Indigenous people have lived in North America for at least 12,000 years and possibly longer. First Nations peoples are the original inhabitants of Canada who lived here for thousands of years before explorers arrived from Europe. There are over 700,000 First Nations people living in Canada. About 57 per cent of them live on reserves, while the other 43 per cent live in mainly large cities.
Currently there are three recognized groups of Indigenous peoples in Canada: First Nations, Metis and Inuit. The Metis are a group of persons in Canada who trace their descent to First Nations people and European settlers. Inuit are a group of culturally similar Indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska. First Nations people were moved onto restrictive reserves and were considered wards of the government. As you celebrate Canada 150, remember that this tale that stretches back thousands of years ago, and not just 150.
Shamefully, First Nations people were not regarded as Canadian citizens and were not given the right to vote provincially in British Columbia until 1949. Even more alarming is that First Nations people were not allowed to vote federally until 1960, more than 10 years later. Furthermore, the ban was not removed from the Indian Act until 1951, the same year that First Nations people were given permission to attend public schools for the first time.
In terms of celebrating Canada 150, First Nations people are not having any of it, and with good reason too. “I don’t know what we’re celebrating,” Anishnawbe comedian Ryan McMahon told Now Toronto. “It doesn’t matter what colour underwear the Prime Minster wears — red, blue, orange or green— successive government have acted dishonourably.”
McMahon says he will not celebrate “high suicide rates, thousands of missing or murdered indigenous women or the Indian Act of a heartless child welfare system”, he cares too much about the First Nations people to set aside differences for fire works and hot dogs.
Metis artist Christi Belcourt wrote a poem entitled, Canada, I Can Cite For You 150. She too is not thrilled about the celebration of this Nation.
Belcourt’s poem reads: “I can cite for you 150/ Lists of the dead/ 150 languages no longer spoken/ 150 rivers poisoned/ 150 Indigenous children taken into care last month/ 150 Indigenous communities without water/ 150 grieving in a hotel in Winnipeg/ 150 times a million lies.”
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen member of Eel River Bar First Nation and wrote a piece for Now Toronto on March 29 entitled Canada 150 is a celebration of Indigenous genocide. Palmater educates readers on the cultural genocide of the Indigenous people.
“Most mistakenly believe genocide only occurs when millions of people are killed in concentration camps. They’re not taught in school about the real history of the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples that over time resulted in millions
Palmater goes even further to discuss how the “Indian policy” was based on acquiring Indigenous lands and resources and reducing financial obligations to Indigenous people. “These acts included confining Indigenous peoples to tiny reserves and forbidding them to hunt, fish or provide for their families, forcing them to live on unhealthy and insufficient rations that caused ill health and starvation.”
Other genocidal acts included the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, and the mass theft from their families of Indigenous children — many of which were physically and sexually assaulted, experimented on, tortured and starved at residential schools, thus leading to thousands of deaths.
“Perhaps Canada should humble itself, step back, cancel its plans [and] undertake the hard word necessary to make amends for its legacy. Then we could all celebrate the original treaty vision of mutual respect, prosperity and protection envisioned by our ancestors,” said Palmater. “Until then, I’ll pass on the cake.”
Back in October, Niagara unveiled an Indigenous monument to commemorate a group of First Nations warriors and war captains that served in the Battle of Queenston Heights during the War of 1812. The gesture comes more than 200 years after the battle between the Americans and the British. The memorial monument is located on the site where the battle against American invaders, who were trying to capture territory on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, was fought. The project was supported by the federal, Ontario and local municipal governments, the Six Nations Legacy Consortium and many other donors.
Here is a little history lesson for you folks as outlined by Havard Gould of CBC News: Sir Issac Brock was killed in action at Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812 and up until now, much less has been done to acknowledge the efforts of the First Nations in the battle.
“After Brock fell, his forced were in disarray and retreating. It appeared certain the American invaders, who controlled the high ground, were on their way to a major victory,” said Gould. “But a group of 60 to 80 First Nations warriors, led by war captains, launched a bold and tactically brilliant attack. Five of them died in a fierce struggle that bough time for reinforcements to arrive.”
Many locations across Canada were named by the First Nations people. These names help to define Canada as a land of diversity, beauty, abundance and cultural richness.
For example, Oshawa in Ontario, is a Seneca word that means “crossing of a stream” or “carrying place” that describes an old portage in the area. Wetaskiwin, located in Alberta, is an adaptation of an Oree word, which can be translated into “place of peace” or “hill of peace”. Oromocto, in New Brunswick, comes from the Maliseet word “welamookstook”, which means “good river”.
Canada’s name itself borrows its name from the Huron-Iroquois Indigenous word, “Kanata”, which means village or settlement. Indigenous youths travelling with French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535 used the word to describe the village of Stadacona, the site of present day Quebec City.
As you celebrate Canada 150, it is important to address these controversial aspects of our Canadian history to have a full understanding of the lasting impacts of colonialism on Indigenous peoples. Take an afternoon and visit the monument located at Queenston Heights and reflect on the passion of the First Nations people to keep the rights to their land and to be heard.
In addition to reflection, June 21 is National Aboriginal Day. This is a day for all Canadians to celebrate and recognize the diverse cultures and the unique heritage of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples. Please check out the Government of Canada’s website for a full list of events you can attend in celebration.
-Loredana Del Bello, Assistant News Editor