Canada 150 keeps fires of Indigenous resistance burning

Visible, young and often harassed by police, Native movements across North America are preserving Aboriginal culture and bringing social issues to the forefront like never before

Canada celebrated its 150th birthday Saturday (July 1). 

Canada’s contributions to world peace, medicine, music, art and science were trotted out amid praise for the country’s record on multiculturalism, religious freedom and democracy. 

But who will speak for the relative hidden in the attic that the prosperous family refuses to acknowledge, hoping patiently that death will spare their shame? That is the trouble with families – and with wars. Sometimes families produce a less than welcome member. And wars create collateral damage. 

This war has been going on for more than 500 years, beginning when a tropical storm cast a trio of Spanish-backed wooden ships onto the coast of paradise. 

The teeming forests, sweet spring waters and brilliant array of birds and wildlife sparked a greed that heralded the beginning of the end for the unsuspecting Natives who welcomed the first white men onto their shores. The problem for the European sailors? What to do about those pesky Natives.

Many of the inconvenient Indigenous tribes were eliminated by firearms, disease, starvation and mass murder. Those lucky enough to survive were relegated to a social status that destroyed family values and structure, health, spirituality, language and pride. The freedom-loving “Indians” were reduced to the scum of the earth. But the relative in the attic keeps popping their head out of the window.

The United States settled their differences with the “Indians” by going to war, forcing them onto reservations and then refusing them jobs and education. 

In Canada, there was no all-out war with Indigenous peoples. We signed treaties, but there was systemic racism and a campaign of genocide. Mounties destroyed sweat lodges, arrested medicine men and women and removed children from their families. There was soul-destroying poverty. When you have to beg for a few coins, your self-worth takes a nosedive. 

Somehow a select few tribes kept the fires burning. They went underground to preserve their songs, dances, medicines and spirituality. They saved Native stories. 

The Midewiwin, or the Grand Medicine Society, of eastern Ontario has been credited for their work in rescuing the culture. They were among the first to form a resistance. Others would follow: visible, young and often arrested and jailed. Some were murdered. 

Stateside, Native resistance led to armed struggle. 

The American Indian Movement (AIM), the most high profile among the groups, was fuelled by the counter culture’s mantra of brotherhood and love. Leonard Peltier is still in jail for what many believe is a massive miscarriage of justice – his role in a shootout with FBI agents at Pine Ridge Reservation at Wounded Knee. 

Today, it’s Idle No More that’s uniting Aboriginal peoples across the Americas, bringing social issues to the forefront again. 

Last fall, #NoDAPL (Water is Life) showed the world that peaceful resistance to corporate and government interests – and unity – is possible. Recently their efforts have met with lawsuits dropped or reversed in their favour.

Digital Smoke Signals, operated by journalist Myron Dewey, is instrumental in keeping social media current on #NoDAPL. 

In Canada, another resistance camp is peacefully getting dressed up. Artist Christi Belcourt’s #Resistance150 is documenting the wrongs and abuses of power by the dominant culture throughout Canadian history. 

The relative in the attic is fine and healthy (s)he wants only to be acknowledged and treated justly on the street, in the workplace and in the courts. (S)he wants her children to be safe. (S)he wants to share in the bounty of the land. (S)he wants a chance to realize his/her true potential. No more closed doors, paternalism and denying the right to tell our own stories. 

All is not doom and gloom. The number of young Aboriginals graduating universities and entering the professions is on the rise. The arts, a mainstay of Indigenous peoples, is turning out important writers, musicians, dancers, performers and film-makers. Indigenous fashions, movies, home decor, cuisine and restaurants are popping up in cities.

Some of us weren’t there for Canada’s big party. But we were watching very closely. The relative in the attic is free, but still angry. 

Ramona Kiyoshk was born on the Walpole Island Ojibway reserve in southern Ontario. | @nowtoronto

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