‘Make the most of your Canada Day’, is the message the federal government broadcast in advance of 1 July 2017, the sesquicentenary of Confederation. But what are Canadians making of this event?
Not surprisingly First Nations people are ambivalent at best about commemorating a political deal that ushered in a policy of assimilation and land seizure. In 1867, when Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia confederated with the blessing of the British Colonial Office, the Dominion government set off on its own project of colonisation. The ancestral homelands of Indigenous peoples of the northwest looked different from Ottawa, the new capital. Although the new federal government got into the treaty-signing business, its overarching ambition was clear: individual freehold land tenure, white settlement, and a promised railroad were to underpin the nation’s future.
Within a decade of Confederation, the federal government consolidated regulations imposed on people it deemed to be ‘Indians’. The 1876 Indian Act tightened the paternalistic grip of the earlier ‘Gradual Civilization Act’ (passed by the Province of Canada in 1857), eventually introducing day schools on reservations and residential schools, which removed children from their homes, and forbade them from speaking their people’s languages or following their religious and cultural teachings.
The costs of ‘civilization’ will never be fully fathomed, but its depths have been charted in recent years. In 2015, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission catalogued the costs of assimilation, naming it ‘cultural genocide’. Ironically, the national government that once assumed the authority to determine who was, and who was not an ‘Indian’ under the Act, now faces criticism from First Nations people who dissociate themselves from Canada. For most, the past 150 years is a history to condemn.
A deeper history, stretching back to the last ice age, holds greater meaning for the Indigenous peoples of Canada. And greater cause for celebration for the entire nation.
Carolyn Strange is a Senior Fellow in the School of History, RSSS. She teaches Human Rights in History and the History of Crime and Justice. She is currently visiting professor at the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, York University, Toronto.