“You have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.”
– Thomas King, The Truth about Stories
When my grandfather on my dad’s side came to Canada, he wasn’t even a year old. He entered through Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a very common immigration story from that time. His parents came from Great Britain, seeking a new life, to farm the land. My grandfather, Donald Chitty, fought for the Canadian Armed Forces. He was willing to die for this country, whatever it stood for, and was to him at that time.
When my mishoomis on my mother’s side was six years old, they were kicked off of the rez. My great-grandmother had remarried a white man. At the time, if you were an Indigenous woman, and you married a white man, well, ‘congratulations, you’re not an Indian anymore!’ – according to the Canadian state. The only language my papa knew was Ojibwe, and he was strapped across the knuckles in his new English-speaking school. Beaten at home and at school for being the native, “halfbreed*,” bastard child — my papa, Samuel Hearns — quit as soon as he could. He’d later join the Canadian Armed Forces and was willing to die for this country, whatever it stood for, and was to him at the time. He is, to this day, a proud veteran, and though it took him until his 40s, he is a very proud Anishinaabe inini (man), regaining Indian Status with the Bill C-31 amendments to the Indian Act in 1985.
Each of my grandfathers ha(ve)(d) different relationships to Canada, and I don’t seek to define their experiences, nor impose any moral quandaries upon their identities. But who they are informs who I am. Having inherited both sides of Canada’s shared Indigenous-Settler histories, to quote Métis educator Donna Grayer: “I carry this oppressed history, but I walk with privileged skin.”
I feel simultaneously responsible for both reclamation and reconciliation. I struggle with braiding their stories together. I always seem to pit Settler and Indigenous against one another. They are both stories of resilience, however, one was invited and welcomed to come as he is with all he has to offer, and the other was asked to stop being who he was, despite all he had to offer.
*I used the term ‘halfbreed’ here because my mishoomis didn’t know who his dad was for most of his life, and was told he was white and was called halfbreed for much of the beginning of his life. However, he later learned his father was Anishinaabe from Alderville First Nation.
Debwewin, Or Truths
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by survivors to ensure not a single Canadian could claim ignorance of Indian Residential Schools, calls every Canadian to action. There is an entire report, with thousands of stories from survivors and family members of those who didn’t come home, each a catalyst to the collective reckoning we find ourselves facing. This past month, over one thousand truths laid bare in the bodies of children, confirmed buried, just like survivors said they were, in unmarked graves at former Indian Residential School sites in western provinces, with surely more to come across the continent.
My mishoomis didn’t go to an Indian Residential School. My family has always wondered why our kind, loving matriarch, married the abusive white man whom my mishoomis loathes to this day. My aunt and cousin recently suggested maybe that was how she thought she could keep him safe, with her. I never got to meet her, but she taught my British grandmother, my mishoomis’ wife, a lot about being Anishinaabe.
My maternal grandmother is a white British lady with Indian Status** (she married an Indigenous man before 1985), but it was her that encouraged my alcoholic grandfather to seek ceremony and culture for healing. And it was her that sat me at the kitchen table to learn animal names in Anishinaabemowin. I don’t speak Anishinaabemowin fluently, because mishoomis couldn’t speak it at home, at school, in the army, or anywhere, except to my great-grandmother.
**Some Indigenous folks might think she should give up her status. This is also very complicated, and another story.
Language was one of the many things those “schools,” and the ongoing colonization of what is now known as Canada took from every Indigenous person in Canada in some way. Those children were future Elders, Knowledge and Language Keepers, kin, that our communities collectively grieve across time and space, while we are expected to carry on as if things were normal, even in a pandemic. But I suppose settler-colonialism is normal. The hard truth that we must grapple with, is that those children were sent to those places, and subsequently died as a result of being there, so that Canadians could celebrate Canada Day, Indian and guilt-free, by now.
