“Hello, Canada. Tonight has been a hundred and fifty years in the making.”
With his earnest eyes and that well-tailored smile, The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau speaks to Canadians through a YouTube video on the Canada 150 website. The occasion is New Year’s Eve, 2016. With Confederation’s sesquicentennial looming on July 1st, this year has been rebranded by the government as #Canada150.
Though he doesn’t talk much about what’s gone into the making of this country over the last hundred and fifty years, Trudeau does give us a little summary of Canada’s accomplishments since he became PM. He does not mention Indigenous issues in this speech at all, which is darkly appropriate, considering the role Indigenous people had in the 1867 Confederation negotiations. He does, however, tell viewers that in order to keep things moving ahead, we must all play our role. “Canada,” he says. “Let’s make this year our year.”
Trudeau doesn’t suggest how Canadians should go about making 2017 our year, but the Canada 150 website itself offers a detailed description of each capital city’s plans for New Year’s Eve. Music, food trucks, and a lot of fireworks. Some cities, including the unceded territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, will have two fireworks shows.
So what is expected of Indigenous peoples at a time like this, when politicians are telling us that the recognition of a country built on settler colonialism is best marked by pyrotechnics? There’s no doubt that the celebrations for Canada 150 would run smoothly if everyone accepted that Confederation was the best thing that ever happened to Canadians.
In fact, Indigenous people have been pushing back against the Canada 150 campaign for months, through art, graphic design and writing, and spreading this resistance through online tools like Twitter. I asked Nisga’a poet and scholar Jordan Abel to talk with me about Canadian patriotism, and Indigenous resistance to Canada 150.
“Artists definitely do have a role, I think, in kind of being people who have a voice and can offer opinions. When something like Canada 150 comes up, it almost feels like an obligation,” Abel says. From his current home in Robson, BC, he beams into my laptop screen. We’re on Google Hangouts, and I’m streaming the interview to my YouTube page, which means I’ll be able to watch the interview later, alongside Trudeau. Behind Abel is a pillow, and that’s about it. No wood panelled walls, no flag. When I ask him about the patriotic bent of Trudeau’s speech, Abel’s eyes dart sideways, but his grin doesn’t waver.
“That assumption, that we all feel the same way about Canada, is very prevalent. The way the government talks to us, assumes we all feel the same way about Canada, and particularly about Canada as a colonial construct.”
In his poetry, Abel has been pushing back against colonialism, and settler representations of Indigenous peoples, for years. His most recent work, Injun, is a long poem built out of text from dime-novel Westerns published between 1840 and 1950. When Abel performs, he often dims the lights and mixes pre-recorded material live, bending and shaping his own work into soundscapes that transcend the page. In this way, historical representations of Indigeneity are deconstructed and represented in a way that invites listeners to reconsider their relationship with colonial language.
Abel did not write Injun with Canada 150 in mind, but his reclaiming of historical colonial spaces reminds me of another talented artist, Kent Monkman. I learned of Monkman’s upcoming show at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto through a tweet that included the #Canada150 hashtag. Monkman, a celebrated artist of Swampy Cree, Irish, and English ancestry, is well known for his striking and surreal representations of the effects of colonialism in Canada. In one of his recent works, The Daddies, the fathers of Confederation are all gathered in a fancy room with big windows overlooking the water. It is, in fact, a rendition of Robert Harris’ 1884 painting, Conference at Quebec in 1864, with one fairly obvious difference. Taking centre stage in Monkman’s painting is Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, one of his creative alter egos, and a frequent visitor in his work. Reclining on a Hudson’s Bay blanket, nude except for a pair of stilettos, Miss Chief is undeniably holding court, and appears to be regaling the founders of this country with some kind of speech.
“I think humour can be an incredible tool, especially if a subject is pushing back against colonialism,” Abel says. “It’s a serious topic, but there’s room for thinking about it in other ways.”
Referring to Monkman’s piece, Abel says, “It really forces us to reconsider what our position is in relation to Canada, but also to art, and also this absurd image, that it’s difficult not to, you know, smile at.”
While it would be nearly impossible to view Monkman’s painting without smiling, there is, Abel says, there is an opportunity for reflection as well. Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle is totally—if fabulously—out of place. She is disrupting a traditional image of colonialism, and that’s the point. Viewers have no choice but to consider the connection between the building of Canada as a nation, and Indigenous presence. Or in the case of Confederation, a lack of Indigenous presence. It offers a chance to reconsider history. In a recent interview with CBC Monkman said: “I’m calling it my Canada 150 . . . I wanted to present a perspective that reflected on the hundred and fifty years of Indigenous experience. This is my celebration of the resilience of Indigenous people.”
