indian Act had denied Lovelace her cultural rights. Embarrassed, Parliament revoked the discriminatory section of the Act and in 1985, Bill C-31 was created to deal with sex discrimination in the Indian Act.
However, gender inequality still lived in Bill C-31 and a new class of Indians was created. Under the new act, Indigenous people can only pass on their Indian status to their descendants if the other parent is also a Status Indian. A Native woman who lost her status through marrying a non-Native man before 1985, who is now reinstated can pass Indian Status on to her children but not necessarily to her grandchildren. But an Indian man, who was not affected by 12(1)(b), will have decedents who are Status Indians regardless.
Lower Nicola Valley band member Sharon McIvor launched a case against residual sex discrimination in the Indian Act in 1989. In 2009, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia ruled in favor of McIvor. However in July 2015, McIvor was still fighting against outstanding sex discrimination in the Indian Act and was back shedding concerns at the United Nations.
Stolen Sisters 1960-current
Indigenous women have disappeared and been killed in alarming numbers since at least the 1970s.28 Tahltan Chief Terri Brown was working with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in Vancouver in the 1990s when she was alerted to deplorable statistics of Indigenous women disappearing from the city’s downtown eastside.
“We set up talking circles and women would come and say ‘what is going on, my niece or my sister has gone missing’. It was dumbfounding because nobody knew what to do,” Brown said.
Brown says when women would alert the police to the high number of Indigenous women missing, police would suggest the women were on vacation, or visiting family, but family would be the ones making the pleas for help.
In 1992 and 1993, women began disappearing in significant numbers from a stretch of Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George, dubbed the Highway of Tears. Brown lived in Northern British Columbia at the time and started to speak out about it.
“It was something that really haunted me. A young girl would disappear a few miles down the road from Prince George. It stuck in my mind that we have to change this.”
Brown’s own sister, Ada Elaine Brown was killed in 2001. In the same year, Terri Brown was elected president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and began to break the silence about missing and murdered Indigenous women. She says NWAC supported families by advocating to have murderers like Robert Pickton convicted.
In 2004, under Brown’s leadership, NWAC launched the monumental Sisters In Spirit (SIS) campaign, calling for solutions to end violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. The organization created a nationwide database on those Indigenous women missing and murdered.
In 2010, Rona Ambrose, then the federal minister for the status of women, announced that funding for the SIS database would be redirected, with the bulk of it going to a national police support centre for missing persons. NWAC continued advocating and supporting the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls with next to no funding.
Since 2012, the issue of MMIW has become not only important in the public eye and in the media, but also part of politicians’ platforms. Rona Ambrose, now interim leader for the fallen Conservative party has declared the need for a public inquiry on MMIW.
Today, it is not just family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women taking to the streets, to the media and to national and international forums. Indigenous and non- Indigenous leaders, advocates and the public take part in protests, conversations, panels, public debates and primetime news programs to draw attention and action to the issue. This is a reflection of the decades long work that families of missing and murdered women have taken on tirelessly, and sadly, often without answers or help.
“I want people to fight for the change that is needed,” said Brown. “This is everybody’s issue and we all have to own it.”
Idle No More
The Idle No More movement captivated the country and shed light on some of the most imminent aspects of Indigenous history, its trajectory and the reality today. It reflected a momentum of centuries of Indigenous people fighting for rights and justice.
Tanya Kappo participated in the movement. She also co-edited a book about the movement called the Winter We Danced, alongside prolific writers Leanne Simpson, Wanda Nanibush and Hayden King. Kappo developed an interest in the movement when she was finishing law school in 2012.
“I was beginning to feel very troubled and uneasy about what I believed the impacts of the omnibus bills C-38 and C-45 would be on the lands, and on Indigenous people in particular. And I found out that I wasn’t the only one having these concerns.”
Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean, and Nina Wilson, an Indigenous and non-Indigenous group of women started Idle No More in Saskatchewan with teach-ins surrounding omnibus Bill C-45, treaty rights and land and water protection. That movement spread quickly across Canada – on the ground, and on social media.
“What really felt empowering about it was the response of the people in our communities,” says Kappo. “It was a time when it was genuinely about the people, for the people, by the people – in protection of our lands and waters.”
Indigenous youth, leaders and non-Aboriginal supporters came out in the hundreds, blocking main intersections and snaking through shopping centres in drum-dance flash mobs. On the street, on social media, and on television, Idle No More gripped every aspect of Canada. It opened up conversations about the protection of land and water, about Indigenous rights, about treaties, about missing and murdered Indigenous women, and gave regular Indigenous people a chance to voice concerns and be heard. It was a rare moment in history when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people came together in pursuit of the same goals – to protect the land and water. It was a time when a generation of Indigenous people felt like there was hope to be heard, and to finally, see change.
“After generations of our families and communities being ripped apart by residential school experiences and child welfare interference, this awakening was critical,” explains Kappo. “It allowed us to see ourselves as the beautiful reflection of our ancestors that we are.”
Idle No More, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now a spirited participation in federal elections shows that what we see today is not just a reflection of what happened in the 20th century’s fight for self-determination, but a continuation of that struggle. The way forward, Elders say, will be carried on by the future generations – song by song, traditional law by law, Indigenous language by language.
I found this gem at Elder Fred Kelly’s house while interviewing him about the Red Power Movement in Canada. This comic book was made by Indian Affairs under John R. Nicholson. It was seen as part and parcel of Canada’s attempt to assimilate ‘the Indians” at the time. Kelly laughs and says he remembers employees from Indian Affairs telling him, “Fred, you have promise, just like John Wapoose.”
Elder Fred Kelly, was one of the many leaders within the Red Power Movement in Canada. He is a citizen of the Ojibways of Onigaming, a community of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty three territory.
From his home in Winnipeg overlooking a small lake reflecting the sun, he tells me about why he led a march to city hall in Kenora in in 1965. He also shows me scrapbook upon scrapbook of newspaper articles of him in 1965.
“Race relations were absolutely horrendous. Some of our people in coldest days of January had to wait outside a bus depot, while white people and dogs were allowed. They allowed dogs, but didn’t allow us. That was in 1965, ” Kelly said.
The demands of the 500-person march made national headlines. The group wanted an extension for the fur trapping session in Treaty 3, radio telephones in many communities that didn’t have indoor toilets or plumbing not to mention a health care station, programs to deal with substance abuse issues, and a plan to address racism.
“I started talking about human dignity. I felt we should be accorded the pride we deserved, after experiencing the subjection we suffered as people at the hands of Indian Affairs and the churches, and the treatment we underwent of sexual and physical abuse.”
Even though Kelly appears in article after article in magazines and newspapers, one even calling him Martin Luther Kelly, Fred is quick to correct me when I ask about his impressive leadership.
“Our people needed to know about this, and enough is enough. But this couldn’t be my own issue; it had to be the collective. The people who led that march were the 500 people who took to the streets to stand up against racism, they are the ones who had the courage to address the way we were treated.”
Kelly smiles as he tells me about the week after the protest was held. He saw Indigenous people walking around Kenora with traditional headbands and clothing– he says examples of pride and a people wanting to assert their identity.
The Indigenous led March through Kenora in 1965 became known as the birth of the indigenous civil rights movement in Canada. It inspired other Indigenous people across Canada
March 31, 2015
Arriving at Massey College for the first time, I envisioned a space where I’d share my gifts with the community — my art and my journalism, stories about my people, Indigenous lives, lands and our politics. I imagined as the “first Aboriginal William Southam Journalism Fellow” in history, my contribution would be something memorable, something juniors, seniors and quadranglers would learn from, engage with, and later teach to others. That happened and to a much greater degree than I had ever imagined.
