Canadian Aboriginal Art at the Senate

“Put simply, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples were here when Europeans came, and were never conquered.”1

The Aboriginal Peoples Committee Room in Parliament's Centre Block displays works of art produced by some of the country's best-known Aboriginal artists. These works are a testament to the diversity of their cultural identities and the contributions of Canada's many Aboriginal peoples, and speak to their continuing desire to have their ancestral rights fully restored, recognized and protected.

Aboriginal peoples have lived in Canada for many millennia. The earliest evidence of their presence points to their arrival as many as 20,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the descendents of the first inhabitants of this land formed many diverse societies. Even today, Canada has over 60 different Aboriginal peoples within three broad cultural groups: Indians (who comprise 11 language families), Inuit (who speak Inuktitut) and Métis (who use the Michif language). These peoples developed their own traditions of government and customs of law, and remained largely distinct and autonomous through the centuries, forming political alliances as they saw fit.

Early contact between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans, beginning in the 16th century, was generally peaceful. The new settlers understood that without the help of their Native allies, they had no hope of establishing themselves permanently. By the 17th and 18th centuries, however, disputes over the fur trade, among other existing rivalries, had generated conflicts between some Aboriginal peoples and the settlers. These tensions were further aggravated by the competitive colonial aspirations of the "old world."

After several unsuccessful initiatives to establish better relations between settlers and Aboriginal peoples, the governor of New France, Hector de Callières, successfully negotiated a treaty, The Great Peace of Montréal, signed in 1701 by 39 chiefs. It set out terms for the harmonious cohabitation of the Aboriginal peoples and the French colonists. By agreeing to accommodate the newcomers, however, these Aboriginal peoples unwittingly opened the door to the eventual breakdown of their cultural identity and way of life.

As the settlements of the new "Canadians" spread, the Aboriginal peoples retreated further and further from them, occasionally aggregating around settlers' villages, trying to maintain their customs amidst the increasing dominance of foreign ways and religions. Following the Seven Years' War, fought by England and France over the new colonies, the victorious English King George III granted all Aboriginal peoples his protection in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. In reality, his gesture did little to help the people it claimed to protect. Viral diseases, the introduction of alcohol and other disruptive elements that accompanied the colonists helped decimate Aboriginal populations. Their continued submersion in European culture led to the extinction of entire Aboriginal cultures and many languages.

The rapid pace of economic and social development in the 19th century had a devastating effect on Aboriginal peoples in Canada. In particular, it corrupted their special relationship with the land, a link that had always defined their spirituality and core identity. In growing desperation, some Aboriginal leaders went to political authorities for help - appealing, for instance, to Governor General Lord Elgin in 1848. Their petitions had little effect. On the contrary, the colonial province of Canada adopted legislation in 1857 that sought to "encourage the gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes."

Adding to the complexity of European-Aboriginal relations, a new Aboriginal people had emerged over the course of the 19th century: the Métis, then known as "mixed bloods" or "half-breeds," a distinct people with their own language (Michif). Born of marriages between Indians and French, Scottish and Irish settlers, their existence was at first consistently ignored by public authorities. In 1870, however, their leader Louis Riel succeeded in establishing the province of Manitoba, where Métis rights were to be guaranteed. The struggle of the Métis to maintain control over their territories culminated in the 1885 Battle of Batoche, where their revolt was crushed, an event that has left a lasting scar.

From time to time over the years of contact with Europeans, Indian leaders had been persuaded to sign treaties with various "old world" states and eventually, colonial governments. Unfortunately, these were rarely respected and often ignored altogether. The government of the Dominion of Canada, established at Confederation in 1867, continued this questionable practice. Even worse, it adopted the Indian Act in 1876, establishing a policy framework that limited Indian communities to reserve lands and aimed to assimilate them into the mainstream culture. This legislation was to dictate the government's treatment of Indian people for over 100 years, under the nearly absolute control of the Ministry of Indian Affairs. The Act forced Indians to adopt the band council political system, which splintered their societies into 650 communities scattered across the country. Under this system, they had few rights; until 1960, they could not even vote.

A series of policies following the passage of the Indian Act worsened conditions for Indians. In 1884, the government amended the Act to prohibit the potlatch, a ceremonial ritual that provided an opportunity to assemble clans and confirm lineage. Many sacred artifacts and objects associated with the potlatch were confiscated, destroyed or given away by the authorities before the clause banning the tradition was repealed in 1951.

In 1892, the federal government began to follow a policy of forced assimilation of young Aboriginal children. With the support and cooperation of churches, it removed Indian (and, from the early 1960s on, Inuit) children from their families and placed them in residential schools, where they were forced to abandon their language, their spirituality, their identity and their family ties. In the end, nearly 150,000 youth were taken from their families and sent to these schools.

In 1927, an amendment to the Indian Act compelled Indians to obtain the permission of federal authorities before bringing their land title claims before the courts. This effectively prevented them from claiming land that had been promised, but never allocated, under the terms of their treaties with Canada. Despite this history of mistreatment, Aboriginal peoples have always participated in the defence of this land, whether in the 1760 battles between France and England, in the 1775 and 1812 conflicts with the United States, or in the 20th century's First and Second World Wars.

The year 1982 marked the beginning of a recovery of full ancestral rights for Aboriginal peoples: it was the year the new Constitution Act was proclaimed. Section 35 of the Constitution clearly states that "the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed." This guarantee, which applies to Indians, Inuit and Métis, goes far beyond the protection of rights promised in the 1763 Royal Proclamation.

Since this historic constitutional change, Aboriginal peoples have gradually been regaining control of their own cultural identities, governance and lands, often with the support of judgments from Canada's highest courts. In 1998, the federal government took one step forward when it announced that "[t]he Government of Canada … formally expresses to all Aboriginal people in Canada our profound regret for past actions of the federal government which have contributed to these difficult pages in the history of our relationship together" and pledged to compensate the victims. In 2006, the government reached a financial settlement with Indian, Inuit and Métis representatives in partial recognition of the damage it inflicted through years of oppressive assimilation policies.

In June 2008, the Prime Minister offered an official apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to former students of Indian residential schools in a solemn declaration in the House of Commons. The government recognizes that the treatment of children in these schools is a sad chapter in our history and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been established, which will hear the testimonies of the victims and define the principles of a new and lasting relationship based on mutual faith and confidence.

A land claims settlement process has been in place since 1982, designed to resolve age-old disputes. It was under this process that Nunavut, a new and separate territory largely controlled by Inuit, was created in 1999. The healing continues.

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1 Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests), [2004] 3 S.C.R. 511, 2004 S.C.C. 73, at 25.

The Senate is grateful to the Canadiana Fund for the loan of these works of Aboriginal art donated by the Honourable Serge Joyal, Senator, P.C., O.C., to the Crown Collection for Official Residences. Established in 1990, the Canadiana Fund enhances Canada's seven official residences, as well as the Parliament Buildings, through donations and loans of historical furnishings, paintings and objets d'art.

The inuksuk was donated by former Senator Willie Adams. www.canadianafund.ca

All efforts have been made to respect the copyright of the works reproduced in this website.

 

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