Historic Canada 150 Marred by Indigenous Protests

This July 1 marks a highly anticipated bash for Canada honoring the 150th anniversary of Confederation, but as organizers ramp up for celebrations across the nation, indigenous activists are rallying.

On Parliament Hill, the heart of Canada’s capital in Ottawa, a group of native activists erected a teepee last night to symbolize their protests. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Ottawa police initially tried to disperse the protest, but the only arrest thus far has been of one man who allegedly assaulted one of the protesters.

Police attempts to subdue the movement were overruled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself. Despite urging from security forces, Trudeau refuses to do anything to move the group’s teepee. In Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Trudeau made it clear to the gathering crowd that he agrees with the natives and acknowledges that the multi-million dollar campaign to promote ‘Canada 150’ does not truly reflect the country’s heritage or history.                                                                                  

“We recognize that over the past decades, generations, indeed centuries, Canada has failed Indigenous Peoples,” Trudeau said.

Up to 500,000 people are expected to be in attendance at the Parliament Hill Canada Day activities, but Trudeau has no intention of moving anyone, instead asking for compromise and for Canadians to respect the demonstration. Trudeau's indigenous affairs minister, Carolyn Bennett, took a step further when she penned a statement regarding Canada’s less than perfect history.

“While many Canadians will be celebrating on Canada Day, for far too many it is a reminder of our colonialist, racist past. As we mark 150 years since Confederation, it’s important for us to remember and reflect all aspects of our collective history. We need to remember that we are all #treatypeople and that Reconciliation isn’t an Indigenous issue - it is a Canadian imperative.”

The protesters are callings their stunt a ‘reoccupation’ of Canada.

“We’re here to make people aware of the genocide that went on, the assimilations that went on,” organizer Brendon Nahwegezhiche said. “That is a part of the history, and that is the truth of Canada, unfortunately.”

A member of the Bawating Water Protectors, a large group from Sault Ste. Marie erected the teepee on what is unceded Algonquin territory. It is a sentiment shared by many of the indigenous protest groups, such as the #Resistance150. The #Resistance150 movement was created nearly eight months ago by Anishinaabe traditional storyteller and teacher Isaac Murdoch, Michic visual artist Christi Belcourt, Cree activist Tanya Kappo and Metis author Maria Campbell. The group has already organized a camp for youth and children to learn about traditional languages, culture and the environment from visiting tribe elders. On Canada Day itself, the group is holding language immersion classes. Murdoch said the group has trouble coming to terms with the concept of commemorating a history that ignores the tumultuous relationship between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada.

“I won’t be celebrating Canada Day because they’re celebrating resource extraction of our territories, the Indian Act is still in place,” Murdoch told CTV News. “The government is not allowing First Nations to have a voice. So why would I ever celebrate?”

It seems to be a sentiment shared by many. A few weeks ago, a Nova Scotia coffeehouse and their sign choice caused a controversial discussion. Just Us! Coffee’s sign read “Canada 150” with “Mi Kmaki 13000” right underneath.

“We didn’t mean it in any anti-Canada way,” general manager Joey Pittoello said. “It was meant as we need to recognize multiple communities in our country and some of them get under-represented I think...It’s a bit provocative, not intentionally. For us, it’s about provoking some thought. You know, provoking some change in the way we think about things.”

Indeed, we should. In this particular example, Nova Scotia archives have Mi’kma’ki tribe elders saying the earliest settlers on Mi’kma’ki territory dates all the way back to the end of the Ice Age. Yes, you guessed it, right around 13,000 years ago.

“It’s important to acknowledge that the business operates on unceded Mi’kma’ki territory,” Pittoello said, adding it’s important to recognize it’s the same land where most co-op members live. And that’s the problem: most Canadians don’t like to think about the brutal colonization and displacement of the original tribes on this land.

Don’t get me wrong. Canada should absolutely be celebrated- we’re one of the best places to live in the world. We’re dedicated to multiculturalism, and I’d rather live here than anywhere else in the world. But our history is not all poutine, hockey and maple syrup. All too often, European settlers who came to the New World were intent on oppressing the people already living there. Their lifestyles, cultures, and languages were viewed as more civilized that the aboriginals, and in many cases native languages and cultures were suppressed. And let’s not even get started on the horror known as residential schools, because we could be here all day and weekend going over those atrocities. So how do we balance celebrating our great country against past crimes?

Danielle Paradis from Metro phrases it, “As people living in the shadow of colonialism, we aren’t responsible for what our ancestors did, but we are responsible for the society that we live in.” We can’t change the past, but we can hold those in power accountable for what is happening to aboriginals today. While the federal government spends half a billion dollars on Canada 150, Ontario’s Neskantanga First Nation has been on a boil water advisory for 23 years. Many reservations are struggling with colonial legacies that moved their communities to inhospitable lands, and battling high addiction and suicide rates among its members. The general population is mostly uneducated about Indigenous struggles, and media coverage is scarce due to the constant plight most tribes are under.

Canada has had a long time to sing its praises, especially given the tense, partisan political atmosphere of the world today. So let’s celebrate Canada’s Confederation, but we need to start listening to the voices of these Indigenous people to truly understand the depth of our history.

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