Strangers on our own land

Each year as Canada Day approaches, I reflect on my tenuous relationship to this Nation State.

It’s complicated, it’s ugly, it’s rife with conflict.

It’s also beautiful and loving. I cherish those I have had the opportunity to meet and teach. I cherish the relationships I’ve created over my four decades of life.

So this Canada Day, as you celebrate 150 years of Confederation — a number that has little meaning to Indigenous Peoples — I would ask you to reflect on what it means to be a Canadian. What your relationship is to the Indigenous Peoples of this land. And I would ask you to accept that while some of us reject the term Canadian, it does not mean we don't love the land or the people; nor do we believe you shouldn’t be proud of this country.

But consider what it means when your government throws around terms like “Reconciliation” and “partnerships”. Think about the burden that places on Indigenous Peoples, when “recognition” means we cannot really exist until the State tells us we do.

I was born the daughter of a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) woman, and a French Canadian/Irish/Scottish/German/Mi’kmaq father. I did not really know my father, and was raised in Kahnawake by my single mother, my grandparents, a gaggle of aunties and uncles, and a community of people who taught me the true meaning of what community actually meant.

My family have always been resisters.

In the early 1950’s, my great grandparents owned a farm that now sits underneath the St. Lawrence Seaway. My mother and many of her siblings and cousins were born in that home. When the government wanted to put in the Seaway, they displaced many of the people in our community without thought of the impact it would have — less land, families who had lived on these farms for decades losing the homes they had built with their own hands — and so when it came time to leave, my great grandparents resisted until they were physically removed by the authorities. Then the government blew up their house with dynamite and put the Seaway in place. My great-grandfather passed away the following year. Many say it was from a broken heart.

My grandparents were instrumental in the development of the Kahnawake Survival School along with many other families. They were also a part of the revitalization movement of the Longhouse in the 1960’s. My mother, an activist, spent many years marching in solidarity with her brothers and sisters, resisting land encroachment, education reform, and more. The first photos of me are of her carrying me in a backpack as she marched on the stairs of the Parliament building. I remember asking her once when I was a young girl what she was marching against in that photo, and she told me she couldn’t remember that specific event because there had just been so many. I’ve since lost that photo but I’m happy I have burned it into my memory.

I didn’t have the language to articulate what was happening to me. I knew Canada saw me as a terrorist. I knew my neighbours in Chateauguay and St. Constant saw me as a villain, and threw beer bottles at me when I went into those towns for years after. I knew being Kanien’kehá:ka was not safe.

I tell you this in part to teach you a bit about the history of my people, and to explain how I got to be the person I am today. As I tell my students each year, everything about me can be blamed on the generations of Onkwehonwe women before me who did their very best to be as inconvenient as possible.

The summer I turned 15, the Oka Crisis happened. It was the event that would shape me into the activist and educator I am today. Until that time, I lived in blissful ignorance, roaming in the bush behind my house with my brother and my cousins, picking berries in the summer and making snow forts in the winter. I remember going to school and being forced to take French classes, but those classes came at the expense of learning my own language, a sacrifice that remains a problem for my generation today as we are the least likely to be fluent Kanienkeha speakers. But it was a beautiful time to grow up, and the memories I have of my youth were amazing: filled with ceremony, family and love.

In the weeks before the Crisis, I had my first boyfriend. My first kiss. I was doing what every 15 year old girl does — drawing hearts in my diary, spending disgusting amounts of time on the rotary phone bolted to my kitchen wall and planning my summer at sleep-away camp.

I finally recognized I was living in a post-apocalyptic world. The life my people had known for generations ceased to exist and we were now trying to survive and reformulate ourselves in the face of colonialism.

And then July 11th happened.

My world as I knew it fell apart.

I didn’t have the language to articulate what was happening to me. I knew Canada saw me as a terrorist. I knew my neighbours in Chateauguay and St. Constant saw me as a villain, and threw beer bottles at me when I went into those towns for years after. I knew being Kanien’kehá:ka was not safe.

I watched the news and saw this beautiful community I grew up in being vilified by both French and English media.  

When people ask me what I felt that summer, I tell them I finally recognized I was living in a post-apocalyptic world. The life my people had known for generations ceased to exist and we were now trying to survive and reformulate ourselves in the face of colonialism.

We resisted when Canada demanded we send our children to Residential Schools, but the history books fail to tell the stories of hundreds of mothers and fathers who were arrested for leaving their communities, or the children who froze to death trying to run back home in the harsh winters without adequate clothing.

