Steve Bonspiel reflects on why many First Nation people won’t celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial birthday
A sign shows racial tensions on Kahnawake reserve
With all of the mainstream hype about Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation, it’s no surprise that the many Native people are using a vastly different word to describe it — colonialism — and people are also raising much awareness on social media in the form of #Resistance150.
Sure, some of our own are using the celebration to their advantage, with artists, consultants and various businesses getting in on what has turned into a significant economic boost, thanks to the prime minister’s penchant for throwing a party.
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But if you come to Mohawk Territory, the ones who have felt the brunt of colonialism longer than most other surviving First Nations in this country, don’t expect to see any signs with the number 150 emblazoned on them.
On top of that, Montreal, or Tiotiá:ke as we call it, is celebrating 375 years of occupation. That number tells part of the story of why we would be more angry and frustrated with stalled land claims and assimilation tactics; eradication measures and genocide: we have dealt with it much longer than, say, any nation out west.
First Nations made Canada what it is today
We stand here, in Kahnawake, Kanesatake, Akwesasne, Wahta, Six Nations and Tyendinaga, in a country called Canada where promises continue to be broken, in spite of the fact we were instrumental in repelling American attacks during numerous wars, and in helping to make Canada what it is today.
We are rarely recognized for our important tactical military role. We were never given what was promised and we were never, after all of the turmoil and upheaval, after the wars were done and the European powers that be were friends again, left alone.
We do not have power over our own land and we cannot exercise true sovereignty on our own territory. We do not officially own the land. Title still rests, even if you pay a large sum of money for it and build your own home on it, with the Crown.
We didn’t choose to be attacked, raped and murdered in cold blood, our villages sacked and burned, all in the name of religion and the staunch, erroneous and arrogant belief, that their people were worth more than ours.
We were expendable. In the way. A nuisance.
When the British North America Act was passed on July 1, 1867 (celebrated now as Canada Day), this country still fell heavily under Britain’s thumb. It gave title to a state, not a country, and as long as that settler state holds all of the cards — especially one called the Indian Act — we will never attain true sovereignty.
Mohawk history recognized by Montreal
On February 14, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre announced the new flag of Canada’s second largest city would include some kind of nod to Indigenous peoples, and at the same time acknowledged Montreal was on Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) land.
Let’s say we take this gesture as a way to “move forward” in the name of neighbourly relations.
Sure, it’s good (and long overdue) that Coderre is acknowledging our people’s traditional homeland, whether you believe it was of the Mohawk Nation, which was here solo, or other nations were as well. It’s a step in the right direction.
But that gesture, in a city void of Indigenous title today, only goes so far.
There are vast tracts of land that were never surrendered, but instead are currently occupied by the Crown or settlers, and it has become all but impossible to get those pieces back.
We don’t just want money. We want access to our traditional pursuits of hunting and fishing, control over our vast natural resources, and title to our own land.
We want a place we can grow, expand, and live like we used to; free of the colonial chains of oppression and control.
It’s a mechanism that benefits them primarily — the “just us” system — and there have been many opportunities to set the record straight and give land back to our communities and the people, but we have been let down time and again.
Some legal rulings, like the Supreme Court of Canada’s Tsilqot’in Nation V. British Columbia in 2014, have given a say over traditional territory, if not outright title, but we shouldn’t have to fight in outside courts to prove it’s ours.
If anything, the three levels of government and individual settlers should have to prove they didn’t steal, coerce, kill or take advantage of our people to get the land they’re on.
So, no, many Mohawks will not be celebrating 150 or 375, even if some of our people take back a little bit of money from the celebrations of a country that tried to destroy us. That’s like inviting people into your house to blow out the birthday candles after they’ve kidnapped your child.
We may still be gathering strength as sovereign Onkwehón:we Nations and working our way back to our former glory, but many of us refuse to be complicit in our own demise.