Skip to main content

Photography has been vital to past moments of Indigenous defiance to colonialism. Now, the subjects of historic photos look back and speak for themselves

On Nov. 28, 1980, Wenecwtsin – also known as Wayne Christian – arrived in Ottawa by train to confront Pierre Trudeau’s government over ignoring Indigenous rights as it began patriating the constitution from Britain. The former Kúkpi7 (Chief) of the Splatsin First Nation was not alone, but just one of nearly 1,000 participants who’d come aboard what became known as the Constitution Express – a travelling protest asserting that the treaties and agreements with the British Crown, going back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, should not be erased.

Of course, Wenecwtsin had already had his face-to-face with then-prime minister Trudeau earlier in the year outside the Stockmen’s Motor Hotel in Kamloops.

“We knew that the prime minister was going to be in town, or was having backdoor meetings, so we waited outside and he came out. He came right to me for some reason. And I just started to say, ‘Hey, you’ve lied to the world about us.’ And he just blew up. He just lost it. I was really quite surprised, actually, for a man that’s the prime minister of the country to just start ranting. He told me, ‘Who do you represent?’ And inside I was thinking, well, this guy only has two MPs west of Ontario. So I said, ‘Yeah, whatever. Who do you represent?’”

While the Constitution Express brought attention and awareness of Indigenous exclusion from the patriation process, it did nothing at the time to change the Trudeau government’s position. So the next year, Wenecwtsin travelled to Europe with a team of people from the Express to continue their lobbying.

“I had the opportunity to meet with Willy Brandt [former chancellor of West Germany], a friend of Trudeau’s,” he said. “Mr. Trudeau was going around the world talking of a north-south dialogue and what was being done to help poor countries. That was Canada’s stance in the world all the time. And I just told Willy Brandt about all the riches of Canada that had come from our lands and our resources and how they’ve been taken and stolen from us by the process of colonization.”

The international lobbying bore fruit. After extensive negotiations with Indigenous representatives, the Canadian government agreed in January, 1982, to enshrine section 35 in the Canadian Constitution, recognizing and affirming Aboriginal rights.

More than 40 years later, Wenecwtsin feels that the hard work of all those involved in the Constitution Express was well worth it. “It was recognition that Indigenous nations were part of the fabric that makes up this country.”

On Sept. 26, 1990, 14-year-old Waneek Horn-Miller and her four-year-old sister, Kaniehtiio, along with 50 others, emerged from the Onen’tó:kon treatment centre in Kanehsatà:ke, near the town of Oka, Que. This would be the end of what became known as the Oka Crisis – and it was a chaotic, violent last day.

The 78-day standoff had begun when the Sûrete du Québec (SQ), using concussion grenades and tear gas, moved in on the roadblock constructed by the Kanehsatà:ke Mohawks to halt development on land that has been claimed by them since 1761. As police pushed against the barricade, a brief gunfight broke out and SQ corporal Marcel Lemay was killed.

The crisis escalated rapidly, leading to Mohawks barricading the Mercier Bridge and Quebec’s then-premier Robert Bourassa asking the federal government to call in the Armed Forces. By the end of August, more than 4,000 armed soldiers formed perimeters around both Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawà:ke – an area known as the Pines. “It felt like it went on for so long,” recalls Ms. Horn-Miller, who was living in the treatment centre while her mother took part in negotiations. “I remember every time that we left the treatment centre, I felt my skin prickle. You knew people were looking at you and watching you and that guns were pointed at you and that photos were being taken.”

On Aug. 29, two days after negotiations led to the taking down of the Mercier Bridge blockade, the army began moving in on the Pines. Tensions escalated, and on Sept. 18, armed soldiers and the SQ invaded Tekakwitha Island, on the outskirts of Kahnawà:ke. There, they clashed violently with the Mohawks, 75 of whom – including children and elders – were injured, along with 22 soldiers.

But with the dismantling of the Mercier Bridge blockade, those at the treatment centre saw their last bargaining chip gone and came to the consensus that, in order to avoid more violence, it was time to walk out.

On the evening of Sept. 26, 16 women, six children and 30 men left the facility, taking the army, which had been anticipating forewarning about a surrender, by surprise. In the ensuing confusion, a soldier stabbed Ms. Horn-Miller, who was holding her sister, in the chest with a bayonet.

“[The soldier] was standing there with his giant gun. A young non-Native guy. That’s when Tiio must have looked up at him and saw his gun,” Ms. Horn-Miller recalls. “And she just started to make this horrific sound that I’ve never forgotten. It haunts me to this day. I’m a mom now and I know the sound of cries a child makes. I can differentiate between them. And this one is more than a cry. It’s primal – the sound that a child will make when they think they’re going to die.”

