Indigenous Peoples in Canada: A vital piece of history that should have been included in my first post

I was planning to write my first entry on the more modern history of Québec today, but yesterday I was reminded of something that was much more important that needs to be addressed first. I took part in Montréal’s annual Museum Day. 34 museums across the city open their doors and allow people to come in for free. Considering I work in the arts, this was an excellent opportunity to experience a lot of art and history without breaking the bank. So a plan was formed and executed to maximize the number of museums I would get to see. I got to ten museums in just over 7 hours. It was an intense experience, but one that reminded me how rich my country’s heritage is. It also reminded me that I MUST NOT take anything for granted, including the euro-centric path that our discussions will likely take.

Many of the plays that we will be reading focus on the tensions and relationship between the French and English, i.e. the colonists, the settlers, the Europeans. But that does not mean the discussion of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada is any less important; in fact, it is vital to highlight it.

Montréal’s motto is “Concordia Salus”, which translates to “salvation through harmony”. The crest, designed by former mayor Jacques Viger and adopted in 1833, includes a rose (for the English), a thistle (for the Scots), a clover (for the Irish), and a fleur de lys (for the French). Viger designed the crest to in say that these peoples of four different backgrounds should and need to be able to live in harmony.

But what about the Indigenous Peoples?

In elementary school we are taught several of the myths and legends from the Indigenous cultures in our local areas. At my school, we were taught how to make moccasins and were bussed out to Saint-Marie-Among-the-Hurons to see an “authentic native settlement”. Efforts were made to make sure our nearly 100% school population was aware that the Indigenous Peoples were here first and were important, but it was cursory and has me now scratching my head wondering what to say next.

I do not want to short change this important discussion, but I am also very conscious of the fact that I know far less about this part of Canada’s history, and thus am going to direct you towards resources that I believe will provide more useful information than I will. I am also very conscious of the fact that you are hearing about this history through my voice, and not the voice of an Indigenous person. And so, the last link that I am leaving you with below is one that will lead you to find Indigenous theatre artists talking about their work and their history.

I will, however try to provide a brief overview. The Indigenous peoples have been in Canada for over 12,000 years. So in the grand scheme of things, Europeans have been here for less than a twentieth of that amount of time. They had trade routes, settlements and communities set up long before the European colonists arrived. The French arrived first in 1534 (see my previous post for more European settler history), followed by the British. Both colonial powers set up alliances with the First Nations (the Indigenous Peoples) and formed commercial trade relationships, most notably the fur trade. Competition between various groups, as well as different goals and interests between the First Nations and the Europeans led to violent outbursts throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1701, France and forty First Nations groups signed the Great Peace in Montréal, a treaty that ended the attacks and promised sharing of the lands and resources. The fall of Québec in 1760 ended this treaty as the British overtook the French rule of what is now Canada. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 (enacted by the British) established procedures for all commercial dealings with the First Nations, including a statute limiting the purchase of land from a First Nation to the Crown and the Crown alone. This was the first document that publicly (and governmentally) recognized the First Nations rights to land.

Expansion of the colonies in the early to mid-1800s led to more and more land being surrendered by First Nations, leaving them with less access to hunting grounds and resources. They became dispossessed peoples on their own land. By the time of the War of 1812 the British saw the First Nations, who were prosperous and independent, as a threat, so they were satisfied with taking more and more away from them. In 1836 Sir Francis Bond Head established Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay as a reserve for First Nations peoples who had lost their land. This began the government’s not-so-subtle push to move First Nations away from “civilised” society and onto well-defined, colonially controlled reserves.

The First Nations are recognised in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, protecting their languages and their cultures. A charter of any sort, however, cannot protect their dignity and respect. Reconciliatory moves have been made, but we are still on the journey towards a place of mutual respect, acknowledgement and equality.

That being said, the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (ADDNDC – a division of the federal government) has put together some amazing resources that provide a good overview of the history of the First Nations, as well as information regarding the distinctions between the different aboriginal communities in the country, as there are almost as many unique groups as there are counties in the EU. Here is the link to their site: https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1307460755710/1307460872523.

As this is a theatre conference, I also want to link you to the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance of Canada (http://ipaa.ca/). There you can find information about current aboriginal artists, practices, and collaborations.

Finally, I encourage you to visit http://spiderwebshow.ca/cdncult and read the three short articles that make up Volume 3, Edition 5 of #CdnCult. They are reflections on indigenous performance practices and are written by artists and theatre practitioners that just participated in The Repast, a retreat at Manitoulin Island focussed solely on Indigenous performance in Canada. ** NOTE: These articles will be coming out tomorrow!!**

I hope that this provides at least a glimpse at this historical perspective. I hope that in my future blogs I can find a way to weave them together, as they should not live separately.

I also promise that my future blogs will be shorter. — A.B., dramaturg

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2 thoughts on “Indigenous Peoples in Canada: A vital piece of history that should have been included in my first post

    • Absolutely! Thank you for sharing. I am involved in the SWS project as well and we have worked hard to create a repository of resources for all theatre in Canada. If you have not looked already, check out performancewiki.ca. It is our (SpiderWebShow) new initiative and includes a map that visually plots the entries into the wiki as points on a map. It allows us to look at trends and also where theatre is being created. Through conversations with the indigenous community, we have included a category called “Here First”. You can see the description of the category on the map!

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