Birthdays are a time of reflection. One often spends the day doing one of two things: thinking about past accomplishments and opportunities on the horizon, or wallowing in the regret of past inadequacies and dreading what will happen next.
Canada seems to be jumping on that first bandwagon. As the country’s 150th birthday nears, the federal government has kept busy encouraging its citizens to celebrate the rich history, the diversity of its people and its beautiful landscapes. But as July 1 nears, indigenous communities are uneasy, watching from home and wondering when the real conversations about the murderous history, victimized people and stolen landscapes will spark.
In Sir James Dunn Hall on St. Thomas University’s campus, bathroom stalls have been silently decorated with white stickers dawning a geometric maple leaf. The words “CANADA 150 YEARS OF…” are followed by a series of options: broken treaties, genocide, assimilation, colonization, stolen land. They’re tagged with a name, Chippewar, in small, bold font.
Chippewar is the man behind these stickers. The multi-media artist, Jay Soule, is based in Toronto. His artist name is reminiscent of the southwestern Ontario community his heritage is embedded in, Chippewa of the Thames First Nation. It also serves to represent the hostile relationship that Canada’s native peoples have had with the government of the land they have resided in since their creation.
Soule was a product of the Sixties Scoop, the practice of taking children of Indigenous peoples in Canada from their families and forcing them into foster homes or adoption, beginning in the 1960s. He was adopted in 1982 by a non-indigenous family after his mother was forced to give up him and his two siblings.
“Even growing up, I always felt a bit like an outsider, and just seeing how the constructs of our society are, I always felt it was a little bit wrong and things weren’t really right,” he said.
“You know, what they teach us in school about Native culture, it was almost like this utopia … Everyone supported each other and your community supported you, there was a role for everyone within the community, no gender constructs and things like that that European people follow.
“I was greatly surprised when I started learning about indigenous culture, realizing that what we’re taught in school doesn’t really exist now in a lot of ways … I was a little saddened when I started learning about that.”
Soule suggested its this lack of education and transparency provided to citizens outside of the indigenous communities allowing government narratives like Canada 150 to work their magic. He said any attempt at indigenous inclusion is “all smoke and mirrors, all for the media, it’s made to look like there’s an effort being made.”
He realized Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation was coming up while watching TV at his adopted family’s home over Christmas. He said when he saw the advertisement it “kind of pissed me off … I said, ‘What a load of shit that is.’”
Soule believes people are still misinformed to think things like the Sixties Scoop and other injustices only existed decades ago. He said this is evident in the country’s emphasis on the tragic outcomes for children forced into residential schools. When you add those numbers together, Soule said just those situations combined should be alarming for Canadians.
“When you know a number like that, over 163,000 children in care, that’s shocking. What happened to me and what happened to my mother is still happening.”
Mandy Richard moved to the Wikwemikong First Nation reserve when she was 10-years old. She remembers playing one day on her street, lined with houses of fellow community members, when gun shots rang through the air. Her uncle rushed the kids inside. The band office overlooking her neighbourhood had become the site of a stand-off. A man shot and killed his wife and was preparing to turn the gun on himself.
Richard said while she was fortunate to grow up on a reserve that wasn’t as impoverished as others, it was the allowance of those types of instances that weakened values and allowed bad things to slowly creep in – bad things the federal government has failed to acknowledge and apologize for.
Epidemics like the missing and murdered indigenous women, third-world conditions on reserves, mass incarcerations and especially the increasing number of youth suicides are things Richard said is begging for action from Parliament. However, the pleas are going unheard.
“Right there, [that] should be the most number one alarming factor to everything, and I always think an epidemic, people dying would be a wake-up call to a lot of people. But it doesn’t seem to be a wake-up call to the government. They just keep talking their policies,” she said.
“I know this may sound a little irresponsible, but [they need to] fix the problem. Invest in it and deal with where you’re taking money elsewhere … In the end, the whole country might suffer as a whole for a little while, but if you don’t do that, First Nations people are just going to continue suffering and suffering and suffering, and you’re not going to get anywhere.”
The city of Fredericton’s member of parliament, Matt DeCourcey, wrote in an email statement that Canada is committed to a “renewed, Nation-to-Nation relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada, one that is based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.”
DeCourcey said the federal government is working in collaboration with indigenous communities, as well as international partners, to continue to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples in the country.
In acting on this commitment, DeCourcey said the government has made progress on 41 of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those actions include the launch of a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, as well as a new, integrated approach to Jordan’s Principle, a child-first principle used to resolve jurisdictional disputes involving the care of First Nations children. DeCourcey said this has resulted in 1,500 additional Indigenous youth now receiving care.
Other actions include “the full support, and commitment to fully implement, the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and, creating permanent, bilateral mechanisms with indigenous organizations to develop policy on shared priorities.”
DeCourcey said all Canadians know the relationship with Indigenous peoples during the country’s 150 years of confederation has been marked with deep inequality and discrimination.
“And we know that much more work remains to be done in addition to the advancements made this past year,” he said.
“We are working hard with Indigenous peoples to ensure that moving forward, and for the next 150 years, we will together build a renewed relationship and a Canada that is better and stronger for all people.”
Richard has mixed feelings about the Canada 150 celebrations. As a political science major at STU, her initial reaction was that the celebrations were deserved. However, the more she thought about it, she found it “laughable.”
“You really want to celebrate 150 years of colonization and murders and death and children dying and abuse? … There’s this big part of history and people are still trying to push it underneath the rug.”
Richard said Canada 150 should be used as an opportunity to educate the country on these issues that have been ignored so it can begin moving forward. It’s an opportunity to talk about real life experiences and use the first-hand knowledge to form solutions and bring the entire Canadian population on the same level.
“The government has things they need to do, policy makers have things they need to do, I think First Nations leaders have things to do, and I also think the rest of the citizens of Canada have things they need to do.”
When Canada turned 149, Soule didn’t celebrate with temporary tattoos or red and white face paint. Instead, he spent the day painting a mural in Graffiti Alley in Toronto. It was a modified Canadian flag, with the maple leaf laying on a dripping background of red, white, black and yellow – the colours of the indigenous medicine wheel, representing the “blood, sweat and tears of Indigenous people that this country is built on.”
Soule said this year’s celebrations, for him, will be no different. For the rest of the country, due to the lack of education, it’s an emphasized excuse to drink Molsons in the sun.
“There’s only a very small pocket of people, like me, who are speaking out about it and doing things, direct action, about it,” he said.
“For the most part, the rest of non-Native Canada is on board. To them, it’s just another party. For the most part, they don’t even understand it. They don’t know the real history, and why don’t they know the real history? They don’t know it because that’s the way Canada’s government and education system has made it. So, they’ve been duped.”
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