Join us in celebrating National Aboriginal History Month.
Throughout the month of June, we will be sharing stories of influential and unsung Indigenous heroes.
Ronald Cross – Member of the Mohawk Warrior Society
In 1990 the Mayor of Oka wanted to expand a golf course onto a Mohawk burial ground.
The Mohawks of Kanehsatake erected a barricade.
In July, Quebec provincial police raided the barricades; gunshots were fired and an officer died.
The Canadian Army was called in resulting in a 78-day armed standoff.
Ronald Cross, one of the masked warriors was photographed staring down an army officer.
The image became iconic as one of the lowest points in the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada.
When the standoff ended in September, Cross was arrested, handcuffed and beaten by police.
Later the Quebec Police Ethics Committee would call police actions “excessive, humiliating and degrading”.
In 1992, Cross was sentenced to six years in prison for his actions defending the land.
Cross was released in August, 1999 but shortly after died of a heart attack, at age 41.
The events at so impacted First Nations politically and psychologically that the ten-year period following is known as the post-Oka era.
The emotions and resentment are visibly expressed in First Nations art and literature.
John Shiwak – Lance Corporal
John Shiwak was a hunter and trapper from Rigolet, a remote Inuit community on the Labrador coast.
On July 24, 1915, at the age of 28, he enlisted in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
Being a hunter and trapper made him a perfect fit for being a sniper in the regiment.
In competitions against the British, he won every time.
It is said he was the best sniper in the British Army fighting in France.
On November 20, 1917, Shiwak was killed in Masnières, France.
He is buried in the Beaumont Hamel cemetery in France with hundreds of his fellow Newfoundland and Labrador soldiers.
His death had a profound impact on his regiment.
Peter Ittinuar – Experimental Eskimo, MP, Negotiator
When Peter Ittinuar was 12 years old, he was happily hunting and fishing in his community of Chesterfield Inlet, Northwest Territories (Now Nunavut).
But the Canadian government picked him to be part of what it called the Eskimo Experiment.
Ittinuar, along with two other 12 year olds were sent to Ottawa for schooling.
They were cut off from their family and friends.
Canada wanted to see if Inuit children were smart enough to learn with southern children.
Ittinuar and his friends excelled in academics and everything they put their hands to.
But they lost their Inuit ways – no longer able to do what their friends in the north could do like hunt and skin a seal.
Ittinuar went on to become the first Inuk Member of Parliament where he told the House of Commons that it was time Inuit had their own homeland – Nunavut.
He eventually defected from the NDP to the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau.
Ittinuar went on to take part in constitutional talks that helped make Nunavut a territory in 1999.
Shannen Koostachin – Attawapiskat First Nation
The ground beneath Shannen Koostachin’s school in Attawapiskat was contaminated after a diesel fuel spill.
The building was condemned when she was in kindergarten.
Classes were held in trailers.
It was supposed to be temporary.
By grade 8 the trailers were broken, icy and moldy.
In 2009 Koostachin went to Ottawa and asked the Minister of Indian Affairs in person for a safe school building.
Conservative Chuck Strahl said no.
Finally one was built in 2014.
Sadly Shannen did not live to see it.
The 15-year old died in a car crash in June 2010.
Today the campaign for a better and safer education for all aboriginal students is known as Shannen’s Dream.
Andrew Paull – Squamish Reserve | Peter Kelly – Haidia, Skidgate
In 1916, the province of British Columbia was refused to recognize Indigenous land title and had illegally seized more than 65 million hectares of land.
Squamish advocate, Andy Paull, and a Haida reverend named Peter Kelly were chosen to lead a group called Allied Tribes.
Paul and Kelly lobbied the government.
In 1926 they forced the issue before a Joint Committee of Parliament but in the end denied the existence of Indigenous title, so no compensation was necessary as the lands belonged to the province by right of conquest.
Paull and Kelly decided to pursue the matter in court but Canada passed a law making it illegal to hire lawyers to pursue land claims.
It would not be until 1973 when First Nations in BC were finally able to put a land claim before the courts.
That claim recognized Indigenous title did exist.
Andy Paull and Peter Kelly did not live to see the case.
Phil Fontaine – Ojibway Sagkeeng First Nation
Phil Fontaine attended a residential school operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Sagkeeng and the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg.
In 1981 Fontaine graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts.
He entered politics and his career spanned 30 years.
He held positions as Chief, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and National Chief of the AFN.
Fontaine is best known for his advocacy for survivors.
In 1990 Fontaine spoke publicly about the abuse that he experienced in residential school.
His words put the issue on the national agenda and later, Fontaine was key in the settlement agreement.
On June 11 2008, when Parliament apologized to survivors, Fontaine was present in the House of Commons.
