Celebrate, celebrate! This coming Sunday is National Indigenous Peoples Day! That is an official day to celebrate, recognize and honour the heritage, cultures and valuable contributions to society by First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

As Indigenous people, we celebrate our ability to survive colonization and to begin to once again thrive as peoples.

Most people know that the churches were largely responsible for Indian Residential Schools. But did you know that the Catholic Church was basically responsible for colonization? Eschia, take it easy eh.

Ya, that’s true; it started through Papal Bulls, or edicts made by popes, when the church was all-powerful.

In 1095, Pope Urban II issued the Papal Bull Terra Nullius, which gave European kings the right to “discover” and claim land in non-Christian areas. Pope Nicholas V issued Papal Bill Romanus Pontifex in 1452 adding to this.

According to the Papal Bulls, Christians had a God-given right to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.”

This became known as the Doctrine of Discovery and was the basis for Europeans to discover and colonize the Americas. It’s the legal basis for Canada’s existence.

At first, the Europeans depended on us for survival, recognized us as self-governing peoples, and made nation to nation trade treaties and military alliances with us.

In fact, The Royal Proclamation of 1763 confirmed that Indigenous nations have title to their land.

Then when the War of 1812 ended the colonizers no longer needed us as military allies, so they gave Europeans one square mile of free land per family to settle in Canada. Sound familiar? That’s because that’s what the written treaties say we get for extinguishing title.

The Europeans also brought diseases such as smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and influenza for which we had no immunity.

Some experts say half the Indigenous people alive at the time died from these diseases. And this was not by accident alone, at least not in the USA.

Then they passed the British North America (BNA) Act 1867 to put “Indians and Lands reserved for Indians” under control of the federal government.

Following this, Sir John A. MacDonald, who was Canada’s first prime minister and the dominant figure of Canadian Confederation, announced that Canada’s goal was, “to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects.”

Indian Act

To make assimilation easier, the government passed the Indian Act in 1876, creating reserves that are a tiny fraction of our original lands and denying us basic rights. For instance, we were not allowed to vote until 1960.

The Act targeted our cultures. It restricted hunting and fishing and outlawed practicing our spirituality and cultural ceremonies.

In the North, our drums were destroyed, so, for years people only sang at tea dances. It was only recently that we started using drums again.

In the south, people were not allowed to leave the reserve without a permit, and we couldn’t gather to discuss our rights or practice our traditional forms of government.

Until the 1950s, we could be arrested and sent to prison for doing any of these things. Until 1985, Indigenous women who married non-Indigenous men, or men without Indian status, lost their Indian status.

To boot, the Gradual Civilization Act forced us to give up our legal Indian status to become doctors, lawyers, or enter other professions like joining the army.

Assimilation was in full swing and Indian Affairs deputy superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott said the government would “continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and that there is no Indian problem and no Indian Department.”

Residential schools

In 1879, Sir John A MacDonald said, “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian…Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
And so, until 1996, the federal government removed us from our families and placed us in church-run residential schools, often hundreds of kilometres from our communities. Our parents could be fined or jailed if they did not send us.

Many students died at the schools. Those who lived stayed at the school all year, and some for many years, without returning home. As a result, we lost family connections and did not learn our language, culture and traditions from our Elders.

We were also punished for speaking our own languages and most of us endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Because we were raised in an institution, most of us never learned parenting skills.

When we went home in the summer, we did not fit in and many of us were made fun of. So, many never returned to our home communities, or were shunned if we did.


Through all of this, Indigenous people resisted and survived.

When waves of settlers began arriving to claim their free land, Indigenous communities resisted through diplomatic and military means. Indigenous nations made treaties with governments to safeguard their land and way of life.

Not many people chose to become enfranchised and people continued to secretly do ceremonies and traditional practices.

On the prairies, the Métis and Cree launched an armed ‘rebellion.’ Even residential school students got into it by doing their best to not cry or show fear in front of the nuns and priests.

Ironically, residential school survivors were instrumental in organizing groups like the Indian Brotherhood of the NWT and fought for treaty and Aboriginal rights to be honored.

National caravans, speaking tours, and demonstrations resulted in things like the Berger Inquiry delaying the Mackenzie Valley pipeline for 10 years and Bands gaining control of Band finances.

Groups challenged government control of hunting, fishing, and land in the courts. Eventually the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged Aboriginal Title still exists.

This all led to land and self-government agreements being negotiated in the NWT and on April 1st, 1999, the NWT divided to create a new territory called Nunavut because of the Nunavut Land Claim.

Today, we have people getting high school diplomas, degrees, masters, and PhDs, while others become MLAs, MPs, and successful business owners. We also have land and resources agreements, the Tlicho government, and the Deline self-government agreement.

And we have the Northern Indigenous Counselor program to train Indigenous counselors to help people deal with issues associated with having survived all of this.

We’re still here, 1.7 million strong. Come celebrate with us on National Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Roy Erasmus

Roy Erasmus Sr. Is a certified wellness counsellor who survived heart disease and a former member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

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  1. This is good, educational, my heart hurts thinking of all that is lost to indigenous people. They have been successful to a point in wiping out the Indian from the child, but seeds of hope come in our next generation who demand wrongs be righted, using the very education that has been forced upon us to start gravitating change. And my heart is overjoyed to see those in the next generation tenaciously holding on to what’s left of our culture, nurturing it, bringing it back and carrying it into the future with them.

  2. We need to decolonize education to center Indigenous Knowledge in this stolen land called Canada. Thank you for the effort you put in to educate us.

  3. Good stuff Roy, I would one day hope that this information is made mandatory in all school curriculums in every school or educational institution in this country. Yes, it is available through research but what does this information serve if it is hidden…
    Thanks for the refresher.