Jacques Cartier, Stephen Harper & Idle No More

Cartier's cross, 1534


So there's this story about Jacques Cartier. He was a French explorer, of course, one of the very first Europeans to ever come to Canada. At the end of his first trip here, he erected a cross on the Gaspé Peninsula, as a way of claiming the land for France. They say that's how he met Donnacona.

Donnacona was the Chief of Stadacona, a village around where Québec City is now. When the French erected their cross, they noticed that the Chief seemed kind of annoyed by it. So Cartier decided to trick him. The French made signs as if they wanted to trade with the Chief — and when Donnacona got close enough to their ship, they trapped him, forcing him and his two sons on board. Eventually, they came to an arrangement: the sons would sail with Cartier for France. They would learn French. And then, after the winter was over, they would return to the New World with Cartier — where they would be his guides

So that's what they did. In 1535, Cartier came back with the sons in tow. They showed him where the St. Lawrence was (he'd totally missed it on his first trip) and took him to Stadacona, their village. In fact, when Cartier heard their word for village, he thought they were talking about the entire area around them. Five hundred years later, we still call this place by the name Cartier put on his maps after hearing it from them: Canada.

Cartier was pretty excited. He had "discovered" the St. Lawrence. The whole point of his trip to the New World was to find a trade route to Asia. This giant river seemed like a promising lead. But for good reason, Donnacona and his sons didn't trust the explorer. So they stayed behind while he sailed further upriver.

It seems Cartier went too far. He was supposed to sail home for France before winter, but when the snows came and the river froze, he was still here. In fact, he and his men were trapped in a spot not far from Stadacona. They would be forced to stay there until spring.

This was very bad news. The Europeans weren't equipped to deal with a Canadian winter. They had no idea how to keep themselves alive. As the days dragged on, the men fell ill.

"The sickness broke out among us accompanied by the most extraordinary symptoms," Cartier wrote. "For some lost all their strength, their legs became swollen and inflamed, and all had their mouths so tainted that the gums rotted away down to the roots of the teeth which nearly fell out. The disease spread among the three ships to such an extent that in the middle of February, of the 110 men forming our company, there were not 10 in good health."

They had scurvy. But the Frenchmen didn't know that; Europeans didn't understand the disease. So instead of being able to treat their illness, all Cartier and his men could do was to pray. And so they did.

"I gave orders for all to pray and to make orisons and have an image and figure of the Virgin Mary carried across the ice and snow and placed against a tree... and issued an order: that on the following Sunday mass should be said at that spot, praying the Virgin to be good enough to ask her dear son to have pity upon us. At that time, so many were down with the disease that we had almost lost hope of ever returning to France..."

It was Donnacona's sons who saved them. They knew all about scurvy and how to cure it: with a tea from boiled cedar boughs. While Cartier's dying men refused to drink it at first, they were eventually convinced. The first to try it felt better right away. After two or three cups, Cartier says the sailors were cured. Twenty-five men had died of the disease, but the rest were going to make it.

Cartier & Chief Donnacona
Cartier assumed it was his prayers that had done the trick. The quick recovery of his men, he wrote, "must clearly be ascribed to miraculous causes... God, in his infinite goodness and mercy, had pity upon us." It would be hundreds of years before European scientists figured out what caused scurvy and how to cure it. The big breakthrough didn't come until 1932. Those cedar boughs were full of vitamin C.

Cartier wasn't exactly grateful for what Donnacona's sons had done. He answered their kindness with more trickery. When spring came, he organized a great feast on board one of his ships. And he invited Donnacona, his sons, and some of the other Stadacona villagers to attend. They were reluctant and suspicious, but they came. As soon as they were on board, Cartier took them prisoner.

This time when Cartier sailed back to France, he had ten First Nations people with him: the kidnapped villagers and some children he'd been given as "gifts". Donnacona was presented to King François — he regaled the monarch with wondrous tales about the riches to be found in Canada. But no matter how much he begged and pleaded, he would never be allowed to return home to his friends and family. None of them would. We know for sure that nine of them died within a few short years. The tenth, a little girl, has disappeared from the historical record.

Cartier, on the other hand, did go back to Stadacona. When he got there, he lied about what had happened. He told the new Chief that Donnacona had passed away, but that the others were rich and happy. It didn't do any good, though. Built on a foundation of mistrust, the relationship between Cartier and the Iroquoians of Stadacona quickly deteriorated. Soon, they would be at war — the first of many between the French and Iroquois-speaking nations over the next 200 years.

Stephen Harper & Chief Fontaine (via)

Now, it's 2013. It has been 478 years since Cartier spent that winter on the St. Lawrence. The story of his relationship with Donnacona comes from a very different — and much more racist — time. A lot has changed over the last five centuries.

But maybe not as much as we settlers would like to think. After all, as absurd as it seems, it was the official policy of the Canadian government to forcibly remove First Nations children from their homes until very recently. The last residential school didn't close until 1996. The entire system was founded on the idea that the First Nations should be taken far away from their ancestral homes and forced to assimilate. They, like Donnacona and his sons, would be forced to learn French, or English, and to leave their own cultures behind. The aim, as one government official put it, was to "kill the Indian in the child." Frequently, the child was killed too. In the 1900s, children at residential schools died much like the villagers Cartier took to France in the 1500s did. Many were also physically and sexually abused, sterilized, and experimented on. To be fair, there was some progress over those 400 years: the mortality rate in residential schools wasn't 100%; it was more like 50% according to some estimates.

Thankfully, the Canadian government has finally stopped stealing children to be shipped off to school. In fact, a whole five years ago, the government admitted it was wrong. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons, even said these words: "assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country."

Or, to be more precise, he said: "this policy of assimilation was wrong". Those are my italics, because it seems like a particularly important qualification given that many people, even some of those who believe in the sincerity of Harper's apology, still believe that his ultimate goal is the forced assimilation of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Many people trace their concerns about Harper back to a man by the name of Tom Flanagan. He's one of Harper's former chiefs of staff, campaign managers, and writing partners. The Walrus once called him "The Man Behind Stephen Harper"; one former Reform Party colleague calls the two men intellectual and philosophical "soulmates". In many circles, Flanagan is best known for his book First Nations? Second Thoughts, which lays out old colonial arguments in favour of assimilation. "Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen," he wrote in that book. And he followed it up by claiming that assimilation is "historically inevitable," "now largely accomplished, and will remain the basis of Canadian society." (He is also known for his suggestion that Julian Assange "should be assassinated" and, according to The Walrus, once had a book removed from an approved list of high school textbooks because of "'racial, religious, and sex bias' against women and Jews." More recently, he made national headlines after controversial comments questioning the idea of jail-time for people who view child pornography.)

Of course, just because Flanagan believes something doesn't necessarily mean Harper does. But since he rose to power, Harper's policies do seem to be following an assimilationist script. He has made it easier to break up reserve lands so they can be sold off or leased for development. First Nations health care funding has been cut. Overall spending per capita is falling too. The salaries of federal bureaucrats are taking up more and more of what little money is left. The housing crisis is getting worse. Just one year after he made his residential schools apology, Harper stood in front of the G20 and claimed in the face of 500 years of evidence to the contrary, that Canada has "no history of colonialism". His government echoed that claim again just a few weeks ago in the Throne Speech,  praising Canadian pioneers for "forg[ing] an independent country where none would have otherwise existed." The government is currently refusing to release residential school documents to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. They cut all funding for a database compiling information about hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women. And when 144 countries voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canada was one of the four countries who voted against it (although Harper did eventually back down and sign on). At the same time, giant omnibus bills like C-45 have gutted environmental regulations, making it easier for oil and gas companies to exploit ancestral lands — while making it harder for Indigenous people to live off them.

Residential school students in the 1950s
In short, since he first came to power in 2006, Harper has already made it harder for the First Nations, Inuit and Métis to maintain their unique and distinct cultures.

Meanwhile, the echoes of the forced assimilation that began with Cartier in 1534 are still being felt in First Nations communities today, in cycles of poverty, violence, suicide, and substance abuse. As a result, more First Nations children are "in care" now than ever before — more even than at the height of the residential school system.

Still, the Harper government seems to blame those problems on some kind of inherent cultural flaw rather than seeing them as the result of hundreds of years of brutal systemic discrimination. That attitude was evident in the federal government's reaction to the crisis in Attawapiskat. The Conservatives blamed the state of emergency on the reserve's leadership and tried to impose outside management. Never mind that Attawapiskat, like many reserves, was already co-managed by a federal bureaucrat — or that their audits are continually monitored by the government. A Federal Court declared the government's response to be "unreasonable". In fact, Canada's former Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, reported that there is too much oversight of spending on reserves. A study of First Nations audits found less evidence of fiscal wrongdoing on reserves than in the governments of the average Canadian province or municipality.

And yet, Harper's paternalistic, colonial ideas aren't limited to his own government and allies. The problem is much bigger than one Prime Minster or one political party. In fact, assimilationist arguments are considered to be remarkably mainstream. Both Conservative and Liberal federal governments — as well as some provincial ones — have used Tom Flanagan as an expert witness in order to oppose First Nations land claims in court. Before his child pornography comments, Flanagan was a frequent "expert" guest on news programs and wrote editorials for newspapers. His ideas are echoed not just by the rants of racist online commenters, but in the columns of some of Canada's most respected journalists.