“Brave survivors, through the telling of their painful stories, have stripped white supremacy of its authority and legitimacy… What happened today signifies a new dawn in the relationship between us and the rest of Canada. We are and always have been an indispensable part of the Canadian identity.”
Frederick Loft – Mohawk, Six Nations Grand River Territory
Before enlisting as a lieutenant in the Forestry Corps in WWI, Frederick Loft was working as an accountant. Loft met other First Nations soldiers overseas.
He found they had common grievances over land rights, hunting rights and poor quality education.
After the war First Nations were not given the same benefits as Canadian Soldiers.
In 1918 Loft formed a national lobby group called The League of Indians.
By 1920, the League had an estimated 9,000 members in Ontario, by 1922 he opened chapters in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Loft frequently spoke to media, challenging the status quo.
The Indian Department reacted by trying to discredit Loft.
They tried to remove his Indian Status and monitored his speeches for seditious libel.
The RCMP attended meetings to intimidate his followers.
They frequently arrested those who had left their reserves without a pass.
In 1933 Loft tried to raise money to hire a lawyer for a hunting right case.
This was now illegal under the Indian Act.
Loft was threatened with arrest and 2 years in prison.
70 year old Loft avoided prosecution by retiring from the political scene.
The movements he started proved long-lasting.
The Alberta Chapter of the League became the Indian Association of Canada.
The Saskatchewan chapter would become the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians.
Frederick Loft united Indigenous Peoples, and helped launch the modern Indigenous political movement.
Nora Bernard – Mi’kmaq
In 1945 Nora Bernard, aged 9, attended the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School for five years.
Her mother signed the consent forms under threat that if she refused Nora would be seized by child welfare.
In 1995, Bernard started an organization to represent survivors of the Shubenacadie School and filed a class action lawsuit.
The suit demanded compensation for sexual and physical abuse, child labour, incarceration, and loss of language and culture.
Other survivors across Canada joined the lawsuit, until it grew to be the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, representing more than 79,000 survivors.
The Canadian government settled the lawsuit in 2005 for upwards of 5 billion dollars.
Nora Bernard won justice for tens of thousands of survivors.
Harold Cardinal – Sucker Creek Cree First Nation
Harold Cardinal was elected as leader of the Indian Association of Alberta in 1968, at age 23.
That year Pierre Elliott Trudeau spoke of his vision for Canada as “A Just Society.”
In 1969, Trudeau released what is commonly called “The White Paper.”
It abolished the rights for First Nations peoples and the elimination of reserve lands.
First Nation communities across Canada were furious… Including Harold Cardinal.
In response Cardinal wrote a book entitled “The Unjust Society.”
Fiercely satirical and brutally honest the book called for radical changes in policy on Indigenous rights, education, social programs and economic development.
Cardinal’s book stopped the White Paper and opened a new discussion between Indigenous peoples and Canadians.
Cindy Blackstock – Gitxsan First Nation
In 2007 as Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Blackstock launched a human rights complaint against Canada.
The complaint stated that the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding First Nation child welfare services compared to the funding provided in the provincial system.
Over the next nine years, Blackstock had her funding cut, endured bureaucrats spying on her and was bullied by ministerial staff.
On January 26, 2016, in a landmark decision, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed with Blackstock, that underfunding child welfare services amounted to discrimination.
Since Blackstock’s victory, the tribunal has issued four compliance orders against the federal government.
Blackstock continues to challenge discrimination against vulnerable First Nations children.
The women of Idle No More
Four women from Saskatchewan:
Nina Wilson, Nakota and Plains Cree from Kahkewistahaw
Sheelah Mclean, Canadian
Sylvia McAdam, Nehiyaw Nation
Jessica Gordon, Pasqua Treaty 4 Territory
They opposed changes to environmental laws proposed in the federal omnibus Bill-C-45 that was on the table in 2012 and began holding teach-ins.
They coined the term Idle No More on a Facebook page.
The hashtag #idlenomore was used by Tanya Kappo on Twitter for a conference she was organizing on Bill C-45.
What followed was a viral social media conversation and six months of peaceful actions across Canada.
The women of #IdleNoMore demonstrated how quickly Indigenous grassroots can organize and surprised mainstream media at the depth of passion over water protection shared by Indigenous peoples.
Hubert Skye – Six Nations of the Grand River Territory
Hired as a teacher in a Moose Factory residential school, Hubert Skye broke the rules and secretly taught children the Cayuga language.
He would spend 37 years teaching in schools throughout Six Nations and Ontario, and a lifetime preserving the Oh gweh hon weh language and culture.
Hubert was a devoted Faith Keeper of the Lower Cayuga Longhouse.
Hubert Skye protected and revitalized the language and culture of his people.
