TV & Movies

What 9 Indigenous Activists Want You to Know Before Canada 150

"You will almost always gain more by listening than you will from talking," says Rebecca Benson, one of nine Indigenous activists who spoke to FLARE

This summer, July 1 will bring peak Canadiana to the yard. The Canadian flag will snap in the wind on lawns from coast to coast. People will gather with family and friends and head to the cottage, the camp, the park, their backyards or porches for barbecues with friends, family and neighbours. Meat will crackle; beers will sweat. Canada will be toasted as a proud and noble country.

The day will mark “Canada 150,” or 150 years since confederation, with the government is doling out half a billion dollars for art, festivals and other community events.

But it won’t feel festive for everyone. To many Indigenous people, calling the events of July 1 “Canada 150” feels like erasure and a celebration of colonizationif not Indigenous genocide. At the very least, it’s framed as though the spirit of this land was birthed by settlers suddenly declaring it a country. As Ossie Michelin, an Inuk journalist and activist, put it in a phone interview from Montreal: “Awww, 150 years. That’s adorable.”

In fairness, many Canada 150 events involve (and celebrate) Indigenous people. The Whitecap Dakota First Nation is putting on a seminar called Learning Reconciliation. There’s a show called Hidden Histories, which features little-known stories from Indigenous and Chinese-Canadian communities. There will be exhibits of Indigenous art, and a number of other workshops and events with Indigenous people at their hearts.

To paint a fuller picture ahead of July 1, we asked Indigenous activists and community builders the question: “What would you like Canadians to know as Canada 150 approaches?” Here are their answers.

A portrait of Jarita Greyeyes

Jarita Greyeyes (Photo: Graham Constant)

“I’m inspired by Indigenous youth who are dedicated to regeneration,” says Jarita Greyeyes, who is Nēhiyaw from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, both located in Treaty 6 territory. A graduate of the University of Winnipeg and the University of Victoria’s master of arts in Indigenous governance program, Greyeyes is currently a community organizer in Treaty 1 territory.

“As Canada 150 approaches I am often inspired by the incredible Indigenous youth who are dedicated to regeneration of our ways. Despite the great disruption of colonization, we have found ways to maintain and regenerate our languages, stories, and teachings. With many public celebrations of this county’s so-called founding scheduled, you will likely see the beauty of Indigenous dance and songs included. Know that the young people who might choose to share our culture during Canada 150 are the physical embodiment of the prayers of our ancestors, who fought to to pass on our culture despite the best efforts of the state to assimilate us.”

A portrait of Rebecca Benson

Rebecca Benson

“You will almost always gain more from listening than you will from talking,” says Rebecca Benson, who identifies as an urban Indigenous person and is onon:wat (a.k.a. two-spirited). Benson is Skarure from Ohsweken and Tuscarora from Six Nations of the Grand River. Benson now lives in Tkaronto in Dish With One Spoon Territory and studies Mohawk language.

“One of the first teachings I was ever given was from the great Oneida Elder Dan Smoke: ‘You know Creator gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason; you should use them proportionately. You will almost always gain more by listening than you will from talking.’

In the past few years there has been a great deal of talk around the subject of reconciliation, and most recently about what is or is not cultural appropriation. What I see is non-Indigenous Canadians approaching these conversations with the same tools that they use to approach historical debates and discussions about the nation’s fiscal future: a premise, a claim, a conclusion, a logical deduction, the calm statement of historical facts, a great deal of conviction—but not a great deal of emotion. For Indigenous folks doing the work of surviving on Turtle Island, these discussions are riddled with emotion, because it is our families that have been threatened, our land that has been taken, our bodies that are under siege. More than 480 years of non-Indigenous rule has left us with 8 percent of the territory that we had before contact with settlers, with boil-water advisories in more than 89 of our reserves, with some of the highest suicide rates in the world, with the highest growing rate of HIV/AIDS in the country and with more than 1,200 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

I would like to see non-Indigenous Canadians approach discussions about Canada 150, about reconciliation, about cultural appropriation, about residential schools, about the history of this nation’s treatment of Indigenous peoples with a different set of tools altogether: empathy, kindness, and respect. I would like to see non-Indigenous Canadians heed Dan Smoke’s teaching. Open your ears, put down your pen, resist the urge to craft that immediate 140-character Twitter response and listen. Listen to Indigenous peoples, believe Indigenous peoples when we speak about our experiences, and think about what it means for individual non-Indigenous Canadians to be accountable to Indigenous peoples.”

A portrait of Eren Cervantes-Altamirano.

Eren Cervantes-Altamirano

“Canada seldom recognizes Indigeneity outside its borders,” says Eren Cervantes-Altamirano, a writer who focuses on gender, politics, feminism, and social justice and lived in cities across Canada, most recently Toronto. She is a Binnizá-Mexican convert to Islam and currently working on a dissertation about sexual violence policy in development programming.