It took me many years to understand who I am and how to reconcile these zhaganash (white) and Anishinaabe “parts” of me. I am still figuring it out, even as I write this. What I can tell you, is that the more I learn about what it means to be Anishinaabe, the less I identify with being “Canadian,” though this is incredibly complex. And though as a Sagitarrius, you know I like a good party, the thought of celebrating Canada Day amid these confirmations makes me feel sick.
In many Indigenous communities, when someone passes away, everything shuts down. School’s cancelled. The band office is closed. Families are given the time, and the space to mourn. Anishinaabeg carry the Seven Grandfather Teachings, and one of them is humility — dabasendizowin in Anishinaabemowin. The morphemes in this word create for me an understanding that reminds us that while we are sovereign individuals, we are accountable to the whole, to the collective, in relation with one another. This grief does not belong to Indigenous Peoples alone — we must heal together.
I recognize that there are many things to celebrate for Canadians, as I write this in the safety of my urban home, where I have access to clean drinking water straight from the tap, and if I were to injure myself, I could receive health care at no upfront cost to me, fairly immediately. Obviously, this is not true for everyone who lives in Canada, because of ongoing settler-colonialism, but this essay is not wholly about the inequities Indigenous Peoples face.
This essay addresses the hard truth — that we just have to cancel Canada Day celebrations, indefinitely. I believe that this is an integral act of humility and reconciliation – and I hope you’ll hear me out.
I feel like we have to start way back, in the very very beginning, because you need to understand that Anishinaabe (and many other Indigenous Nations in what is now known as North America) have had a very intimate relationship with the land, since forever. And we’ve all been working really hard to reclaim these stories and teachings, to share them with one another, our antidote to the crushing weight of colonialism. At least it’s legal for us to have ceremony now.
So I guess we’ll start with the Anishinaabe creation story. It actually sort of starts with space, and the sky, then water, and then the land comes a bit later, but we’ll start with the land. There are tons of versions, and while I should cite an Anishinaabe author like Leanne Simpson’s version, I also like the campy version by Cherokee author Thomas King. His version changes the muskrat to nigig (otter) who dived deep down into the ocean to gather mud for Sky Woman. Nigig nindodem, otter is my clan. Our dodems, our clans, are not “spirit animals.” They are kinship practices that transcend blood quantum, Indian Status, and time. With this designation, comes responsibilities, and accountability. It is one of the greatest gifts I have come to know in this life. But back to the story.
So as King tells it, Sky Woman fell, well, out of the sky, and a bunch of animals saw her coming, and they caught her. But they didn’t know what to do with her, so mikinak, the Turtle, offered their back for her to catch her breath. It is then when Sky Woman decided, “this wouldn’t do,” and asked for some mud to make it homier. No one can dive deep enough, but Nigig manages to, and in this version, otter returns with a pawful of mud, and plays dead, true to their playful nature. The mud sits on Mikinak’s back and is the foundation of Turtle Island, all of creation. They gave themselves selflessly, an act of reciprocity I am not sure anyone could pay back. There’s lots more to it, but you’ll have to hear the full version from someone way more qualified than me sometime.
So this land, now known as Canada — that’s just one version of a story of how this place Canadians call home came to be. How many versions died with Indian Residential School systems? In prisons? Child welfare? According to the Anishinaabe version, this land was born in ceremony, in relationship to all of creation. Danced into existence, by collaboration, in community. Knowing these stories tells Anishinaabe who we are and how to live mino bimaadiziwin, a good life. Colonization is not in the Anishinaabe guidebook to living a good life, but if we’re going to compare the two stories — colonization is the turtle in the Canadian history version.
Proud To Be A Canadian
When I ask people what makes them proud to be a Canadian (after that song by the Dayglo Abortions clears from my head), I hear answers such as it’s how multicultural or kind we are; it’s hockey and the way our sports teams play; or something like, “because it’s the most beautiful country in the world.” The Great Lakes, Rocky Mountains, and maple syrup come to mind, as well as freedom, democracy and peace; and sometimes military pride, but usually it’s just, “I am proud to be Canadian.”
