What Canada 150 means to Indigenous leaders and artists

Grand chief Stewart Phillip, author Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples Robert Bertrand lend their voices to what Canada 150 means. Photo from: UBCIC, Portage & Main Press, Abo-Peoples.org

The federal government has earmarked over $500 million for Canada 150 to commemorate this year’s 150th anniversary of Confederation.

The hefty price tag will cover festivals, concerts and major Canada Day celebrations in 19 cities, as well as dozens of so-called “signature initiatives,” including the Red Couch Tour inviting Canadians to express what the country means to them and a 1,600-kilometre canoe race to re-enact another canoe race from the 1967 centennial year.

But there’s been much debate among the country’s Indigenous communities whether to participate in the birthday bash that some, like poet and publisher Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, say promotes a narrative of Canadian history that is insulting and hurtful.

For many Aboriginal people, the anniversary represents the ongoing legacy of colonialism and the racist policies of residential schools that spanned a century, as well as the ongoing abrogation and violation of Indigenous land rights and human rights.

Indigenous leaders like Stewart Phillip say the vast majority of Aboriginal people won’t be celebrating Canada 150 because “our communities are still deeply mired in crushing poverty.”

His wife’s grandfather, the late chief Dan George, gave his famous soliloquy “Lament For Confederation” before a stadium crowd of 32,000 during the 1967 centennial celebration in Vancouver that would “fit very well in today’s world even though it was 50 years ago.”

The tragic dimensions of poverty — teen suicides, drug overdoses, homelessness and unemployment not to mention the lack of housing and infrastructure — “those things are the every day reality of Indigenous people in this country,” Phillip says.

Yahoo Canada invited Phillip and several other Indigenous leaders and artists to share their thoughts about Canada 150. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: What does Canada 150 mean to you?

Grand chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs: From time to time Canada engages in this self-gratifying exercise to prop up the false narrative of the history of this country through engaging in very expensive symbolic projects and programs, such as the 150 celebration. And you may recall the Harper government held a number of these commemorating various historic events that were incredibly expensive re-enactments of different military battles. But nonetheless they’re meaningless. They’re empty gestures and certainly are not what the Indigenous people of this country are seeking in terms of true genuine reconciliation.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, writer, editor and founder/managing editor of Kegedonce Press: To me it represents ongoing colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous Peoples from the official Canadian narrative…In my opinion, the narrative about Canada and how it was founded erases the truth that this is Indigenous land, and the whole French and English narrative — that whole story — erases that.

Robert Bertrand, national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, which represents the Métis as well as status and non-status people living off-reserve: It’s been a cause of a lot of grief for some Aboriginals, especially those living on-reserve and some living off-reserve. If you look at the residential schools, a lot of people are saying we shouldn’t be celebrating 150, a birthday for a country that’s done that. Yes, I agree with them. But you also have to look at some of the other great stuff that this country has done. I was just a baby back in 1967, [when Canada was] celebrating 100 years. I think we’ve come a long way. There are still lots of work to be done for Aboriginal people and we can’t drop the fight. We have to keep on going to make it better for the next generation.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future?

Robert Bertrand: Yes I am. I was at a UN meeting a couple of weeks ago and there are Indigenous people from across the world — you know South America, Australia. We’re all working together now — something that had never been done before. The movement has started. There’s no way to stop it. And as I mentioned before we’re going to be putting the pressure on our government and governments across the world.

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm: I’m optimistic about the future for Indigenous people. My nature is to be active and to take action. I think there are a lot of people who are doing very positive work and community-building types of initiatives are happening. So there are lots of reasons for optimism but in terms of the broader relationship of Indigenous people with the federal government and with provincial governments I think there’s ongoing cause for concern and a huge need to continue to push to reset that.

