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Settler-Indigenous Relations

Indigenous politics in Canada are diverse and far reaching. There is a great deal of diversity among Indigenous peoples in Canada, including political organization and engagement with settler governments. As a result, histories of Indigenous politics and peoples in Canada are always incomplete and tend to focus on the engagements between settlers and Indigenous peoples rather than Indigenous political organizing, action and resistance.

  • At the Confederation, so-called ‘Indians’ and their land were viewed to be part of federal jurisdiction. With an eye to Western expansion, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and his government engaged in a series of assimilationist policies that would appropriate Indigenous land through the establishment of a “reservation” system, and otherwise undermine Indigenous rights.
  • Perhaps the most significant historical intervention on the part of the federal government. In 1876, the Government of Canada enacted the Indian Act which consolidated all previous legislation done by the Crown regarding Indigenous peoples into one principal statute. (The Act only pertains to First Nations; it has no binding effect on Métis or Inuit peoples). The Indian Act addresses a very wide range of issues related to the lives of Indigenous peoples, including who does (and does not) have Indian status, life on reserve land, and the management and governance of Indigenous bands.
  • Part of the assimilationist projects of the federal government included the establishment of the residential school system, which saw Indigenous children removed from their homes to be brought to state or church-run schools that sought to “take the Indian out of the child” by assimilating Indigenous children into “Canadian” culture. The Indian residential school system was established in the 1870s (around the time of the Indian Act), and was designed specifically to isolate children from their families and culture (where they were prevented from speaking their own languages), and those attending these institutions were forced to live in difficult environments, where they were subject to physical, and sometimes sexual abuse. Over the more than 100 years in which residential schools operated in Canada, approximately 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended, and it is estimated that at least 3,200 Aboriginal children died attending residential schools. Most residential schools were closed by the 1970s with the last one closed in 1996. The long-lasting impacts of the trauma caused by residential schools was the subject of a national inquiry—the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—was launched in 2008, with its report published in 2015 (see standalone article on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).
  • The relationships between Canadian governments and Indigenous peoples in Canada remain strained. Yet, there have been negotiations that have altered colonial governance arrangements in ways that have enabled more autonomy for Indigenous communities. The founding of Nunavut in 1999 is an important example. Further, since the increased federal recognition of Indigenous title and rights in the Constitution Act of 1982 (which refers back to the rights established by the Royal Proclamation), there has been a move toward the recognition of Indigenous self-government, and the establishment of self-government agreements.

Some examples of mobilization and resistance… 

Indigenous peoples in Canada have always been active in mobilizing against colonialism. Some notable moments of resistance in the last thirty years draw attention to the ways that Indigenous peoples have risen up and called attention to the need for decolonization and Indigenous autonomy over traditional territory (among other issues).

Three well-known examples include :

  • The Mohawk Resistance (Oka Crisis). The Mohawk Resistance occurred in 1990 after the town of Oka announced the expansion of a golf course on contested land which is traditional territory of the Mohawk and part of the Kanehsatake reserve. The expansion of the golf course to include another nine holes as well as a condo development led to protests, and eventually a court ruled that the expansion was legal. Some Mohawk people, living on the Kanehsatake reserve built a barricade that kept people out of the area. Eventually, the Quebec provincial police became involved and the protest became violent. In total, the standoff lasted 78 days. (See standalone article on the Mohawk Resistance)
  • Idle No More. The Idle No More movement began in November 2012 in response to the negative impacts of Bill C-45, legislation that included significant changes to “the Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Environmental Assessment Act, and the Fisheries Act,” which ultimately gave the Canadian government more access to Indigenous lands. As a form of resistance, Tanya Kappo, a co-organizer of the movement, used the hashtag #IdleNoMore, reaching people around the world who stand in solidarity with Canadian Indigenous peoples. Since the movement started, there have been thousands of Canadians showing that they would be Idle No More by gathering, protesting, fasting, blocking roads, and engaging in round dances to reduce the impacts of the legislative reforms. The hunger strike of Theresa Spence (former Chief of Attawapiskat) drew particular attention to the movement in 2012 as it was gaining momentum.
  • The Wet’suwet’en Protests. Indigenous peoples on Canada’s west coast has long opposed the building of a pipeline (the Coastal GasLink pipeline) through their territory. There are buildings and camps throughout the territory on the sites of several proposed pipelines in part, “as an assertion of the nation’s right to decide what happens on their territory.” In December 2019, the BC Supreme Court granted an injunction that allowed for the removal of any obstacles blocking the building of the pipeline. Following failed negotiations between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and the province, the RCMP moved in, arresting a number of land defenders, including Wet’suwet’en matriarchs. In addition to continuing protests at Wet’suwet’en, protests in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en began across the country, including railway blockades in Eastern Canada.

Additional Resources:

Contributors: Sasha Barker, Kainat Memon, Cameron Stewart