Alanis Obomsawin – Abenaki, Odanak First Nation, filmmaker
In 1966 children in Odanak, Quebec, could no longer swim in the St. Francis River.
A pool was built for the children in the neighbouring town but First Nations children were banned.
So Alanis Obomsawin, who was a singer, held fundraising concerts to build a pool for Odanak.
Filmmakers at the NFB heard the story and invited Obomsawin their studios.
At an early age, Alanis Obomsawin immediately saw the power of film to transmit culture and ideas.
She has made more than 30 films with the National Film Board of Canada.
Her stories often challenge misconceptions and have educated Canadians about inequities in child welfare, and education.
She is best known for her story Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.
Now in her 80s, Obomsawin is still making films.
Alanis Obomsawin, storyteller, advanced Indigenous realities in mainstream Canada.
Dudley George and the Ipperwash Activists
On Sept. 4, 1995, a group of unarmed members of the Stoney Point First Nation in Ontario reclaimed Ipperwash Provincial Park.
The land had been appropriated by the federal government for a military base in the Second World War.
Within 24 hours, the Ontario Provincial Police moved in. One activist was shot and wounded, one was beaten until his heart stopped, and Anthony “Dudley” George was shot dead.
Questions surrounding Dudley’s death and police actions rose almost immediately, but it would take 12 years before an inquiry was called.
The Ipperwash Inquiry unveiled racism on the police force, inexcusable delays by the federal government on the land issue, and a lack of transparency and accountability from the provincial government.
The final report made recommendations outlining how government and police should behave to avoid future violence against Aboriginal activists.
A land settlement was finalized on April 14, 2016.
Patricia Monture-Angus – Mohawk, lawyer, activist, educator, author
In May 1988 Monture-Angus graduated from Queen’s University law school. She was 29 when she was called to the bar.
The Ontario Law Society asked her to swear a mandatory oath of allegiance to the Queen.
She refused. Without doing so Monture-Angus would not be allowed to practice law.
Monture-Angus filed a suit challenging the practice, arguing she was a member of a sovereign nation. The case never went to court. The Law Society agreed to change its rules.
Monture-Angus became a lawyer.
Over the next 20 years she served on nearly every inquiry, commission and blue-ribbon panel convened on Aboriginal issues, including the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
She taught at Dalhousie University, University of Ottawa and the University of Saskatchewan and published three books.
She spent her life reshaping Canadian law to include Indigenous rights.
Allakariallak – Inuit, actor, hunter
Allakariallak portrayed Nanook in the 1922 film “Nanook of The North”.
Although portrayed as a documentary, many of the scenes were staged. The two women playing the wives of Allakariallak, were actually the common law wives of the film’s director.
One year after Nanook was released, Allakariallak starved while hunting on the tundra. He became the world’s most recognizable Inuk.
Sandra Lovelace Nicholas – Maliseet, Tobique First Nation, fought for women’s rights
In 1876, Canada passed a law taking away the Indigenous rights of First Nations women who married non-First Nation men.
Women lost their right to hunt, to fish, to select their leadership and even to live in a First Nation community.
Many First Nations women and leaders objected, but the law remained in place for more than 100 years.
In 1977 Sandra Lovelace married, then divorced a non-First Nations man. When she tried to return to her home community, she was not allowed.
Nicholas’ took her case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In 1981 the UN ruled that Canada had violated First Nations women’s civil and political rights. Canada changed their laws in 1985.
Her victory restored the rights of tens of thousands of First Nations women and children. In 2005 Lovelace Nicholas was appointed to the Senate by former Prime Minister Paul Martin.
Steve Powley – Métis, forced Ontario to recognize Métis
For decades Métis people in Sault Ste. Marie were denied the right to hunt.
In 1993 Steve Powley decided to test the law.
He shot a moose out of season, and instead of presenting a license, he gave authorities his Métis card.
The case went to court. Ontario argued there were no Métis in the province.
Powley argued historic Métis communities had existed prior to the birth of Canada in 1867, and continued to exist today.
In September 2003 the Supreme Court recognized the Métis community of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and their constitutionally protected Aboriginal right to hunt for food.
The case set out the roadmap to recognize other communities in Ontario, and other Métis rights.
Abraham Okpik – Inuit, culture advocate
Abe Okpik was born at a fishing camp in the MacKenzie Delta. He was labeled W3-554 by the federal government, which did not recognize Inuit names.
Okpik founded Project Surname. From 1968 to 1971 he travelled throughout the NWT and what would become Nunavut and Nunavik, recording names and helping people without a last name, pick one. The program eliminated the federal numbers.
When the 1974 Berger Commission was announced, Okpik became Thomas Berger’s interpreter and broadcaster, visiting 35 different communities.
