On Wednesday indigenous artists and community organizers lead the festivities across the country. In Montreal, there was the obligatory event at tourist-heavy Place des Arts as well as a celebration in Cabot Square, which is perhaps quainter, but much more organically attached to Native Montreal.

“There is a very strong native presence across the city today, but it just reminds us of the importance of this presence 365 days of the year,” said Quebec minister for Native Affairs Goeffrey Kelley in a short address to the crowd at Cabot Square.

All afternoon, Cabot Square was alive with Hoop dancing, traditional singing and rock music. Spectators could also visit various booths to try their hands at indigenous crafts, stop by the reading tent or buy handmade jewelry or clothes.

Performers from all nations

For Alexandra Loranger, the co-host of the event and a specialist in indigenous rights, celebrating Indigenous Day in Montreal is all about sharing and learning from one another. “It’s important for me to be here today to be able to celebrate my identity and at the same time to discover others,” said the Attikamek jurist, underlining the diversity of the artists present.

Moontee Sinquah and his two sons came all the way from Arizona to open the show with an impressive spectacle of traditional hoop dancing, immediately attracting a supplementary crowd of curious onlookers.

The notorious Buffalo Hat singers continued the show with more traditional music. Aidan Thorne and Antopola performed calmer, more modern sets.

One of the highlights of the show was Kelly Fraser, a young Inuk singer from Nunavut, who brought the crowd to their feet with a pop mixture of English and Inuktitut. The Mohawk group Corey Diabo Band closed the show with a lively rock performance.

“It’s so beautiful to see so much people and so much pride,” commented Aidan Thorne, a Concordia student from the Cowichan First Nation in BC. Thorne, who also goes by the name of Little Fire, describes his music as Canadian soul.

One day a year

For Toronto native and member of the Ojibwe Nation Cedar-Eve Peters, it was beautiful to see all the diverse native cultures represented and celebrated for one day of festivity. It was also a harsh reminder of their unnatural erasure in everyday life.

“Living in Montreal or Quebec, I find that people get more blatant with racism, so when we have events like this it’s great because we have people from all walks of life come through and they are actually genuinely interested in what’s going on,” she said.

Indigenous Day is a rare opportunity for her to sell her own crafts and jewels, while enjoying the various performances of other indigenous people. “It’s a good day to share that knowledge and to keep traditions alive. It’s great, but I don’t know, I feel like there shouldn’t just be one day of the year of recognition. Every day of the year we still exist.”

Alexandra Lorange agrees that there is a lot to be done in the city and the province to keep Native people out of oblivion on the other 364 days:

“I tell myself we’re taking small steps, slowly but surely… but I do think we’re behind and we could do a lot more. We could see [indigenous culture] on a more equal footing, and not from the perspective of a majoritarian society that allows a small moment for native people to be there.”

She believes that the media have to do their part to get there, and start covering indigenous affairs in their entirety, not just their problematic parts. “Today, all the mainstream media – at least on the anglophone side – have received the invitation and they are not here,” she noted, “that’s a real shame, because it’s something very constructive that is happening.”

Jules Beaulieu, who was also selling his own creations in the square, commented on the common erasure of Native history. “I’m here because for me, it is important to remember that indigenous people have been here for a long time. 150 and 375:  that’s European, people have been here for ages,” he remarked, referring to the summer-long celebrations for Montreal’s 375th  and Canada’s 150th anniversaries.

In an effort to reclaim the Native history of Montreal, Marie-Ève Drouin-Gagné from the ethnography lab of the Milieu Institute at Concordia began a project of photovoice in which indigenous users of Cabot Square are invited to tell their own stories about the square through photos and captions: “The idea was also to go with the 375th; saying  this is kind of a colonial narrative. So what about making some space for other narratives that are often untold?”

Today is not National Indigenous Day anymore, but indigenous people are still here. And we should all find a way to keep in mind that their identity is not a Christmas decoration to be put away until next year’s holiday.

Of all the groups in the Canadian Mosaic, none has been more cheated and worse treated than our First Nations. First Peoples is the generic term applied to all indigenous communities in Canadian Territory and First Nations encompasses all except the Inuit and Metis.

They make constant headlines due to their mistreatment by police, activism, and health crises. Their most recent headline, however, was about the Trudeau government’s budget for 2016.

