The film excerpts in this theme show the devastating effects of European colonialist policies on Aboriginal peoples. They also show acts of racism in which Aboriginal peoples have been victimized in their relations with whites.


Canadian Colonialism
by Taiaiake Alfred

Ask yourself: Do you know the name of the Native people in whose territory you live? You may not realize it, but your home is built on land that has been occupied and used by Native people for thousands and thousands of years. Most people in Canada do not perceive themselves as newcomers to an ancient land that was civilized by people thousands and thousands of years before the French, British and others arrived. This is a serious problem in our society. What it means is that most Canadians do not know the history of their own country; they are in the dark about the past and the present, because after all, we create the present based on our understanding of the past.

Iroquois (Onondaga) Village Attack by French and Huron Allies, 1615
Iroquois (Onondaga) Village Attack by French and Huron Allies, 1615
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, C-36647
Canadian Heritage Gallery, #10071

What kind of present are we making when such an ancient and important part of the story of our country is left out? What’s more, every one of the Indigenous nations who occupied this land before there was a Canada are still alive. They are living people and cultures and communities. It is often said that without understanding each other we cannot respect and coexist peacefully. Distrust, hatred and racism grow in an environment of ignorance. If this is so, we have a long way to go as a society before we can stand proudly and proclaim that we are free of these scourges and that original people and newcomers understand and respect each other as they prepare to face the future together.The vast majority of Canadians have little direct experience with Indigenous people either in their personal lives or as communities. Most people in Canada understand very little of the realities of Indigenous peoples’ lives, the challenges they face, or the history of interaction between Indigenous peoples’ ancestors and their own ancestors that have created these realities. If anything, Canadians have a sense that there are “Native people” or “Indians” who lived here for a long time before the arrival of European and other settlers, and later immigrants to this country. But that’s it – as if Indigenous peoples are a part of the past and the history of this country but not its present! In place of the true facts of past and present, Canadians are taught in school and in mainstream culture a version of history that is basically one side of the story. It is as if there were an argument taking place in your school hallway and you were allowed to hear only one person’s words and not the other’s! And that’s just not fair, either in the hallway or in the history classroom. It’s important to have all the information and to hear all sides of a story.

Ignoring the past and the voices of Native people is what “colonialism” is all about. Colonialism is the disconnection of Native people from the land, their history, their identity and their rights so that others can benefit. It is a basic form of injustice in the world, and has been condemned as a practice by the United Nations. Yet, we have never acknowledged that Canada was built as a colonial country and that it is, in fact, still colonial in many ways. And we have very little understanding of Native peoples’ efforts and struggles to survive in spite of colonialism, what is called “Native resistance.”

Amité Lubicon-Québec in Support of Lubicon Lake Cree of Alberta
Amité Lubicon-Québec in Support of Lubicon Lake Cree of Alberta

Courtesy of Windspeaker

Since the 1970s, the media spin regarding Native resistance has changed little, sticking to certain themes that build on colonial ideas and serve to make Native people look bad for standing up for their own existence and rights. The spin focuses mainly on violence and is rarely cast as an act of self-defence; rather, Natives are portrayed as criminals for protecting themselves and their lands, creating an image of the Native as being afflicted with violent mental sickness, when in fact they are people struggling to survive and defend themselves against cultural, political and physical attacks. Native people, particularly the youth, are portrayed as angry and inherently violent, prone to drug abuse, drunkenness, suicide, shootings, gang fights, assault and murder. These images are all part of the process of creating a false image and identity of the Native so that governments and corporations can make profits and keep control of the homelands the Native people have been cleared from – the same land you live on.

Ask yourself this question now: Can you live with the knowledge that you are part of a colonial system?

Canadians who believe in justice and in doing right by others must educate themselves about the past, present and future of their country as a colonial enterprise. It is only by gaining knowledge about Native peoples and of themselves that a person can have a vision of coexistence that lives up to the values that this society proclaims as fundamental: fairness, honesty, sharing and respect. The films from the National Film Board’s collection are a real tool in helping you to educate yourself and, in a sense, “decolonize” your mind. Learning to listen to the voice of Native wisdom with Ojigkwanong: Encounter with an Algonquin Sage will open your eyes to a whole new world view. In Forgotten Warriors you will come to understand the contributions of the Native soldiers who have always fought in Canada’s wars, in spite of the mistreatment their people suffered at the hands of the white man and the lack of recognition when they returned home. In such films as Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance and Is the Crown at war with us?, you will be shocked, perhaps, to see images of Native people today having to defend their land and their people from violent attacks by police and the Canadian armed forces. There are many more films in the NFB’s collection illustrating and informing the many aspects of Native life in the past and today. Take the time to watch and learn, and then take your new knowledge and make a real contribution to defeating colonialism and making Canada’s future one that we can all, Natives and newcomers, look forward to—living together in peaceful coexistence.

Taiaiake Alfred

Taiaiake Alfred

Taiaiake Alfred is a Kahnawake Mohawk educator and writer born in 1964. He has long been involved in the public life of his own and other Indigenous nations. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Cornell University and is the founding director of the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Governance Programs. His awards include the Native American Journalists Association award for column writing and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the field of education. Taiaiake’s publications include three books: Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors and Peace, Power, Righteousness from Oxford University Press, and Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, from Broadview Press.

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