Civil disobedience and the truth about Canadian history: Reflections on National Aboriginal Day

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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. 

Five years ago this month I was just getting over a prison hangover.

After three and a half months in maximum security and a final overnighter in the Don Jail I was free again to do what ever I wanted. My head was still a little fuzzy. If I had looked somewhat weakened and disoriented at the Appellate Court hearing where I was released it was because the night before I had been gassed in the sally port of the Don. I was left in the transfer van, parked in the enclosure, with the motor running. I have never been sure whether it was neglect or malice but after 45 minutes of breathing carbon monoxide I didn't care, I was dry heaving and unable to stand on my own. I've also never been sure which stunk worse, the CO gas or the Don Jail itself. At that point I just wanted to put it behind me, as far as I could.

Over the last five years I have seen more political activists than usual doing time. It seems as though civil disobedience and in some instances just being in the wrong place at the wrong time will get you rendered. Canada, as a nominal democracy, has never been very tolerant of opposition. This country's history is replete with examples of heavy-handed political suppression. Incarceration and sometimes execution have punctuated the seemingly benign progress of the state.

I wonder sometimes if Louis Riel could have foreseen that his activism would one day earn him an RCMP honour guard beside his grave. His vision of a people's democracy informed by political morality tempered by the gospels was clearly too radical for the founding father of Canada.

But today, when Riel's vision of egalitarian rule is resurfaced by the Trans Canada Highway, industrial agriculture and the tar sands development, while his hungry relatives are conveniently caged in prairie ghettos reserved exclusively for them, I wonder if the men and women in red who guard his grave or the tourists who come to claim some Canadian history ever imagine if the rope burns around his neck are still visible on his corpse.

Riel did not die alone. With him went almost the entire leadership of the Plain Cree and Blackfoot nations. The great diplomats were imprisoned and shamed to death while nine young and vibrant souls who opposed the genocide of their people shared the gallows with Riel. No one at the Champ de Mars in Montreal called out their names. They would not be claimed as favourite sons of any nationalist cause. Neither their names, nor even that they ever lived and breathed, would be in the content of schoolbooks. Their graves are barely marked if at all and only the long grass bows and salutes their place in history.

So who are the modern day troublemakers? Labour. Indigenous people and environmentalists make up the cohort of civil criminals. Some things never change.

Standing in the way of progress and the accumulation of unsustainable wealth is a clear challenge to the rule of law in Canada but these are not primary motives for activists. Civil disobedience is a strategy, sometimes the only strategy left to Canadians motivated to gain a fair share of their daily bread, preserve their cultural values and integrity, and protect the air, water and land that is fundamental to life.

Pseudo-democratic states and their corporate communications media will always vilify activists who challenge inequality and injustice. Judges who await appointments will always use the ‘rule of law’ as an excuse to punish those who challenge the inequality of their courts. Senators and Parliamentarians will always shape laws dictated by the backroom Mullahs that approve their nominations. In Canada as it stands today, Labour, Indigenous people and environmentalists will continue to be jailed when they are active enough to make a difference.

Today, as I look out the window at my garden and the forest beyond, 50 some years of community work, activism and personal challenge seem blurred in the sunlight and green on this first day of summer.

Wondering what I can accomplish today is not on my mind. What concerns me most is that young people, like I was once, are still facing the same challenges. Now the stakes are higher, there is less time and the force of oppression is technologically and philosophically greater than when we were young. I fear for you. I fear that we did not do enough in our time to buffer the suffering manifested in poverty wages if any at all, the continued loss of our Indigenous life-ways and jurisdiction, and the sickness and death of the earth's life cycles.

Please don't give up because we failed to make things right.

Take time to remember and experience what we have been fighting for. Find some water, clean water, and wash your hands with it. Breath in as much fresh air as you can while you can. Sit down on the earth and be still, listen to the music of the land, turn your face to the sun or rain and know that you share it with all other creatures.

Love and be honest with one another.


Robert Lovelace is an adjunct lecturer at Queen's University in the Department of Global Development Studies. His academic interests include Indigenous Studies, Sustainable Development and Aboriginal education. Robert is also an activist in anti-colonial struggles. In 2008, Robert spent 3 ½ months as a political prisoner for his part in defending the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation homeland from uranium exploration and mining. Robert is a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He lives in the Algonquin highlands at Eel Lake in the traditional Ardoch territory.



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