That First Nations were so brutally pushed aside after they had in fact worked with French and British explorers, fur traders, and buffalo hunters was perhaps the worst indignity.
As people fearful of living in Trumpland straggle to our border through bitter cold and deep snow trailing suitcases behind them, they seem reminiscent of an earlier time.
A time when some aboriginal people had to gather all their possessions and walk to the piece of land that had been deemed their new home.
Of course, those people weren’t walking to the kind of freedom the current U.S escapees are hoping to find. They were walking to confinement and in some instances starvation.
This is exactly what happened to Doug Cuthand’s ancestors. The Saskatchewan writer and film producer evoked that era recently in a thought-provoking piece for the CBC.
He detailed how his people originally lived in the Cypress Hills in what is now southeastern Alberta near the U.S border. After signing Treaty 6, their chief wanted a reserve there but the government had other ideas and they were sent much further north to the Fort Battleford area.
It is a story that resonates across the Prairie Provinces where once nomadic peoples such as the Cree, Blackfoot, and Sioux were forced to abandon ways that had sustained them for thousands of years to live in a much smaller world where food was scarce and disease was plentiful.
Too bad, as the joke goes, the First Nations didn’t have an immigration policy at the time so they could slow the onslaught of settlers who were pushing them aside and taking over their land.
“ … it’s kind of odd as an Indigenous person to sit and watch refugees cross the border into Canada,” writes Cuthand. “It’s kind of late to complain about immigration. There are 35 million people in Canada and only 1 million of us are members of the original First Nations. What difference will a few more make?”
That First Nations were so brutally pushed aside after they had in fact worked with French and British explorers, fur traders, and buffalo hunters was perhaps the worst indignity. Without the sure knowledge of how to survive in the northern wilderness, how to find and trap fur-bearing animals, how to track the vast herds of buffalo, the newcomers might have given up and gone home. It might have been well past 1867 when Canada started to come together as a country.
So when are we actually going to formally recognize that Canada has three founding peoples — Indigenous, French, and British — not just two?
The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the oath of Canadian citizenship include a promise to honour Indigenous treaties. It also recommended that government information packages designed for newcomers include Indigenous history.
The government is already following through. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter for new Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen lists making the change to the citizenship oath as one of his key priorities. Consultations between bureaucrats and Indigenous representatives are already underway.
Talk about squaring the circle: Hussen is a former refugee from Somalia. Perhaps refugees understand the isolation and humiliation of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples better than anyone else.
Philosopher and author John Ralston Saul asserts that Canada’s story is one of a “Métis Nation,” as all Canadians sit within the circle of the aboriginal people who inhabited this land first and whose descendants are still here.
Kathleen Mahoney, a law professor at the University of Calgary, wants to take the recognition of Canada’s Indigenous roots even further.
She would like to see Indigenous people recognized in the Canadian constitution as one of the founding peoples. Of course, there were no aboriginal people at the table when the Fathers of Confederation came to an agreement and called it Canada. Some treaties between Indigenous groups and the colonizers had already been signed at the time but technically Aboriginal Peoples are not considered founders.
As we celebrate the 150th year of Confederation surely it is time to recognize that Aboriginal Peoples are intrinsic to what we are as a country.
It would be a symbolic gesture but it would go a long way to recognizing and embracing the idea that First Nations have always been much more than refugees in their own country.
Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week. firstname.lastname@example.org