“My community’s territories are located in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca. Many Indigenous communities in this region have been been affected by displacement, militarized war and, most recently, drug-related violence and Canadian extractive companies [primarily dedicated to mining gold, silver and copper].

Canada’s colonial policies towards Indigenous communities in the country have far-reaching effects not only domestically but abroad. Canada’s foreign policy works in two ways. On the one hand, Indigenous communities domestically are heavily policed and constantly under surveillance, while prevented equal access to the rights, goods and services that other (white) Canadians are afforded. On the other, Canada goes abroad in the name of ‘development,’ economic sustainability, human rights and security, and targets primarily Indigenous, Afro-Latinx and peasant communities and territories through resource extraction. In other words, Canada is currently doing to Indigenous and Afro-Latinx territories what it has done to its Indigenous communities domestically through the propagation of colonial and imperialist violence. While our communities are violated, extracted, removed and so on, Canada criminalizes us as Latinx, and more specifically as Mexicans (no recognition of our Indigeneity, or Blackness, or otherwise in this process).

During the Harper years, Canada imposed a visa to Mexican travellers under the excuse that Mexicans abuse the Canadian immigration system, even though under NAFTA regional mobility it was supposed to be a priority. While the Trudeau government partially removed the visa requirement (Mexicans are not required to request an Electronic Travel Authorization), it has also discussed massive investments to policing and surveillance of Mexicans, under the assumption that we are immigration criminals. Never mind that Mexico continues to be on Canada’s list of safe countries even when violence related to removal of Indigenous and Black Mexicans from their territories, the further exploitation of peasants, the War on Drugs, extractive activities and organized crime continues to grow. Hence, for me Canada 150 is not only a celebration of Indigenous genocide domestically, but a normalization and celebration of violence against Indigenous, Black and peasant communities in Latin America.”

A portrait of Ossie Michelin

Ossie Michelin (Photo: Jean Flowers)

“Learn the terminology and how to talk about people,” says Ossie Michelin, a Labrador Inuk freelance journalist, photographer and videographer. Michelin recently fought to stop contamination stemming from the construction of Labrador’s Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

“Very often, people are well-meaning, but they have no idea how to refer to Indigenous people. They don’t know to say First Nations or Indigenous or Inuit or Métis. I’m Inuit, and I get called First Nations all the time. So I guess a good first step is to go out and learn how people refer to themselves—being as specific as possible. It can get confusing but that’s OK. It’s just a matter of asking. Put in a little bit of effort by googling something if you have the option, and when people see you’re trying, they’ll appreciate that. It’s a respect thing, you know?”

A portrait of Levi Foy

Levi Foy (Photo: Pharaoh Moans)

“Fear is getting us nowhere,” says Levi Foy, a.k.a. Prairie Sky, of the Couchiching First Nation, Treaty 3. Foy is a longtime activist for LGBTQ++ rights and co-founder of Like That, a weekly community drag event. Foy is also behind the inaugural Two-Spirit Pow-Wow, which took place last month as part of Winnipeg Pride.

“The biggest thing that I want pretty much everybody to know is that fear is getting us nowhere. Not just superficial fears, but deep-rooted fear. The deep-rooted fear that permits people to be complacent when they hear about the forms of violence, individually or systemically, that many Indigenous people face daily. The deep-rooted fear that makes people become hostile and uncomfortable around the discussion of these topics. It is important that we examine the roots of our feelings, and then we can heal and move forward.”

A portrait of Cheryl Maloney

Cheryl Maloney (Photo: April Maloney)

“I feel very torn,” says Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association. Maloney is a longtime advocate for Indigenous women’s rights, working to seek justice when they are murdered, sexually assaulted and faced with police violence. She’s also an environmental activist, having helped delay the progress of Alton natural gas project. Cheryl is a member of the Mi’kmaq Nation, born and raised on the Indian Brook First Nation, Sipeknekatik district.

“When Loretta Saunders [a young Inuk woman who was murdered in Halifax in 2014] went missing, I worked with her family. She had interviewed me about missing and murdered Indigenous women in September for her thesis. By February, I was out on the streets putting up posters for her. So I work with really tough issues. And now we’re facing Canada 150. And I know a lot of people are boycotting it. A lot of politicians are taking money from the government and celebrating it. For Loretta Saunders, we were asking for donations of staplers and printers for posters and food donations.

If you ask me what my position is right now, I don’t have one. I feel very torn. I don’t want to go and say Oh, Canada’s a horrible place with a colonial government and you’re celebrating on the blood, sweat and tears of Indigenous women. I feel like that. But do I always want to be the one who has to raise some of the bad things amongst our reality? I see the good things, too. I’ve protected the water and the environment shoulder to shoulder with Canadians, Nova Scotians, people of all different races, colours, creeds, standing together and supporting important things. I see that in Canadians. And I see a Canadian government that has made pretty racist, sexist laws and the Indian Act [the main statute used by government to administer status, local First Nations governments, and reserve lands] is a great example that we’re currently living under. So there are so many facets to this story, this Canada 150 story.”

