The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

This year marks Canada’s 150th birthday since Confederation, but not every Canadian feels like celebrating.

Many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are speaking out against the Canada 150 celebration, with some using the hashtag #Resistance150. It was created to push back against celebrating 150 years of Canada when the history of the land is much longer for Indigenous people.

#Resistance150

“It is a complete farce that Canada would celebrate 150 years of itself when there is 15,000 years of Indigenous history and stories and ancestry in these lands,” says Christi Belcourt, a Métis visual artist and one of the creators of #Resistance150

Many Canadians recognize that Indigenous people haven’t always been treated well in this country, but isn’t often discussed. For Belcourt and others, it’s important to recognize that the land we now call Canada has been around for much longer than 150 years, and people lived there well before Confederation.

So what does 150 years of Canada really mean? It’s a celebration of 150 years since Confederation. On July 1, 1867, what was then known as the Province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec) joined New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to become the Dominion of Canada. To many, Confederation marked the beginning of Canada eventually becoming an independent country.

It’s now 2017, and Canada 150 is being celebrated everywhere you look. The Canadian government, news outlets like Global and CBC, along with numerous retail stores like Roots, McDonald’s, Amazon and Walmart are all branding themselves for Canada 150. Even postage stamps will say something about Canada 150 this year, and almost every city’s tourism strategy is focused on the celebration.

It’s difficult to be bombarded with imagery of Canada 150 everywhere you look when you feel there’s been more struggle in the past 150 years than reason for celebration.

“For myself, I don’t hate the guy down the street. But at the same time, are we really going to celebrate Canada? This is still very fresh, this is not something that’s the past, it’s still happening,” says Isaac Murdoch, another founder of #Resistance150. He’s Ojibwe and has dedicated his life to preserving Anishinaabe cultural practices.

Murdoch points to the many things that are still in place to this day, including the Indian Act, limiting First Nations peoples’ land to reservations, and Indigenous children still being taken away from their families for child welfare reasons, which many Canadian news organizations are referring to as the “Millennium Scoop.” It’s a reference to the “Sixties Scoop” which placed many Indigenous children in non-Indigenous homes in the 1960s, a practice that continued up to the 1980s.

"This is still very fresh, this is not something that’s the past, it’s still happening.” - Isaac Murdoch

“All these things are still continuously happening, and it’s like, ‘Holy shit, I thought we were supposed to have reconciliation,’” Murdoch adds.

Statistics Canada’s report Aboriginal Peoples: Fact Sheet for Canada shows as of 2012 there are many more troubling facts, including almost half of the on-reserve population of First Nations people live in a home that is overcrowded or needing major repairs. A CBC report in 2016 showed that over a quarter of prison inmates are of Indigenous descent, according to Canada’s correctional investigator Howard Sapers. In 2014, an RCMP report found that there were 1,181 cases of murdered or long-term disappearances among Indigenous women, which continues to grow at an alarming rate.

On Twitter, #Resistance150 includes many examples of ways in which Indigenous people have been mistreated in the past 150 years. A picture of a poster tweeted by one user under the hashtag reads, “Canada 150 Years of Broken Treaties.”

In the past

Belcourt and Murdoch, both based in Ontario, along with the other founders of the hashtag sought to bring attention to the plight of Indigenous peoples as a result of settlers coming to Canada, and how deeply colonization influenced Indigenous peoples both in the past and present.

“Canada’s wealth and well-being has been thriving off of the theft of Indigenous lands, off the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands for the full, non-stop resource extraction. That’s what Canada has done well, financially and in the world, doing that. It’s to the detriment of our people,” Belcourt says.

heritage park event schedule body imageThe event schedule for "Drum. Dance. Discover." included traditional dancing and drumming. Photo by Amber McLindenOne of the most recognized pieces of Canada’s darker history pertains to residential schools. The residential school system was created with the sole purpose of assimilating Indigenous children into Canadian society by forcibly taking them from their families and placing them in religious schools. Between 1883 and 1996, more than 139 schools were opened and closed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found that 6,000 children died in the schools and that more will be documented.

In the introductory paragraph of Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future, a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says, “The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’”

The last residential school, the Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Sask., closed in 1996, a piece of Canadian history that is now widely regarded as reprehensible. It is part of Canada’s 150 years of existence, a dark chunk of history that ended only 21 years ago.

“The [Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada] has pointed out time and again that there was a genocide against Indigenous peoples and there doesn’t seem to be the move towards not only resolving the issues that we live with but resolving the underlying issue which is to return stolen lands back into the full power and control of Indigenous peoples,” Belcourt says.

According to Murdoch and Belcourt, the start of the problems began with Indigenous peoples’ land being taken away.

“Land dispossession is a very big issue for Indigenous people because you need to have a land base to have your culture, your languages, your way of life and without land it’s been really hard and it only opens the door for colonization,” says Murdoch.

“Canada’s wealth and well-being has been thriving off of the theft of Indigenous lands, off the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands for the full, non-stop resource extraction. That’s what Canada has done well, financially and in the world, doing that. It’s to the detriment of our people,” Belcourt adds.

Valentina Fox, a counsellor and Elder at Nakoda Elementary School in Morley, also finds it hard to celebrate Canada 150 because of the “huge loss” within the Indigenous and First Nations community, but she does believe reconciliation to be a stepping stone to betterment.

A graduate with a bachelor’s degree in First Nations and Aboriginal Counselling from Brandon University, Fox reflects on Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples within the context of the Canada 150 celebration.

“When Columbus discovered North America,” Fox says, “millions of First Nations on this continent [were] full, self-governing and free. And then the colonization process took place, and treaties took place, and we lost our lands, and we were relegated to reserves.