“It’s hard to look at it,” Kaniehtiio says, considering the photograph taken moments after the stabbing. “My heart breaks for little me and for my sister. It makes me angry. Angry at the country. Like, how am I supposed to feel? I’m still relatively young so it’s like a wound that is still there.”

Even though the issues that had sparked the Oka Crisis went unresolved, the defiance of those at Kanehsatà:ke inspired a new generation of activists, whose impact has reverberated since.

When four women organized a teach-in at the community centre 20 Station West in Saskatoon in November, 2012, they had no idea that the initiative they called Idle No More would inspire a viral hashtag, and an international movement.

The women – Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum, Jessica Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah McLean – had decided they had to do something in the face of what they described as a “legislative attack” on the rights of First Nations people. In particular, they were concerned with the Stephen Harper government’s omnibus Bill C-45, which lessened protection of waters and of the land.

From the beginning, the founders emphasized that Idle No More was not part of any political party or organization. They were also clear that they were not under the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations or any other Indigenous organization, declaring in a news release that they had a clear mandate from the grassroots to work outside the existing systems of government. Ms. McAdam Saysewahum went on to state that Idle No More was about peaceful protest and not any form of violent confrontation.

As the word spread through social media, Idle No More inspired flash-mob round dances in shopping malls and on the streets across the country – and soon internationally. The hashtag #IdleNoMore inspired a broad-based movement of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people concerned with Indigenous rights and the environment, leading only six weeks later to 4,000 people marching five hours to Parliament Hill, on Dec. 21, 2012, amid a full-blown winter storm.

For Ms. McAdam Saysewahum, who is now a law professor at the University of Windsor, addressing the crowd flanked by chiefs and other Indigenous speakers that day remains unforgettable. “By the end of the walk, my feet were just frozen. I couldn’t get warm enough. But there were thousands of people there and the one thing that I remember the most is how quiet it was. There were so many grassroots people and it felt like a collective prayer.”

“What’s stuck with me is my continued love for the land, the water and for the animals,” she says. “Then, and now, I’ll always be walking with those that have always been there and those that came before me. And looking back, I am still in awe of all of the power of the grassroots people to mobilize and come together like that day. … When I say grassroots people, I don’t exclude academics, I don’t exclude people who haven’t had the chance for an education. When I say grassroots it’s the people who care.”

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) was created in August, 2016, with a budget of $92-million to hold 24 hearings across Canada in order to discover why homicide rates for Indigenous women and girls are nearly six times higher than for those who are non-Indigenous.

Nikki Komaksiutiksak, an Inuk activist and organizer based in Winnipeg, was one of the 2,280 witnesses to testify during the inquiry. In 2002, her first cousin and throat-singing partner, Jessica Michaels, was found dead in Winnipeg’s West End at the age of 17. Both of the girls had been subject to abuse in the child welfare system, and Ms. Michaels had fallen into addiction on the streets of Winnipeg.

“She was in and out of group homes, and she got mixed up with a bad crowd,” recalls Ms. Komaksiutiksak, who refers to Ms. Michaels as her sister because they lived together since birth. “And someone was, like, pimping her out and had her hooked on crack cocaine and she just spiralled out of control. I had lost touch with her for a year or so, and when we connected back, when we were 17, she had said that, you know, she had seen a lot of things on the streets, and that she was scared and that she wanted to quit doing drugs. There were a lot of bad people that she was scared of, and she wanted to change her life around. And then a week later, she was gone.”

Ms. Michaels was found dead in a Winnipeg rooming house with an extension cord wrapped around her neck and an X-Acto knife in her hand. Winnipeg police ruled her death a suicide despite the way she had been found. In 2014, when Ms. Komaksiutiksak asked the RCMP to reopen the case, she was upset and frustrated to hear back from them only that a person of interest had died six years prior so there was no point in reopening the investigation.

When the National Inquiry into MMIWG released its final report, in which it called the continuing violence a “genocide,” it put forward 312 Calls for Justice to address the continuing crisis. For her part, Ms. Komaksiutiksak started Tunngasugit, a front-line organization helping Inuit transition to the city so that, she says, they can “feel a sense of community, a sense of belonging – something I never had growing up.”

On Jan. 7, 2019, Sabina Dennis stood with dozens of others as the RCMP, some armed and in tactical gear, moved in to dismantle the Gidim’ten checkpoint, which had been erected by supporters of the Wet’suwet’en clan Elders opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C.