But I also anticipated an environment similar to that which I came from in mainstream media — many awkward conversations about indigenous political, social and even spiritual landscapes; many vague understandings; many stereotypes; and a lot to say- in essence a colonial narrative, one that often seems challenging, to say the least, to be penetrated by change. And I did see this. I toasted the queen, humbly; I smiled when I was asked by a Southeast Asian junior fellow what my “Indian name” was, and we laughed when I asked what his was; I bit my tongue when someone I admired called, what Indigenous people refer to as the assimilation policy of the century, or the White Paper, the best proposal for my people. Yes there were struggles- external and internal I faced, indeed.
But I did not expect to meet people who would change my perspective entirely, who would say in their own skin, breath, words and private clubs, that the Indigenous issue is the most important one of the day. I did not expect encouragement and empowerment from those who are without a doubt part of Canada’s most powerful elite. I never expected to sit in a mansion and have a heart to heart about who my people are, and why we should be celebrated not relegated nor neglected nor deemed as irrelevant. I never expected, ever in my life to build trust and genuine meaningful friendships with those whose ancestors purposely ignored mine.
And in my own personal journey, I did not expect to become so much more than just a journalist without a view, or just an Indigenous woman with a view. I did not expect to be leading a geo chemistry class as a guest lecturer, talking about First Nations and the oilsands. I never anticipated being seen as an expert for ALL indigenous issues and having to dig into the complex and sensitive issue behind Toronto’s Indigenous lands – and I’m still struggling with that one.
Who would have imagined that a First Nations homeless child growing up in care would in her adult life be briefing a former Canadian National Defense Minister about Indigenous economics, resource development and violence against women. Who would have imagined the little girl that no one believed in would become the one everyone turned to for answers, for truth, for honesty, and for a meaningful dialogue and solid relationships.
I envisioned a lot, but I did not expect to witness this massive transformation right here at Massey and within myself. Because it is more than conversations, more than relationships and more that epiphanies. It is about going back to that colonial narrative, and realizing through this experience, right here at Massey, that change IS possible, that Canada can become that place of common respect, mutual understanding, gifted with all those values we speak so highly of.
This year has given me a new sight to see this, a hope to believe in it, and a faith to seek it. I want to personally thank Anna Luengo, and Bob Johnson, Amela Marin, Lynda Shorten, Marci McDonald, Clair Balfour, Lisa Bowen, the selection committee, Hugh Segal, my journalism fellows and the Massey community at large for teaching, listening, and learning – all of us together. Hamy’ya (from the kindness of my heart.) Keep asking questions.
Reconciliation: The Way Forward
Earlier this week I organized and moderated a panel called Reconciliation: The Way Forward, at the prestigious Massey College in Toronto. The panel featured activist and Ryerson professor Pam Palmater, NDP Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash, physician and University of Toronto professor Anna Banerji and author and thinker John Ralston Saul. It was an intimate evening with room for about one hundred people. The event sold out in four hours and was widely received.
Invites went out to Massey junior and senior fellows and the Quadrangle Society and in attendance included the Founding President of Trent University, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and the Canadian Journalism Foundation. The event was endorsed and attended by former senator and now Massey Master Hugh Segal.
Although unplanned, timing for this event could not have been better — four days before Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. As the Indigenous twittersphere exploded with biting cynicism about the dominant figure of Canadian confederation, other’s were planning events to honour him. That didn’t bode well with #SirJam’s critics. Some reduced Canada’s first PM to none other than a drunk. Others reminded us that Macdonald did after all frame an assimilation plan including the development and implementation of the notorious Indian Residential schools.
One of Macdonald’s famous quotes goes as follows:
When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men ( James Rodger Miller).
But so what? What does this have anything to do with us today you ask.
Everything, the panelists said.
