When Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong, enters the Legislature at Queen’s Park on a Monday morning, he has a few things on his mind.
For instance, a community in his riding, Neskantaga, has not only been under a boil-water advisory for 25 years, but in the last 25 days had all but 15 members evacuated over another water-related issue – what is described as an oily sheen was found in the community reservoir and the pipes were shut off.
Mamakwa has to live with the knowledge that the people of this part of his riding are so afraid of water that “they won’t even go near the sinks in the hotel” where they are now forced to stay.
To even earn the chair he was elected to in 2018, he had to leave his family and his home of Kingfisher Lake First Nation to go to high school in Sioux Lookout — 350 kilometres away — at the age of 14.
“I started telling people stories about how I grew up, what I went through. It took an outside person for me to understand that that is not normal.”
For all the parents who have watched as their children headed off to college and university this year, imagine that feeling as your child moves hours away from you, and your home, when they have only just become a teenager.
He worked in health care and sat on every board he could within the field to make sure an Indigenous voice was heard — whether that meant travelling to the farthest reaches of the province and country, or biting his tongue at the microagressions and systemic racism — that followed him throughout his career.
Even as he pushed and struggled to get what his people needed, the Ontario government in 2018 relegated the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs to just one other responsibility for Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford. Rickford is the so-called ‘super’ minister because he is responsible for the ministries of Northern Development and Mines and Energy, on top of Indigenous Affairs.
That’s not to mention the unfortunate perception that creates. Combining these two ministries means that they are intermingled, always; that anything related to Indigenous affairs within Ontario should be seen through the lens of mining, energy and resources, Mamakwa said.
And then, every Monday morning since it was introduced in December of 2019, Mamakwa has been told by the Conservative Government that he must stand and proudly sing God Save the Queen.
That doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world to many – in fact, it is the royal anthem of Canada. But it may be of interest to you to know that never before has God Save the Queen been sung in the legislature – but for a few notes as part of the ‘The Salute to the Lieutenant Governor’ (often known as the Viceregal Salute).The song itself has fuzzy and anonymous origins, the first noted performance in the decidedly modern year of 1745, and not in Canada – in the United Kingdom. Until it was introduced on Dec. 11, 2019 by the Conservative Ontario Government, to be sung by all members of the legislature, while standing, Ontario governments didn’t seem to have much interest in publicly expressing their support for British Monarchy. After Dec. 11, 2019, It would be included from then on as part of the opening prayers, national anthem and now royal anthem.
Two out of three opening moments begin with a tribute to God. Only one of these openers has anything to do with Canada, or even Ontario.
And so, on the fateful day that song began, Mamakwa and two other MPPs — Mushkegowuk–James Bay MPP Guy Bourgouin and Toronto Centre MPP Suze Morrison — did not enter the legislature until the song was finished. They wanted it known that they would not be a part of something that harkens back to a colonial past that Canada seeks to reconcile.
The three also penned an article for the Toronto Star in February of 2020, to share their feelings, and spoke to national news organizations from across Canada.
But, all these months later, the song still plays.
And Mamakwa, who knows that he can’t serve his people if he isn’t present, now sits as his co-works, colleagues, friends and representatives of his province stand and sing a song that Mamakwa sees as not only antiquated, but one that he feels characterizes Indigenous people as ‘the enemy.’
Given the song’s origins at the height of British colonialism, reading the complete lyrics of the song (lyrics most Canadians likely don’t know) highlights the issue, the MPP said.
Here are the lyrics:“God save our gracious QueenLong live our noble Queen,God save The Queen:Send her victorious,Happy and glorious,Long to reign over us:God save The Queen.O Lord, our God, arise,Scatter thine enemies,And make them fall:Confound their politics,Frustrate their knavish tricks,On thee our hopes we fix:God save us all.Thy choicest gifts in store,On her be pleased to pour;Long may she reign:May she defend our laws,And ever give us causeTo sing with heart and voiceGod save The Queen.”
Who are the enemies the lyrics seek to scatter? Who do they want to fall? To whom is the direction to: ‘confound their politics, and frustrate their knavish tricks’? To Mamakwa, Indigenous people would clearly have been lumped into the enemies of the Empire at the time the song was written.
Mamakwa isn’t alone in criticizing the Ford Government’s move to honour the song. Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner released a statement on it to, stating “At a time when we should be looking forward to pursue reconciliation, we should not be taking a step back towards Canada’s colonial history.”
He then notes, “When I voiced opposition to ‘God Save the Queen’ being introduced, I was told this change was non-negotiable.”
Jamie West, MPP for Sudbury, didn’t even know the words. “I’ve never sang ‘God Save the Queen’ in my life.”
In fact, West went a step further, accusing the province of introducing the song to send a message to Mamakwa.
“This isn’t something we normally have, and this was brought in specifically to send a message about colonialism, and a message to Sol specifically.”
He said that ongoing conversations about systemic racism in Ontario are worthwhile, but asks why the need to bring in something that was already a non-entity. “You can have conversations about John A. MacDonald, you can have a conversation about the structures already in place,” West said.
“But when the government chooses to bring in something that they know is seen by members of those communities as a colonial term, or as offensive to people, and says, ‘not only are we going to bring this back, but everyone is going to stand and sing along; and if you don’t, you don’t love this country,’ it sends a terrible message to people who are Indigenous.”
Not all members of the provincial government feel that way, however. When the song was introduced, Government House Leader and Markham-Stouffville MPP Paul Calandra told CBC news, "I believe that Her Majesty ... was the first person to show reconciliation to the First Nations," he said. "Many of our past monarchs didn't do that. But Her Majesty, over 68 years, has had and continues to have a very special relationship with our First Nations."
But Mamakwa feels his choice to sit through the song is the most honourable choice he can make.
“It is not to disrespect Ontarians, it's not to disrespect Canadians,” he said. “It is to honor my ancestors; my forefathers that signed the treaty. To show the rest of the country, to show the rest of Ontario, how their governments have treated Indigenous people. And that it’s unacceptable.”
Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com