Stewart Phillip: Like most Canadians I was guardedly optimistic after the last election on Oct 20th [2015]. I actually thought there was going to be a change. And now some two years later I’m deeply disappointed. Not only has the Trudeau government reneged on all of its major commitments — missing and murdered women and girls’ national inquiry is in shambles. The Trudeau government contrary to the commitments it made in the last election have completely reneged on their commitment to safeguard the environment. They have approved Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. They’ve approved the Site C dam and the massive [Pacific NorthWest] LNG facility on Lelu Island, which would absolutely decimate the Sockeye salmon run in the Skeena River, which is the second highest, strongest Sockeye salmon run in the province of British Columbia. They’ve absolutely refused to take direction from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to bring funding for children of families up to par with the standard — in spite of now three judicial orders — failed to follow those instructions. So in the face of all of that, am I optimistic? No, absolutely not.

Q: What needs to happen for meaningful change and progress to occur?

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm: In my opinion, it takes the federal government really taking a look at itself and how it works in practice — the reality of what it does rather than what it says. There’s been a lot of lip service paid to reconciliation and so on. But there hasn’t really been steps taken to look at the policies and ways that that relationship is being played out. I think that’s what needs to happen. There needs be some action not just words. They’re empty unless there are fundamental changes to support what’s being said. And so far I don’t see that happening.

Stewart Phillip: What we would certainly appreciate is a very decisive move on the part of the Trudeau government to completely and fully implement the [UN] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to commit to the 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And of course the Trudeau government has paid lip service to the need to do that and has engaged in a lot of eloquent grandiose public commentary but without any real substance. There hasn’t been any definitive moves to enshrine in legislation the rights and principles encompassed by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission within a Canadian context.

Robert Bertrand: The government talks a lot about inclusion, and they’ve moved us [Congress of Aboriginal Peoples] to the side. I think that all organizations should be brought in for very frank discussions with the federal government. You know don’t push us away. Bring us back. These guys ran an election platform on it. They went to the UN and talked about it. But from what we’ve seen and lived personally is they’ll talk to some groups and exclude others. In my opinion, that is not the way to do it. You know bring us all in. Let’s talk. Let’s celebrate 150 but we need something to celebrate about. And I think that by bringing us all together, by talking, by sitting down with us, I think that that would help quite a bit to help us and the government celebrate the 150. And it’ll assure them that we will be there in the next 150 years to celebrate the 300 years.

Q: Based on recent debates around cultural appropriation — the latest being the Write magazine editorial and the fallout — do you think the average Canadian understands the issues with respect to protecting Indigenous traditions and culture?

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm: I think probably there’s a greater openness. I’m hopeful about that. I think when my cousin Lenore Keeshig — Tobias as she was known then — when she raised that issue she was blacklisted and suffered a lot personally for having stood up and said that. I think now there’s such a strong network of people. There are people that have reached out. There’s been a lot of abusive kinds of trolling and so on online especially for some people. But on the other side of things, there have been an awful lot of people who have reached out and done things like set up the emerging [Indigenous] writers’ fund and supported it and donated to it and so on. So I feel that in some ways the message maybe is getting through.

Stewart Phillip: The short answer is no, and there’s a reason for that. This is what’s known as — in political science — as a settler nation. In that regard, Canadians themselves, generally speaking, there is no Canadian language; there’s no Canadian songs like there are Indigenous songs. If you just reflect for a moment on the Māoris. They have a culture and heritage rich in the song and dance. Canadians have no understanding or concept of culture and tradition because by and large they come from immigrants who have travelled to North America to Canada to make their home here.

Robert Bertrand: I don’t think they do. Just this afternoon, after I finish talking to you, we have to go to the department of environment. We have a meeting there and they want to ask us about Indigenous cultural and traditional knowledge on climate change. As I mentioned, we were here thousands of years before the Europeans. There would have been no problems with the environment if the Europeans hadn’t come to Canada. And I’ll be the first to admit, yes, there are benefits of the Europeans coming. But we also have quite a bit to offer now in exchange — how to safeguard the environment.

We have to talk to our elders. We have to talk to people who are living off the land. To tell the different departments that if you want to make sure that we have clean water for the next generation this is what we have to do. If you want to keep the deer and moose population and bison population going for our food and for the next generation and the next generation after that this is what we have to do.

The Indigenous population has been here thousands of years and I’m sure we’ll be here for the next thousand years also. But the government has to sit down, we have to talk and put in practice all the traditional knowledge that we have acquired over the years.

The interviews have been condensed and edited.