The RCMP was enforcing a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court of British Columbia, which permitted work to start on the 670-kilometre, $6.2-billion pipeline. Though some First Nations groups, including the Wet’suwet’en band council, supported the pipeline, the Wet’suwet’en clan Elders were adamantly opposed to it crossing their traditional territory. The checkpoint, as well as another – the Unist’ot’en Camp – had been established in late 2018 along the remote stretch of service road to stop TC Energy’s workers from coming in.

As surveillance helicopters circled overhead that January day, 14 people were arrested. Ms. Dennis, an activist and mother of five, was one of them – although she was later released when the BC Prosecution Service announced it would not be laying any criminal charges.

“I had a heightened sense of perception that day, and I could feel the energies of not only the people behind the lines, those that had locked themselves down, but all the supporters and land defenders that were behind at [Unist’ot’en Camp] as well. I felt the energy and I sent out a prayer to the world through the camera lens.”

The dismantling of the checkpoints that day sparked solidarity protests across the country. On Feb. 6, the Mohawks of Tyendinaga began a rail blockade near Belleville, Ont., stopping all rail traffic between Toronto and Ottawa. Soon, blockades extended to Kahnawà:ke and the Six Nations of Grand River. By Feb. 13, Via Rail announced it was shutting down all service across the country. CN Rail soon did the same.

On Feb. 11, 2020, the RCMP announced that the road to the construction site was cleared and the Coastal GasLink project proceeded. It’s now 70 per cent completed, and expected to be finished next summer. But although workers are drilling underneath the Morice River on Wet’suwet’en territory, the Unist’ot’en Camp remains and so too do its supporters. They are determined that the project will go no further.

“All we’ve been through has taken its toll on our people, but it’s also infused us with a powerful presence,” says Ms. Dennis, who remains active in B.C. as an activist on the front lines of the land defence. “We’re doing this for the protection of our children and their children. And that means protecting mother Earth.”

When the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced on May 27, 2021, that it had uncovered, using ground-penetrating radar, the unmarked graves of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, it made headlines nationally and internationally. Soon, posters and T-shirts bearing the slogan “Every Child Matters” were seen across the country at rallies and vigils, while children’s shoes, teddy bears and toys were placed on the steps of Catholic churches. While that finding, and the similar ones that would follow, shocked many, others were not surprised. Murray Sinclair, chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had said as early as 2015 that at least 6,000 Indigenous children died while attending residential schools.

The negative intergenerational impact of the residential-school system – which lasted from 1831 until 1996 – is difficult to exaggerate. Both survivors and their descendants carry this trauma, and the road toward recovery of pride, kinship, language and culture can be long and tortuous.

“I went to residential school – actually one of the most notorious of them, Grollier Hall [in Inuvik, NWT],” Dene writer and artist Antoine Mountain recalls, looking at old photographs of the place. “Everything looks okay from the outside, and you know children make the best of what they can with things. But I know that on the inside, there was a very different kind of reality, like a tortured soul.”

Mr. Mountain, who was born 50 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and spent the first years of his childhood being educated on the land, was sent to Grollier Hall when he was 9, along with his seven-year-old sister, Judy.

Grollier Hall, which opened in 1959, was the site of some of the most horrific abuses recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Four supervisors have been convicted of sexually abusing children there, and at least 17 children died by suicide while at the school. In June, 1972, three boys – Lawrence Jack Elanik, Dennis Dick and Bernard Andreason – escaped and attempted to walk hundreds of kilometres home. Only Mr. Andreason survived the ordeal.

Mr. Mountain says “resilience” helped him endure the experience of residential school, and he’s since found hope and deliverance through his art and through regaining a sense of what it means to be Dene. In 2019, he shared his story in From Bear Rock Mountain: The Life and Times of a Dene Residential School Survivor.

In all, 150,000 were taken from their families and communities to attend the 130 residential schools across Canada. “Our people have been around here for up to maybe 30 or 40,000 years. And it’s because of this sense of resilience that we have survived,” Mr. Mountain says. “We are like the willow. We know we can bend but we also know we will not be broken.”

Paul Seesequasis, a Willow Cree who lives in the Yukon, is a curator and writer. His next book, Gaze, will be published in 2023.

Indigenous voices: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

What exactly does “land back” mean? Bruce McIvor, partner at First Peoples Law, explains the movement’s goals and what it might achieve for reconciliation in Canada. Subscribe for more episodes.


Tanya Talaga: How many reports will we ignore before we do the work that reconciliation requires?

Jody Wilson-Raybould: Here’s what true reconciliation looks like

Cassidy Caron: The Pope’s comments on genocide marked a turning point for Canada

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles