Genocide, racism and Canada Day: An Algonquin-Anishinaabekwe love letter

| June 25, 2013
Genocide, racism and Canada Day: An Algonquin-Anishinaabekwe love letter

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Between June 21 and July 1 -- National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day -- we'll be featuring a series of articles examining and critiquing the uses of Canadian identity, the resurgence of Indigenous movements for justice, and the ways in which activists and thinkers across these lands are addressing these fundamental questions.

Living in Canada as I do, I encounter proud Canadians all the time, more so around the time of Canada Day celebrations.  The commonly held view put forward by these proud Canadians is that Canada is the country where they were born, and that Canada is the country that welcomed their parents and grandparents with open arms and gave them their new beginning they so very much needed. Given this, they tell me. "A proud Canadian is who I am."

As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe I experience these "proud Canadian statements" as both racist and ungrounded.  Unfortunately for both of us proud Canadians are usually offended when I tell them so.

I experience "proud Canadian statements" as racist because Canada the nation state was built on racist and genocidal policies that were and are harmful and disenfranchising to Indigenous peoples.

As an Indigenous person I know that these racist and genocidal policies continue to exist today in the form of the Indian Act, and the Comprehensive Land Claims and the Self-Government policies. While the Indian Act imposes colonial law and poverty on Indigenous nations, the Land Claims and Self-Government policies take advantage of this same poverty and impose a negotiation process that offers very little in terms of genuine self-government and long term viability. In this way Canada pushes Indigenous people into unsustainable living conditions, and then imposes policies on them that assure their termination as distinct social political entities.

When I reflect on this I realize this Canadian-made genocidal process takes place in large part because most Canadians do not have the time and mind space to determine for themselves that genocide is what it is.  Upon reflection, I have learned that this is the way that genocide sometimes operates -- right in front of people's eyes, yet these same people can't see it because Canada has blinded its citizens ability to see it.  Genocide in plain sight is the worst form of genocide to raise awareness about.

I have found that in my process of making the invisible visible, most people get angry at me. They get angry because I am challenging their treasured ideology of Canada, the great and benevolent country. What Canadians need to realize, though, is that this emotional reaction is oftentimes the nature of new knowledge. People become emotional with new knowledge because they have become destabilised in terms of what is dear to them.

While you may be emotional about my statement that I find "proud Canadian statements" racist -- this does not mean I am incorrect. Indeed Canada, and all it has become, is racist and genocidal.

While this may explain why I experience "proud Canadians statements" as racist, this does not explain why I also experience them as ungrounded. I perceive them as ungrounded because the story of Canada has no real cultural depth beyond that of a song, a flag, and a fictional story of two founding nations: the British and the French.

Through effective strategies of nationalism -- strategies that deny and supress genuine cultural meaning -- when people find themselves in moments of despair, they have no cultural knowledge of who they are and how to find their way home. Instead they find themselves in a dark cave where all they are able to do is drink, eat and shop, for example. In this way, while Canada may claim to respect who people are, most people void of their ancestral Indigenous knowledge which includes prayer, song, dance and ritual are particularly lonely and thus vulnerable in moments of despair. Let's face it, nationalism is unable to provide the necessary medicine when people need it most.

We are all Indigenous to the earth and we are all born into rich ancestral traditions of Indigenous cultural knowledge.  Indigenous knowledge is the cultural knowledge that has shaped your ancestors since time immemorial; it is the cultural knowledge that has stood the test of time.  

Yet, in the process of shaping proud Canadians, Canada breaks down and dismisses this precious ancestral knowledge. In this way, "Canada the Great" actually lets proud Canadians down when they are in most need of a cultural backbone to guide them to a safe place.

The need for a paradigm shift

Humans are in need of a huge paradigm shift, much like the one that took hold regarding the earth and the sun -- that being that it is the earth that orbits the sun rather than the sun orbiting the earth. The current economic and materialistic paradigm is harming all life on earth.

Indigenous people -- again, we are all Indigenous to the earth -- who remain rooted in their own life sustaining Indigenous knowledge are at once both the canaries suffering the most from the current paradigm, as well as the holders of the ancient Indigenous knowledge systems required for the much needed paradigm shift. The problem is that nation states such as Canada have been very successful at monopolizing people's mindsets in a way that they are convinced that they are "people of a country" rather than "Indigenous people of the earth."

Nationalism has also been successful at convincing Canadians that Indigenous knowledge philosophy and culture is primitive, non-progressive, and thus unworthy of being respected as a valid source of knowledge.

What is worse is that nationalism has been successful at convincing proud Canadians that their hard earned tax dollars are being squandered by the Indigenous people of Turtle Island.  In doing this, Canada creates a blinding system where proud Canadians are unable to see the source of the environmental destruction, and the very real value of earth centred Indigenous knowledge systems.

Unfortunately, because nation states are stuck in the current paradigm, and because they hold the financial power and all that it provides such as institutional power to control people, individuals who are already overworked and over tired do not have the time to do the work needed to learn the truth.  Despite this we need to keep in mind that Canada will only teach you what will serve their paradigm -- even if that paradigm is harming all life on earth, your children’s lives and their children's lives included.  Do not underestimate the role that state nationalism has had on your mind set and practices.

Some interesting historical facts about Canada

I want to share with readers some of the history that the foundation of Canada rests on.  Most Canadians are unaware of this knowledge as the state’s education system opts not to teach this truth:

- The 1869 Gradual Enfranchisement Act was implemented to destroy Indigenous self-government.  The election of Chiefs and Councillors became the exclusive process for male band members only.

- In 1869, Indigenous governance practices, such as gender balance, consensus decision making, wampum diplomacy, and restorative justice, were outlawed.

- In 1869, all rules, regulations, and elected Indigenous officials were subject to confirmation by the government of Canada, whereby they could depose the leaders that they did not approve of.

- Through the 1876 Indian Act, when an Indigenous woman married a White man she became a White woman and was no longer considered an Indian.  As a result, she and her children had to leave their home community.

- Beginning in the 1880s, Indigenous traditional culture was deemed a criminal offense.  Cultural traditions criminalized consisted of prayer, song, dance, drumming, the sacred pipe, giveaways, the vision quest, the sun dance, the sweat lodge, smudging, traditional dress, and the potlatch.

- Beginning in 1886, Indians could not leave their reserve community unless they obtained a pass from the Indian agent.

- To reduce the effectiveness of Indigenous leaders and organizations, in 1927 it became illegal for Indians to hire lawyers or advisors to help them with their grievances against the government of Canada.

- In 1936, Indian agents were granted the power to preside at, and direct, band council meetings, as well as cast the deciding vote in elections in the event of a tie.

- It was not until the 1960s when Indian people could vote in Canada.  If they wanted to vote before this date they had to give up being an Indian.


Dr. Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley.  She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process, and recently published a book titledAnishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts.  You can reach her at lynngehl[at]gmail[dot]com and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com

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