In the proposed federal budget the government promised eight point four billion dollars over five years to help Native communities. The budget also included an additional two billion for First Nations’ water and wastewater systems and two point six billion for primary and secondary schools on reserves.

National sentiment about First Nations people varies. In primary and secondary school students are taught the myth of the “noble savage” and the magnitude of what governments did to the First Nations – what we now know as “Cultural Genocide”- is glossed over.

But this article isn’t about how abominably Canadian and provincial governments have treated First Nations. It’s not about how residential schools run by religious institutions systematically ripped Native children from their families and attempted to wipe out their language and religion through abuse.

This is about Native Rights.

Territory covered by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975
Territory covered by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975

The rights of Quebec’s First Nations stem primarily from The Royal Proclamation of 1763, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975, the Constitution Act of 1982, the federal Indian Act of 1985, and a few Supreme Court cases.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 ended a war between Britain and France. As part of the ensuing treaty, France ceded all of its Canadian colonies to Great Britain. The Proclamation put Canada’s First Nations under protection of the Crown and reserved any land not included within the newly acquired colonies or Hudson’s Bay Trading Company’s territory for their use.

Anyone who settled on this land had to move and no one could purchase land from the Natives except the British government. If the Natives agreed to a land sale, the sale had to be finalized in a public assembly, the purpose of which was to ensure the legitimacy and prevent “dissatisfaction” and “reasonable cause of discontent” among indigenous people.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975 was an Aboriginal land claim settlement. It was negotiated in 1975 by the Quebec government between itself, the federal government, the Quebec Hydro Electric Commission, the James Bay Energy Corporation, the James Bay Development Corporation, and the Cree and Inuit. Another agreement in 1978 included Quebec’s Naskapi Indians in a similar treaty.

The purpose of these was to ensure Quebec’s dominion over lands in the north. It created three classes of land: Category I – consisting of lands reserved exclusively for the use of Quebec’s Native Groups, Category II – lands in which Natives have exclusive hunting, fishing, and trapping rights but “no special right of occupancy” and Category III – which made up the bulk of the territory in the agreement and did not grant Natives any exclusive rights except sole rights to harvest and trap certain species.

Though one of the alleged goals of these agreements was to clarify the position of Native groups in the north of Quebec and ensure their survival, the language used suggests that it was more about asserting Quebec’s dominance over the land, people, and natural resources. The principal provisions of the 1975 Agreement frequently use the word “surrender,” a word that conveys a message of conquest not of union and mutual accord. The subtext is that Quebec’s Native communities are ceding all their rights to a larger, more powerful entity that wants the land and natural resources, and in exchange they get two hundred and twenty five million dollars to be paid over twenty years, as well as roads, social and medical services, and police forces.

The Indian Act of 1985 was an amended version of a discriminatory Federal law. The new law removed the discriminatory provisions and defines who is considered Native. Only those registered as Indian in the federal Indian registry are considered as such.

Eligibility is determined by parentage and membership in a recognized Band; for example, if you are a member of a federally recognized Native Band and/or have a parent who was eligible for registration, you can be registered. The law also defined the Reserves which are legally held by the federal government for the use and benefit of Native Bands.

The Constitution Act of 1982 guaranteed existing Aboriginal and treaty rights. Though Canadian law has made a lot of promises to Natives, authorities and individuals have made numerous attempts to usurp Aboriginal land. It took legal challenges for the authorities to officially recognize and acknowledge their rights.

In 1984 the Supreme Court of Canada in Guerin v. The Queen recognized that Aboriginal rights existed prior to the Royal Proclamation and Indian Act. The majority judges declared that Indian land was inalienable and the Crown is legally obligated to deal with the land in a way that is fair to the Indians. In 1990 the Supreme Court in R v. Sparrow said the Crown has to act in Natives’ best interests and must justify any legislation that infringes on or denies their rights.

Canada’s First Nations are still recovering from the institutionalized oppression they were and are still subjected to. Though Native women are disappearing left and right, the largely white police and RCMP are dismissive. It’s only thanks to public reports and ensuing outrage that the people sworn to protect us are finally taking the problem seriously.

A scandal involving police harassing and raping Native women finally forced the Quebec government to pay attention. It took reports on suicide epidemics and photos of grisly rashes on children in Native communities for the federal government to act. Though the laws are there to protect our First Nations, sometimes those sworn to enforce it need a kick in the ass.

And sometimes the threat of bad publicity is all the kick you need.