On July 1, as Canada celebrates its 150th year, I and many other Indigenous peoples will be looking on with dismay — not to be antagonistic, but out of disappointment, mistrust and frustration because Canada still practices colonization today.
It is difficult to join in the celebration when it is accompanied by this level of obliviousness about colonization and how it continues to oppress Indigenous peoples. Those of us not celebrating Canada’s 150 are instead celebrating Onkwehón:we (Indigenous) peoples’ resilience to the genocide enacted by Canada in the name of “progress” and the security of settlers. We also celebrate our resistance to assimilation.
We know that many Canadians wish to have genuine reconciliation and because of that, we are proud to call them our friends and allies. But in order to move forward, we need to have real reconciliation accompanied by restitution. Our lands must be returned, we must have control over our resources and education and traditional governance and languages must be restored. Our human rights must be respected.
Do away with racist doctrines
Canada’s sovereignty is based on legal fictions like the Doctrine of Discovery, Terra Nullius and the Doctrine of Conquest, which have been used to justify the forceful occupation of land that has not been subject to the conqueror’s narrow definition of ‘sovereignty.’
But today, hundreds of years after some of these documents were written, Canada remains steadfast in its insistence of sovereignty over Indigenous peoples’ lands. The preamble of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — adopted unreservedly by Canada in spring 2016 — states:
“Affirming further that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust…”
Canada must today repudiate these racist doctrines instead of playing a waiting game that will leave it to another generation of politicians.
Indigenous peoples of the Americas are fighting the economic drivers of an ancient global dogma that used religion, racism and gender discrimination as weapons of oppression. Today, we feel those same systems of oppression embedded in the progress, reconciliation, and “nation-to-nation” discussions the Trudeau government touts so proudly. While the prime minister engages in "reconciliation" efforts, for example, his government has spent more than $700,000 in legal fees fighting a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order insisting that they stop discriminating against Indigenous children in provision of healthcare.
The modern fight against imperialism
Indigenous peoples have been fighting imperialism for centuries, from the free market economy of capitalism to glorification of the “American” or Canadian dream of prosperity. Our ancestors were forcibly removed from our homelands to make room for settlers who in turn created the "reserve" system that took away our security, our languages, our culture and customs. Rich, proud and honorable nations were reduced to wards of the state after the War of 1812.
We were treated as less than human and only a couple of decades ago got access to human rights mechanisms.
Even today, people don’t realize that in spite of Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982, recognizing “existing Aboriginal and treaty rights,” those rights are not clearly defined. Indigenous peoples have to go through exhaustive court battles to define those rights, and have had to prove "occupancy" of our lands since time immemorial.
There is no other group of peoples who must constantly undergo such scrutiny to obtain justice and have their rights respected. The court cases above have helped define “Aboriginal” rights, including the right and requirement of free, prior and informed consent, but even so, Canada still refuses to implement them. This is evidenced by the sweeping approvals of major industrial projects on Indigenous land without the consent of Indigenous peoples, like the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion or Site C Dam.
Instead we remain at the mercy of municipalities, policing authorities, Canada’s army and its politicians, whose ignorance of Indigenous peoples' human rights forces us into situations whereby we must fight to defend our lands, and indeed, our very identities. This is the Canada that we, as Indigenous peoples, know.
Sending a message on Canada150
For many of us, our refusal to celebrate is not a disdain for Canadians, but rather to send a message that we as a distinct peoples, indigenous to these lands, also have a right to control our destiny through the enjoyment of our right to self-determination. From our elders who endured the terrible and horrific conditions brought on by colonial-rooted poverty, to the present generation speaking out in attempts to decolonize Canada and our communities, there are countless urgent crises signifying that we can no longer tolerate colonial and racist laws, nor the exploitation of our lands, resources and peoples.
When Indigenous peoples speak of the continuation of “assimilation and colonization” by federal and provincial laws, most Canadians do not seem to understand what the implications are. They only see the surface of who we are; they only know what they are told by their government – that they pour x amount of dollars into funding Indigenous communities. These propaganda-type announcements imply that we are well taken care of, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Colonization in Canada means the continued theft or dispossession of Indigenous lands. It creates a hierarchy of decision-making that excludes all rights holders and criminalizes traditional governments whose authority is undermined by an imposed system of "governance" under the band council system. Colonization means that the role and authority of Indigenous women continues to be marginalized under the Indian Act, and perpetuates lies embedded in Canada’s history as it continues to ignore Indigenous peoples’ contributions to the prosperity of Canadian society.
The oppression of the Indian Act
This erasure is especially prevalent in the lives and stories of Indigenous women. You will never read about a great Indigenous woman warrior who led her people to victory or attended a “peace”-making treaty, but I know such courageous women exist. History is not only racist, it is gender blind. Indigenous women have been relegated to passive roles since colonization, as this was the role of European women at the time of contact. This is why we must rewrite history for present and future generations.
