I am, sadly, never very surprised at public eruptions of settler-colonial racism in Canada. Our country’s dominant popular culture has a long history of systematically devaluing indigenous perspectives and histories in favour of cartoonish stereotypes and the heroic-pioneer story of settlement. These narrow perspectives let anti-indigenous racism live on in attitudes of colonial entitlement and on the basis of basic misunderstandings of how this country was occupied and settled by Europeans.
I say I’m not surprised because those of us raised within settler-culture Canada are typically little exposed to anti-racist or decolonizing perspectives and ideas. And too many of us seldom meet, let alone get to know, indigenous people. I was born in suburban Ottawa, and it took thirty years and a move to Halifax before I knowingly socialized with anyone indigenous. it wasn’t until I moved to Winnipeg five years ago that I was really obliged to face the realities—ranging from the wondrous to the dismal—of indigenous life in Canada.
Winnipeg, in a modern, urban continuation of its ancient role as a meeting place on the plains, is a site of gathering and interchange, a city where indigeneity and settler culture meet—often in conflict, but often too in solidarity. For years there was a banner on the University of Winnipeg’s Wii-Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre on Ellice Avenue. It broadcast the slogan “We Are All Treaty People.” It’s long gone now, but I vividly recall seeing it for the first time and having my worldview immediately transformed by that simple phrase. It had just never occurred to me before that moment that we settler-Canadians were actually bound in a relationship to our indigenous cousins by the Treaty agreements.
To the limited extent that most of us learn about the Treaties, they are understood as a historical footnote, a negotiated formality that facilitated Canada’s expansion to the west. Canadians who do pay some slight attention to our colonial history are prone to pat our pioneering ancestors on the back for having so diplomatically settled matters with the indigenous peoples, thereby avoiding the brutal Indian Wars that regularly scarred and bloodied the American frontier.
But reading about the Indian Act, residential schools, Indian Agents, repressive and arbitrary Orders-in-Council, land appropriations, blood quantum rules, forced resettlement, imprisonments and executions, the banning of the potlatch and then the sun dance and finally almost all traditional cultural practices, one cannot but be struck by the fact that Canada’s relationship to indigenous communities was formalized in a repressive and controlling form in the late 1800s and has been structured ever since by generation after generation of hypocritical malfeasance. Where indigenous peoples were not repressed and corralled by law, they were constrained by improvised and often illegal regulations enforced by racist opportunists in what can only be called a massive campaign of cultural and economic genocide.
Seemingly as a defence, some observe that the authorities of the day (which day? all of them, seemingly, and nearly to the present one) were believers in the twilight of the Indian, in the certainty that acculturation to the inevitable cultural superiority of enlightened white civilization would see indigenous culture simply melt away. That every action Canada took bent towards this very end, that our colonial forebears took the “dying Indian” as a given, a fait accompli, a blueprint for policy, that they seemingly tried to carry out this self-fulfilling prophecy makes it less an explanation behind their actions than the very goal they sought.
And of course they were wrong. The sun dance survived in hiding. Languages punished with the lash in residential schools were spoken and treasured on reserves and in homes. The Indians refused to die off. And the richness and variety of indigenous culture in the Canada of 2015 turns the tables on this long history of colonial cynicism, its round dances tracing out a powerful epitaph for genocidal assimilation.
The increasingly powerful reassertion of indigeneity in the face of colonialism has effected a shift in attention from the strictures and betrayals of the Indian Act to the initial promises and relationships offered by the Treaties. Although Canada typically treats them as merely technical documents, historically they are much more profound. The Treaties made of our two multiple peoples a still more plural people. “We” are Treaty people, and no Canadian is unaffected by that formative, founding gesture.
Canada exists in its present form because the Treaties were presented as a promise of mutual support and respect intended to enable the coexistence of indigenous and colonizing peoples. This was a welcoming gesture on the part of the peoples of this land and should have been a meaningful promise to share its bounty on the part of the newly-arrived settlers. History shows, however, that the vast riches extracted from Canada’s natural resources have been largely denied to its indigenous peoples. Their welcome allowed settler Canada to prise untold luxury, comfort, and ease from the the land and the sea, and settler Canada has repaid them with grinding poverty, virulent racism, and intergenerational wounds inflicted by futile assimilationary violence.
The fact that we are all Treaty people means that majority-culture Canada owes a massive historical, legal, and ethical debt to our indigenous, Inuit, and Metis neighbours and cousins. Canada was founded on a promise of respect and coexistence, a promise that has been ceaselessly betrayed at all levels of political decision-making and civil society. One of the most frustrating effects of this persistent colonial worldview is the tedious insistence that economic development and political power are a zero-sum game in which sharing and collaboration are impossible, that indigenous peoples ought (still!) to assimilate or that they are somehow freeloading off a system whose extraordinary wealth was built on the betrayal of their ancestors and is supported by their ongoing impoverishment.
Legal and political tides seem to be slowly turning, however. Land claims and the Crown’s duty to consult are becoming significant barriers to previously unhindered oil and mineral extraction. Principles of indigenous self-government and autonomous systems of justice are being supported and defended. And cultural and political acts of resistance such as Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have not only galvanized indigenous activism but have decisively intervened in settler-Canadian popular memory to convey the richness and resilience of indigenous culture.
It is too soon perhaps for optimism, but surely these changes at least hint at a coming together of altruism and self-interest in the possibility that settler and indigenous peoples can accomplish more together than we can separated by the labour and the misery of colonial racism. It has cost Canada untold millions to preserve indigenous peoples in destitution and misery. And as the legal winds change, the nature of doing our national business of resource exploitation in indigenous territories may come to include substantial environmental protections and innovative economic models that distribute profits more fairly. When such protections and redistributions become the new normal, then Canada will have made its first real steps to fulfilling its Treaty obligations, if hundreds of years late.
On the small scale of local activism and personal solidarity, we have started to say “We.” Inspired by critical and compassionate commentary such as Harold Johnston’s Two Families, we have started to say “We.” Perhaps in another few generations of compassionate creativity, that sense of plurality will spread wide and start inscribing a properly respectful and collaborative chapter in the story of the peoples who might actually be seen to properly share this beautiful land.