Indigenous People & Canada 150: A Time for Reflection

by Channon Oyeniran

So here we are, five days before Canadians celebrate Canada’s 150th year since Confederation, when the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were united as one into the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. The Canadian government has spent over 500 million dollars to mark this occasion, and there are numerous events happening across the country. However, this 150th year is not a celebratory time for all, in particular Indigenous people, whose treatment in this country has been, and continues to be, deplorable.

Intro_MapE_aApproximately 12,000  years before Europeans arrived in what we now call Canada, Indigenous people lived on this land. Not only were Indigenous people here before anyone else arrived, but when the Europeans did arrive, they decimated the Indigenous population through violence and disease.

Today, the conditions of Indigenous people are poor, to say the least. The Indigenous population mostly live on reserves that are in poor condition; alcohol use, drug use and suicide run rampant amongst the various Indigenous communities. They are isolated, forgotten and their land continues to be taken and used by others without their permission.

Although Canada 150 is a time to celebrate, it is also a time of learning and a time to look back over the last 150 years and ask ourselves the questions: “What were our mistakes? What can we do better? How can we make amends for our troubling past, so that it doesn’t happen again?” These questions and more need to be addressed, not only for the dark times in Canadian history for the Indigenous people, but also for other marginalized groups in this country such as black people, Japanese people, Chinese, Vietnamese, South Asian peoples, etc. Let’s take a brief look at some of the sensitive, yet hugely important, issues that give Indigenous people pause in celebrating Canada 150.

Treaties:

treaty-8-logo_flipedAccording to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Indigenous treaties in Canada are “constitutionally recognized agreements between the Crown and Indigenous peoples”. These agreements often describe exchanges where Indigenous people agree to share some of their ancestral lands in return for different kinds of payments and promises. But more than that, treaties were and are still seen as  sacred agreements between those who view Canada as their ancestral homeland and those whose familial ties lie in other countries (i.e. immigrants to Canada). These treaties are constitutional and moral agreements between Indigenous people and Canada. There are many different treaties across the ten provinces and three territories that make up Canada, however due to broken promises and failure to deliver what was agreed upon when the signing of certain treaties took place, honouring treaties and making up for what was never delivered continues to be a source of tension between Indigenous people and the Government of Canada.

Residential Schools:

Residential Schools in Canada were government sponsored religious schools that were created to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture from the late 1800s. (The last one did close until 1996!) These residential schools attempted to convert Indigenous children to Christianity, educate and integrate them into the European culture that was dominant in Canada at that time. However, many of these schools caused more harm to these youth than good and incited negative long term effects. From about 1880 until 1996, approximately 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools in Canada. 57e6470635e9c2ff2247433da3438f04As some form of acknowledgment for the negative and lasting effects residential schools had, many of the former students fought for recognition and some form of restitution from the government of Canada. In 2007 the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was the largest class action settlement in Canadian history and recognized the damage done by residential schools. A multi-billion dollar fund was created through this settlement to help former students in the recovery process of being students at these schools. Also in 2008, then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, gave a formal apology to First Nation, Inuit, and Métis peoples who were affected by residential schools.

Imagine being discouraged from speaking your native language or practicing traditions that you grew up with your whole life. Imagine trying to practice these traditions and then being punished for it if you were caught. Imagine being forced away from your family for ten months or sometimes years on end. Imagine not being able to even communicate with your family through letters because all correspondence was written in English or French. Imagine being verbally, emotionally and sexually violated. Imagine not even being able to see your brothers or sisters who were at the same school as you because all activities were segregated by gender. Imagine being a malnourished student and then being used as a guinea pig in a nutritional experiment and the government of Canada knowing about it and not doing anything to stop it. Imagine spending years in these residential schools, returning to your reserve, to your family and feeling like you don’t belong, aren’t able to help your parents, are ashamed of your native heritage and find it hard to function in an urban setting all because you were subjected to years in a residential school that did more harm more than it ever did good. This was the reality for those 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children. Historica Canada’s Heritage Minute on Chanie Wenjack shows a short but important snippet of what living in a residential school was like.

Why Canada 150 is not a celebratory time for Indigenous people:

For many Indigenous people, broken promises, treaties, large scale decimation and centuries of distrust have made this Canada 150 celebration not one worth celebrating. For many Indigenous people, and other marginalized groups as well, Canada’s 150th birthday is a time to be critical of the country’s history and question how our country has dealt with those who have come to make this place home. University of Saskatchewan PhD student Shane Henry, who is Métis, Ukrainian and Cree background, said this about celebrating Canada 150: “I became jaded after realizing the divisive and patronizing way the federal government has dealt with First Nations issues. […] it’s important for those who don’t understand Indigenous perspectives to start challenging the narrative behind Canada’s Confederation”. Across the country people are recognizing that there is not much to celebrate, especially when there are still major issues that are plaguing Indigenous communities. Here are eight major issues, that affect Indigenous communities:

  1. Poorer health
  2. Lower levels of education
  3. Inadequate housing and crowded living conditions
  4. Lower income levels
  5. Higher rates of unemployment
  6. Higher levels of incarceration
  7. Higher death rate amongst children and youth due unintentional injuries
  8. Higher rates of suicide

With all of these issues affecting Indigenous people, and the extensive and often times negative history, it is no wonder that Canada 150 has not been embraced by many and will not be celebrated in five days time.

imagesWhile many are gearing up to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in a variety of ways across the country this Saturday July 1st, 2017, many are also asking important questions and standing up against what they believe is a celebration of colonization. For example students at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, voted to not sanction, participate or endorse any activities relating to Canada 150. The University’s campus was once the site of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School, which only closed down in 1970, and knowing what we know now about residential schools in Canada, it wouldn’t be fitting to celebrate at such a location. One Indigenous Algoma University student, Quinn Meawasige, said this about Canada 150: “Those policies at the time of Confederation were designed to eliminate the Indigenous people. What it was founded on was broken treaties, and it was founded on, essentially, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, because they needed to make way for settlement [. . .] I just don’t feel like celebrating that.”

While it is okay to celebrate and be proud that the country where you were born or where you are a citizen is turning 150 years old, it is also okay to ask questions and create dialogue regarding that same country’s history, how it came into being, treatment of specific groups of people and what they could be doing now to rectify past mistakes, thus creating a platform where everyone who calls this land home can feel welcomed, acknowledged and that their voices are being heard.

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