Canada Day Words and Thoughts from an Indigenous Elder

This Canada Day was one unlike any other as the country reckoned with the legacy of residential schools, and the hundreds of Indigenous youths discovered so far buried in unmarked graves on those properties. At a Cancel Canada Day march here in Guelph on Thursday, Indigenous elder Maani Anne Cheesequay was the first to speak, and presented below, verbatim, are her heart felt words that began an afternoon of anger, mourning and reconciliation.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the ancestors of the territory of the Mississauga of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee of the Haldimand Tract treaty, and all the members of our community that currently live here: Mi’kmaq, Cree, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Caayuga, Mohawk, Navajo, Cherokee… These are the nations that are occupying our ancestral land to this day and make our presence known. You may not see us. We’re not strong in numbers, but we’re strong in spirit.

You will see our children in your schools. Ask your children because they’ve just finished school. What did they learn? Who was their best teacher? Who treated them well? They will always remember that, and they will always remember those who mistreated them.

And this is what it’s all about. Our children are being acknowledged and honored today. We started off with 215, and the numbers are getting bigger, and the places are being acknowledged slowly but surely. We are collectively mourning, but we’re also collectively acting. Empowering ourselves to rise up together and support one another shoulder-to-shoulder.

We have already experienced in a global way the pandemic and the losses that we have experienced, and we have never been able to take the time to acknowledge those fears moving on. But you have to remember that Aboriginal people have fallen, children have fallen. Aboriginal peoples’ children, three years old, being stolen, kidnapped from their parents. I’m a mother of five children and 13 grandchildren and many adopted relatives. My kinship is big. Wherever I travel, I have relatives.

And I have the most beautiful, the most magical, the most incredible and amazing homeland that I love right through my very spirit. Every time I look around, I find something in creation that reminds me of that. And the question I keep asking is how did we get into this mess of climate change? What happened? What happened to human beings helping human beings? That’s why we were put here, to learn how to take care of each other.

We are in the business of helping each other whether you’re the Prime Minister, whether you’re the grocery shop clerk, or whether you’re a child going to school. If you ask your child who just finished school if somebody hurt them, they will remember it in detail. So if you’re listening to the survivors, they remember those things from long ago. It’s etched in their mind, and has been disturbing them for a long time, distressing them in many ways because nothing has been done to account for the responsibility and obligation as a man, and as a woman, to protect our children.

I’ve spent my life’s journey learning about who I am, and I’m always empowering our people. The magnitude of our presence says that we have survived everything that has been put upon us, and we are so resilient. We will still be here, and if we are not here, then you won’t be here because we know how to take care of and conduct ourselves on our own homeland.

Our worldview is holistic. It includes creation, we are always expressing our gratitude each and every day for the gifts, for the sun shining on us, for waking up to another day. Being thankful for the very simple things that we sustain ourselves with, like the food that we eat. It comes from the land, the Earth, our Mother Earth. She will continue to exist and thrive without our existence. We, as a people, rely on her presence to share that with us, and we have been just taking and taking and taking more, and never ever stopping to think, what does she need?

Ask any woman from the missing and murdered women, do they know the experiences that Mother Earth is experiencing? That they dig on her skin, tear on her heart, and pollute her water? Do they understand that? They do very, very, very dearly. They have given their lives, and they have been dismissed, erased, and I think it’s the same with our residential school survivors and the things that they’ve witnessed as children.

Those experiences are true, and that’s the truth we have experienced. We need you to start acknowledging your part in all of this. Have you been compliant with your silence? Have you stepped up one or two times when there was an issue on the environment? Have you reached in your pocket to give a donation? I’m grateful for all those things, but things need to change, and you already feel that change is coming. We’ve been feeling it all along.

We had to adapt to the taking. We had to adapt to industry and resource extraction that’s taking the resources. How can it be that in my home, my people, can’t have clean drinking water in 65 communities? Even right over here next door in Six Nations not all the people have the same opportunity to turn on their taps. I know that because I’ve been visiting there for a long time, and they’re only an hour and some away. How can that exist in 2021? They’re our neighbors.

The other thing I want to say – and we have children here and I don’t want to be creating a heaviness – but I want to acknowledge some of the things I’ve seen in the past few days. This down here [pointing to the chalk drawings on the road], it kind of reminds me of the 60s, you know, peace. I want to acknowledge the people that contributed to that, trying to release and say something, and finding a voice to do something in a positive way.

I heard about this 10-year-old child who made hundreds of hearts in his community, and he took it upon himself to go to all the businesses and asked them to act in solidarity by just placing this paper heart in their window. Now, isn’t it something that a 10-year-old child would take it upon himself to do that? Does he understand, truly to the core of his very spirit, that this is wrong, thinking, “I need to do something. I need people to be aware of how I feel. And I’m going to take action to do something about it.”

I heard about another school child who went around her neighborhood and put up 215 hearts. I don’t know these children, but she knew she needed to do something too and she was coming from a place of love and caring by sharing that voice.

I have a granddaughter, my daughter just had a daughter, and one of the things I recognize is that my granddaughter is carrying her grandchild already before she’s even born. Women are given a certain amount of seeds when we’re conceived, we carry them through our life for that time to generate. I thought it was pretty profound that I already have met my great grandchildren in a certain kind of way, and I thought to myself, “Wow, that is very empowering to know that, and humbling to know that I’m standing with four generations while standing behind me was my mother and my grandmother. I knew them. So that’s six. My great grandchild, and her children will be the eighth generation. So it’s not hard to consider what we’re doing now, how it’s going to impact the next seven generations.

Now I want to acknowledge that this gathering was pulled off on the faith and belief that we could perform miracles. We have no budget, but we have a lot of love and caring. We went up and down, and that’s part of the process because we live in an environment that’s not supportive.

This gathering was put together by our young people in the community and some of the speakers are from a younger generation than myself. They’ve made the time, some of them have traveled a distance, so we need to think about these things that they’re saying because they are part of the intergenerational process. Their voices are speaking the truth of their time, this is their time, and I want to thank every one of them for helping.

We’ve also brought some food here. There’s children that need it, people who are sick with diabetes. We have some water for you, and when you eat that food, give thanks and acknowledge our ancestors. We want to share that with you today. I have some relatives here, John and Katrina, and they want to come and sing a song. They know the Honor Eagle song, and if anybody here knows that song, they’re welcome to join them to sing and stand by them.

Honoring life and giving thanks, and I wanted you to meet their families. This is what an Anishinaabe family looks like today.

We had a chance to have a moment of silence to honor our children, and we have speakers today that are going to talk about what they call the Mohawk Institute, aka the Woodland Cultural Centre. We have speakers that are going to come forward and share their voice in a very creative and empowering way. We have the young organizers that are going to share. We have two generations, a father who has come forward at the request of his daughter, and I think that’s so empowering that her father would come and support her as she’s doing this kind of work.

So miigwech, all of you, for holding the space and taking the time to be here with us. To acknowledge that as the original people, the Indigenous people of Canada, we have a perspective that is holistic and that you are living on our homeland, and I hope that you start taking care of it, and love it as much as we do.

So we’re going to move on with the program today. I know that some people are uncomfortable. but that’s part of the story, we’ve been uncomfortable for a long time watching some of the things that have happened and we just don’t understand where it comes from some of it.

We all belong to the human family, all of us. In our home.

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