Molson Canadian beer has capitalized on this national pride and patriotism for years, and I guess some people consider drinking beer a big part of Canadian identity too. Canadians can’t quite put their finger on it, but they know that they are Canadian, and that is something that makes them proud.
It’s funny because maple syrup was introduced to Europeans by Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous soldiers are, by far, the most decorated soldiers in Canadian military history. One of Canadian history’s heroes, Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, died because “General Proctor tucked his tail between his legs and left him to fend off the Americans by himself,” as one of my good friends puts it. The notions of ‘peace and friendship’ come from Treaties made with the Mi’kmaq, almost two centuries before Confederation. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy has been practicing democracy in what is now known as Canada since at least the 1300s.
Sports, ok, I get it. They are great, and hockey most notably evolved as a sport in Montreal, but I don’t think that’s a coincidence either, as hockey definitely had Indigenous influence and roots. What is now known as Canada was very multicultural, too, before Europeans started settling here in the 1600s, with hundreds of distinct Nations speaking many more than the remaining 70 or so Indigenous languages still spoken today. Fun fact, Canada is actually a Mohawk word, meaning ‘village.’ Before 1492, Turtle Island honoured multiculturalism through wampum covenant chains and Treaties between Nations, encoding a responsibility to respect the sovereignty and self-determination of the land, the Peoples and Plant and Animal Nations.
No, it wasn’t all peaches, but part of the ongoing settler-colonial project is having Canadians believe we were all savages, brutal and merciless before Europeans settled and civilized us. “Even the wheel was not to be found,” writes Conrad Black in 2017 in the National Post, justifying colonization. Tell me, in 2021, why this man still gets space in a national news column to write about us?
I suppose it serves to illuminate the key role of news organizations in perpetuating anti-Indigenous hate. They’ve helped a lot over time, with the other crucial part of the ongoing settler-colonial project – creating a sort of historical amnesia. Indigenous Peoples practically disappear in history books after the fur trade. Canadians don’t know Indigenous Peoples’ histories or about Indian Residential Schools – for a reason.
So when we celebrate ‘Canada’ on Canada Day, whose history, and what exactly, are we celebrating?
As Canadians continue to hear our truths, I watch them start to squirm. They’re uncomfortable. They are realizing they don’t actually know Canadian history and starting to realize they are Canadian at the expense of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. And that’s a really tough pill to swallow. I know, personally, because I’ve had to figure out what that means for a halfbreed like me. I think that’s why it’s important to start with those really old Creation stories. They bring us back to the land. Those old stories ask us to think pretty hard — what does it mean to be in relationship to the land, all of creation, and each other? For us Nishnaabeg, that looks like visiting with our Elders and Knowledge Keepers, reclaiming land, and the kinship practices and teachings that emerge through those relationships. For Settlers, I think it looks a lot like visiting with Indigenous Peoples and never again saying, “That’s just the way it is. Get over it.”
You see, the way things are now, are not inherently the way they are supposed to be. In fact, it’s only been a small fraction of time in the history of this particular land where things have even been the way they are. And I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I feel like it’s not really working out so well.
But back to Aki, the land. Carved by glaciers and made beautiful by the abundance of water. Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin, the Five Great Freshwater Seas, cradling fertile valleys and forests. Massive, majestic mountains, great wide plains. Thick old-growth forests. Dense, green muskegs and icy, cold, lichen-covered tundra. Not untouched — generations of Indigenous Peoples cultivated food forests and traded, built semi-nomadic communities, identified sacred spaces, and used the waterways as roads. And to this day, we continue to reclaim these practices, despite everything. Aki is so incredibly beautiful, I understand why so many Canadians say she’s what makes them proud. The land itself, although beautiful, is not innately “Canada,” however. Settler-states need land masses to occupy for legitimacy.
