Sadness in the celebration
Canada at 150 must note trouble faced by First Nations, critics say
The 150th anniversary of Confederation in less than five years will conjure images of parades, fireworks and flagwaving for most Canadians, but a different set of visuals emerges when leaders representing the country’s three main aboriginal groups discuss 2017: the noose around Louis Riel’s neck in 1885; an Inuit mother torn from her children in the 1950s; a decrepit, overcrowded shack at Attawapiskat in 2011.
It’s a key challenge facing the organizers of Canada’s biggest birthday bash since 1967. How does a nation adequately temper its celebratory instincts to also honestly, solemnly acknowledge that during the past century-and-a-half — for all of the country’s achievements since Sir John A. Macdonald and the other Fathers of Confederation struck their famous deal — not everything has gone well, particularly for the indigenous inhabitants of the sprawling land that would become modern Canada?
This week, for example, a chief of a Northern Ontario First Nation, Theresa Spence, enters the third week of a hunger strike, seeking a meeting with the prime minister over concerns about the treatment of aboriginals in federal policy-making.
So in addition to the hoopla expected for Canada’s sesquicentennial in five years, Peter Dinsdale, chief operating officer of the Assembly of First Nations and its point man on Canada 150, says: “I think there would need to be some quiet reflection on the other story that needs to be told. What happened to the original peoples that were here?”
Even Canadians with just a dim memory of their high school history classes know that the birth of Canada on July 1, 1867, led promptly to a violent clash with the Metis, mixed-raced descendants of aboriginal and French fur traders who inhabited the northwestern territory that became Manitoba.
Riel organized a governing body to resist the displacement of Metis settlers by migrants from the east.
“With Confederation, certainly the Metis became very engaged in the future of the country, but not — looking back — in a positive way,” says Clement Chartier, president of the Metis National Council, about the westward push of English-Canadian settlers. “Without any thought given to the populations there — the various First Nations and the Metis nation — conflict arose very quickly.”
Chartier has spent much of his life defending and emulating the “political consciousness” displayed by Riel, Gabriel Dumont and other Metis leaders in 1869-70, as well as their “desire to protect their own” against a “hostile incursion,” as he puts it. “They did have an armed resistance. They did capture Fort Garry. They did form a provisional government. And they did negotiate the entry of Manitoba into Confederation.”
They also, fatefully, executed the fiery Ontario Orangeman Thomas Scott, setting in motion a military response to the crisis.
While the 1870 creation of Manitoba represented the second key step in an expanding Confederation project — eventually (and controversially) securing Riel belated recognition alongside Macdonald as a founding father of Canada — the failed Metis uprisings also led to generations of struggle to secure land, political power and a national identity.
“The Metis nation was marginalized after that, subjugated by military force, and has been marginalized ever since,” says Chartier. “And we’re still fighting to find our way within Confederation.”
Dinsdale describes the sesquicentennial as much less important to most First Nations leaders than another milestone: next year’s 250th anniversary of the 1763 Royal Proclamation that marked the end of the Seven Years’ War, affirming Britain’s conquest of New France but also its recognition of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples as members of proud, independent, self-governing nations.
‘With Confederation, certainly the Metis became very engaged in the future of the country, but not — looking back — in a positive way.’
CLEMENT CHARPENTIER President of the Metis National Council
“I think the Royal Proclamation has much more standing in the eyes of First Nations” than the British North America Act of 1867, he says. “I think they see Canada, in many ways, as a successor state to Great Britain. And I think for First Nations, we’ve been trying to get back to that nation-to-nation relationship ever since.”
In November 2011, as Dinsdale addressed a House of Commons committee exploring ways to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the member of Ontario’s Curve Lake First Nation highlighted the desperate plight of another aboriginal community from the northern part of his home province: Attawapiskat.
“This committee is not struck to get to the bottom of Attawapiskat or any of those infrastructure issues on first nations, but you need to reflect that it’s a part of the legacy of 150 years of partnership in Canada,” Dinsdale said at the time.
“If we do nothing else here today,” he continued, “it would be wonderful to be able to set in force some kind of movement, so that 150 years from now, at some committee celebrating the 300th anniversary of Canada, we’re not reflecting upon shameful conditions in First Nations communities across the country.”
Terry Audla, president of the Ottawa-based Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s main national voice for Inuit, echoed the notion that the principal goal for the 2017 anniversary should be lasting improvements in the social, economic and political status of the country’s aboriginal people. After the growing Canadian federation acquired title to Britain’s former Arctic territories in the 1880s, the Inuit inhabitants of that region suffered many hardships, says Audla.
Among the most troubling episodes in 20th-century Canadian history, for example, was the federal government’s separation and relocation of Inuit families. Audla is a descendant of “High Arctic Exiles” involved in the relocation fiasco.
“Our rights as Aboriginal Peoples were nowhere to be seen or recognized,” says Audla. “So this lack of voice, this invisibility — out of sight, out of mind — it hindered our participation in Confederation.”
Nevertheless, each of the leaders indicated their peoples’ willingness to participate in some of the conventional “celebration” activities associated with major national anniversaries, including the construction of “legacy” projects bolstering aboriginal identity.
Chartier urged the Canadian government to get behind the creation of a Metis history museum and cultural centre at The Forks in Winnipeg, where Riel’s Red River Rebellion — known as the “Resistance” among the Metis — unfolded in 1869.
Audla suggested the Inuit people would embrace the rewriting of Canada’s motto as a worthy symbolic gesture linked to the Confederation anniversary. The proposed expansion of the country’s “From Sea to Sea” slogan to “From Sea to Sea to Sea.”
Dinsdale, meanwhile, has proposed the completion of a long-dreamed-of national aboriginal centre on Victoria Island near Parliament Hill.
The planned centre, envisioned as a place to celebrate Canada’s indigenous people as a “circle of all nations,” has already been designed by the renowned Ottawa- based aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal.
The late William Commanda, an Ottawa-area Algonquin elder who spearheaded the project for years before his death in August 2011 at age 97, “had a real vision for Victoria Island being a gathering place in the nation’s capital, an important touchstone,” Dinsdale told the House of Commons heritage committee last year.
But the country’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit are mostly concerned with leveraging Confederation’s 150th birthday to solidify land claims, to strengthen their respective “nation-to-nation” stances when dealing with the federal government.