In Onkwehón:we (the Six Nations) customary law, it is the women who hold title to the land. We were equal partners in all decision-making processes. But the Indian Act — first passed in 1876 and amended several times since then — targeted Indigenous women and the family unit through the forced removal of children for Indian residential schools and the passing on 'Indian' status through the male line only. Indigenous women who married non-Indians were forced to leave their communities. It will take many generations if we are to change this trend.
Canadians do not realize or understand that the Indian Act is still the foundational praxis of Canada’s daily relationship with Indigenous peoples. The Indian Act continues to define who is an Indigenous person, coercively enforces assimilationist policies through funding agreements that force colonial curricula into in our education system along with our health and social services; and is the basis upon which Canada and its provinces justify theft of Indigenous lands and resources.
In order for us to have a nation-to-nation relationship as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insists, we need to recover from colonization and be an equal at the table of decolonization. For now, we constantly have to justify our needs to government bureaucrats who continually demonstrate ignorance regarding human rights and international human rights law that promotes and protects Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination.
Punished for protecting our rights
Our languages, devastated by the Indian Residential School system, have been highlighted by UNESCO as among the most threatened in the world. Yet our students get 30 per cent less funding for education than non-Indigenous students. First Nations children are still relegated to the back of the line as bureaucrats advise politicians on how funding is allocated. This is evident in Canada’s refusal to recognize the authority of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s decision on the human rights complaint made by Cindy Blackstock on behalf of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
Like its neighbour to the south, Canada’s prosperity has come hand in hand with violent acts committed against Indigenous peoples who defend their sovereignty. For centuries we have endured forcible removal of our peoples to make way for settlers.
During the “1990 Oka Crisis,” also known as the 1990 Kanehsatà:ke Siege, the colonial status quo was challenged and demystified, exposing hundreds of years of oppression and culminating in a 78-day siege that saw the fundamental human rights of the Mohawk people violated and condoned by Canada and its authorities.
More than 25 years later, we continue to be criminalized for opposing resource and housing developments on our territory, whose permits are supported and validated by Canadian and provincial laws.
Today, while Indigenous peoples have access to international human rights instruments, the application of them by many colonial states is unbalanced and arbitrary, which threatens our collective human rights. Reconciliation and restitution for historical injustices committed by Canada remain elusive in this atmosphere of fear-mongering, where economic and resource development is prioritized above all else.
As long as there is no clear understanding of what Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination is, we will always be considered threats to corporate-controlled states like Canada. Reconciliation is just a word if it is not accompanied by restitution.
Reconciliation for the next 150 years
Development has been at the expense of the way of life of Indigenous peoples whose languages, cultures, stories and traditional forms of governance are designed to strengthen our relationship with the land.
Land dispossession remains a key issue as it disrupts the relationship we have with Mother Earth and all our relations. The pillars of our identity— our languages, customs, health, ceremonies, and traditional forms of governance — are all inter-related and interdependent upon the health of our environment. Our languages teach us how we approach our relations like the four-legged, the fish, the waters, our medicines, and our celestial relations in the sky.
As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, remember that there is much work to be done in achieving reconciliation. I often wonder if there were no funds allocated for this process, where would our relationship be today? Would non-Native Canadians want to hear from Indigenous peoples? Would they be interested in our history, our stories, our realities or the tyranny that has been perpetrated in their name against nations of Indigenous peoples who welcomed them upon their arrival to our shores?
I have faith that many — indeed, a good percentage — would be open to hearing the true history of their country, allowing us all to take the first step in rebuilding our relationship. My hesitancy comes through the devious forms of what is viewed as “Aboriginal industries” professing to help Indigenous peoples emerge from colonization. From researchers in academia, government agencies, policies and legislation based in colonial criteria, I question the sincerity of this process. As one of my elders stated at the time of the IRSS apology that “it has taken over 100 years to bring us to this point in our lives, it may take another 100 more to undo the damage that the residential schools did!”
Many communities are still haunted by the legacy of Indian residential school system. Today, more Indigenous children are in the child welfare system than attended these horrific schools. Suicide rates are soaring. Poverty continues to oppress us. Resource development, including pipelines and fracking, aims to take away our economic, social and cultural resources. There seems to be no end in sight.
Our challenges are fighting institutionalized racism that has seen so many of our stolen sisters, brothers and children disappear from our nations. Peace cannot happen in times of fear. It requires love, respect, strength and courage.
So I ask: shall we celebrate then?
Or can we talk honestly, with open minds and hearts, without all the money associated with ‘reconciliation’? We want restitution, our lands returned, our resources protected and all the pillars of our identity as Indigenous peoples cherished, nurtured and protected. It is the only way forward.