Artist Alex Janvier pictured at his gallery in Cold Lake First Nations 149B Alta, on Wednesday February 8, 2017. Alex Janvier is a pioneer of contemporary Canadian aboriginal art in Canada.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Artist Alex Janvier pictured at his gallery in Cold Lake First Nations 149B Alta, on Wednesday February 8, 2017. Alex Janvier is a pioneer of contemporary Canadian aboriginal art in Canada.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Many indigenous people see little reason to mark 150

EDMONTON — After surviving 11 years in a residential school with art as his only escape, 19-year-old Alex Janvier was ready for freedom.

But in mid-1950s Canada, freedom still depended on the colour of one’s skin.

Janvier was offered a spot at what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design. But his destiny lay in the hands of the Indian agent from his home reserve in Alberta.

The agent said no — the man who would become one of Canada’s most celebrated indigenous artists wasn’t smart enough to go.

A chance to study in the United Kingdom was similarly denied.

Under Canada’s pass system – a vestige imposed during the failed Northwest Rebellion to prevent others from leaving reserves to join the uprising which lingered into the mid-20th century – there was no appeal, no recourse.

Janvier was allowed to attend art school in Calgary under the watchful eye of the local diocese, but he had to keep a piece of paper with the Indian agent’s signature on it in his shirt pocket.

He met a fellow student there and he recalls taking her to a movie one night. He had his arm around her. He was feeling good. It felt as though life was beginning to open up.

The couple were at the bus stop when a police cruiser pulled up.

“You! Come here!” he recalls one of the officers shouting. “Not you, him. What are you doing?”

Janvier says he walked over and explained they were waiting for a bus, but the interrogation continued.

“Am I to be arrested?” Janvier asked.

“A smart ass, eh?” he remembers the officer responding and then came the question: “Do you have a pass?”

Janvier pulled out the note the agent had signed. He remembers the cop glancing at it and then throwing it on the sidewalk for Janvier to pick up.

“That’s how it was,” Janvier, now 82, shrugs. “There was no law to do it and yet those Indian agents pushed it like you wouldn’t believe.”

As Ottawa spends $500 million on throwing the country a 150th birthday party, many indigenous people, including Janvier, wonder what’s worth celebrating. To recognize 1867 as the birth of Canada is to celebrate the beginning of an abusive relationship.

Janvier’s colourful, abstract art, which was recently displayed in a special exhibit at the National Gallery, has taken him around the world and every time he returns home to Cold Lake, Alta., he feels a surge of relief and affection. But it’s the land, not the country, that inspires his loyalty.

“I don’t have to celebrate,” he says. “That 150 years is none of my business. It never included me so why jump up and down and celebrate?”

To celebrate 150 years for many means to raise a glass to the continuing legacies of colonization – the disproportionate number of indigenous children in government care, dozens of communities without clean drinking water and some without basic indoor plumbing.

The Canada being celebrated this year would not exist without the suppression of First Nations, says Pam Palmater, lawyer and chair of indigenous governance at Ryerson University.

“The only way that it could exist is from our genocide and the theft of lands and resources and the ongoing discriminatory laws, policies, exclusion from our territories,” she says.

“The only reason they are able to maintain this is because they put us in jail, they put our kids in foster care, our women go murdered and missing because they keep us out of the way. Canada 150 is a celebration of how they’ve been able to keep us out of the way. It wouldn’t be Canada 150 without all of that.”

Canada’s milestone of 150 seems quaint when compared to the history of indigenous people dating back at least 10,000 years, notes Isaac Murdoch, from Serpent River First Nation about 150 kilometres west of Sudbury, Ont.

“Ignoring 10,000 years of our history erases us when they only celebrate 150,” says Murdoch, who is behind the #Resistance150 hashtag on Twitter. “It seems silly for Canada to celebrate 150 in these lands when indigenous people have been here forever. It’s quite rude. It really is.”

When European settlers first arrived, they used First Nations for knowledge on how to survive the harsh elements and rugged terrain, as well as military allies and fur traders. Once the fur trade declined and the military threat from the United States subsided, indigenous people became more of an obstacle to settlement and the exploitation of resources.

