On Wednesday, Aug. 28, it was 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, following the March on Washington, which gathered somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 participants. I read his speech online, and was amazed at how powerful it was, even in print form. I would like to think things are better in America for most black people now. For starters, they have a black president, for the first time ever. But, I’m sure there are some who would list many of the ongoing struggles that continue.
I thought it might be nice to reflect on where First Nations people were in 1963, and how far we’ve come since then. I wasn’t around then, and wouldn’t be for another 16 years, so I’m drawing a picture based on what I’ve learned from history books, oral history and personal stories people have shared with me. Maybe you were there, and you were witness to what I’m about to share. But if not, that’s okay. It only takes a little imagination to picture Indian reality 50 years ago.
In 1963, Indians (that’s what they were called then) had only just gotten the vote three years earlier. They couldn’t vote in federal elections until 1960, unless they had previously renounced their status, thus being “enfranchised”.
In one of my history classes in university a white classmate of mine pointed out that white women and even women and men of other minorities got to vote before Indians. She remembered this because of the suffrage movement and how white women argued that they deserved the vote before Indians because they were the wives of the politicians and decision makers. So, First Nations people, that is, people who were here first, got the vote last.
And around the same time, it became legal for Indians to drink alcohol, but they could only do so on-reserve until 1970, when a court case made it legal for them to drink off-reserve (R. v. Drybones). Alcohol and legal voting, at the same time? Sounds fishy to me. Wonder which politicians used that to their advantage.
Let’s not forget that the residential schools were still up and running then. If you read the papers, then you’ll know that residential school students not only suffered mentally, physically, sexually and emotionally, but many were experimented on too. That’s not including all the kids who died and/or went missing as a result of residential schools. So, kids were stolen out of their homes and communities and sent to residential schools, or were taken during the ’60s Scoop (and ’70s Scoop), where they were forcibly adopted into non-Indian homes.
Indian parents faced jail time if they interfered with residential schools or the Scoops. But, Indians now had alcohol on reserve, so they could drink for solace. And of course vote, because who wouldn’t want to participate in elections for the kind of Canada they lived in?
As of the early 1950s they could also now legally participate in ceremonies on reserve, which had been outlawed following the treaty signings and the implementation of the Indian Act. But, with the racist Indian Act operating at every level to assimilate and “civilize” all the Indians, in the hopes they would eventually disappear, who could blame those Indians that were just a little too distracted to go to any ceremonies?
My friend’s dad told me that it was in the ’60s he took his wife on a first date. He had a good job, and he liked a pretty white lady, but even then he had to be very selective of where they would go because there were still places that wouldn’t serve Indians and had signs up saying so. It was an awkward reality that put a damper on their budding young love.
Over the next 50 years amendments to the Indian Act meant that those Indians who had been previously enfranchised or had involuntarily lost status were now granted Indian status again, but with gender clauses that caused even more disgruntlement, until a recent court case changed those discriminatory clauses (McIvor v. Canada). Off-reserve Indians could also now participate in reserve elections.
Residential schools were closed and an official apology was given by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Those who attended were compensated, with many of those who suffered serious mental/emotional/physical and/or sexual trauma still undergoing court cases today.
Land claims were also now allowed, following further amendments to the Indian Act. Many bands reassessed their reserve lands and fought for Treaty Land Entitlement monies to purchase land that had been promised to them in treaty, but never granted. Nunavut was created and the Nisga’a treaty signed, both as a result of land claims.
At all political levels, including reserve, provincial and national, Aboriginal people continue to fight for equality, but also to negotiate the original treaty agreements. Even at the grassroots level, Aboriginal people are organizing through such means as Idle No more, to bring about discussions and changes in a peaceful and proactive manner.
Since the treaty signings, Aboriginal people across Canada have been subject to a litany of racist and colonial policies and laws orchestrated by the federal government. Until those treaty promises are honoured, we will continue to see more and more court cases and Idle No More-type rallies and protests.
A First Nations Prime Minister would be a step in the right direction, if you ask me. Heck, I’ll do it. Where do I sign up?