Globe and Mail
Romeo Saganash is a residential school survivor and NDP MP in Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, Quebec
I lose sleep most nights.
It started when I was young. Now I have a whole regimen of supports to help me sleep: exercise, healthy eating, music, darkness, relaxing tea, books of poetry. When it gets really bad: mandatory time off, writing, sleeping under the stars beside white pine trees, near a lake, on the land of the Eeyou, my people.
How colonization affects an individual is difficult to explain. How deep the tentacles reach. How vast the expanse of jarring totalitarian domination extends. Someone said to me recently that they like to have friends with different political and social points of view because it broadens their experiences and teaches them to refine arguments. For the past seven generations, in order to adapt to and accommodate the colonizer’s values, goals, institutions and society, I have learned to see so broadly that my eyes tear up.
You see, for us, nearly everything around us represents colonial domination and genocide and is an example of Indigenous resiliency. Except that I’m really tired of constantly having to fight to prove that I have the right to exist.
And I can’t sleep.
What does it mean to be safe and free in the context of a colonial state when it is celebrating its sesquicentennial? The front lines of Indigenous struggle are everywhere, now: from the prairies, boreal forests and rivers to city streets, in classrooms and in the buildings of Parliament. In a world where our very existence is criminalized and our presence is defiance, Indigenous people are forced every day to live in a world built by their colonizers.
Settler colonialism demands Indigenous erasure for the purpose of claiming Indigenous land. It is the symbolic and real replacement of Indigenous peoples with settlers who attempt to claim belonging.
The real problem with Canada 150 celebrations are the stories that the state is attempting to tell itself and everyone else. Specifically, that it has legitimate authority to make laws and policies, or even imagine a future, without Indigenous partnership. Any celebration of the state, the nation with its assumed sovereignty, stories of expansion and settlement or nation-building in general, replicate settler colonial narratives and are an insult to my ancestors, to my people, to me.
I have intentionally not told you the stories that you may have heard before. I have not given you a list of all the reasons that Canada 150 is a ridiculous concept to Indigenous people because this isn’t only a political and social reality: it is deeply cultural, spiritual and personal as well. I could list a thousand reasons why celebrating Canada 150 hurts and why it is just a magnified and compounded example of what every single day feels like. Instead, I will tell you a story because it is the clearest, most personalized example of settler colonialism and Indigenous erasure that I have found.
We never had family names. We were, and still are, connected by clan, community, band and tribe. Many of the surnames we use were written into treaty lists by priests or Indian Agents, the names distorted or assigned by the colonial representative. A friend of mine from Treaty 9 territory has the last name Nothing. When I first met her I thought that she was resisting and, like Malcolm X, had chosen to use a name that highlighted how, for a period, we weren’t even allowed to name our own children.
Anawtin is an Anishinaabe word that means Calm Wind. My friend’s grandfather was one of the signatories to that very problematic Treaty 9 and when it was his turn to add his name to the document, the Indian Agent heard him say “nothing.” With that one act, a name that was given in ceremony, one that would have connected her grandfather to his community, identified his character and attributes in stories and painted a beautiful image full of meaning and beauty, was reduced, literally, to Nothing.
The only appropriate way to respond to the narrative of the state whilst celebrating 150 years of genocide – the only way you can do it without losing your mind – is with a single-line press release reading, “Indigenous people are normal people deserving of the same respect afforded to anyone else and the recognition of their inherent rights – but they are rarely given that due to the machinations of settler colonialism.”
So I use the night to count how many different ways I can find to say that I am a human being, I am Indigenous and I am still here.
Canada 150 is just a year of revictimization. Like it wasn’t enough to colonize once, now we are going to shove it down your throat.