How Indigenous people are rebranding Canada 150 -

How Indigenous people are rebranding Canada 150

The Canada 150 birthday celebrations could stand to be more inclusive of the Aboriginal experience. Vancouver is trying to make that happen.

A painting called "The Daddies" by artist Kent Monkman from his show Shame & Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. (Kent Monkman)

A painting called “The Daddies” by artist Kent Monkman from his show Shame & Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. (Kent Monkman)

Believe it or not, Indigenous people are responsible for salvaging Vancouver’s sesquicentennial bash. For a time, the city considered boycotting Canada 150. Two years ago, when Ottawa put the squeeze on the city to sign on to the grand jubilee, city staff registered serious discomfort. Exalting Canada’s colonial past two years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivered its calls to action seemed regressive, and potentially harmful to the city’s new relationship with local First Nations. Vancouver had recently designated itself a “City of Reconciliation,” 70,000 had marched in support of rapprochement and Deputy Mayor Andrea Reimer was learning Squamish. Staff came to her proposing the opt-out.

Reimer wasn’t opposed, but wanted input from the city’s Urban Aboriginal Peoples Advisory Committee first, she says. The nine-member panel, which advises city council on how to better include Indigenous people and perspectives in city life, came back with a different idea—one council unanimously approved: Why not celebrate the city’s Indigenous history and culture instead?

READ MORE: In time for Canada 150, a fight over ‘where it all began’

So Vancouver, whose Indigenous population of 53,000 ranks third-highest among Canadian metropolises—after Winnipeg (78,000) and Edmonton (62,000)—is doing just that, with a $7-million event it’s calling Canada 150+. The plus symbol—another Advisory Committee suggestion—was added partly to counter the enduring myth that Canada prior to contact was empty and in need of civilization.

So, far from being another hurrah for Canada, the event is deliberately challenging our collective amnesia. And it’s receiving federal funding to do so (costs are being split between the municipal and federal governments, as in other cities). Canada 150+ launches in English Bay in mid-July with a traditional canoe welcome, followed by a nine-day arts festival in Vancouver’s downtown. Nightly headliners include acts like Cree icon Buffy Sainte-Marie, but the focus is the history and culture of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, the three Coast Salish nations on whose unceded territories Vancouver is built. They have been here longer than the English have been in England. Their culture was thriving when Dublin belonged to the Vikings and Sicily was ruled by Muslims.

“We are taking a huge risk—we don’t know how the public is going to react,” says Ginger Gosnell-Myers, the city’s first manager of Aboriginal relations. She is Nisga’a and Kwakwaka’wakw, a cousin of another Kwakwaka’wakw powerhouse, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. Reimer, for her part, doesn’t seem to much care whether the event sparks controversy. Whether or not you have the compassion-based belief that Canada has a moral responsibility to change, she says, it’s clear the traumas of the past are crippling the present, financially and otherwise. “We need to start doing things differently.” And after all, Gosnell-Myers adds: “None of us is going anywhere. We have to learn to live together—in a respectful way, and in a truthful way.”

Underlying the work of the most expensive reconciliation project the city has ever undertaken is a multi-year attempt to re-root Vancouver in the culture of its earliest inhabitants. The next step, a process that could see key place names replaced with Indigenous ones, is potentially more controversial. “Bridges, streets and buildings” are all open to consideration, Reimer says. Emotions will run high, but many believe it’s time.

READ MORE: How you can celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary

Vancouver sits near the heart of Canada’s pre-contact capital. By the 18th century, twice as many lived in thriving, well-fortified villages of fishers, tanners, potters and toy-makers surrounding the Georgia Strait as in the rest of Canada combined (more, even, than in New York). But while some 200 B.C. place names commemorate the voyages of Captains Cook and Vancouver, who arrived toward the end of that century, there isn’t even a plaque to commemorate a smallpox plague that wiped out all but 10 per cent of B.C.’s Indigenous inhabitants—arguably the most significant event in the province’s history.

No surprise, then, that Canada 150 is spurring a creative outpouring among Indigenous artists to shine light on some of these painful chapters. “Remember, Resist, Redraw,” a cross-country poster project led by the Graphic History Collective, is putting an Indigenous lens on key events in Canadian history. #Resist150, a multimedia project led by Metis artist Christi Belcourt, features poems, shared histories and other “acts of resistance,” like the 150 traditional tattoos Belcourt is aiming to ink over the coming year. And the year’s most talked-about art exhibit, Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, which opened last month in Toronto, uses the sesquicentennial to ridicule and expand Canada’s rigid, national narrative.

Monkman, a Winnipeg-raised Cree artist, reimagines the grand chronicle, sometimes by inserting his flamboyant, drag queen alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. You’ll find Miss Chief, lover of Louis Vuitton and pink heels, in, for example, a cheeky send-up of Robert Harris’s famed portrait of the Fathers of Confederation. She’s nude, seated facing them, her legs akimbo. The men look on in horror, and in lust. He called it The Daddies.