At the event Saganash quoted a 2009 statement made by current Prime Minister Stephen Harper that promulgated ‘We have no history of colonialism.” Saganash also said the federal government spends about five hundred million dollars per year fighting Indigenous rights. He said the continuation to refute colonisation in Canada and to fight Indigenous rights shows this country and its leadership are still far from recognizing and constructing a real route to reconciliation.
I never thought much about reconciliation. It was something bureaucrats talked about. It was something done to quell Indigenous concerns of government and industry encroachment into traditional lands without consultation, without recognition of inherent rights. But it was another CBC reporter, Jody Porter got me thinking about it in a very different way, well into my 30’s.
Both Jody and I travelled to Berlin with our journalism fellows via Massy College’s William Southam Journalism Fellowship. Both were enamoured with how the Germans recognized history — and not just the peaceful and heroic parts, but the abhorrent and shameful ones too.
In Canada, recollecting history is a whole different ball of wax. We can refute many things. We can debate whether the early architects of assimilation intended to torture, sexually abuse and kill Indigenous children. We can debate whether or not genocide happened. We can interpret the treaties in different ways. But we can not deny that most of us know nothing about this part of Canadian history – at all.
Pam Palmater’s answer to one of my questions was both emotional and real. It struck a chord with many in the audience. I asked her this: “Environmental protection was the predominant issue of Idle No More. Sharing land has always been a deep-seated issue in Canada. But how might this happen more equitably than in the past?”
She answered by telling a story about sharing a garden. How Settlers arrived on Indigenous lands when they were very sick. Indigenous people helped the Settlers get better and shared the contents of their garden — land, food and medicine to nurture them. But once the newcomers were healthy they began erecting fences and preventing the Indigenous people from coming in. Then the Settlers sprayed the gardens with pesticides and watched Indigenous people get sick, and in some cases die.
There is a lot more to her allegory than I can recall (stay tuned for the full version from her). However the moral of the story, according to Palmater is that a sorry is more than words, it’s an action that will require sacrifice. Resolution will require giving back, sharing and the all the necessary time, effort and patience required to restore justice.
It is stories like this that help us remember. But it is stories like this that some non-Indigenous people have denounced as whining, as radicals wanting justice, as people stuck in an irreversible past .
Thinkers like John Ralston Saul would turn that sentiment on its head and ask why those nagging us to forget are so stuck in the past. Why is there such a pervasive desire to cover up history, a strong defensive reaction to protect that veil, and a pattern to repeat history over and over again.
In his presentation Saul said “Reconciliation is not about a feel good thing. It is about actions that can change the country.” He called reconciliation a painful process that starts with decolonization. He also said “the types of people at this event (at Massey College) are the problem, the beneficiaries of colonialism.”
I remember being a university student and basking in the glow of using big words and concepts and over-using the word colonization. A cousin of mine asked what on earth I was talking about. I put it like this: Colonialism involves one society seeking to conquer another and then rule over it. To some of the panelists, it would seem that process continues today.
Palmater brought up that tens of thousands of children went to residential school but hundreds of thousands are now wards of the court in child protective care. Indigenous children on reserve do not have the same rights or resources as the children living off reserve, she said. Racism is at an all time low. And there are now over 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The panelists all argued these are indications that colonization is alive today.
What Jody Porter had opened my eyes to was that reconciliation is not some cheesy attempt to pretend everything is good between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. It is a way for us to understand together what went wrong. And what Truth and Reconciliation Chair Justice Murray Sinclair taught me is to ask why reconciliation is needed today.
I organized this panel to learn. Solutions are at the heart of my aim in talking about reconciliation. An audience member at the event said that reconciliation is not about voting in a new government, another said it’s not about just becoming friends with Indigenous people, another said it is about new ways of learning, thinking and acting.
Some would say, the first step is admitting that many of us know nothing at all of our Canadian history, of our national and personal identity, and of how we got here today. And some would say the next step is taking the initiative to learn and create change.
Photos taken By Michael Reyes