Aki, broadly speaking, does not only embody dirt and the resources growing above or buried beneath, but all the relationships that together sustain life, danced into existence in ceremony, remember? Canada, the settler-state, was created through Confederation. There was no pipe ceremony, no wampums present. There was apparently a circus happening at the same time, though. Canada, the settler-state, was only made possible through the allyship and Treaties made between the British Crown and Indigenous Peoples, prolifically with First Nations, and Treaty-making with Indigenous Peoples continues to this day. On Canada Day we should be celebrating how those Treaties created new awesome relationships, where we all share in the beauty and the bounty of what is now known as Canada, but that is not the reality today.
Through the Indian Act, Indian Residential Schools and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from land, despite Treaties, this Indigenous-Settler relationship isn’t exactly reciprocal. Aki offers the teaching of reciprocity; it is innate, inherent. So, where did it all go so wrong?
Honour The Treaties
July 1, 1867. I wonder what the weather was like that day. There weren’t any Indigenous Peoples present. Which is bizarre, because at the time, pre-Confederation Treaties, such as the Sombra, London Township, and Longwoods Treaties locally, were integral to Great Britain and France forming the colonies that would later be federated. The Daddies of Confederation intentionally left Indigenous Peoples out of the process. In 1764, over one hundred years prior, something that still impacts Indigenous-Settler relations today, and influenced the Confederation, happened: the Treaty of Niagara. Now, I am not a Treaty scholar or a historian, and at the risk of oversimplifying, I will do my best to explain why Treaties are so important when it comes to Canada’s Confederation and Constitution.
From what I have come to understand, Treaties between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown are living, ongoing agreements created with the intention to outline our relationships and responsibilities with each other, as well as the land and waters. Treaties did not equal relinquishment of sovereignty, self-determination, rights, land, or title, but that is not how they have been interpreted in Canadian courts and the government.
The onus is always on Indigenous Peoples to prove we have not given up rights, land, or title, and this is evidenced in the millions of taxpayer dollars spent in litigation against Indigenous Peoples seeking equal and Treaty rights. It is a common misconception that Indigenous Peoples receive “government handouts” and are responsible for their own poverty, meanwhile, Canada’s economy is generated through resource extraction from Treaty (and non-Treaty) (stolen) land. I won’t explain the nuances of this, because the Yellowhead Institute has very succinctly outlined: it is Canada who has a balance owing in their Cash Back report.
While it may be various church sects who ran Indian Residential Schools, it was the Canadian government that asked them to do so. And while it was the Church that gave the Crown the power to take up Indigenous land through terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery, the Canadian government still relies on this understanding for its legitimacy. For Canadians seeking to understand these relationships and the subsequent chain of events, I recommend beginning with the Treaty of Niagara “cessation,” which set a precedent for Indigenous-Settler relations. It gave way to the acceptance of the Royal Proclamation, which would later become enshrined in the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982. It made Confederation possible. You’re probably thinking, I’ve never heard of it, so it can’t be that important.
Ultimately what I think Canadians need to keep in mind, is that everything we have come to know about the creation of this country has been understood from a settler-colonial lens. It is Treaties that enabled, and continue to enable, non-Indigenous Peoples to live in what is now known as Canada. So anyone not familiar with this history and these Treaties does not have a full and complete understanding of what it means to be ‘Canadian,’ let alone their rights and responsibilities as Treaty Peoples.
Lastly, it is crucial to understand that since “Aboriginal Rights” are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution, every time a corporation or the Canadian government fails to engage in Free and Prior Informed Consent, or Duty to Consult — on any territory in Canada connected or not connected to Treaty — with Indigenous Nations, it undermines the Constitution, and as Canadians who value freedom and democracy, this should deeply concern us all.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As you can see, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to me to be Canadian, and what it means to be Anishinaabe. Through reclaiming my responsibility as Anishinaabekwe, I have come to understand a deep sense of accountability through kinship practices to my Indigenous kin, as well as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, future generations, and ancestors. Perhaps you haven’t had to think very hard about who you are, and the responsibilities you carry, until now. July 1 is a good day to start reflecting on that. What does it mean to live in Canada, in relations with the land, accountable to each other, ancestors and future generations?
