Canada at 150: Many indigenous people see little reason to celebrate


EDMONTON – After surviving 11 years in a residential school with art as his only escape, 19-year-old Alex Janvier was ready for freedom.

But in mid-1950s Canada, freedom still depended on the colour of one’s skin.

Janvier was offered a spot at what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design. But his destiny lay in the hands of the Indian agent from his home reserve in Alberta.

The agent said no — the man who would become one of Canada’s most celebrated indigenous artists wasn’t smart enough to go.

A chance to study in the United Kingdom was similarly denied.

Under Canada’s pass system — a vestige imposed during the failed Northwest Rebellion to prevent others from leaving reserves to join the uprising which lingered into the mid-20th century — there was no appeal, no recourse.

Janvier was allowed to attend art school in Calgary under the watchful eye of the local diocese, but he had to keep a piece of paper with the Indian agent’s signature on it in his shirt pocket.

He met a fellow student there and he recalls taking her to a movie one night. He had his arm around her. He was feeling good. It felt as though life was beginning to open up.

The couple were at the bus stop when a police cruiser pulled up.

“You! Come here!” he recalls one of the officers shouting. “Not you, him. What are you doing?”

Janvier says he walked over and explained they were waiting for a bus, but the interrogation continued.

“Am I to be arrested?” Janvier asked.

“A smart ass, eh?” he remembers the officer responding and then came the question: “Do you have a pass?”

Janvier pulled out the note the agent had signed. He remembers the cop glancing at it and then throwing it on the sidewalk for Janvier to pick up.

“That’s how it was,” Janvier, now 82, shrugs. “There was no law to do it and yet those Indian agents pushed it like you wouldn’t believe.”

As Ottawa spends $500 million on throwing the country a 150th birthday party, many indigenous people, including Janvier, wonder what’s worth celebrating. To recognize 1867 as the birth of Canada is to celebrate the beginning of an abusive relationship.

Janvier’s colourful, abstract art, which was recently displayed in a special exhibit at the National Gallery, has taken him around the world and every time he returns home to Cold Lake, Alta., he feels a surge of relief and affection. But it’s the land, not the country, that inspires his loyalty.

“I don’t have to celebrate,” he says. “That 150 years is none of my business. It never included me so why jump up and down and celebrate?”

To celebrate 150 years for many means to raise a glass to the continuing legacies of colonization — the disproportionate number of indigenous children in government care, dozens of communities without clean drinking water and some without basic indoor plumbing.

The Canada being celebrated this year would not exist without the suppression of First Nations, says Pam Palmater, lawyer and chair of indigenous governance at Ryerson University.

“The only way that it could exist is from our genocide and the theft of lands and resources and the ongoing discriminatory laws, policies, exclusion from our territories,” she says.

“The only reason they are able to maintain this is because they put us in jail, they put our kids in foster care, our women go murdered and missing because they keep us out of the way. Canada 150 is a celebration of how they’ve been able to keep us out of the way. It wouldn’t be Canada 150 without all of that.”

Canada’s milestone of 150 seems quaint when compared to the history of indigenous people dating back at least 10,000 years, notes Isaac Murdoch, from Serpent River First Nation about 150 kilometres west of Sudbury, Ont.

“Ignoring 10,000 years of our history erases us when they only celebrate 150,” says Murdoch, who is behind the #Resistance150 hashtag on Twitter. “It seems silly for Canada to celebrate 150 in these lands when indigenous people have been here forever. It’s quite rude. It really is.”

When European settlers first arrived, they used First Nations for knowledge on how to survive the harsh elements and rugged terrain, as well as military allies and fur traders. Once the fur trade declined and the military threat from the United States subsided, indigenous people became more of an obstacle to settlement and the exploitation of resources.

When Canada was born, it only had two recorded parents — the French and the English. No mention was made of indigenous people.

“I’m not a Canadian. I don’t know why it’s so offensive to say that. I’m Ojibwa. I was born Ojibwa. That’s who I am. Our nation is separate from Canada,” Murdoch says.

