“O Canada, Our Home on Native Land”

July 6, 2023

In Canada the term “Indigenous People” refers to First Nation, Innu, and Métis communities. To be clear, these are people formerly called, by settler society, Indians, Eskimos, and half-breeds.

            In addition to the human and cultural dimensions of life which Indigenous People share, important differences distinguish them, sometimes even separate them. Most fundamental of these differences is land – the land on which Indigenous people live. This became devilishly complicated because, over time, Indigenous land also became the territory on which settlers live.

Canada-Wide Variations in Land Occupancy

In the Canadian North, for example, Innu kept control over much of their territory in Nunavut, by surrendered a large part of it to the federal government, a deal criticized by First Nations and Innu elsewhere because Nunavut Innu gave up land. In the Northwest Territories, both First Nations, Innu, and Métis are dominant players in government, with control over land use policies. Yukon society is a rich mixture of Indigenous people on specific lands yet many of them are intermingled with general society. 

           Across Canada south of the territories, the essential bond between First Nations and their land is fraught with complexities. From province to province, Indigenous territories are occupied by many different First Nations and Métis communities and the nature of this depends on when and how settlers arrived on Indigenous territory. Much land was transferred to the Crown under treaties, and some by direct purchase, but tracts of unceeded land remain as well. In many places, land Reserves are inhabited by First Nation communities. Many land-related issues flow from treaty rights and the status of First Nation community members, including whether they live on or off Reserve.

            What where is the land of Métis people? The Métis are a distinct society in Canada with their own language, culture, and traditions – face existential issues with land, a challenge compounded by serious difference between Métis and First Nation communities.


How Does the Métis Nation in Canada Exist without Land?

Across Canada are national, provincial, and regional organizations of the Métis Nation. But the concept of a nation generally pertains to people with a land-based, people occupying and controlling their own territory.

            Only in Alberta are lands designated for exclusive use by Métis people, akin to Reserves for First Nations, a reality that has evolved since 1928. Today five such Métis Nation territories exist, under Alberta statue law. Nowhere else in Canada is the situation so clear.

            This land question, central to Indigenous life in Canada, is coming into sharper focus as Métis society and its organizations emerge into greater prominence, espousing specific aspirations for recognition and for land.

            On June 14, I was in Midland discussing these issues at the headquarters of the Georgian Bay Métis Council with the Council’s hard-working president, Greg Garratt. His role is significant, beginning with numbers alone. During Canada’s 2021 census,134,615 individuals in Ontario identified themselves to census-takers as Métis. Rounding that off to 135,000 people today, this represents the largest population of Métis in Canada. And, overwhelmingly, these Indigenous people dwell along the Georgian Bay coast, including in Muskoka where they are organized under the Moon River Métis Council.

           One week later, on June 21, Crown & Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller introduced Bill C-53 in the House of Commons. This legislation provides self-government for Métis Nations in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and implements treaties made between Ottawa and Métis governments in those three provinces.

           However, First Nation organizations are protesting this measure. The tug-of-war between Indigenous communities in Canada is, as a result, becoming more public.

            For Muskoka and its larger Georgian Bay community, this affects real people and actual lands, because territorial claims of Indigenous nations overlap. When the Crown settles claims with a particular First Nation, it can be at the expense of Métis claims for the territory. For instance, settlement of claims by the Wahta Mohawks, explaines Métis leader Greg Garratt, excluded participation of the Métis Nation which also has claims.


Historic Georgian Bay Métis Community Land Claim

What claims? Very clear ones, made by the historic Georgian Bay Métis Community that run back two centuries. When Britain was on the brink of losing the war of 1812 as American forces invaded Canada, the tide was turned by Indigenous warriors, both First Nation and Métis, fighting for the British Crown. Then the Treaty of Ghent, negotiated to end that war in 1814, revised boundary lines between Canada and the United States. This represented one more round in a give-and-take struggle going on since the1600s and 1700s in the Michilimackinac area between lakes Huron and Michigan. Forts and settlements were conquered and reclaimed in battles between the French, British, and Americans, the alignment of these countries and their armies depending on the period in question.

            A civilian population developed in the garrison town around the forts. As soldiers and First Nation women intermingled, robust children of mixed-blood continued to arrive and Métis families became an integral part of these communities.

           As war began in 1812, the British with 189 Métis voyagers fighting alongside them recaptured Mackinac Island in Lake Michigan and its American fort. After the war, the Americans got it back and burned the fort while the British and civilians relocated to immense Drummond Island at the head of Lake Huron. By 1829, the British next ceded Drummond Island to the United States for strategic reasons in tandem with relocating their Upper Great Lakes naval and military base to Penetanguishene Bay at the southern end of Lake Huron.

           The civilians chose to leave Drummond Island rather than live under American control and 75 families, comprising 188 people including many Métis, made their way down to the Penetanguishene area as well. These were not the first Métis people in the vicinity. Métis had already been living along this Georgian Bay littoral, including Muskoka, since the 1600s when French fur-traders arrived and began pairing with First Nation women.

            The British made it clear to the high-value Métis who served as guides, fighters, providers of food, and canoeists and carriers for military missions of exploration as well as surveyors travelling to measure and map lands, that they would be granted land around Penetanguishene. However, the arriving Drummond Island civilians had to fend for themselves. The British felt they had less need for them now. By the 1840s, with Euro-Canadian settlers encroaching on land that the Métis had been able to acquire around Penetang, they petitioned for Métis-designated land that would be protected. That did not happen. Waves of development and settlement continued.


Métis Rights in the Constitution and Upheld by Supreme Court of Canada

The saga of how this is currently playing out between Métis and First Nations, as well as between them and non-Indigenous society, occurs in a present-day context established by the Supreme Court of Canada. In a 2003 ruling, the court established a framework for recognizing Métis rights that, already since 1982, had become protected by section 35 of the Constitution.

            Of potential relevance, too, is an emerging initiative to create a Geo-Park along the Ontario coastal waters of Georgian Bay, for environmental conservation and public education. This could bring together a broad coalition of organizations, ranging from UNESCO to municipalities, conservation groups, educational institutions, and the region’s 16 Indigenous communities. Participation would be voluntary, and plans are still in the works, but a Geo-Park could become common ground for people with a history of frustrations and injustices about land to move into a new platform of collaboration for the future of the land and landscape itself.

            From a very different angle, such developments are also taking place in the new cultural context of mainstream Canadians recognizing how Indigenous lands were taken over by settler society. One of the poignant catalysts for this new awareness currently is fostered by highlighting the evolving wording of Canada’s national anthem.

O Canada Has Been Revised Many Times

Since 1880, when O Canada was written in French, many English translations of the anthem, and variations to it, have been made. One inserted “God” to replace the more ambiguous spiritual reference “Thou.” Another tweak, at the time of the First World War, added “in all thy sons command” to encourage patriotic enlistment of young men for battle overseas. A century later, in 2016, that was in turn replaced by gender neutral “in all of us command.” Tiny changes can convey big meanings, as they have in those instances, and now do again with another wording adjustment for the national anthem, relating to Indigenous lands.

            Renowned R&B singer Jully Black, like all Canadians and especially those who memorize and live with lyrics they sign for a living, took note of 2016’s change to inclusive gender wording. After all, for more than a century, women have been recognized as equal players with legal rights and leadership accomplishments, going where there was no path and leaving a trail for others to follow. Why exclude them from the anthem?

            Now that Canadians are singing “in all of us command” – to include not just males but everyone in the country – it understandably registers that the national anthem is not chizelled in granite anymore than is our Constitution. Both are living and evolving, maturing with the country itself, changing when needed or desirable.

            Grammy-award winning Black sings her heartfelt rendition of the national anthem with the change of just one tiny word –  “Our home and native land” now “Our home on native land.”

            As a Canadian-born Black woman, she has had to be alert to words and their meanings in a multicultural society that still suffers outdated institutional relationships and the behaviours borne of them. Jully’s parents immigrated to this country, so she understood, as did they, that Canada was not their “native land” in either sense of the word – being native to the place, or being an Indigenous person.

            In addition, Black like many Canadians has been on a sharp learning curve about Indigenous realities. The shocking realization that Residential Schools had graveyards for their pupils finally registered in peoples’ emotions, in ways that it had not connected in their minds, as a criminal travesty. Do local public schools across Canada have cemeteries for burying children attending them in unmarked graves?

            This reality of Residential Schools, long understood by Indigenous people in Canada and documented in reports, articles, films, and books, for generations remained unacknowledged by Canadian settler society. In Ottawa, Indigenous issues have long been a politically toxic topic on Parliament Hill.


Longstanding Pattern of Ignoring Indigenous Suffering and Injustice

In the 1950s, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, who had been Canada’s minister of justice on his way to the top, learned, because it came to light in newspapers, that Innu people in James Bay communities were starving to death. “We have been governing the North,” he offered to Canadians as an apologetic confession, “in a state of benign neglect.”

            Benign neglect is a poetic phrase for how people excuse a grave problem by shrugging: “Out of sight, out of mind. Didn’t know about it. Didn’t think about it because I didn’t see it.”

            But Christopher Stock, a knowledge-keeping member of the Wahta Mohawk community in Muskoka, explains: “You were not supposed to know. It was kept from you.” And he is right. From school curriculums to debates in the Commons, from radio broadcasts to pulpits, from documentary films to newspapers, decades of Canadian life were narrowcast.

            All of which led to Jully Black’s understanding that upgrades can be made to keep songs relevant, and that we can end the charade of singing, with sombre gravitas, lyrics that are not truths but taunts.


First Nations Support Jully Black’s Ironic Word Change

Yet sensitivity in such matters does not allow individuals to think or speak on behalf of others. So, Black asked Indigenous people what they thought about the small but mighty change she envisaged in the anthem. They chuckled approval of “Our home on native land.” Canadians love double meanings. Irony is a deft tool. Humour can lessen tensions as we grapple with issues. First Nation people with whom she spoke, beyond seeing the humour, solemnly supported Black because this restated message is of enduring national impotance to them and all Canadians.

            She first sang it publicly as “our home on native land” at the opening of an NBA game. And when she sang the anthem that way, slowing it down so nobody could mistake the shift in meaning, looking directly into a television camera recording the event, Jully Black opened the next round in eradicating stale inaccuracy from a vaulting anthem intended to unite “all of us” patriotically.

            After that ground-breaker, a special Assembly of National Chiefs at Ottawa three months ago honoured Jully Black, in a deeply moving blanketing ceremony, by presenting her with a symbolic eagle feather.

            Last month, in Toronto, she was invited to sing the new version of our national anthem at Metropolitan University’s inaugural convocation of law students. Again, Canadians across the land heard it, and heard about it.

            There is molten lava in the Canadian land volcano, and Jully Black has majestically uncorked it.


Unfinished Business with “Native Land”

There is other unfinished business to get the anthem in phase with the country whose people are to sing it – the “native land” expression. As Jully Black and others, including my wife Elise, point out, “native land” is meaningless to millions of Canadian citizens and landed immigrants who arrived from other countries because they wanted or needed to come to a new homeland and chose Canada.

            While the ironic message in “Our home on native land” is inescapable, it is unlikely Parliament will make that change. What Jully Black is doing to draw attention to a fundamental contradiction at the highest level of national symbolism, qualifies her, surely, for an Order of Canada.

            From governor general Adrien Clarkson to Toronto mayor Olivia Chow, matched by countless thousands more at the summit of Canadian society who came to this country as youngsters or young adults, Canada is not their “native land” but their “chosen land.” Even Indigenous People, at least First Nation and Innu, chose this land thousands of years ago, in the wake of the most recent Ice Age. The only ones who did not consciously choose to live here immigrated to Canada through the papoose or cradle. Yet even so, the Métis and generations of born-in-Canada babies choose to assert themselves as belonging on this land.

            Let us sing our anthem the new way, enjoying both the ironic humour and solemn recognition of ground-level reality. This may inspire Parliamentarians to adopt the words to “Our home and cherished land” to encompass, with the word “cherished,” both patriotic love of Canada and our ardent conservationist ethic.

            As for the larger question – of land claims and environmental protection of cherished land – singing our way to a new reality may even help overcome enduring stalemates and enable Canada to further mature.


Gordon Lightfoot’s Muskoka

May 11, 2023

by J. Patrick Boyer


Gordon Lightfoot and his constant companion, leaning against a Muskoka pine deep in the woods he loved. Everett Collection Inc. / Alamy

During the evening of Monday, May 1, 2023, Gordon Lightfoot died in a Toronto hospital after the city itself moved back and forth between an uncommon mixture of rain and sunlight. Earlier this year, the enduringly popular singer cancelled all his 2023 engagements for health reasons. Gordon Lightfoot just kept going for as long as he could on what Bob Dylan calls “the never-ending tour.”

            Two decades ago, when inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, singer-songwriter Tom Cochrane saluted Gordon for “leading the way,” showing “that you can be true to your roots. You can draw on your influences at home and country and you can incorporate those inspirations into the fabric of your work and still be internationally successful.” It was a succinct encapsulation of the inductee’s trailblazing career.

Overcoming Political Amnesia #3

November 19, 2021

[Remembering lessons from Canada’s 2021 General Election, Part Three]

What Happened to Televised Leaders’ Debates?

Can you remember the last time you witnessed a really good election debate? By definition, that would have been political party leaders formally contesting their opposing views on important public issues and contentious topics.


