The bilingual, bi-national federal state that turns 150 this year wasn’t the preference of Canadian founders like Sir John A. Macdonald. He and others wanted a unitary state, one that wouldn’t be at risk of falling into sectionalism and civil war, as was then happening in the United States.
But the country that we have today was a compromise—between Macdonald’s vision and that of the rebels who had overturned the existing order in the colonies.
A rebellion by a French minority helped shape the country into something very different than what Macdonald had in mind. Today, Canada’s Indigenous minority are playing a similar role, pushing the country beyond the structures put in place at the time of Confederation, and making space for a third founding nation.
Thirty years before Confederation, the colonies that would become Canada were thrown into turmoil by the 1837 Patriote Rebellion. The most important battle of the rebellion was fought in the village of Saint Eustache, in what is today Quebec. There, a militia of 200 French-speaking farmers made their last stand against 1200 heavily armed and well-trained British soldiers. By dawn, the Patriotes’ defeat was absolute.
In late 1998, the Norway House Cree First Nations passed a band council resolution (BCR) banning residents from “selling, using, possessing, or promoting the illegal use of drugs, or use of alcohol on the Reserve.” Punishment included loss of jobs, loss of income assistance, public shaming, and, ultimately, banishment.
The nearby RCMP detachment turned over the names of eighty residents they believed were involved in activities covered by the new rules. The band council soon ordered Tron Gamblin and Angela Monias to appear before them and explain why they were on the RCMP’s list. Gamblin was forced to sign a letter promising to refrain from illegal activities. A few months later, in March 1999, Gamblin was found in possession of marijuana. Within days of his arrest, the couple received notice ordering them to vacate their home.
Believing his eviction was against the law, Gamblin ignored the order. On March 30th, the band council issued a new BCR, banishing Gamblin and his family immediately. The next day, Gamblin was escorted off reserve by police. Monias and her child were taken by social workers.
First Nations people, especially those living on reserve, view the federal budget much differently from non-Natives. For us, it’s like a federal budget and the equivalent of a provincial budget put together. This is a consequence of the division of powers that sees the federal government delivering many provincial services on reserves, such as health care.
Because of the unique and outsized role Ottawa has in the lives of First Nations people, we look for action and attention on every issue, such as one would expect from a provincial budget. For example, no one could imagine a Quebec provincial budget that failed to mention health care one year or economic growth the next.
In this context, the omission of First Nations child welfare from this budget is enough to sour the whole document. First Nations child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock expressed this disappointment in her comments to the CBC after the budget was released: “[There is] nothing in there despite three legal orders for the government to comply and make sure that this generation of First Nations children isn’t unnecessarily removed from their families because of Canada’s inequitable funding [. . .] I think it’s a sad day for the nation.”
On July 26, 1989, then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic unilaterally dissolved the assembly of the self-governing republic of Kosovo, which was an ethnic Albanian majority jurisdiction in Serbia.
This was followed by a referendum in July 1990, in which the majority Serbian population voted in favour of constitutional amendments that abolished “special status” and self-government for the minority Albanians. Over the next five years the situation disintegrated, with demonstrations, riots, rogue assemblies, and declarations, and eventually civil war and NATO intervention.
Taking away the protective rights and autonomy of national minorities is a dangerous thing. Because of this, actions such as the removal of “special status” without the consent of the affected minority is rare in modern times, seen only in countries like Milosevic’s Serbia or Francisco Franco’s Spain. Such moves are antithetical to what pluralistic democracies stand for, where the idea of “majority rule” is almost always accompanied by “minority rights.”
Last week, Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore wrote an article for this magazine called “The Canada Most People Don’t See.” In this article, he recited what we Indigenous people might call “the Litany”: the list of the latest and greatest wrongs done against us collectively or individually. Gilmore concluded his article by imploring his fellow Canadians to “imagine if they cared.”
The impetus for this article appears to have been the revelation the CBC uncovered of the actions of an Edmonton-based judge towards a First Nations sexual assault victim. Gilmore asked readers to “imagine it were their family”: “Against all odds, she survives, and a year later, at the trial, the prosecutor and the judge decide to lock up your wife because they want to ensure she is available to testify. She is put in the same remand centre as the man who raped and stabbed her. They share the same van to the courthouse.”
What was done to that First Nations woman in Edmonton is an outrage. But in our view, Scott Gilmore’s response to it was counterproductive, and demonstrated once again Gilmore’s and Maclean’s failure to listen to Indigenous voices.
Harry and the Hendersons is a 1987 fantasy movie about a Seattle family’s encounter with a friendly bigfoot (Harry) and their efforts to protect him from harm before releasing him in the mountains of the Pacific northwest. It’s a forgettable film, but it has undoubtedly been seen and heard in more Indigenous homes than has the story of Sasq’ets—the original sasquatch.
Sasq’ets, whose name was one of the few Halkomelem words to make their way into English, was one of a host of other legendary “wild people” living in the forests on the Pacific coast. For hundreds of generations, Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw children were raised on the stories of the wild people and taught to listen for their characteristic hu-hu-hu calls. Sasq’ets, along with Dzunukwa, were said to capture wayward children, take them away from their families, and eat them. With their supernatural healing powers, the wild ones were thought to be invincible; only once was a wild person taken by angry villagers and burned alive. But to the mortals’ horror, the ashes began buzzing in a tiny chorus of little hu-hu-hu’s, and each particle sought out human flesh. This was the origin myth of mosquitos.
We Indigenous peoples have a problem. For the last century, that’s been presented as “the Indian Problem.” The definition has changed, from it being a problem of our continued existence to a group of social problems. I think the core of the Indian Problem is that we reject what white people value, and in this country, that’s Canadianness. Rejecting their values and absorption into their society has consequences, and those are the social problems we see: unfair policing, murderous child welfare systems, unequal healthcare and education, colonial exploitation of our resources. Generations of leaders have fought to claim rights and fair treatment using the terms of the Indian Problem.
But the Indian Problem isn’t our problem. Our problem is “The Canadian Problem.” Put in absolutely basic terms, our problem is numbers. They have them and we don’t. These nomads outnumber us 16-to-1. Every problem we face is an effect of their superior numbers. By weight of numbers, we are denied our democratic rights. With their majority, their control over our lands and resources seems natural and is granted democratic cover. With their pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number, so-called democracy ensures this works against us. The greatest good is always their good, the greatest number is by definition, them. Our lesser goods are compromised away.