No federal candidate raised First Nations expectations and hopes more than Justin Trudeau did in 2015. While other politicians had addressed our issues at leadership debates, or in parliament, Trudeau seemed to go out of his way to connect with Indigenous people and to make our issues central to his campaign. When Attawapiskat leader Teresa Spence was asking to meet Stephen Harper during her 2013 hunger strike over the housing crisis on her reserve, it was Trudeau who visited her. When he took the leadership of the Liberal Party later that year, he cited the Idle No More movement as inspiration.
His connection to Indigenous peoples appeared to go beyond symbolism. In an APTN town hall, he promised us a veto over resource development. To the Assembly of First Nations he promised a new nation-to-nation relationship. He promised to end the boil water advisories in five years. He promised to launch an inquiry into the 1,200-plus Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. He promised us equal funding for education. He also promised to implement all ninety-four recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Vancouver Stanley Park—a place known for its dense forests and primeval atmosphere—was, as recently as 150 years ago, home to Squamish villages. People lived there for thousands of years. On the eastern edge of the park, facing downtown, there is a little island known to the Squamish as “skwtsa7s.” Salish oral histories record that the island was the site of a siege, one that ended with a sacrifice described here by Pauline Johnson in her Legends of Vancouver:
Out before a long file of southern warriors they stood. Their chins uplifted, their eyes defiant, their breasts bared. Each leaned forward and laid his weapons at his feet, then stood erect, with empty hands, and laughed forth his challenge to death. A thousand arrows ripped the air, two hundred gallant northern throats flung forth a death cry exultant, triumphant as conquering kings—then two hundred fearless northern hearts ceased to beat.
At their recent conference, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a motion calling for a debate to be opened over the renaming of schools named after Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The motion states that this should be done “in recognition of his central role as the architect of genocide against Indigenous peoples.”
Few Indigenous people would oppose this motion in principle – the consensus is that Sir John A. Macdonald’s name shouldn’t be on anything other than his tombstone. However, in our communities, few people are discussing this issue, nor do we see it as a priority when looking at decolonizing the public school system.
Ontario’s public schools makes frequent appearances in the Indigenous press. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen stories on the slow implementation of recommendations made by the inquiry investigating the death of seven First Nations youth in Thunder Bay; and we’ve seen the grieving family of Barbara Kentner, the First Nations victim in what I believe to be a racially motivated killing, forced to flee their homes because of threats made against their children at school.
Sure, an Indigenous governor general would be a symbol, but primarily one to non-Natives — to white Canada — and a dangerous one that could derail reconciliation, at that.
Canada might receive its first Indigenous governor general in much the same way that the U.S. received its first black president. When Barack Obama was elected back in 2008, the message to American people of colour was that change was possible and that we’re powerful enough to elect one of our own: a person who knows our struggles and our ambitions, and who can help to pave the way for others.
But while a symbol of hope and change to black America, Obama was also a symbol to many in white America that racism had been conquered. In a 2008 Forbes Magazine article entitled “Racism in America is Over,” Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter wrote: “Our proper concern is not whether racism still exists, but whether it remains a serious problem. The election of Obama proved, as nothing else could have, that it no longer does.”
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.”