As Anishinaabe, I seek to honour my ancestors by learning our stories, language, and practising ceremonies, to pass on the teachings our people were willing to die for. Willing to get beaten up for, put in jail even, to bring forward to future generations. I see how hard people work to reclaim, and the futures we are building, despite constant traumas, systemic and lateral violence and bureaucracy. I see how hard people are working to reconnect, to find their kin, and to know their family’s stories. I know we have so much to share, so much to give the world, but we are constantly drowned out by voices that say things don’t need to change, that our leadership is corrupt, our people entitled. I do think that we are entitled – to live a good life, mino bimaadiziwin. I think the best way to honour all the children who never made it home is to make space for Indigenous youth coming up today to reclaim — and be unapologetic in — their Indigeneity.
Canadians benefit from Indigenous knowledges unwittingly, from recreational kayak trips to the syringes COVID-19 vaccinations are dispensed from. It is Indigenous and Black Peoples, carrying our medicines, knowledges, and ways of doing and being, that will solve the complex issues created by settler-colonialism, global capitalism, and white supremacy. If you look back in Canadian history, it is the activism and advocacy of the very peoples made marginalized by Canada’s government policies that have made Canada more democratic, free and equitable. So much groundwork has been laid by those who came before us, and these truths will transform us.
The truth is, the debwewin — heart knowledge — that I think people are starting to realize, is that things don’t have to be the way they are, and we collectively have the power to change it. I dream of a Canada where Indigenous Peoples are thriving. I am dreaming of a Canada seven generations from now, that can look back and be proud. Proud that we chose to radically change everything, that their ancestors chose to sustain life, to create thriving environments for all People, Plant and Animal Nations. Even if Canadians choose not to roll up their sleeves and do the work to unlearn, dismantle, and create equitable and sustainable futures, led by historically made-marginalized Peoples – they will benefit. But their lack of participation is one less pair of hands to do some heavy lifting.
I recognize identity is complex, but this is how I’ve come to understand myself, and my responsibilities, in relationships to the land and communities I am a part of — and it has nothing to do with Canada as a political entity. I am Anishinaabe, and that is who I am grateful, not proud, to be on July 1, and every day. To my neechies — keep picking up and building your bundles, languages and stories. Continue to lead bravely, speak your truths, and revive our kinship practices.
I implore every Canadian this July 1 to sit with their complicitness instead of celebrating. To interrogate the systems that have entitled Canadians to live on this land and forsake the teachings Aki offers, the Treaties and their responsibilities. To understand that reconciliation is not and cannot be limited to Indian Residential Schools.
A ‘Canada’ we can all be ‘proud’ of, requires a humility and humanity that exceeds any patriotic identity.
To paraphrase Thomas King: “Take this story. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”
What can I do instead of celebrating Canada Day?
- Make space for Indigenous and other made-marginalized Peoples to lead
- Wear Orange on Canada Day
- Attend the Turtle Island Healing Walk
- Support local organizations and initiatives, such as Atlohsa Family Healing Services, Nshwaasnangong Child Care and Family Centre, N’Amerind (London) Friendship Centre, Nokee Kwe, and Out of Sound Rezonance Program
- Support local Indigenous reclamation and land back initiatives, by sharing their stories and donating, including Deshkan Ziibing Roundhouse, O:se Kenhionhata:tie [Landback Camp KW], and Protect the Tract
- Take the University of Alberta’s massive open online Indigenous Canada course
- Have hard conversations with family, friends and colleagues
- Share educational resources
Feature image via @JessicaGirvan.