Canada Day—that country’s equivalent of the Fourth of July, the U.S.’s Independence Day—is fraught with ambivalence for aboriginals, and perhaps even more so this year, as the country marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
Aboriginals, First Nations foremost among them, have long emphasized their role in the founding of the country. It was supposed to be a collaborative effort, the formation of this nation, and no where was that more evident than during the War of 1812, when the U.S. went to war with the British, trying to encroach on Canadian territory.
During this war between Britain and United States, more than 10,000 First Nations warriors fought as British allies to stop the American invasion of British Canada. Though these aboriginal fighters played a major role in the victory for Britain and Canada, there is hardly a mention of their contribution and sacrifice in today’s history books or monuments.
This year, with the 200th anniversary of the war’s beginning, aboriginal groups are working to change those perceptions. Forefront among them is the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which will hold a series of public events designed to honor the warriors while educating Canadians about the significant role of First Nations in the War of 1812 and in the making of Canada.
As it turned out, that would be aboriginals’ last shot at maintaining independence. Although the U.S. was stopped, paving the way for the formation of Canada, the First Nations were the real losers of the war, as their confederacy under the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh was fighting to help defeat the US so that they could get a separate nation created for the confederacy and the First Nations.
With the defeat of Tecumseh went the chances of that for indigenous on both sides of what became the U.S.-Canada border. Thus, while neither Canada nor the U.S. lost much through the war, the First Nations lost their last chance for their own nationhood.
First Nations focus on the bravery and loss of their warriors in the war, and that is what is being played up to the hilt this year at the AFN’s 33rd Annual General Assembly (AGA) in Toronto from July 16–19. The assembly will essentially double as a unique four-day social and cultural program to celebrate, honor and acknowledge First Nations’ contributions to the war.
Also at the assembly, which will be hosted by the Chiefs of Ontario, AFN members will elect a new national chief.
With the theme “1812–2012 Honouring the Traditions: Achieving Action for Our Future,” the program aims to both clarify history and move the discussion forward. It will begin with a Gathering of Eagle Staff Procession led by the eagle staff carriers and veterans, followed by the nation flags and leaders, then community flags, and last, by people.
Organizers expect a good 5,000 participants to march in the honor procession, which will wind through downtown Toronto, from the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC) to Fort York, where a commemorative memorial service will honor War of 1812 warriors as well as veterans of later wars. All First nations, veterans and aboriginal communities were invited to participate, according to the organizers.
“The ceremonial importance of the eagle staff gathering and procession is to commemorate the participation of our people in the War of 1812 and to educate the general public,” said Chester Langille, the procession coordinator. “The gathering of eagle staffs represent the unity of our people and nations and are our sacred flags.”
It won’t end there, though. A mural by artist Adrian Nadjiwon will be unveiled on the west wall of OFIFC in August.
“The mural will have images including Chiefs Techumseh and John Brant, identified battle sites superimposed on the image of a map of Upper Canada, and in the center, the image of the First Nation Veterans Memorial encircled by flame,” said Langille.
After a welcome concert for the incoming chiefs and a Norval Morrisseau art exhibit (free and open to the public), the commemorative program will wind up on July 19 with a gala theatrical presentation featuring renowned playwright Herbie Barnes. According to organizers, the audience will be taken on “a journey through the lens of First Nations to retell the history of the alliances made between the indigenous nations and British battalions, and the victorious contributions made by the indigenous nations to the outcome of the War of 1812.”