For Indigenous peoples, Canada 150 recalls a dark history

Fort William First Nation will celebrate its culture on the sesquicentennial of a country that tried to erase it
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Oct 23, 2018
Anemki-wajiw, a 300-metre mountain near Lake Superior, will be the setting for a powwow this Canada Day weekend. (djhsilver/Creative Commons)

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July 1 marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation, when New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec formed a united dominion. But Canada’s sesquicentennial also represents a dark period in our history.

“It’s a big slap in the face,” Beau Boucher, a member of Fort William First Nation, says of the upcoming Canada 150 festivities. “It just makes me think of everything wrong that happened. Canada is celebrating this treacherous day when it took over the lands and became its own country.”

Fort William’s land sits on the north shore of Lake Superior, just south of Thunder Bay. It became a reserve in 1850, when First Nations chiefs and the Crown signed the Robinson-Superior Treaty.

For Peter Collins, chief of Fort William, the tension that characterizes Canada’s 150th anniversary can be traced back to the signing of the treaties in the 19th century.

“We didn’t sign the treaty to have our women go missing or murdered, we didn’t sign the treaty to have our young people go missing in the rivers, we didn’t sign the treaty to live in poverty,” says Collins. “We signed the treaty so that we could live in harmony with the foreign settlers that made their way to our communities, and our home lands.”

Instead of celebrating Canada 150, Fort William will hold its annual powwow, called “Heartbeat of Our Nation,” on Anemki-wajiw, also known as Mount McKay.

Collins says the mountain is “very spiritual.” At more than 300 metres tall, the flat-topped formation is the largest of the Nor’Wester Mountains and provides panoramic views of Thunder Bay and Lake Superior. The locale is regularly used for sacred ceremonies.

This year’s powwow is a three-day event that will begin on Friday with inter-tribal dances, followed by a sunrise ceremony and a feast on Saturday. The closing ceremony takes place Sunday evening. Attendees can expect to see traditional Ojibwe regalia, drumming, and dancing.

“We’ll celebrate our tradition, our way of thinking, our culture, and our language and our beliefs,” says Collins. “It’s about who we are as First Nations people — that’s what we celebrate.”

Not long after signing Robinson-Superior and various similar treaties, the Crown increased its efforts to subsume First Nations people — to deprive them of the very traditions and culture Fort William plans to celebrate on July 1. In 1857, Parliment passed the Gradual Civilization Act, intended to encourage Indigenous people to assimilate into white Canadian culture.

In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs, told a House of Commons committee: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, no Indian department.” Scott made it mandatory for all Indigenous children to attend residential schools.

Some think Canada’s treatment of First Nations people constitutes cultural genocide. “We look at is as a genocide that was forced upon us, when we were forced to residential schools and our land was expropriated from us,” says Collins. “We were born free, but since Canada became a country … they were going to do what they thought best for First Nations, not only to assimilate us, but also to try to destroy who we were as First Nation people.”

Boucher says he’s frustrated that lost in the Canada 150 celebrations is acknowledgement of Canada’s historically fraught relationship with First Nations and its present-day consequences. A lack of Indigenous education and language programs, the environmentally harmful excavation of natural resources, and the astronomical price of food in northern communities are all examples of a general disregard for reconciliation on the government’s part, he says.

“It’s because of what happened 150 years ago,” Boucher adds. “It’s tough, and you see the country spending so much money on one day.”

The federal government is spending half a billion dollars on events and infrastructure for Canada 150; Ontario, meanwhile, is investing millions of dollars to refurbish aging infrastructure, and staging concerts and other long-weekend events.

Collins recognizes the tension around Canada 150 celebrations, but he also sees the Canadian government’s ongoing efforts to reconcile its relationship with First Nations people. His role as a First Nations leader has helped to make this country what it is. 

“I believe I’m a strong Canadian too, at the same time, but I’m also a strong First Nations person.”

Charnel Anderson is a freelance writer based in Toronto, originally from northwestern Ontario. She is completing the final year of her journalism undergrad at Humber College.

Photo courtesy of djhsilver and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)

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