Chelsea Vowel, the Métis writer and lawyer, recently compiled some examples of anti-Indigenous racism in the mainstream media, while pointing to a study that found the same arguments being made today as in 1869. "[W]e literally see the same arguments being made year after year after year," she writes. Distortions, half-truths and outright lies are repeated over and over again. And they've been successful in their attempts to sway public opinion. A recent poll found that 60% of Canadians believe, despite the evidence to the contrary, that "most of the problems of native peoples are brought on by themselves." That's up from 35% in 1989.

It seems that far too many 21st century Canadians see the First Nations, Inuit and Métis in much the same way Cartier saw the Iroquoians of Stadacona back in the early 1500s: as people who must be assimilated for their own good; as primitive curiosities stuck in the past; as an obstacle to progress; as people with a culture colourful enough to parade before the King of France or at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, but with nothing more important than that to offer the modern, European world.

Idle No More

Jacques Cartier wasn't the only European who came to Canada. He was, of course, followed by hundreds and then thousands and then millions more. And while there have always been plenty of settlers who saw Indigenous people in much the same way Cartier did — as "heathens" to be "civilized" — others saw things differently. In a new world they didn't entirely understand, some realized how much they could learn from the people who already lived here. The curative powers of cedar tea were just one contribution to a period of immense learning.

As John Ralston Saul points out in his book, A Fair Nation, some new Canadians didn't just see the First Nations and Inuit as peoples to be conquered; they saw them as civilizations worth engaging in a partnership. For 200 years, the fur trade was the foundation of the Canadian economy and the driving force behind European settlement in the northern half of the continent. Many newly arrived Canadians lived far from the growing cities of the east, in close quarters with the First Nations and the Inuit. From them, they learned how to live in this land: how to survive, how to travel, what crops to grow; they discovered shared values and new ideas. They were allies in business and allies in war. Some would form strong and lasting partnerships. Many even got married. In fact, it was the French government who first pushed the idea of intermarriage as a means of assimilation, but it backfired: many of the fur trappers who did get married chose to embrace Indigenous lifestyles and ideas. An entire new people came out of that period: the Métis.

So did an entirely new country. Canada would not be the nation it is today if it weren't for the contributions of Indigenous peoples — despite the myth of our having only two founding peoples: the English and the French. In fact, Saul goes as far as to say that many of the values we think of as modern, Canadian values — environmentalism, diversity, respect for the other — can be traced back to those centuries spent living with and learning from Indigenous peoples. He argues that Canada is, in a sense, a Métis nation. And that as progressive Canadians look for ways to embrace and support those values in the 21st century, it's important to be conscious of the debt those ideas owe to what Saul calls the "third pillar" of Canadian civilization.

Of course, there have always been Canadians who don't agree, who don't share those values, and who see multiculturalism as a failure: an unnecessary and dangerous compromise by whatever the dominant "Canadian" culture happens to be at the time. Instead, they look to the example of those old monolithic European empires: one nation; one people; one culture. And so, they said we could never form a country with the Québecois, that Catholics could never be trusted, that the Acadians needed to be expelled, that we needed a head tax on Chinese immigrants, that we needed to jail and deport all Canadians of Japanese descent and Canadians of Ukrainian descent, too. The day Canada became a democracy, they claimed we were betraying our superior British heritage and handing the country over to minorities. They were so angry, they burned the parliament buildings down. Many of our darkest days as a nation have come when too many of us agreed with those voices; our greatest days, when we've seen those voices for what they are — rooted in ignorance and fear — and we chose to stand up against them.

For centuries now, when it comes to the question of our relationship with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis, far too many of us have been listening to those voices. They are still there today, saying that the "Indian problem" is too complicated to be solved, that it's a cultural issue and a foregone conclusion — that there's nothing to be done but admit defeat and force Indigenous peoples to assimilate.

They're wrong.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763
In fact, there already is a plan. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples — launched by the Conservative Mulroney government and completed during the Liberal Chrétien years — spent five years and more than $50 million dollars doing research, meeting with experts and consulting with the public before coming up with a realistic path forward. It identified problems with the current reserve system and proposed solutions. It called for a new level of Indigenous government, a temporary rise in spending, and shared resource development based on the legal, nation-to-nation relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples. That relationship was first established by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982, and has been confirmed by one Supreme Court case after another since then. In 2005, Paul Martin's government even took the first step forward, negotiating the Kelowna Accord. But when Harper came to power, he cancelled it. Then he began to dismantle the existing system without building an improved system to replace it.

And so, last winter, his government's actions were met by Idle No More. It was the giant omnibus budget bill, C-45, that sparked it. Chief Spence went on hunger strike. There were protests at shopping malls, marches in the streets, railroads shut down, and construction sites occupied. The movement's website calls it "a peaceful revolution to honour Indigenous sovereignty." That alone would make it a worthwhile movement — the Canadian government has already gone far too long without living up to its legal, constitutional and moral obligations in its dealings with the Indigenous nations. But the website adds, "And to protect the land & water," which hints at the implications Idle No More has for all Canadians. Even the most selfish settler stands to benefit.