How then, does settler colonialism colour Canadian perceptions of Indigenous presence throughout history? Narratives such as primitivism and savagism, which painted Indigenous people as inferior and therefore in need of Europe’s civilizing influence, persist to this day. In his book Indians in Unexpected Places, writer and scholar Philip J. Deloria explains that these cultural expectations are both the products and the tools of colonialism, and that “they are an inheritance that haunts each and every one of us.” This cultural inheritance also shapes the blindly patriotic nature of Canadian nationalism, staunchly in opposition to the idea that Canada exists on stolen land. Not to mention the implication that you’re either on team Canada, or a threat to it.
“Nationalism, I don’t think, is a difficult concept to understand,” Abel says,” but critiquing nationalism is a hard thing to do, or is a hard argument to make to somebody who just totally buys in. I think that’s an area I would like to see talked about more, just in general about what nationalism and what patriotism means, and what it means to buy in fully.”
For those who “buy in” to the colonial narrative that Indigenous people are better off for having been colonized, the idea of Indigenous resistance to Canada 150 would be confusing, if not intimidating. I wonder aloud what would happen if these voices were not considered voices of dissent, but part of a discussion about shaping a better Canada? What if part of the Canada 150 celebration involved taking a closer look at the history behind this resistance? Are we really that afraid of a past that isn’t noble?
Abel laughs. “The government has spent so much time trying to distance itself from the [colonial] narrative. Canada’s whole existence is predicated on stolen Indigenous land; that’s why Canada exists as a nation. So there are very strategic reasons why the official government of Canada continues to attempt to position itself where it denies history, essentially. Because otherwise we’d have to deal with some really difficult questions.”
He’s right, of course. It’s naive to think the government would ever centre a discussion about Canadian history on Indigenous resistance to colonialism. And the mainstream media, though favourable to big names like Monkman, aren’t likely to amplify the more radical Indigenous voices. Nevertheless, there are places where these discussions exist and flourish.
If one peruses the #Canada150 thread, two polar viewpoints are immediately noticeable. On one side is the totally stoked proclamations of patriotism. Things like: Proud to be Canadian, and Celebrate the anniversary of our great Canadian family! Outdoorsy people tweeting pictures of their free BC Parks passes, a popular Canada 150 initiative. On the other there’s a growing number sharing provocative Indigenous art, poetry, and even T-shirts that provide scathing commentary on the Canada 150 celebrations. Métis artist, writer and activist Christi Belcourt shared a piece from her website called “Canada, I Can Cite For You, 150,” a list poem which feels like a sobering inversion of Shane Koyczan’s ultrapatriotic Vancouver Olympics poem, “We Are More.” Koyczan’s poem is also posted on the #Canada150 thread, though it should be noted that Koyczan has since refused to perform it at Canada Day celebrations. In a lengthy public Facebook post in 2015, Koyczan said “I’m not sure what country I’m looking at anymore. A country that labels Canadians as second class citizens. A country that kills its research and gags its scientists. A country that refuses to take a serious look into missing aboriginals despite being the same country that killed First Nations children in residential schools . . .”
The Colonialism 150 T-shirt, which is also getting a lot of attention through #Canada150, and sister threads #Colonialism150 and #Resistance150, features an inverted Canada 150 logo. The shirt is a movement in itself, with proceeds going to the Titiesg Wîcinímintôwak Bluejays Dancing Together Collective, a two-spirit Indigenous arts collective in Toronto, an organization that is “organizing without, beyond, and against the Canadian state”.
How many minds does a clever tweet, a really great meme, or a T-shirt change? Probably not many, but as “organizing without, beyond, and against the Canadian state” suggests, changing the minds of those who have already bought in may not be most important. Movements like #IdleNoMore have involved an online mobilization of Indigenous thinkers and organizers, with the ability to strategize, plan events, and share ideas in a common space. Non-Indigenous Canadians could pay attention if they wanted to, but they weren’t required. It’s difficult for many Canadians to conceive of how a conversation going on without them could have any importance, but Indigenous resistance and resurgence don’t actually require state approval to exist. They are about building strength from within the community, to empower Indigenous peoples to reclaim their voices. To let people know they aren’t alone.
“It’s a very difficult situation to be in, where it feels like it’s impossible to actually express your feelings towards Canadian nationalism when it also feels like you’re doing it alone,” Abel says. He looks down for a split second, and raises a hand to his cheek. Still smiling. I suddenly realize we’ve been talking for an hour, and that he probably wants to get on with his Friday night. I thank him for his time and end the hangout, which leaves Justin Trudeau’s YouTube video on my screen.
“For a hundred and fifty years, Canada has been a success story, but that will only continue with a lot of hard work,” Trudeau says. As if in reply, a tweet* on the #Canada150 thread proclaims, “Canada has produced no greater work of fiction than Canada itself.” »
*Credited to @TomFortingtonFrom issue #76