It’s not surprising, then, that as the country marks the 150th anniversary
of Confederation, there is a widespread sense that any celebration of one
of the most successful societies in the world must be tempered by the conscious
acknowledgment that the rise of the nation created in 1867 has gone hand
in hand with state-enforced maltreatment of the people who were here first.
Fifty years ago, at Expo 67 in Montreal, the “Indians of Canada” pavilion was meant to be one more tribute to Canada’s accomplishments as a young, modern nation.
Overseen by federal bureaucrats, the exhibit featured a giant, stylized teepee at its centre. Native art murals dominated the exterior walls; a totem pole stood at the entrance. It felt familiar and safe to white Canadians. In Ottawa’s mind, it would highlight the success of the government’s long-standing policy of assimilation of “the Indian.”
Like those policies, it didn’t work out as expected. By some cosmic miscalculation, the feds allowed Indigenous Canadians to have a say in the content of “their” pavilion. And they wanted to tell a very different story. As a result, four million visitors saw the usual arrows and ceremonial headdresses, and photos of smiling Indigenous people working as loggers and miners.
But they were also confronted with images of unsmiling children in tattered clothing on impoverished reserves, and by a gauntlet of signs that challenged their comfortable delusions about Canada’s 240,000 Indigenous citizens.
Among the signs: “Too many Indians are poor, sick, cold and hungry.” “The white man’s school is an alien land for an Indian child.” “Give us the right to manage our own affairs.” Some visitors were angered. The government thought briefly about removing the signs but decided not to, after the media reported on their existence.