Mi'kmaq activist says Proud Boys show more education needed in military

The organizer of an Indigenous protest that was interrupted by off-duty members of the military on Canada Day says it’s time the Canadian Forces incorporated Mi’kmaq history into its training.

5 Armed Forces members suspended as military reviews their conduct at Indigenous protest

The Canadian navy has confirmed all 5 men involved in the "Proud Boys" incident at an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax's Cornwallis Park are servicemen. 2:10

The organizer of an Indigenous protest that was interrupted by off-duty members of the military on Canada Day says it's time the Canadian Armed Forces incorporated Mi'kmaq history into its operations and training.

Five members of the Canadian Armed Forces are now suspended with pay pending an investigation into their conduct.

They disrupted a ceremony where Chief Grizzly Mamma, an Indigenous woman from B.C., was shaving her head as a sign of mourning.

The protest was held near a statue of Edward Cornwallis, a controversial British military officer credited with founding Halifax the same year he offered cash to anyone who killed a Mi'kmaq person. 

Organizer Rebecca Moore said Chief Grizzly Mamma was in the middle of prayer when the men started approaching. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Dispute over Mi'kmaq lands

The five men identified themselves as being Proud Boys, a fraternal organization that describes its members as "Western chauvinists."

One of the men said the protesters were "disrespecting Gen. Cornwallis," and part of the exchange with the activists centred on whether they were in Canada or on Mi'kmaq lands.

Rebecca Moore, who organized the July 1 event, said people were praying to their ancestors for lives lost since the beginning of colonization when they were interrupted. 

Acknowledgement of territory 

Now she'd like to see an ongoing public acknowledgement from the military on the East Coast that they're on unceded Mi'kmaq lands.

"So it's not disputable, it's a fact, and their employees are aware of that," she said Wednesday. "That's our history and that education piece is a key factor in avoid confrontations [such as] what happened on Canada Day." 

Other institutions in Nova Scotia have taken steps to acknowledge they're on Mi'kmaq territory

No one from the Canadian Armed Forces was immediately available to comment on Moore's call for official recognition and more education.

Ceremony overshadowed

Halifax's poet laureate, Rebecca Thomas, who was also at the ceremony, said it is unfortunate the Proud Boys' arrival overshadowed the purpose of the event. 

Rebecca Thomas, Halifax's poet laureate, says the response to the so-called Proud Boys has overshadowed a meaningful Indigenous ceremony. (CBC)

She hopes people who've been following what happened "don't feel sorry or pity us. I want people to understand and empathize with what we're doing."

Indigenous groups have had to work hard to assert their rights and retain their language and ceremonies, Thomas said.

"It would be nice that people understood how much Indigenous people are still fighting for sovereignty and to be understood and to be empathized with. We are not postcolonial. Canada has a lot of work when it comes to reconciliation and reparations with Indigenous people, Armed Forces included."  

'Pretty prevalent' comments

While it was unusual to have a group physically interrupt an event, Moore, a member of Pictou Landing First Nation, said the mentality she encountered wasn't new. 

She said similar comments are "pretty prevalent" in conversations at social events or among friends.

The group of men wore matching black and yellow polo shirts and showed up carrying the Red Ensign flag. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

"People who think like that — on a day-to-day basis, and more one-on-one confrontations — that's not unusual at all," she said. "It's kind of discouraging that we have to be asserting ourselves and re-assert ourselves when these are facts. That's history." 

Tuning out racist comments — in person and online — has become routine, she said. But it still takes "an emotional and mental toll."

'Duty' to educate people

Despite this, Moore said she tries to take the time to educate people on Indigenous history and culture. 

"That is, in a sense, my duty, for when I have kids that maybe they don't have to fight as hard to be themselves."

People who identify as Inuit, Métis or Indigenous make up 2.5 per cent of the regular force and primary reserve force. 

Daniel Le Bouthillier, a spokesperson for the Canadian Forces, said Indigenous Canadians are "core members of the defence team and deserve to be celebrated as such."

"The defence team works hard to foster a diverse, inclusive organization and will continue these efforts to ensure a respectful, dignified environment for all Canadians," he said in a statement.