It’s not all fun and transgression, though. In The Scream, a visceral comment on residential schools, Mounties and Grey Nuns tear Indigenous children from their mothers’ arms. Five spectacularly large oil portraits depict all the ways Winnipeg’s colonial history is infecting its future—the racism, violence, alcohol, despair. To Monkman, apparently, the sesquicentennial is synonymous with all that has been lost.

But his art—gratifyingly—is no longer truly subversive. A truer, less simplistic Canadian narrative is finally starting to emerge. It rejects the idea of 1867 as a starting point, acknowledges the country’s many sins and returns the Indigenous perspective to where it belongs: front and centre, as the best and most enduring part of the Canadian story—a tale that stretches back not 150 years, but 12,000. That’s the version Vancouver is hoping to tell.


How Indigenous people are rebranding Canada 150

  1. I suspect like me, many of your readers find this picture revolting, degrading and unacceptable to be included in anything that pretends to be a part of Canada’s past, present or future culture. If this is the direction our First Nations people are trying to take us, I’m not following.

    • Good. We’ll have more fun without your prig vote.

      • Wow, I’m with you there Em!

    • I think the picture appropriately gives us an image of how the land and it’s people (depicted by the woman without clothes) was viewed when white, male governments came here and were set up. Everything previously established here was just be taken and used.

      • in fact the nude figure is a man, this is a signature trick of Monkman’s paintings homoerotic cross dressing. Look him up you will see it appears in all his paintings.

  2. I would prefer that we have a more honest notion of our history – it’s certainly not the French-English pioneering adventure that colonial imperialism foisted upon us. Confederation was at best a hot mess lubricated by Sir John A’s boatload of expensive liquor and smooth blarney. Things might have worked out differently if JA had not had an idea to solve the problem of frequent Canada East-Canada West political deadlocks and perhaps push French Canada into minority. Nova Scotians soon began to feel they had been snookered and tried to get out of the arrangement, only being made to stay by a British colonial office weary of colonial wrangling. Ultimately, it took quite a while, and quite a lot of wheeling and dealing, to assemble all of the pieces into what is now Canada. Even then, Canada included a number of second class divisions called territories: it has ever been difficult for existing provinces to accept new ones.
    First Nations have for much of that time been an afterthought even though in colonial days they comprised a major component of military and political initiatives. Clearly, the saved our bacon during the wars of independence and 1812 but had been a tool of colonial power from the earliest days. However, things changed – not for the better for the aboriginals. For a start, provinces found federal government a convenient place to shed responsibility for this segment of their population which persists to this day where the fed provides services to a lower standard then the provinces and of course services and land use issues get caught in a tangle of federal-provincial chest thumping. BC in many ways is unique, partly because it had an intervening period of part colonial-part provincial status, entered confederation on its own terms (also, the case for several other provinces) and mostly did not engage in the treaty process (not necessarily a bad thing). Of course, the most laughably ignorant Canadian myths are of the great explorers who, from day 1, became famous for ‘discovering’ places that aboriginal guides lead them to as well as the myth of the fur trade which completely ignores the fact that aboriginal people had extensive trade networks much before: when Mackenzie went far west to investigate whether trading with remote aboriginal groups was possible, his synopsis was ‘we already are’. Perhaps we should start by pulling Canadian history out from between the covers of the comic book of British colonial history.

    • Geraldr

      Yes, the aboriginal people were there collecting and trading furs and exploring the land, and engaged in their own spiritual life long before the Europeans arrived, and eventually, they would have developed the land more and discovered the joys of technology on their own. The Europeans just hastened the process, bringing it from Britain and Europe.

      “The plus symbol—another Advisory Committee suggestion—was added partly to counter the enduring myth that Canada prior to contact was empty and in need of civilization” (Nancy MacDonald).

      No, it wasn’t that Canada needed to be taught to be civilized, by the newcomers. But sometimes, newcomers like to see it that way, that their way is better and that they have so much to offer and in fact, would like to make this vast country their own – like their own, rather than to have to adapt to it. Let this be a lesson to Canadians, of the harm that can be done.

      • Don’t go so far: not all aboriginal Canadians were ‘always here’ meaning in some specific place in what is now Canada. One obvious fact is that approximately 1/3 of the UE immigrants to Canada during and after the war of independence were aboriginal including 6 Nations, Potawatomi,Huron/Wendat, Deleware, Sauk, etc.. But an interesting and telling story is how the Mississauga with some help from Iroquois screwed Algonquin and Nipissing out of their traditional territory. We first start with the Iroquois from south of the lakes who engaged in a genocidal war into the far reaches of what is no Ontario, decimating and driving off the Huron, Petun and Fox and searching out Ottawa and Nipissing along the NE shores of Lake Ontario and up the Ottawa Valley all the way into Temiskaming country driving them inland into now Quebec and Ontario – this was the latter half of the 17th century. But then a compact of western bands orchestrated by Ojibway struck back and consequently a cohort of the group known as Mississauga ended up moving into the area along the NE shore of Lake Ontario in the 18th century just in time to sell off a swath of the land they occupied as well as much more to the north, most of which was traditional Algonquin territory. The Iroquois maintained the myth that they ‘owned’ much of the area by right of conquest and approved the deal at the request of the government; it didn’t hurt that they had received the Tyendinaga reserve as part of the deal and were also able to winkle a lot of traditional Algonquin and Nipissing territory near Lake of Two Mountains literally pushing some into the water and across the way into more remote areas. An important part of the story is that Iroquois and Mississauga were recent immigrants to southern Ontario and western Quebec, even relative to European immigration. The inequity spawned by this aboriginal immigration persists to this day and is well documented; the problem was known but the government was not up to dealing with intra-FN conflict, possibly biased by key civil servants being married (in some cases literally) to the Mowhawks.

  3. Perhaps; Kanata 150,000.

  4. As an Ontarian who was raised/educated in ignorance of the truth/reconciliation, I applaud any and all opportunities to recognize all of the history and struggles that have contributed to our Canadian journey. I welcome full inclusion of our indigenous/First Nations contribution and core values that respect our relationship to each other and the lands/environment that we steward. Now more than ever we need to recognize the core values we have in common as we face challenges to the scientific realities of planetary limits with our deficient economic/political paradigm.

    • Cathie Reid,

      I don’t know how old you are, but back in the day – pre the www, we had to read the daily newspaper, or learn it in school, or go to the library to search the shelves to find out anything. So it may not be that unusual to discover many of us were poorly informed about the history of Canada.

      I would like to tell you another side to the history of Canada, just to even things out.
      Over 50 years ago I was encouraged to take time to meet with a relative of my mother’s, in a city far from our own. I did so, at age 17 or 18, visiting with both the mother and daughter. The husband/father had long since died, but I don’t recall inquiring further. Just a few years ago, I looked the relative’s name up, and discovered that her husband had died at Vimy Ridge, at age 26. I was astonished that this fact had escaped me, as well as the significance of Vimy Ridge. Meeting his widow brought it to me in a personal way, even though it was almost 50 years later. I was glad I had met her, and that I became aware of how the deaths of the soldiers affected the lives of their left-behind wives and children.

      I am not trying to diminish the history of the indigenous people, but do want to point out that back then, there probably weren’t very many of use who were aware of national turmoils, nor of how children were often treated in the world.

      I put up a web page about my Great Aunt, at

      Sydney Bevan, the young soldier who died, had been sent out to Canada as a Bernardo child, at the age of nine. Even among them, there were instances of abuse and mysterious disappearances. As with the children separated from their families so many years ago, it is likely true that the reason for their schooling away was filled with good intentions. But the ones who actually carry out the deeds are the ones responsible for harm done that was preventable. We can celebrated the ones who managed to learn and do good with the education they received, while still remembering the losses of those times, just as we remember Vimy Ridge.

  5. Despite what the article says about first nations population, mentioning Edmonton as third, it’s Regina that is third. “Regina has a relatively high aboriginal population as a proportion of its total population when compared to other Canadian cities. Aboriginal people make up 8.3% of the population of the CMA of Regina, making it the CMA with the third highest proportion of Aboriginal people, after Saskatoon and Winnipeg (9.1% and 8.4% respectively).” Minor point, good article though.

  6. To me that painting is a naked man in high heels sitting on a Hudson Bay blanket (White man Made) means nothing to me..

    • Natives had blankets of their own Joe…..this is a Hudson’s Bay blanket

      Paintings aren’t literal, they’re symbolic

      • Komarade E1 the Indians were a stone age people when the Europeans arrived they Hadn’t even invented the Wheel or the Loom how could they have made a blanket, Read a History book

        • Dear Komarade Stupid.

          Natives had no need for the wheel….they didn’t have horses.

          They hand wove blankets.

          Now stop reading racist sites.

  7. ” there isn’t even a plaque to commemorate a smallpox plague that wiped out all but 10 per cent of B.C.’s Indigenous inhabitants—arguably the most significant event in the province’s history”.

    That’s a shame. Are they waiting for the Liberals to put one up?

  8. That artist’s representation is attention-grabbing, but I wouldn’t want to see it inserted into the factual account of the history of the indigenous people.

  9. Where’d they hold the consultations? Downtown east side?

  10. It would be more honest of Vancouver City Hall to simply turn over the ownership of the whole city to the Natives. Sending all their tax money to the Natives would also be a great gesture. Declarations alone don’t do squat!