“In the beginning, we couldn’t even leave the reserve without permits,” she says, “and if anyone dared to leave, they we were jailed, you know.”

hawk lace jewelry body imagePart of "Drum. Dance. Discover." at Heritage Park was showcasing Indigenous businesses. One of the booths featured Hawk Lace Jewelry, who's earrings and other jewelry can be found on Facebook under the same name. Photo by Amber McLindenFox agrees with Belcourt and Murdoch about the past 150 years of Canadian history: It hasn’t been a reason for celebration for many Indigenous peoples.

“We lost our freedom, our way of life, our culture,” says Fox.

“We really can’t celebrate a huge loss in terms of land, culture, all kinds of things, a way of life.”

On another note, Fox believes that reconciliation is a step towards a better future for Indigenous peoples in Canada. “It’s a good thing actually,” she suggests.

The goal of reconciliation is to reveal and resolve conflict from the past. In a Canadian context, that wrongdoing is how Canada has treated Indigenous peoples since Confederation. The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to report on the residential school system and how it affected Indigenous individuals.

There are many ways in which Canada is trying to improve reconciliation between the country and Indigenous peoples, including Reconciliation Canada, government initiatives, and promises made on the campaign trail by the Liberal government, including launching an investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Fox says that there is still more to be done in terms of reconciliation.

“There’s a lot of healing that needs to take place in First Nations communities,” she says. “Because of all that, First Nations ... they have an overwhelming number of people with chronic illnesses, bad addictions, suicides, whatever.”

What's to celebrate?

Some people, however, do believe there is reason to celebrate 150 years of Canada. White European settlers and Indigenous peoples aren’t the only people who exist in Canada, and Andreas Tomaszewski thinks it’s important to recognize that.

He is a full-time associate professor in criminal justice at Mount Royal University with an interest in the sociology of crime and deviance and Aboriginal justice issues. He acknowledges Indigenous peoples have been treated poorly for the past 150 years, but also believes that there is some reason to celebrate the anniversary.

“You can’t just say that it’s an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments for mostly white immigrants and white-born Canadians, because a lot of non-white people have reason to celebrate too,” he begins.

Tomaszewski is specifically talking about the Canadians that aren’t British and European settlers whose families have been here since Confederation. According to Statistics Canada, more than 17 million immigrants have come to Canada since 1867. In 2011, when statistics were last collected, 20 per cent of Canadians were not born here.

man dancing body imageThe Calgary Métis Dancers perform at "Drum. Dance. Discover." at Heritage Park on June 18. The group is a mix of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous dancers. Photo by Amber McLinden“I believe in context, that it’s important not to forget that there are many things where we still need to make improvements and I do believe that one of these areas is with regards to the relationship between all of us as non-Indigenous people and Indigenous peoples of Canada,” Tomaszewski adds.

Those who have come to this vast landscape seeking refuge and found a new home have reason to celebrate 150 years of Canada. It’s 150 years of building a place where they could feel safe, and celebrating a Canada that isn’t just about settlers and Confederation, but about what has happened since 1867.

But living in Canada doesn’t come without responsibility.

“One of the responsibilities then lays with, on the one hand, government, but also those of us who have been here for a while as settlers, to raise this awareness of those who are, in fact, even more recent newcomers, because it is relatively recent that a lot of people have actually heard about residential schools and the 60s Scoop, and those were active and very aggressive policies by, especially the federal government, but also by provincial governments to really eradicate Indigenous peoples,” Tomaszewski says.

The responsibility doesn’t just rest with the federal government to move reconciliation forward and make the next 150 years better for Indigenous peoples. Both Tomaszewski and Belcourt agree that non-Indigenous Canadians need to take part in recognizing what has happened in the decades since Confederation.

“It’s not only Canada the state, as in government, but Canadians, you know? Canadians need to be able to understand that by calling out genocide is not so much affixing blame as it is to say listen we need to move forward from this and we cannot move forward as long as you continue to have our lands,” Belcourt says.

Looking forward

There are some people who aren’t quite as interested in focusing on the past, and say it’s more of a personal mindset than one of the group.

Bert Crowfoot is the founder and CEO of Aboriginal Multi-Media Society (or AMMSA), which includes the radio station CFWE-FM and Windspeaker.com. Both are focused on Indigenous news and perspectives.

“When it comes to Canada 150, there’s nothing I can do about what has been done, but there is something about how I look at things and how things will be in the future. I can affect that through my own personal life,” Crowfoot begins. “I can let it make me miserable, or I can sit and bitch and complain, or I can go out and do some positive things and make some positive changes in my life, and hopefully those positive changes will affect people around me.”

Crowfoot says CFWE-FM plans to focus on talking to successful Indigenous peoples, and hopes that discussion affects how people see themselves and their future.

“There’s nothing I can do about other people,” says Crowfoot, a member of the Siksika First Nation and a great-great-grandson of Chief Crowfoot, one of the signatories of Treaty 7 “What I can do is I can do things about myself, and hopefully by making other people feel good about themselves, by making other people smile, by other people start feeling proud about some of the accomplishments of our people, which will be on our airwaves, hopefully that will affect change.”

Whether people are speaking in opposition to Canada 150 or deciding to take a more personal, positive view like Crowfoot, many people seem to recognize that the past 150 years have not been kind to Indigenous peoples.

What will the next 150 years look like for Indigenous people in Canada? Murdoch says that it’s about recognizing what’s been done and taking real action towards healing the bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

He adds there are realities that Canadians need to understand about Canada 150 and Indigenous people.

“I would hope that Canadians realize that a lot of people died so that Canada can be in the position where they are, and that it was unfair and that it’s still happening,” says Murdoch “I think that it’s important to know that people are dying, that a lot of Indigenous people have died as a result of Canada. Why would they celebrate something that kills them?”

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