One hundred and fifty years ago today, Canada entered Confederation. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many places across the country, and I’d like to take this time to share not just its beauty, but also a side of Canada’s history that I certainly didn’t learn in school. The country may be beautiful; our history is not.
There are going to be numerous protests today by Aboriginal people across the country. Chances are you’re in the majority, and the depths of the anger and frustration that fuel these protests are not entirely understood. I’ve been working to educate myself, and what I’ve learned has made me angry as well. Take ten minutes and try to understand.
In 1763, King George issued the Royal Proclamation. It sounds boring, but it’s actually a fascinating read. It uses the phrase “loving Subjects” no less than three times, none of them ironically. George ordered that all land in North America not already settled belonged to the Crown, and that land was to be reserved for Aboriginal Groups.
Fast forward a century. On the mainland of British Columbia, gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon in the 1850s. Men with far too much facial hair and body odor rushed north from California, and the British on Vancouver Island were frantic to keep these Americans from taking over. They declared the mainland a new British colony and the Governor, James Douglas, was left with a vast territory on which lived an unknown number of Aboriginal people.
Douglas didn’t have the bureaucratic support or the resources to purchase Aboriginal land, so he settled for putting aside the issue of formal land title and allocating large, informal reserves. He also allowed First Nations people the same right to pre-empt land as settlers (they could gain title of land through squatters rights). The area for these large reserves was chosen by local First Nations groups to include all the land they had an interest in.
Local government agents sympathetic to the settlers felt these reserves were far too large, and they were drastically reduced in 1865. The Aboriginal right to pre-empt land was taken away the following year.
Each Aboriginal family was expected to get by on no more than 10 acres of land, and that land was often of poor quality. To compare, settlers were given upwards of 320 acres of land.
In 1877, certain land from Douglas’ large reserves in the Okanagan was set aside as common grazing land for both settlers and Aboriginal peoples. In doing so, settlers were given the right to use these lands without being charged with trespass.
Twelve years later, settlers were given permission to permanently settle these common land areas with no consultation with the people who owned the land.
Between 1906 and 1916, while their families faced water shortages and disease, delegations of First Nations from the interior of B.C. went to Victoria, Ottawa, and London, England to raise issues of land ownership and rights. In 1911 Wilfred Laurier ordered their case heard in court. His government fell just months later, and the next government under Borden refused to allow the hearing.
In 1916, various B.C. groups formed a political organization to lobby the provincial and federal governments for additional reserve lands and treaties. When political pressure didn’t work, they threatened litigation, hoping that they would get a more objective hearing in court. They finally got a hearing before the Privy Council in 1926, but the Council recommended that the claims were unfounded.
In 1927, the federal government made it a criminal offense for a First Nation to hire a lawyer to pursue land claims settlements. I repeat, the federal government, threatened with continued legal action, made it illegal for First Nations to hire a lawyer.
The legislation used to pass this law was the Indian Act; the same legislation that made residential schools mandatory for Aboriginal children. The Act permitted and encouraged children as young as five to be forcibly separated from their families. It also made it illegal for Aboriginal people to leave their reserves unless they had a Pass issued by the local Indian Agent. Recall that Aboriginal reserves in B.C. were assigned based on no more than 10 acres a family (in 1865). It was on this land that Aboriginal people were now expected to survive. If images of ghettos and concentration camps don’t come to mind, they should.
Policies made by the federal government state a desire to distract Aboriginal people from land rights by limiting the resources given to them. Cut funding to reserves, and maybe the land claims would go away.
A Supreme Court case in 1984 decided that Aboriginal legal rights to the land came from historic occupation and possession of that land. An Aboriginal right can only be taken away through a treaty with the Crown, and if a treaty does not specifically refer to certain rights being extinguished, it should be assumed these rights continue to exist. Less than 1% of land in British Columbia has been ceded through treaties. Land across the country, including Parliament Hill in Ottawa, is unceded.
Residential schools in Canada existed until the mid 1990s. The world has had internet for a longer period than some Aboriginal groups in Canada have been free from attending residential schools.
It’s unknown how many children died in residential schools in Canada. The Government stopped keeping statistics after 1920, when a medical officer reported on the number of deaths and was then fired. In many schools, over 50% died of disease alone.
The conservative estimate of First Nations women and girls who are missing and murdered in Canada is 2,500. Some estimates say over 4,000.
Around 85 communities across Canada are currently without safe water. This isn’t a temporary situation. Children on these reserves grow up never having lived without a boil water advisory.
Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing demographic in Canada today. These young people are getting educated; they are learning the legacy of settlers and colonialism in Canada. All of these facts that I share here – the ones that may seem very historical, as in, “that was then” – well for these youth these facts are part of their present reality. These are issues their families have been dealing with for generation after generation. They aren’t happy. You wouldn’t be either.
Many of these youth do not identify as Canadian. They are members of numerous separate Nations across the country. “First Nations” isn’t just a title; they are sovereign entities.
If you’re celebrating Canada Day today, and even if you’re not, whatever you’re doing, and wherever you go, look around you. Chances are you’re on unceded territory. This may not be a thought that occurs as part of your daily life, and that’s what makes you, as a settler, privileged. You don’t have the burden of over 150 years of your ancestors struggling to survive while your lands are taken over by settlers of a government that doesn’t particularly care whether you live or die. You, as a settler, don’t have to worry about your children shouldering the same burden, and their children after that.
There’s a reason there are protests today, and these protests will only get louder. Consider listening to what they have to say, and then consider telling your federal representative that you stand with them, and that enough is enough. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is only any good if its recommendations are actually implemented. I, for one, want to be able to attend Canada’s bicentennial with the knowledge that we settlers have finally smartened up and Done Better. Canada has a problem. What are you going to do about it?