A portrait of Naomi Sayers

Naomi Sayers (Photo: Kenya-Jade Pinto)

“Who do you want standing beside you in the next 150 years?” asks Naomi Sayers, a writer, educator, consultant and soon-to-be lawyer. She has spent much of her career speaking out against systemic harms perpetrated against Indigenous women. She has worked in sex work and sex work activism, and she is the creator of the much-cited blog kwetoday. Sayers is an Anishnaabe-kwe from the Garden River First Nation.

“On this day celebrating Canada 150, I would like non-Indigenous people to reflect on how they have benefited from Canada’s racist and violent actions toward Indigenous people.

Throughout 2016 and into 2017, Canada provided access to funding for Canada 150 events. The fund was called Canada 150 and its goals included connecting to Canada’s past, celebrating Canada and “building a legacy for tomorrow.” When you look around your city and town, especially in Ottawa, you will see efforts to improve the outside of buildings and other infrastructures.

When attending the celebrations, however, I hope that non-Indigenous Canadians look around and ask questions about who is visible, who is missing, and who is removed from these experiences.

Through these funds and other financial efforts, many regions will start investing into their infrastructure and events. These investments often mean, however, that funding is diverted away from those who experience increased vulnerability and marginalization. In return, those who experience this vulnerability and marginalization, like people living and working in precarious conditions, often get blamed for their own situations. This is especially true when mainstream media publishes stories about realities that Indigenous people, especially realities that Indigenous women face every day.

With the recent launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, many like to think that this initiative, with its increased visibility, will settle the injustices that have taken place in Canada long before 1867. This visibility assumes something is being done about the violence Indigenous women experience. Yet, we often fail to ask about what this increased visibility means for those who experience heightened violence due to the national (and international) attention. But with this increased visibility, there is heightened policing and criminalization. Accordingly, it is often the people on the street, like Indigenous sex workers, who experience continuing police violence.

The Canada 150 celebrations will try to erase these realities and make visible its alleged multiculturalism or multicultural identity. I say alleged because it is these multicultural narratives, as a Canadian identity, that shut down discussions around Canada’s violent history and its violent present. When we erase these realities and shut down these discussions, we do great damage to ourselves as people, especially looking forward to the next 150 years.

I ask all non-Indigenous people to look around, and ask, ‘Who do I want standing beside me in the next 150 years?’ And, if you can’t answer honestly, then the work for a better Canada begins with you. Not Indigenous people.”


A portrait of Todd Ross

Todd Ross

“Think about the future and the opportunity for progress to close gaps,” says Todd Ross, the chair of the Toronto and York Region Métis Council of the Métis Nation of Ontario. He is the co-chair of the Toronto AIDS candlelight vigil and has fought for LGBTQ++ rights and to help grow access to healthcare and affordable housing for vulnerable people. He has also worked in government. He lives in Toronto.

“The past 150 years have been a time of struggle for Métis people. We are often excluded as Indigenous people and our stories are not commonly known. Métis people have suffered as both the federal and provincial governments refused responsibility for the Métis. But this is changing. New attitudes and the direction of the Supreme Court of Canada has opened the door for the Métis.

For the first time in 150 years, we are at the table with the federal government and our future is bright. So this year, as I think about Canada 150 and the Métis, I think about the future and the opportunity for progress to close the gaps between Métis people, and to begin to tell our stories as we move forward, together with Canada.”

A portrait of Jean La Rose

Jean La Rose

“If people spent time trying to understand, they’d come out with more of a willingness to help work toward a solution that works for everybody,” say Jean La Rose, a citizen of the Abenakis First Nation of Odanak. La Rose is the CEO of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network—a position he’s held since 2002—and a graduate of the journalism program at Algonquin College. He also holds a bachelor of arts in social communication from the University of Ottawa/Université St. Paul.

“The key thing is that many Canadians really don’t have a sense of the history of this country, and I think that’s the biggest challenge that we as Indigenous people face. Because without that understanding, without that knowledge of history, people have made assumptions about who we are, how we live and what is being provided to us by the government as part of the fulfillment of treaties. That does generate, I find, a lot of negative reaction, a lot of stereotypes and often a lot of animosity against our community by people who unfortunately don’t understand the situation. For example, many people assume that everybody gets free housing, that every Native person in Canada pays no taxes, that every Native person in Canada has benefits like extended healthcare. But that’s not the case. There are certain things provided, but they’re way below the needs of the community. There’s also the fact that a lot of our communities are living in conditions that no Canadian would ever accept, like needing to boil water [due to water advisories] for 15 to 20 years. I think any community in Canada that would have to boil water for more than two or three days would really start to buck against it and force the government to act quickly to solve it.

I do hope people take a day to get a sense of history. If people spent time trying to understand, they’d come out with more of a willingness to help work toward a solution that works for everybody. I think that would be amazing.”

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