“Indigenous people have always been known to Canada as the Indian problem. Their whole policies when creating the country ? were to contain the Indian problem.”

Canada’s first prime minister, Sir. John A. Macdonald, made it a goal to “do away with the tribal system, and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the inhabitants of the Dominion.”

That mindset would last through the next century.

The British North America Act imposed a European-style bureaucracy on all things indigenous. Ceremonies were outlawed, traditional governance was replaced by powerless band councils, reserves were set up.

Through it all, the Indian agent was king. With the pass system – the same system that prevented Janvier from going to art school and gave police the right to harass him — indigenous people needed permission to leave the reserve or conduct any business on it.

They were expected to become farmers but needed permission to sell a cow.

“It was a way of control,” says National Chief Perry Bellegarde with the Assembly of First Nations.

“The pass/permit system that Indian Affairs put in place here in Canada was such a strong system of controlling indigenous peoples that the apartheid system in Africa was modelled after the Indian Act system, the reserve system and the permit system.”

They could not vote, consult a lawyer and could be relocated “for their own protection” if their land was needed for settlers. Equally, they could be relocated “in the national interest” if their settlement were built upon mineral-rich soil or along the shores of a river that needed damming.

“The relationship became one of interdependency to one where we became wards of the state,” Bellegarde says. “A lot of our people were starved into submission by the Indian agents and the Indian Act and the killing of the buffalo. Our entire way of life was taken away.”

Then they came for the children.

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages,” Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1883.

“Though he may learn to read and write ? he is simply a savage who can read and write ? Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence.”

Residential schools were set up and children were removed from their homes — by force if necessary.

Thousands died, buried in unmarked graves. Others were sexually and physically abused, returning to their communities alienated from their culture and haunted by demons that have been passed on through generations.

“It was like a jailhouse for little kids,” Janvier remembers. “They used to feed us pills to control us.

“They said it was for my health, but what it used to do is sedate you, calm you down so you didn’t get too crazy in that school.”

To this day, Janvier doesn’t know what the pills were. The records of his lost childhood, like those of so many, were apparently destroyed by a flood.

There was also what became known as the Sixties Scoop — apprehending First Nations and Metis children and placing them with non-indigenous families.

The intentions were more subtle but the resulting trauma was the same.

All of these policies have taken their toll. The majority of today’s indigenous people don’t share in Canada’s health and prosperity.

Many live below the poverty line in dilapidated housing without access to clean water. Their life expectancy is lower. Their odds of growing up a ward of child welfare, in prison, addicted to drugs or alcohol are much higher.

Sen. Murray Sinclair says the abusive relationship between Canada and indigenous people has gone on long enough. Divorce isn’t an option. Neither side is moving out.

The next 150 years will be about learning to co-exist, but that can only happen if it begins with honesty and equality.

“Trying to figure out how we can live together in the same territory is really the issue,” says the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined residential schools.

“Nobody’s going away. If nobody’s going away then how do we get along on this land?”

That won’t happen unless Canadians acknowledge the foundation upon which their country is built, he says.

“We need to acknowledge that indigenous people are in a position of inferiour power, inferiour economic status and problematic social conditions largely because of government actions over last 150 years.

“We cannot say let’s assume from this point forward that everybody’s equal because the reality is that we’re about 150 yards behind the starting line and you’re asking us to now enter the race with you. That’s not fair.”

Canadian people, who are becoming more educated about their own history, will likely be the ones that push their government into action rather than the other way around, he says.

Canada 150 is a birthday party, “yours, not ours,” Sinclair wrote recently.

“Don’t be surprised if we keep pointing out that it is not an anniversary about our relationship. It’s an anniversary of the joining of colonies and colonizers.

“Invite me and my relatives if you want. We might come and watch you blow out your candles, and sure, some of us will probably eat some of your cake. We might even sing Happy Birthday to you Canada.

“But then, we still need to talk about our relationship.”

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