June is National Aboriginal History Month, and this year, the day after National Aboriginal History Month ends activities for Canada150 begin. Massive celebrations are planned across the country, as was the case for the centenary. This article will point out some issues that some Indigenous People might have with Canada150. We also would like to acknowledge that many Indigenous Peoples, such as Indigenous actor Adam Beach, who is an ambassador for the celebrations, are supportive of Canada150.
There have been a number of articles in mainstream media and discussion on social media regarding some of the issues Indigenous Peoples have with the Canada150 celebration. The concern is that there is a collective lack of knowledge on the part of non-Indigenous Canadians as to the impact of those 150 years on Indigenous Peoples.
From a professional perspective I am well aware of this knowledge gap. One of the exercises I have participants do in my training sessions is to think of a day in history specific to Indigenous Peoples and provide a sentence to describe it. When they've done that I ask them to line up chronologically and then create a timeline by writing down the dates they have. I ask for this timeline so that I have an idea of their knowledge and gaps in their knowledge so that I can tailor the content to address those gaps. As shown in the sample below there is a pretty big gap of knowledge between 1876 and the mid-1990s. Why is that?
Because Indigenous history was not part of school curriculum until the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls-to-Action; because due to Indian Act regulations and policies, Indigenous People needed a permit to leave the reserve (1885 - 1951); children were segregated into residential schools (1879 - 1996); and patients were dealt with at separate hospitals (1920s - 1980s). Indigenous Peoples were out of sight and out of mind of mainstream Canadian population.
And that’s why it’s hard to get behind celebrating 150 years of confederation - it was during those years that the Indian Act policies of assimilation and residential schools, branded as cultural genocide, were developed and enacted.
Here are some other items that don’t often end up on the timeline of knowledge about the lives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The Indian Act:
- denied women status; (1869)
- created reserves; (~1880)
- renamed individuals with European names;
- enforced enfranchisement of any First Nation admitted to university; (1880)
- could expropriate portions of reserves for roads, railways and other public works, as well as to move an entire reserve away from a municipality if it was deemed expedient; (1876)
- could lease out uncultivated reserve lands to non-First Nations if the new leaseholder would use it for farming or pasture; (1918)
- forbade First Nations from forming political organizations; (1927)
- prohibited anyone, First Nation or non-First Nation, from soliciting funds for First Nation legal claims without special license from the Superintendent General. (1927)
- prohibited the sale of alcohol to First Nations; (1884)
- prohibited sale of ammunition to First Nations; (~1884)
- prohibited pool hall owners from allowing First Nations entrance; (1927)
- imposed the “band council” system; (~1871)
- forbade First Nations from speaking their native language; (~1893)
- forbade First Nations from practicing their traditional religion; (~1947)
- forbade western First Nations from appearing in any public dance, show, exhibition, stampede or pageant wearing traditional regalia; (1927)
- declared potlatch and other cultural ceremonies illegal; (1880)
- denied First Nations the right to vote (1885)
- created permit system to control First Nations ability to sell products from farms; (1886)
There are ways to celebrate the 150th anniversary but care and concern should go into not blindly lionizing the founding fathers, many of whom were also the architects of the Indian Act and the post confederation Indian policies. Here is some thinking to which we refer:
John A. Macdonald on the reasoning behind residential schools:
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men." 1879
And here he is on extinguishing Indian titles in order to open up Saskatchewan and Manitoba for settler occupation:
Sir, We are looking anxiously for your report as to Indian titles both within Manitoba and without; and as to the best means of extinguishing [terminating] the Indian titles in the valley of Saskatchewan. Would you kindly give us your views on that point, officially and unofficially? We should take immediate steps to extinguish the Indian titles somewhere in the Fertile Belt in the valley of Saskatchewan, and open it for settlement. There will otherwise be an influx of squatters who will seize upon the most eligible positions and greatly disturb the symmetry [organization] of future surveys. 1870 (a letter)
I like the approach the City of Vancouver is taking with their “Canada150+” celebrations. Their planning committee gets “the bigger picture” that Indigenous Peoples lived and thrived in this land long before 1867. As Ginger Gosnell-Myers, Vancouver’s Aboriginal relations manager, says “it would not be right for a municipality that calls itself a “city of reconciliation” to mark just 150 years, or to call it a celebration. ….There is a real difference between celebrating Canada’s birthday and commemorating it.”  Note the + sign after 150, it’s there to denote that Indigenous people have been here a lot longer than 150 years.
So, when celebrating the 150th anniversary, do so with a modicum of awareness and understanding as to why some Indigenous Peoples may have concerns about the celebration, and keep in mind a reconciliation perspective that could contribute to what we have committed to as a country - Indigenous Peoples reconciliation.
Understanding the historical and ongoing impacts of the Indian Act is a key component for reconciliation. This slim little book provides that understanding.