Indigenous rights activists after the ‘Unsettle Canada Day 150 Picnic’ in Toronto, Ontario.
Indigenous rights activists after the ‘Unsettle Canada Day 150 Picnic’ in Toronto, Ontario.
Photo: Mark Blinch / Reuters

Amid the throng of flag-waving Canadians wearing red and white on Parliament Hill on 1 July 2017 was a solitary teepee. The Canada Day bash – which featured U2’s Bono, the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, a dazzling fireworks display and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as one of the MCs – was the biggest in a year-long celebration that has cost half a billion dollars. The event being commemorated was the 150th anniversary of confederation, when former British colonies united to form the country we know today as Canada.

The teepee dwellers were indigenous activists there to camp and practise traditional ceremonies on unceded Algonquin territory, never given up to the Canadian government. They had faced a five hour stand-off with armed police to defend these rights. Their presence forced Canadians – whom the activists refer to as ‘settlers’ – to consider another narrative, one of national shame rather than pride embedded in Canada’s foundations.

Justin Trudeau called for understanding. Some indigenous people may not wish to celebrate, he told Canadians, and acknowledged that Canada had ‘failed indigenous people’. Despite the conciliatory words, a visit by Trudeau and his wife to the teepee seemed an unwelcome distraction.

‘Suddenly it became all about Mr Trudeau,’ said one of the organizers. The teepee members were there to educate the public about the historic mistreatment of indigenous people, she said.

‘It’s our turn to talk and it’s time for you to listen,’ another member told the press conference.

Canadace Day Neveau, who was also in the teepee, asked: ‘How can I celebrate Canada 150 when our children live like they do?’

Some 60 per cent of children on First Nations reserves live in poverty; they receive 30 per cent less educational funding than their non-indigenous counterparts; many live in households with poor heating, lacking access to clean water. Suicide rates among First Nations youth are soaring. Ninety per cent of the members of one First Nation, Grassy Narrows in Ontario, report symptoms of industrial mercury poisoning.

The fairy tale is false

For more than 100 years (until 1996), 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their homes and sent to government-funded, church-run residential schools. Stripped of their language, culture and identities, many were emotionally, physically and sexually abused. Some were used in spurious experiments leaving them malnourished or deaf. Thousands died of disease and neglect. Today some of the high rates of domestic violence, alcoholism and addiction in indigenous communities have their roots in such mistreatment.

Fresh research is unearthing further historic and contemporary abuses – the use of starvation as a weapon by Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A Macdonald, to drive a national railway west through First Nations communities’ lands and to make way for European settlers; the forced sterilization of hundreds of indigenous women during the 1970s; the Anglican priest who preyed unchecked on over 500 indigenous boys in Northern Ontario during the 1970s and 1980s.

‘This falsehood that Canada is benevolent, kind, peacekeeping and gentle – we have experienced the opposite’

Until recently, Canadians were simply not taught about any of this in school, while a rich 10,000-year-old indigenous culture was skimmed over. The brutal nature of the colonization was not discussed; the narrative of an open, kind, civilized, welcoming society was promoted.

Tasha Spillet, an indigenous activist and lecturer at the University of Manitoba, describes the image Canada projects of itself as a ‘fairy tale’.

‘This falsehood that Canada is benevolent, kind, peace-keeping and gentle – we have experienced the opposite. Canada is an incredibly violent force and continues to be so.’

While the teepee incident was the most high-profile protest, it has been just one of many across the country promoting an alternative narrative to celebration – one of occupation.

Idle No More Activists crashed a Canada Day picnic in Toronto hosted by the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister. The extravagant celebrations, they said, were a ‘slap in the face’, as many indigenous people struggle to meet basic needs.

‘We’re out here dispelling those myths that everything is OK,’ said Tori Cress, one of the organizers. ‘Everything is crisis and poverty.’

Promises, promises

During the 2015 general election campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised to repair relations with indigenous people. He benefitted from a surge in the indigenous vote. After his election, he continued to raise expectations – and hopes – at a traditional blanket ceremony, when he stood in front of indigenous leaders and described renewed relations with Canada’s First Peoples as a ‘sacred obligation’. ‘No relationship is more important,’ he emphasized.

But Spillet says that the acceptance of Trudeau was premature. ‘Those ceremonies should be earned after he had fulfilled those intentions and earned the right. I think he was given that too early.’

Two years ago, as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Senator Murray Sinclair forced Canadians to confront the devastating impacts residential schools had on indigenous people, describing what had occurred as ‘a cultural genocide’. He offered 94 Calls to Action as a road map to reconciliation. While wooing indigenous voters, Trudeau promised to implement all 94, but progress has been very slow.

A long overdue inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls was launched with the intention of exploring why over 1,000 women have fallen victim to violence and why investigation of many cases has been slow. However, families have been demanding a ‘hard reset’ and want all commissioners to resign. They oppose the inquiry’s ‘colonial, top-down approach’ and have complained about a lack of consultation and support.

Spillet is concerned indigenous communities won’t get justice for their lost loved ones ‘unless the state is prepared to investigate its own police and its own systems’.

In Quebec, allegations that police officers abused indigenous women has led to an inquiry there; while in British Columbia, a First Nations Grand Chief has called for an investigation into racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Though schools are now updating curricula to include injustices perpetrated against indigenous peoples, reform across the board – from justice to health to child welfare – is moving at a glacial pace.

Many indigenous people say they can’t afford to wait generations for change. Too much is at stake.

When Ontario authorities announced plans to launch a giant rubber duck on Lake Ontario at a cost of $160,000 to mark Canada 150, indigenous children’s rights campaigner, Cindy Blackstock took to Twitter in outrage:

‘If Gov’t can afford a giant rubber duck they can afford equity for First Nations kids. Enough of this nonsense.’

Last year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed with her case that the government discriminated against 165,000 First Nations children on reserves – who receive less welfare support than children in Canada’s general population. A $180 million increase in support would help to put these children on a par.

Though the government initially accepted the ruling, they are now fighting the order.

‘That is not excusable,’ says Ryan Moran, Director of the Winnipeg-based National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, referring to the poor drinking water, the unequal treatment of children and the lack of resources to manage the suicide epidemic. ‘Money will fix that.’

The bigger picture, argues Spillet, is that colonialism continues in Canada.

Trudeau’s enthusiastic approval of massive fossil-fuel infrastructure projects ‘damages lands and waters of indigenous people,’ she says.

‘The colonial project has not ended.’

Sian Griffiths is a freelance writer and volunteer with the Salvation Army homeless programme in Ottawa.