Indigenous people are responding to the Canada 150 narrative in creative ways, with many rebranding the celebrations as “Colonialism 150” or “#Resistance150.” (Illustration by Jordan Carson and Trevor Horbachewsky.)
As Canada 150 tulips bloom and the celebrations begin, Indigenous peoples are telling a very different story of the last 150 years. Adam Gaudry, a Métis academic whose research focuses on Métis politics, history and identity, says that Canada 150 celebrates a history that, for Indigenous people, doesn’t really exist.
“It’s a romanticized narrative of coming together as Canadians—which I think itself is a problematic assumption about Indigenous peoples—to celebrate this wonderful country that’s been built. It flies in the face of the stories of Canada that a lot of Indigenous people have been telling for the past 150 years.”
At the same time as the Canada 150 story dominates, conversations in and across Indigenous communities are focused on pressing issues: missing and murdered Indigenous women, violence against women, violence against children, youth suicide, endangered languages.
Gaudry says that this represents the inherent contradiction at the heart of the 150 narrative: “All of these things are basically discussions about how Indigenous people can resist and replace colonial policies instituted by Canada. We’re being asked to celebrate Canada while we’re dealing with the fallout derived from Canada’s actions.”
“We’re being asked to celebrate Canada while we’re dealing with the fallout derived from Canada’s actions.” —Adam Gaudry
This conflict, he says, is reflective of another major national conversation that’s taking place in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on what reconciliation means for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“A very prominent vision for Canadian reconciliation revolves around reconciliation reinforcing Canada, as if the end goal is to make a stronger, more united Canada, which is different from how a lot of Indigenous people envision reconciliation, which is about building Indigenous collectivities back up in spite of Canadian policies over the years.”
This Canadian vision of reconciliation is grounded in an assimilationist view that often sees Indigenous identity as simply one of many forms of multicultural diversity in Canada. This view of reconciliation has historic roots. Gaudry explains, “That is the long-term colonial vision of 150 years ago, that Indigenous people would be Canadianized and undifferentiated from Canada . . . this coming together, at least in the Canadian vision of reconciliation, presumes we are always and already Canadian.”
Indigenous people are responding by pushing back against this narrative in creative ways, with many rebranding the celebrations as Colonialism 150 or using #Resistance150 on social media to describe Indigenous responses to the sesquicentennial.
“This is one of those moments where, although the concepts and narratives behind Canada 150 are quite fraught and problematic, it’s also an invitation to engage people. There’s this discussion happening, and I think there’s creative ways to subvert it.”
Instead of reinforcing the same old triumphant stories of how great and peaceful Canada is, Gaudry says this year presents the opportunity to explore the more difficult truths about Canadian history.
“Those difficult histories tend to revolve around a different idea of Canada in which Canadians were invited into pre-existing territories as treaty partners, as brothers and sisters to share in the bounty of the land, to live peacefully with one another and to envision relationships where we all benefitted, we’re all better off, as opposed to what occurred, which is a settler colonial dynamic where Canadians have benefitted largely at the expense of Indigenous peoples, our territory and the value that our territory generated, which comes with monetary wealth.”
Turning the page
For many Canadians, those narratives are unfamiliar. The histories many of us learned in school did not include Indigenous voices or views on Canada’s past. However, Gaudry suggests, this year offers the perfect opportunity for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to bring those stories to the forefront and to challenge the narrative about Canada’s past.
“The narrative doesn’t like powerful Indigenous peoples. It likes Indigenous peoples as victims, it likes Indigenous people that are progressively marginalized without regard for the many times at which Indigenous peoples successfully resisted encroachment on our territories or forced Canada and the Crown to negotiate with our ancestors on their terms.”
By taking the time to learn, Gaudry says, Canadians can turn the Canada 150 year from a celebration to a transformative exploration of not only the last 150 years, but also the last 400 or so years of Indigenous-Canadian relations.
One place to begin is with learning about other foundational parts of that relationship such as the numbered treaties, which he describes as “an invitation for outsiders to join in a diplomatic system that’s already in place on the terms of the Indigenous people who are living there. It’s not Canada’s jurisdiction spreading over our territories as much as it is being invited into something Indigenous that already exists. Canadians were invited to join us, we were not to be subsumed by Canada.” By learning about and understanding treaty, Canadians can begin to reshape their understanding of what it means to live in relationship with Indigenous peoples and communities.
Métis professor Adam Gaudry says that Canada 150 celebrates a history that, for Indigenous people, doesn’t really exist.
151 and beyond
In imagining where Canadians should be after this year, Gaudry envisions two important things he hopes they will take away from this experience.
The first is a better vision of the past, which he says means “understanding history in a more complicated way that focuses on what Indigenous peoples were doing and why they were doing it, the power that they were using to ensure their survival so that we’re still here today.”
The second is tied to the first—to not only understand Indigenous history but also contemporary Indigenous issues and put contemporary Indigenous voices forward, something that requires Canadians to take time to listen to the conversations Indigenous people are having today.
“There are a lot of cutting-edge conversations happening across Indigenous communities across the country. Artists, in particular, are engaged in this conversation, and on Twitter, the younger generation of Indigenous leaders are discussing how they can respond with #resistance150,” he says. “On social media there’s a lot of critical commentary on contemporary issues by Indigenous people. This hashtag and others allow for the amplification of Indigenous voices on these important issues.”
In the end, Gaudry says individual Canadians need to listen to Indigenous voices and take an active role in changing the narrative alongside Indigenous people.
“If federal and provincial governments aren’t going to do the work that needs to be done, that doesn’t prevent Canadians from working alongside Indigenous people to do that work themselves until their government eventually gets on board. There’s a lot of opportunities here for collaborative engagement, for learning, for pushing federal and provincial governments while they’re trying to celebrate Indigenous-Canada relations—pushing them to live up to those ideals and the rhetoric of collaboration and treaty partners that they throw around.
“It is one of those time times when this kind of pushback can be transformative. At least I hope it is.”
For almost as long as there's been a Canada, there's been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, we're proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.