Last July 1, as a crowd gathered to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday on Parliament Hill in the nation’s capital of Ottawa, a group of Indigenous activists, the Bawating Water Protectors, erected a teepee. In defiance of the uncritical vision of Canada’s past held by many Canadians, this act functioned as an Indigenous ceremony and as a declaration of Indigenous presence on this land that long predates the country’s emergence as a Dominion in 1867.

Protesters on Parliament Hill during Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations  in 2017 [photo credit: TML Weekly Information Project].

Canada’s Houses of Parliament (its House of Commons and the Senate chambers) sit on the unceded traditional territory of Omàmiwininiwak (Algonquins), which also made this action a reoccupation of a traditional homeland. When the tepee went up the police had attempted to remove the protestors. But security authorities soon had a change of heart and allowed them to move to a more central location in the shadow of the Peace Tower next to the main stage.

The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, personally met with the Indigenous activists in the tepee to listen to their concerns even as the official national celebrations commemorating that history—which had so failed Indigenous peoples in Canada—were heating up.

A sign celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary on which protesters added the words “Indigenous Rights.” 

The occasion of Canada’s sesquicentenary has generated much discussion about Indigenous peoples and their history of colonialism under the Canadian nation state.

On one hand, public awareness of the problematic nature of the relations between the Indigenous peoples and settlers from other continents is likely greater than it has ever been.

Over the past half century there has been a rise in Indigenous organization, constitutional recognition of Aboriginal peoples and rights, new treaties and respect for Indigenous oversight of economic development within their homelands, and important legal decisions in the country’s highest courts.

An estimated 3,000 supporters of the Idle No More movement occupied Parliament Hill in 2013 (left). A protest in 2013 by members of the Nipissing First Nation and non-Aboriginal supporters in Ottawa over weakened environmental laws (right).

A series of high-profile resistance movements and events—the grassroots Idle No More movement (2012-present), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2015), and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2016- present), to name but a few—have awakened the country to the urgency of Indigenous issues. Some Canadians look to history to make sense of the legacies that inform native people’s struggles today.

On the other hand, uncomplicated and idealized visions of Canada’s past abound at the popular, public level.

Many assume that the Canadian motto “Peace, Order, and Good Government” informed the practice of Canadian “Indian” policy. Instead, violence, disorder and mismanagement, and a colonizing government have characterized Indigenous peoples’ experiences with the state.

A 1777 depiction of French and Indian fur traders (left). Students of St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario around 1945 (right).

Birthdays and National Origin Stories

"It has been very trying for Indigenous populations to have their existence annulled—that’s what the last 150 years have been. The 150th anniversary has to be marked by the fact that things have to change. We must confront our colonial thinking and attitudes and redefine what Canadian-ness means. We must move beyond the false notion that Canada was founded by the French and the English, recognizing that we started off with the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, and have become a society that thrives on diversity and knows how to share resources fairly among everyone." Karla Jessen Williamson (Inuk), June 2017.

A century and a half ago, three colonies in British North America united to form the new Dominion of Canada. Popular understanding of this moment often refers to the “birth” of an independent country. On July 1, 1867, the four new provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec) constituted a tiny fraction geographically of what has become Canada today.

Canada in 1867 was hardly an independent nation. It had no power to negotiate agreements with external foreign nations, no standing army, no national flag or anthem, and no power to amend its own constitution.

An 1884 painting depicting the Conference at Quebec in 1864, which settled the basics of confederation for the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick (left). A 2017 sign in Montreal emphasizing 375 years of colonization, oppression, and resistance since European arrival (right).

Subsequently borders to the provinces were expanded and the country grew as other colonies and British-claimed territories joined or were added (Manitoba and the Northwest Territories in 1870; British Columbia in 1871; Prince Edward Island in 1873; Yukon Territory in 1898; Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905; Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949; and Nunavut, created in 1999).

However, Confederation as a process was not a democratic creation—there were no plebiscites (except in the cases of Newfoundland and Nunavut) and until the most recent additions, several groups were excluded from direct participation, Indigenous peoples among them. When Indigenous peoples did have input—for example, when Manitoba entered the Confederation in 1870—it was quickly disregarded.

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A time-lapse map showing the changes to Canada's borders from 1867 to 2000.

Given they formed the majority population in all of the western and northern provinces when each joined Canada, lack of consultation followed by subjugation are more historically accurate descriptors of what Confederation meant for the Indigenous peoples.

Canada was created on top of Indigenous territories. Indigenous peoples’ place in the national narrative of the “birth” of Canada has been minimized and viewed as peripheral to the dominant culture’s stories.

The history Canadians don’t like to tell is that Canada’s nation-building has come at the expense of its Indigenous peoples.

A map of the population density of indigenous people at the start of the 21st century (left). An 1836 map depicting the estimated areas of First Nation tribes in the 1600s (right).

“What is it about us you don’t like?” The Erasure of Indigenous Peoples

Canada identifies three different Indigenous peoples (constitutionally referred to as Aboriginal peoples) within its borders: First Nations are “Indians” and the federal government recognizes both collectivities (First Nations) and individuals, defining persons as either having legal “Indian status” or as being a “non-status Indian” according to colonially imposed criteria (which include residency, previous identification, and blood quantum).

A group of Chehalis First Nations around 1910 (left). Métis at Fort Dufferin in Manitoba who were hired as scouts for a border survey in 1872 (right). An Inuit family in 1917 (bottom).

The second group is the Inuit (singular: Inuk), formerly labeled Eskimos, who are the original people of North America’s arctic. The third group are the Métis, people of Indigenous and European ancestry who emerged from distinct communities and historic circumstances, such as the fur trade, to embrace an Indigenous identity and culture distinct from either their Indigenous or European roots.

Collectively, the Aboriginal Peoples make up 4.9% of Canada’s current population.

The Canadian Minister of the Interior explaining the terms of Treaty #8, an agreement between Queen Victoria and various First Nations of the Lesser Slave Lake area over land and entitlements, in 1899 (left). Prince Arthur at the Mohawk Chapel in Brantford, Ontario with the Chiefs of the Six Nations in 1869 (middle).  Nakoda chieftains meeting with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II in Calgary in 1939 (right).

In a practical sense, the formal creation of the Dominion of Canada did not constitute a dramatic departure from earlier Indigenous-settler relations. “Indians” fell under federal jurisdiction and relations with Indigenous peoples were expected to follow existing policies and practices established by the British and their colonies. Hence the legal standing of existing treaties and reserves established prior to 1867 was recognized and adopted by Canada.

So too were general principles, such as those laid out in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 (working out the details of the peace at the end of the Seven Years War/French-Indian War) and ratified by many Indigenous nations at the Treaty of Niagara in 1764, which stipulated that only the Crown could negotiate with Indigenous nations and there would be no land surrenders without Indigenous consent.

A replica of the Covenant Chain Wampum presented at the conclusion of the Council of Niagara in 1764.

This proclamation is significant because it meant that Canada tacitly recognized some degree of Indigenous sovereignty and ownership over the territories it inhabited, even as it frequently contradicted this fact through actions.

Indigenous-settler relations were by no means unproblematic prior to Confederation. But what Indigenous people believed were nation-to-nation agreements of peace, the Canadian government viewed as real estate deals intended to extinguish Indigenous claims to land ownership and designed to remove or restrict rights of access to resources.

A map of the approximate borders of treaties between First Nations and Canada.

When the first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, developed what he termed his “National Policy” in the late 1870s, one of its three central facets was the resettlement of Indigenous lands in the West by immigrant newcomers. Homesteading policies (such as the 1872 Dominion Lands Act) were created even before treaties were signed, suggesting that expediency and opportunity trumped genuine regard for Indigenous land rights.

Indian reserves (rather than reservations, as they are called in the United States) were Crown lands allegedly held in trust by the state for First Nations (and the majority remain so to this day). Yet in practice Canada has found all sorts of ways to cut off pieces of them, or to lease them out to logging or mining companies. Reserve residents have not received full market value for these land appropriations at any point.

An 1883 advertisement for land in western Canada.

The Indian Act in 1876 consolidated all existing legislation relating to First Nations into one place under the jurisdiction of the newly created Canadian federal government. It and subsequent amendments and revisions gave First Nations themselves no choice and little input. Although the new country was actively negotiating treaties with individual First Nations in the 1870s, the Indian Act unilaterally made many First Nations people wards of the state.

The Department of Indian Affairs was created in 1880 to administer the act and it remains in force today, though under the name “Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.” The Indian Act and its bureaucracy ensured them a negative and inequitable experience. By 1939, it also included Inuit in its mandate.

Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development signs in the Canadian Museum of History (leftright).

The Indian Act implemented a myriad of regulations, controls, and limits on Indigenous peoples designed to crush their way of life and it created Indian agents who administered the rules and constantly monitored reserve communities.

It restricted Indigenous cultural practices, such as the potlatch, and banned the wearing of Indigenous regalia in public. Plains people needed Indian agent permission to sell their livestock or crops, and even to come and go on their reserves. Indigenous hunting and fishing were restricted, and many traditional economic activities, such as fishing weirs, were forbidden by law.

An 1859 painting of the Klallam people of Port Townsend, WA during a potlatch (left). An 1894 painting of a potlatch ceremony held by the Kwakwaka’wala-speaking people of British Columbia (right).

The Indian Act also assaulted traditional systems of governance, hereditary or otherwise, by imposing new political systems and elected band councils that mirrored Western models but subordinated them to the Canadian state. In short, it impeded the ability of Indigenous peoples to function as independent, self-governing peoples.

The Indian Act defines “Indianness.” It created a legal category—“status Indian”—and by extension, non-status Indians. In the United States, membership criteria are determined by the Indigenous nation. However, in Canada both the First Nation or Indian band and the status of the particular person have been largely determined by the Canadian state. Whereas Native Americans gained U.S. citizenship in 1924, in Canada, status Indians were not legally Canadians, nor could they vote in national elections until 1960.

Having status (which includes a mixture of blood quantum and previous identification as an “Indian”) affected whether someone could live on a reserve, hold membership in a First Nation band, receive treaty rights, access government programs, and claim “Aboriginal rights” under Canadian law. Those without status were denied access to these benefits.

First Nation Flags.

The Indian Act could remove status, voluntarily or involuntarily, through a series of enfranchisement acts that set certain criteria based on perceived levels of acculturation or education. It also “de-Indianized” significant numbers of First Nations’ peoples through a gender-biased administrative sleight of hand. Until only a few decades ago in Canada when a status Indian woman married a non-status man, she ceased to be an Indian, as did her children.

In fact, the assumption that “Indianness” was patrilineal was a feature of the Indian Act and Canada’s definition of status Indians until legislation in 1985, which also turned over the right to determine membership to First Nations. Over 100,000 Indigenous individuals since then have applied to regain their status and status for their children.

The calculation of “Indianness” however remains truly flawed in the eyes of many Indigenous peoples. One must “reapply” to regain lost status; the government will not automatically reinstate status and requires rigorous, sometimes unobtainable, evidence to prove ancestry.

Thomas King's Massey Lecture for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, "What is it about us that you don't like?"

Describing this legislative erasure that could result in the total disappearance of “status Indians” within a few decades, Indigenous writer Thomas King sarcastically posed the question during his nationally acclaimed Massey Lecture for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), “What is it about us that you [Canadians] don’t like?”

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem” and the Question of Genocide

"This year, the federal government plans to spend half a billion dollars on events marking Canada's 150th anniversary. Meanwhile, essential social services for First Nations people to alleviate crisis-level socio-economic conditions go chronically underfunded. Not only is Canada refusing to share the bounty of its own piracy; it's using that same bounty to celebrate its good fortune. Arguably, every firework, hot dog and piece of birthday cake in Canada's 150th celebration will be paid for by the genocide of Indigenous peoples and cultures." Pamela Palmater (Mi’kmaq), March 2017.

Canada’s intention to eliminate any separate Indigenous identity was official Canadian Indian policy for a long time.

Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Canada (1913-1932), put it bluntly in the speech he gave in 1920: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

Scott’s tenure was marked by particularly coercive policies and damaging legislative constraints for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, especially in terms of cultural repression and educational subjugation.

Canadian Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, in 1933 (left). Richard Henry Pratt with a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the 1880s (right).

Scott’s words eerily echo that other well-known quotation by a U.S. administrator, Captain Richard H. Pratt, in 1892: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one … In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”      

If you kill the “Indian in him” or her, if you completely rid yourself of not merely, in Scott’s words, “the Indian problem,” but of any communal or individual identification of Indigeneity, but you don’t actually physically kill people, is it genocide? When we call it something else—assimilation, imperialism, acculturation—do we fail to capture the gravity of willfully eliminating a people as a people, culture, or society? Do we miss the process of cultural genocide?

Conversely, when we use the genocide label for other kinds of killing (e.g. death through neglect, or bureaucratic elimination) do we diminish the weight of the word genocide? Many non-Indigenous Canadians bristle at the notion that a label like genocide applies to Canada, and rarely see ongoing Indigenous issues as the direct legacy of European colonial settlement in North America.