I do not call myself Canadian. I do not sing the National Anthem. I don’t consider myself to be a Canadian citizen; I am Onkwehonwe (Original Peoples) and my ancestors were here long before we called this place Canada. I struggle with this arbitrary border we’ve created between Canada and the United States. It traverses the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Confederacy) People. I do not believe in symbolic patriotism: songs and flags are not my symbols, actions are. Mostly, I recognize the sacrifices made by Indigenous Peoples are the birthplace of these symbols.

I love Canada. I love Quebec. I love Kahnawake. I cannot pledge allegiance to a foreign system that does not recognize the genocide it was built on. Canada, for me, is not an inclusive place because I cannot be sovereign and still call myself Canadian. Sovereignty for me does not mean I want to create a new country; what it does mean is that I want my people to be able to self-govern, and for my rights to exist beyond the boundaries of my Reserve.

Canada has always had a contested history with Indigenous Peoples. Social media over the last few years has given a greater voice to my Native brothers and sisters, but we have always been fighting for our rights, from the time missionaries came to convert us, to the building of the first Residential Schools, to the implementation of the Indian Act (and the subsequent White Paper Policy and Red Papers), to educational reform, resource extraction, Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and men. We have not sat idly by as governments imposed restrictions on our ability to leave our communities, or reminded us we are wards of the state when they refuse to put in infrastructures for clean water, housing, on-reserve education, emergency services, or medical help. We resisted when Canada demanded we send our children to Residential Schools, but the history books fail to tell the stories of hundreds of mothers and fathers who were arrested for leaving their communities, or the children who froze to death trying to run back home in the harsh winters without adequate clothing. We have always resisted, but we were not always listened to, and Canadians for centuries have turned their face away when we’ve asked for help.

Last winter, like every winter, I taught a course at a prestigious university whose own relationship to Indigenous Peoples has been complex and conflicted. I’m proud to say that it is changing in large part due to an incredible team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, staff, and faculty who have worked together to outline the major issues and find solutions to make restitution. The course I teach is largely about contemporary Indigenous Issues. We look critically at Indigenous issues in the news. Every semester I have a wonderful cohort of students who challenge me, and accept my challenges. Together we teach and learn something about Canada.

At the beginning of the term, I ask my students to reflect on what Chelsea Vowel writes in her book, Indigenous Writes (which you should definitely read if you haven’t!), about the “gift of citizenship”. I want my students to think about what it means to be Canadian, whether they are Canadian, Immigrants, Refugees, Visitors, Indigenous, Settlers, Descendants of Slaves, People of Color, White-presenting, etc. And once they figure out what these gifts are (human rights, passports, education, land, and more), I challenge them to think about what it means to reject that gift of citizenship. If I state I am not a Canadian citizen, what does that mean? What do I lose? Am I still recognized by the Nation State as someone with rights, including the right to protected from this foreign government? In what way have we benefitted, and in what way have we lost, from colonial encroachment?

This workshop is eye opening for my students. While many of the Indigenous students have been reflecting on this all of their lives, the discussion that ensues allows them a chance to voice their concerns in a safe environment as well as a chance to consider what relationship they have to non-Settler/non-Indigenous peoples. Simultaneously it also allows students who don’t self-identify as Indigenous to ask questions, learn, and think outside of themselves. This, along with their first assignment to learn about the Indigenous community from the territory their community/town/city occupies, gives students the chance to consider how they can make Canada a place in which Indigenous Peoples receive fair treatment, better services, and are invited to the political table as sovereign nations. This is my way of decolonizing — rebuilding relationships from the ground-up. Once I set those students down this path, it is my hope that each one will in turn share their knowledge with friends and family.

So this Canada Day, I ask you to reflect on what it means to be Canadian. What do you consider to be the gifts of citizenship, what makes this country special to you, and what sacrifices have been made by Indigenous Peoples for you to live here? Can you truly understand why many reject this “gift”, and is it really a gift, after all?

Sken:nen — In Peace and Friendship

Orenda K. Boucher-Curotte currently serves as the Coordinator of the First Peoples’ Centre at Dawson College, located on the unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territory of Tio:tiake (Montreal). In the past, she has taught at Kiuna Institute, the only First Nations College in Quebec, as well as both McGill University, and Concordia University. She is a solo-mother of two teenagers, Bear Clan from the Kanien’keha:ka community of Kahnawake, and part of a long line of Kanien’keha:ka women who have done their best to be inconvenient.