In his later years, he became an Iqaluit City Councillor. The community hall in the Iqaluit satellite community of Apex is named for him.
Zacharias Kunuk – Inuit, filmmaker
In 1981, Zacharias Kunuk bought his first video camera. He brought it to his hometown of Igloolik in Nunavut, and hasn’t stopped making movies since.
His best known work is Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which tells the Inuit story of a man forced to flee his camp because the camp leader was jealous of his two wives.
The Fast Runner won the Caméra d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, in addition to 6 Genies and grossing $5 million worldwide.
In a 2015 poll, the critics of the Toronto International Film Festival named the Fast Runner “the greatest Canadian Film of all time.”
Nellie Cournoyea – Inuit, politician
As a child, Nellie Cournoyea ran away from her residential school, a story she retold for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She was hidden and sheltered by an Indigenous families throughout her escape.
First elected to the NWT Legislative Assembly in 1979, she became Premier in 1991, making her only the second woman at the time to lead a provincial or territorial legislature.
She has been awarded an Indspire Award, many honourary doctorates, an Order of Canada, and is a member of the Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame.
Peter Pitseolak – Inuit, photographer
In the 1940’s, Peter Pitseolak was working in Cape Dorset Nunavut, and got his hands on his first camera. He developed his very first photos in a hunting igloo.
By the time he died in 1973, he had more than 1500 photos and negatives, which were acquired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization. His work documented the shift for Inuit, from living on the land to living in settlements.
His photos were known for showing Inuit families in real life situations.
Pitseolak was also a carver and painter, and the high school in Cape Dorset carries his name.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier – Inuit, author, politician, climate change activist
Following a political career that had her heading the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Sheila Watt-Cloutier became one of the world’s leading climate change advocates.
In 2005, Watt-Cloutier launched a lawsuit with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that Inuit have a human right to sea ice.
Her 2015 book “Right to Be Cold” has received worldwide acclaim.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier has collected 17 different honorary doctorates from universities around the planet.
Jordin Tootoo – Inuit, Hockey Player
Rankin Inlet’s Jordin Tootoo first captured the hearts of Canadians in the World Junior Championships in 2003. His tenacity on the ice helped the Canadians capture a silver medal.
Tootoo became the first Inuk to play in the NHL, when he was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2003.
The Team Tootoo Foundation was founded in 2011. The foundation was established in honour of his brother Terence who committed suicide in 2002, focusing on anti-suicide and anti-bullying programs.
Jordin Tootoo’s contract with the Chicago Blackhawks was just extended through the 2017-18 season.
Kiviaq – Inuit, athlete, lawyer, politician
Kiviaq took up boxing to protect himself from racial bullying.
By age 13, he became the Edmonton Golden Gloves champ. The opponent he beat was a 21 year old man. Kiviaq went on to win 108 of 112 fights.
At 19, Kiviaq became first Inuk to join the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, but before his first game, he was injured and never played.
Kiviaq was the first Inuit lawyer in Canada. He was called to the bar in 1983.
In 2001, he legally changed his name to Kiviaq, from his birth name, David Charles Ward.
After the federal government refused to acknowledge Inuit names and assigned all of them a number, Kiviaq’s legal battle is remembered today as one of the first attempts to reclaim Inuit names.
Kenojuak Ashevak – Inuit, artist
Kenojuak Ashevak was born on the southeast coast of Baffin Island, she became the most influential woman in Inuit art.
Starting in 1958, her prints helped put Cape Dorset on the map as the hub on Inuit art worldwide.
She has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, and has been featured on stamps and money.
Her work was even featured as the Google Doodle in 2014, in 2016 Heritage Canada produced a Heritage Moment about her life.
A new art centre in Cape Dorset currently under construction, will carry her name.
Jose Kusugak – Inuit, language activist, broadcaster
Jose Kusugak helped establish a standard writing system for Inuktitut.
He became President of Nunavut Tunngavik and helped negotiate the Nunavut Land Claim which led to the establishment of Nunavut in 1999.
He first coined the phrase “First Canadians, Canadians First”, which is used to describe the place of Inuit within Canada.
His contribution is honoured annually by a scholarship in his name established by NTI.
Olive Patricia Dickason – Métis, journalist, truly changed Canadian History
At the age of 50, Olive Patricia Dickason decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Aboriginal History at Ottawa University.
She was rejected. She was told there was no such thing as Aboriginal History.
Dickason appealed to a Belgian professor, Cornelius Jaenen, who agreed to take her in.
She completed her Master’s degree two years later, and her PhD in 1977. Her thesis would later be published as a textbook.
Dickason went on to teach Aboriginal History at the University of Alberta from 1976 to 1992.
Olive Patricia Dickason fought to put Aboriginal History into Canada and won.