When Canada was born, it only had two recorded parents – the French and the English. No mention was made of indigenous people.

“I’m not a Canadian. I don’t know why it’s so offensive to say that. I’m Ojibwa. I was born Ojibwa. That’s who I am. Our nation is separate from Canada,” Murdoch says.

“Indigenous people have always been known to Canada as the Indian problem. Their whole policies when creating the country … were to contain the Indian problem.”

Canada’s first prime minister, Sir. John A. Macdonald, made it a goal to “do away with the tribal system, and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the inhabitants of the Dominion.”

That mindset would last through the next century.

The British North America Act imposed a European-style bureaucracy on all things indigenous. Ceremonies were outlawed, traditional governance was replaced by powerless band councils, reserves were set up.

Through it all, the Indian agent was king. With the pass system – the same system that prevented Janvier from going to art school and gave police the right to harass him – indigenous people needed permission to leave the reserve or conduct any business on it.

They were expected to become farmers but needed permission to sell a cow.

“It was a way of control,” says National Chief Perry Bellegarde with the Assembly of First Nations.

“The pass/permit system that Indian Affairs put in place here in Canada was such a strong system of controlling indigenous peoples that the apartheid system in Africa was modelled after the Indian Act system, the reserve system and the permit system.”

They could not vote, consult a lawyer and could be relocated “for their own protection” if their land was needed for settlers. Equally, they could be relocated “in the national interest” if their settlement were built upon mineral-rich soil or along the shores of a river that needed damming.

“The relationship became one of interdependency to one where we became wards of the state,” Bellegarde says. ” A lot of our people were starved into submission by the Indian agents and the Indian Act and the killing of the buffalo. Our entire way of life was taken away.”

Then they came for the children.

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages,” Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1883.

“Though he may learn to read and write … he is simply a savage who can read and write … Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence.”

Residential schools were set up and children were removed from their homes – by force if necessary.

Thousands died, buried in unmarked graves. Others were sexually and physically abused, returning to their communities alienated from their culture and haunted by demons that have been passed on through generations.

“It was like a jailhouse for little kids,” Janvier remembers. “They used to feed us pills to control us.

“They said it was for my health, but what it used to do is sedate you, calm you down so you didn’t get too crazy in that school.”

To this day, Janvier doesn’t know what the pills were. The records of his lost childhood, like those of so many, were apparently destroyed by a flood.

There was also what became known as the Sixties Scoop – apprehending First Nations and Metis children and placing them with non-indigenous families.

The intentions were more subtle but the resulting trauma was the same.

All of these policies have taken their toll. The majority of today’s indigenous people don’t share in Canada’s health and prosperity.

Many live below the poverty line in dilapidated housing without access to clean water. Their life expectancy is lower. Their odds of growing up a ward of child welfare, in prison, addicted to drugs or alcohol are much higher.

Sen. Murray Sinclair says the abusive relationship between Canada and indigenous people has gone on long enough. Divorce isn’t an option. Neither side is moving out.

The next 150 years will be about learning to co-exist, but that can only happen if it begins with honesty and equality.

“Trying to figure out how we can live together in the same territory is really the issue,” says the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined residential schools.

“Nobody’s going away. If nobody’s going away then how do we get along on this land?”

That won’t happen unless Canadians acknowledge the foundation upon which their country is built, he says.

“We need to acknowledge that indigenous people are in a position of inferiour power, inferiour economic status and problematic social conditions largely because of government actions over last 150 years.

“We cannot say let’s assume from this point forward that everybody’s equal because the reality is that we’re about 150 yards behind the starting line and you’re asking us to now enter the race with you. That’s not fair.”

Canadian people, who are becoming more educated about their own history, will likely be the ones that push their government into action rather than the other way around, he says.

Canada 150 is a birthday party, “yours, not ours,” Sinclair wrote recently.

“Don’t be surprised if we keep pointing out that it is not an anniversary about our relationship. It’s an anniversary of the joining of colonies and colonizers.

“Invite me and my relatives if you want. We might come and watch you blow out your candles, and sure, some of us will probably eat some of your cake. We might even sing Happy Birthday to you Canada.

“But then, we still need to talk about our relationship.”

Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US Vice-President Joe Biden walk down the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. If Joe Biden’s decision to kill off Keystone XL is supposed to sound the death knell for Canada-U.S. relations, you wouldn’t know it from the newly minted president’s call sheet. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
In wake of decision to kill Keystone XL, Biden’s first foreign-leader call? Trudeau

Biden rescinded former president Donald Trump’s approval of the US$8-billion cross-border pipeline expansion

Protesting farmers and their families gather around a bonfire to mark the harvest festival, which is called Lohri, on a blocked highway in protest against new farm laws on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Changes in India’s farm laws could potentially open up one of the world’s most populous markets and are being closely watched by Canada’s agricultural and economic sectors, say experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Altaf Qadri
Changes in Indian farm laws could benefit Canada, experts say

Independent committee of experts to negotiate with opponents of legislation

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is raising its estimate for the number of businesses that are considering the possibility of closing permanently. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
CFIB raises estimate of small businesses at risk of closing permanently

One in six Canadian small business owners seriously contemplating shutting down

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shakes hands with Joel Ward, former Red Deer College President and CEO, as Notley announces that the college is on the path to grant degrees. Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan says university status is not a necessary condition for offering degrees. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Future of Red Deer University increasingly uncertain

MLA’s college update says RDC more like SAIT and NAIT than a university

Lucas Berg, left, with the backpacks filled with essential items he donated to the Red Deer Mustard Seed Jan. 19, 2021. (Photo submitted)
Central Alberta teenager donates filled 20 backpacks to Red Deer Mustard Seed

Lucas Berg, 14, of Ponoka County says he ‘just wants to help people’

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus looks into a souvenir shop displaying various of stickers, one of them showing a former U.S. President Donald Trump caricature, in Beijing, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. China imposed sanctions on nearly 30 former Trump administration officials moments after they left office on Wednesday. In a statement released just minutes after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, Beijing slapped travel bans and business restrictions on Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and U.N. ambassador, Kelly Craft. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
China hopes for co-operation, better relations under Biden

U.S. need to relaunch co-operation in a number of areas

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to the media during a press conference on the current situation in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Topics include the decisions taken by the federal and state governments to combat the Corona pandemic, the Chancellor’s upcoming virtual consultations with the heads of state and government of the European Union (EU), and relations with the United States following the inauguration of the new president. (Michael Kappeler/Pool via AP)
Germany’s Merkel stands by Russia pipeline that US opposes

Washington says the project makes Europe more dependent on Russian gas and hurt European energy security

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, greets International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. (Nikolai Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)
Lithuania offers to replace Belarus as hockey worlds co-host

Tournament scheduled to run May 21 to June 6

Canadian international midfielder Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare, left, is seen in action against St. Louis FC in an undated handout photo. Gagnon-Lapare has joined HFX Wanderers FC on a two-year deal with a club option for 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-HFX Wanderers FC
Canadian international Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare joins CPL’s HFX Wanderers FC

Gagnon-Lapare most recently with Ottawa Fury FC and St. Louis FC

An Italian police officer stands by a copy of the “Salvator Mundi” (Savior of the World) by Leonardo da Vinci, in Naples, Italy, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Italian police have recovered a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century “Salvator Mundi” painting of Jesus Christ that was stolen from a Naples church without the priests even realizing it was gone. The discovery was made over the weekend when Naples police working on a bigger operation found the painting hidden in an apartment. Police chief Alfredo Fabbrocini said the owner offered a “less than credible” explanation that he had “casually” bought it at a small market. (Italian Police via AP)
Italian police find stolen copy of Leonardo ‘Salvator Mundi’

500-year-old copy of Leonardo da Vinci painting

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as her husband Doug Emhoff holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)
Inauguration fashion: Purple, pearls, American designers

Joe Biden wore navy blue suit and overcoat by Ralph Lauren

Adam Hadwin, of Canada, chips to the second green during the first round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Matt Slocum
Adam Hadwin hopes to hit reset button in 2021 starting with American Express

Adam Hadwin hopes to hit reset button in 2021 starting with American Express

Most Read