For one thing, Harper's attacks on the rights of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis are part of a larger attempt to remove any and all obstacles to "resource development" — including large-scale extraction projects like the tar sands, fracking and open-pit mines. Bill C-45 was one more skirmish in that fight, a fight progressive Canadians have been losing. The Conservatives have gutted environmental regulations, denounced environmental advocates as radicals and terrorists, muzzled government scientists, slashed funding for environmental projects and sidestepped parliamentary oversight. That leaves the unique constitutional land rights of Indigenous peoples as one of the strongest and most effective checks on the Harper government's unprecedented power. Last year, the Financial Post reported that the First Nations were on "the biggest winning streak in Canadian legal history": 170 victories in the courts. At a time when climate change is becoming an ever-greater challenge, the importance of those land rights is a truly global concern.

"It is our responsibility to protect Mother Earth, to protect the land for non-natives too," one former Mi'kmaq Chief, Susan Levi-Peters, said just a few weeks ago. "My people are speaking up for everyone... People care about the water. People care about the environment. This isn't just a native issue." And it's true. A recent poll found that 62% of Canadians support a moratorium on fracking — 66% of people in Atlantic Canada. But it was Levi-Peters' Nation, Elsipogtog, who organized a peaceful, weeks-long protest against fracking on their ancestral lands in New Brunswick. They were the ones who drew attention to the issue, they were the ones at risk when the RCMP's camouflaged snipers moved in, and they are the ones who now, in the wake of the violence that followed, find themselves the subject of one racist media commentary after another.

Meanwhile, Indigenous people make up the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population and are younger than the rest of Canada, too: nearly half are under the age of 25. Ensuring those young people have access to the same opportunities and educational advantages as other young Canadians isn't just the moral thing to do (although it is) or the fiscally responsible thing to do (although it is), it will also unleash a vast source of human potential: new doctors and nurses, new artists and teachers, new ideas and new advances. Then there's the economic argument: one study [PDF] found those young people could be adding $400 billion to Canada's GDP before the end of the next decade.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms
But Idle Is No More is about more than that, too. The land and treaty rights of Indigenous peoples were enshrined in the same constitution as the rights of every Canadian — a successful attack on one of those rights makes it that much easier for other rights to be undermined or discarded. The Harper government has made no secret of its feelings when it comes to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms‚ ranging from ambivalence to outright contempt. Their attempts to undermine its importance come as no surprise and have ramifications for everyone who lives in this country.

Idle No More cuts to the core questions about what kind of Canada we want to live in. A Canada where all citizens are treated fairly? Where everyone has a voice? Where we seize the opportunity to learn from each other? Most Canadians are fiercely proud of our history of immigration and see our diversity as a strength. But this country is also home to scores of unique Indigenous cultures — cultures found nowhere else on earth — and for far too long, we've essentially ignored them, seeing their extinction as an inevitable side effect of progress. Or as a tragedy already complete.

But it's not too late. We still have a unique opportunity in Canada. And a unique history to guide us. While Idle No More has lots to offer politically, it's also a reminder of that cultural opportunity. If we, settler Canadians, want to take advantage of it, it will require our active effort. The true story of our nation's history — and of the current relationship between our federal and provincial leaders and the First Nations, Inuit and Métis — is not one the government has ever been anxious to tell. They won't do the work for us. We must also be idle no more.

Luckily, it's 2013; it will be easier for us to take advantage of that opportunity than it has ever been before. We can read Chelsea Vowel's blog with the click of a mouse. We can listen to Thomas King's Massey Lectures online for free. We can order his book, The Inconvenient Indian, in just a few seconds. Or have it shipped for free to our neighbourhood library. We can follow Vowel and Pamela Palmater and Hayden King and Wab Kinew and countless other Indigenous leaders on Twitter. We can stream panel discussions from The Agenda, or a free NFB documentary about the Oka crisis, or the entire CBC series 8th Fire. We can listen. We can learn. It's just the first, very small step, but the effort to take that step is barely any effort at all.

"Canada will not crumble and fall apart," Vowel writes, "if we become more honest and aware of the history of these lands and the incredible diversity of contributions by peoples from all over the world." She's right. In fact, Canada is at much greater risk if we don't.

In 1535, Jacques Cartier was too arrogant to realize how much the European world stood to benefit from Indigenous peoples. Nearly 500 years later, Stephen Harper and far too many other Canadians are making the very same mistake. We can — and we must — actively make the decision to see our country in a different light. To turn our backs on the worldview of Cartier and of Harper. To learn the unique lessons of our own history — and to make sure we never repeat the same mistakes again.


Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at adam@littleredumbrella.com.


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