In 1984’s general election Liberal Prime Minister John Turner and Progressive Conservative Leader of the Official Opposition Brian Mulroney face off directly in a one-on-one television debate that enabled each to state and defend their positions. In this memorable exchange, Turner had been excoriated by Mulroney for making extensive Liberal patronage appointments to top-level positions. “I had no option,” shrugged the PM, suggesting his hands were tied because outgoing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had given him the list and made him agree to appoint them. “You had an option, sir,” rejoined Mulroney. “You could have said ‘No!’. You could have stood up for decency.” It was a defining moment in the 1984 campaign, which the PCs won decisively.  Photo source: National Post

            As an art form, debating requires ability to think quickly, respond intelligently with skill and reasoned argument, perhaps even deflate your opponent with wit, fact, or gesture. In the age of television, it is also an opportunity for leaders to convey to millions of people at once their poise, command of subject matter, and character. Debating is a part of culture and, like stage-acting, it’s a talent some have but many do not. However, good debate requires more than participants possessing these requisite attributes. Debaters also need a suitable forum.

Overcoming Political Amnesia #2

October 27, 2021

[Remembering lessons from Canada’s 2021 General Election, Part Two]

The Faded Advantages of “Majority” Government

A most obvious lesson from the September 20 voting, because it produced virtually identical results to 2019’s general election, including another minority government, is the folly of any prime minister or party leader in Canada today believing he or she can win a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

            With the electoral system remaining a century out of date, minority governments have become the predictable outcome, indeed the norm, for our multi-party democracy.

            Apart from delusion on the part of leaders playing at the gaming table of Canada’s wild card electoral system – and what PM doesn’t crave the ease of complete control over our country’s principal political institution? – a further takeaway from Canadian political history is that minority government is intrinsically better for Canadians because governments remain more attentive to Parliament as an institutional expression of a functioning democracy, listen to the peoples’ representatives as spokespersons for those who elected them, and take into account the views of opposition parties for whom millions of Canadians voted.

Overcoming Political Amnesia #1

October 1, 2021

[Remembering lessons from Canada’s 2021 General Election, Part One]

Perhaps the unpleasant aftertaste of Canada’s pointless $600 million 44th general election on September 20 deserves to be quickly consigned to the large bin of forgettable events.

            But before we go, let’s salvage a few lessons that might improve future elections, or at least restore greater realism to national public life. Some of these involve fixed-date elections, the Quixotic quest for “majority” governments, the perpetual distortion of peoples’ votes, the frustrating embarrassment of so-called leadership debates, delayed vote counts, and the historic eclipse of Canada’s Green Party. Let’s start with the first of these.

“Greater Muskoka”

July 14, 2021

It’s a simple question: How big is “world-famed” Muskoka District?

         Most folks interested in this District have a reasonably accurate idea of Muskoka’s geography – even if they cannot specifically answer that Muskoka measures out at 2,500 square miles, or 6,475 square kilometres, a compact territory containing some 1,600 lakes of diverse sizes and shapes. But, so what?

         Most people actually identify Muskoka’s area by its landscape boundaries – the neat section bounded on the west by Georgian Bay, the south by the Severn River, at the north by a thin east-west line separating Muskoka and Parry Sound districts, and similar surveyors’ lines to the east where Muskoka ends at Algonquin Park and Haliburton County. If you think those lines of “the Grid” are artificial, producing arbitrary and amusing results, you’d be right. The division between Muskoka and Haliburton runs down the centre of the village’s main street; Langmaid’s Island in Lake of Bays – currently contested between a developer and conservationists – was originally surveyed mid-point to lie in two different municipalities; early settlers found part of their neatly surveyed 100 acres of free grant land on the south side of a lake, the rest across water on the north side. Today, many people come to Muskoka to “get off the Grid,” but in reality, much of the District has never been on it.

In Tribute to Vartan Gregorian, Champion of Books and Libraries

April 23, 2021

Vartan Gregorian died last week at a New York City hospital. He was in the 88th year of a triumphal life.

An Armenian immigrant to the United States, Gregorian rose to wide renown as a brilliant historian and university leader. As its president, he propelled Brown University to the forefront of America’s Ivy League universities. Of particular importance was his love of books and dedication to libraries.

As his New York Times obituary noted, “the ebullient Armenian immigrant who climbed to pinnacles of academic and philanthropic achievement took a detour in the 1980s to restore a fading New York Public Library to its place at the heart of American intellectual life.” When Gregorian was invited to become its president in 1981, the challenge could not have been greater.

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