Colonialism 150 Explained

    As Canada 150 celebrations stretched across the country this summer, many Indigenous people were telling a very different story of the last 150 years

    By Adam Gaudry; Illustrations by Joel Kimmel on August 18, 2017


    Adam Gaudry, a Métis academic whose research at the U of A focuses on Métis politics, history and identity, explains that Canada 150 celebrates a history that, for Indigenous peoples, is nothing to celebrate.

    Celebrating Canada 150 Makes Troubling Assumptions

    Canada 150 romanticized a narrative of coming together as Canadians — which I think itself is a problematic assumption about Indigenous peoples, that we are Canadians — to celebrate this wonderful country that has been built on our territories, largely in opposition to our existence as independent peoples. This celebratory history of Canada flies in the face of the more difficult stories of Canada that a lot of Indigenous people have been telling for the past 150 years — and longer. These stories certainly aren’t well-suited to a big street party in Ottawa or community celebration in a civic park, but they are foundational to how Canada came to be what it is today.

    The long-term colonial vision from hundreds of years ago is that Indigenous people would be Canadianized — that is, transformed to be undifferentiated from other Canadians, subsumed by this new country and ceasing to be Indigenous. Whether talking about the residential school policy, the imposition of the Indian Act, or some other deeply obtrusive Canadian policy, the end goal was always to internalize Indigenous nations as part of Canada.

    So this narrative of coming together at the centre of the Canada 150 celebrations presumes we are always and already Canadian — or, if not, we should be. The implicit message is that the problem is we’re not fully accepted as Canadians, and when we are, our futures will be brighter. A lot of Indigenous peoples don’t actually want this; they want to again be self-determining peoples connected with Canada in certain ways but not governed by it.

    History Looks Different From an Indigenous Point of View

    The dominant narrative about Canada’s past doesn’t seem to understand Indigenous peoples as powerful political entities. One of the unexpected outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report is a growing comfort in the Canadian public in understanding Indigenous peoples primarily as victims of the state’s misguided interference. It understands Indigenous people as progressively marginalized over time without ever really appreciating the political power and sophistication of Indigenous political systems. Indigenous peoples successfully resisted encroachment on our territories, through a variety of means. Throughout the prairies, Indigenous nations forced Canada and the Crown to negotiate with our leaders on our terms, and from that political reality we have numerous treaty agreements under which Indigenous nations generously invited outsiders to come and live here, with the expectation that everyone would benefit.

    The numbered treaties were an invitation for outsiders to join a whole Indigenous political world that was already in place. The whole conduct of the negotiations and the ratification of the agreements proceeded on Indigenous norms. In this sense, the treaties didn’t spread Canada’s jurisdiction over our territories but rather our ancestors invited Canadians to join political relationships, governed by Indigenous nations, that had existed here for thousands of years before 1867.

    Canadians were invited to join us living here; we were not to be subsumed by Canada. This is the story that Indigenous peoples would rather tell, but rarely finds a place in conversations about Canada 150.

    Canada 150 Offers Opportunities For Bigger Conversations

    This is one of those moments when, although the concepts and narratives behind Canada 150 are fundamentally flawed, it’s also an invitation to engage people. There’s this discussion happening, and I think there are creative ways to subvert it. There has been a lot of work on social media in subverting Canada 150 as Colonialism 150 or transforming the discussion into Resistance 150. There was also the tipi on Parliament Hill leading up to July 1 that caught the attention of many young Indigenous people.

    These sorts of things allow us to recapture the moment and make it into something new. Canadians can do it, too. If federal and provincial governments aren’t going to do the work that needs to be done, Canadians can begin working alongside Indigenous people to live up to Canada’s treaty obligations, acts that will no doubt pressure governments to eventually get on-board.

    When the people lead, the leaders follow.

    There are 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 times when this kind of pushback can be transformative. At least, I hope it is.