Confederation was less about beginnings for First Nations than it was their intended death knell. There may not be much to celebrate, but at least a conversation has begun
Many indigenous Canadians have opposed the whole notion of a celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, arguing there is nothing to cheer, and that the 150 number is inaccurate.
When there’s trouble in a family, it’s usually on the ritual occasions — weddings, birthdays, funerals — that the rift is most visible, the screaming absence of estranged members as obvious as missing teeth in a smile.
For indigenous people in Canada, the 150th anniversary — or sesquicentennial — of Confederation is little cause for celebration.
First off, for peoples who’ve been on this land for millennia, 150 years isn’t much more than a long weekend in the scheme of things. Second, they weren’t invited to the bash in the first place back in 1867. Third, and most important, Confederation was less about beginnings for First Nations than it was their intended death knell.
After that grand event, political leaders continued to speak unabashedly about Canada as “a white man’s country,” to aggressively confiscate land, and to remove whatever indigenous people stood in the way.
“In six short years, the Government of Canada had secured their nation at the Indian’s expense,” the commentator Allan Gregg wrote in a celebrated essay five years ago during the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
To indigenous Canadians, Confederation was the beginning of an ongoing betrayal and exclusion, with gusts up to atrocity and attempted genocide.
The last 150 years include residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, Grassy Narrows, murdered and missing women, unfair policing, unequal health care, education and child-welfare systems and exploitation of resources.
Not to mention, of course, the virtual absence of aboriginal history from school history curricula.
As Thomas King wrote in The Inconvenient Indian, the one inescapable constant of history is that “Native people in North American have lost so much. We’ve given away a great deal, we’ve had a great deal taken from us, and, if we are not careful, we’ll continue to lose parts of ourselves.”
So it’s not for nothing that many have opted out of the kind of celebration so beloved by governments and politicians bearing cheques and souvenir flags.
“What’s for Indigenous people to ‘celebrate,’ exactly?” asked a headline in Now magazine.
Instead of celebrating, Cree artist Kent Monkman has produced a cheeky spoof of the Fathers of Confederation at Charlottetown entitled “The Daddies.” T-shirts have been produced with the #Canada150 logo upside down and the words “150 years of Colonialism” below.
Stephen Paquette, an Anishnawbe from Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, wrote Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December suggesting that, when it comes to marking the 150th anniversary, the term “acknowledging” is more fitting than “celebrating.”
“It would be an injustice and an insult to all First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to suggest that we should ‘celebrate’ the last 150 years of Canadian history.”
The very paradox in Confederation, former prime minister Paul Martin said in a 2013 lecture given in its cradle of Charlottetown, “is that the First Peoples of this land, the First Nations, the Métis Nation, and Inuit whose ancestors had been here since time immemorial were not invited to the party.”
So it’s not surprising, he said at the time, that their descendants are asking — with rising impatience — “What is our place in Confederation today?”
The good news is that in the five years or so running up to the sesquicentennial the extent and intensity of that conversation has been rising, joined by some of the country’s leading public intellectuals and fuelled by a change in federal government.
In an odd way, it might have been the excessive celebration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 by the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper that encouraged such reflection.
That year, Allan Gregg wrote an essay called “Tecumseh’s Ghost,” making the case that it was the great Shawnee warrior, as much as any other individual, “who saved Canada” by joining in the fight against the Americans in 1812. Yet few Canadians knew much about him.
Author and philosopher John Ralston Saul said the rise of the Idle No More movement in the winter of 2012-13 brought to the very heart of the nation “the great issue of our time, the great unresolved Canadian question on which history will judge us all.”
Stalling and tactics wouldn’t solve it, Saul wrote in his 2014 book The Comeback. And without resolution, “the fundamental flaws in this relationship will simply become more troubling for all of us and increasingly problematic for the existence of Canada.”
“The situation is simple,” he wrote. “Aboriginals have made and will continue to make a remarkable comeback. They cannot be stopped. Non-aboriginals have a choice to make.” Put things right. Or deal with the consequences.
Perhaps the most important thing about that new narrative is that it’s being written and told by indigenous people themselves. By writers such as Thomas King and the late Richard Wagamese, by political leaders and dynamos like Wab Kinew and Roberta Jamieson, in the searing residential-school memoirs of Edmund Metatawabin and the late Augie Merasty, by a feisty band of indigenous reporters in mainstream media, and in the fearless and intelligent aboriginal voices on social media.
There’s nothing at all cap in hand or forelock-tugging about those voices.
“We don’t need Canadians to like us,” wrote Robert Jago, in an essay posted on mediaindigena.com as 2017 arrived. “We need them to fear us, and fear not giving in to us.”
That means, Paul Martin has said, a willingness on Canada’s part to address treaties, the Indian Act and the inherent right of First Nations to self-government.
None of that is a gift to indigenous people, he said. “It is a necessity, if Canada is to move on from its colonial past, and First Nations are to take their rightful place within Confederation.”
How do we address this? Martin asked.
“We do so by changing the course of history.”
By ensuring aboriginal Canadians are at the table from the beginning of any natural resource development on their land. By ensuring they are included in such development as key participants, not mere labourers.
By confronting the consequences of our colonial past. By refusing to condone the repeated abuse of treaty rights. By refusing to accept the overt discrimination in provision of basic services and fundamental rights: child welfare, health care, primary and secondary education.
To be sure, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government tried to refocus the sesquicentennial celebrations almost immediately on taking office, emphasizing reconciliation with aboriginal peoples and inclusion and diversity as main themes and aims.
Sensitive community leaders, with an eye to a fuller and more honest appraisal of history, made their celebrations “150+” — in recognition that the country wasn’t some sort of tabula rasa until the Fathers of Confederation cut their deal in 1867.
Still, that plus sign remains the elephant in the national living room.
Relations with First Nations have become “a stain on Canada’s international reputation,” Ralston Saul wrote.
“This is not the 19th century, it is the 21st,” said Paul Martin. “Let us not be afraid to meet the challenges as we see them in our time.”
For no amount of sesquicentennial tall ship parades, planting of community gardens and concerts in the park can conceal that elephant, or the urgency of those challenges.