Indigenous protesters confront Carolyn Bennett at Canada Day picnic

The uncomfortable disparity between the vision of Canada being celebrated Saturday and the lived realities of many in Indigenous communities was on sharp display in Toronto on Saturday.

Idle No More and grassroots activists organized a day of action called UNsettling Canada 150

The protest Saturday was organized by grassroots activists, Idle No More Toronto and Idle No More Ontario. it was part of a national day of action called UNsettling Canada 150. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The uncomfortable disparity between the idyllic vision of Canada celebrated Saturday and the lived realities of many in Indigenous communities was on sharp display in Toronto this afternoon.

A contingent of activists, as well as many Indigenous people who are simply angry at the state of the country, showed up to a Canada Day picnic hosted by Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, at the Spadina Museum. 

They came from all over Canada to confront the minister about what they say is a government long on public relations and lofty promises, but short on progressive policy changes.

"We came to share our narratives and our point of view. And what we see all the time and consistently with the Liberal government is political rhetoric and photo opportunities," said Tori Cress.

"We're out here dispelling those myths that everything is OK in the Trudeau government ... because nothing is happening," she added.

According to a Facebook page and website set up for the national day of action dubbed UNsettling Canada 150, the protest was organized by grassroots activists, the local chapter of Idle No More and its provincial counterpart Idle No More Ontario. 

Tori Cress called the government's $500-million party a 'slap in the face' to Indigenous communities that struggle with basic human needs, like water and shelter. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

When protesters first arrived at the leafy picnic site in a posh pocket of Toronto, Bennett met a few of them in an attempt to pre-empt the demonstration, inviting them into a sharing circle to discuss the issues. Bennett was joined by elder Frances Sanderson, executive director of Nishnawbe Homes, a non-profit Indigenous housing organization. 

But Bennett was rebuffed during the conversation. Protestors claimed they had tried multiple times before to meet with her without any success. Bennett denied having received any such invitations, to the best of her knowledge, but admitted change is desperately needed.

"Your communities all across Canada need be to able to look after their own children, in their language and culture. That is the changes that have to be made," Bennett answered when asked about disappearing Indigenous languages and culture.

"Where's the money? Where's the plan?" one man snapped back. 

"We have to deal with the provinces and territories and tell them this is unacceptable," Bennett replied.

'Everything is crisis and poverty'

There were harbingers all week that Canada Day would include many reminders of the ongoing tension between Indigenous communities and governments at all levels. Earlier this week, activists erected a teepee on Parliament Hill in the lead up to Saturday. After initial confrontations with police that threatened to escalate, the teepee was allowed to stay (though it was eventually moved to a different location on the Hill.)

The action was aimed at a Canada Day picnic with federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Many of the people who confronted Bennett in Toronto pointed out the absurdity of a $500-million party when many Indigenous communities struggle with meeting the basic needs of residents.

"For all of us, it's a slap in the face. We're still seeing children dying, still seeing women going missing ... it's still happening," said Tori Cress.

"Everything is crisis and poverty. Water crises, suicide crises, missing women crisis, drug overdoses, rampant alcoholism, unemployment rates are 80 per cent and up. These things are not changing and photo opportunities are not making changes."

A similar sentiment has reverberated across the country, becoming particularly amplified in recent weeks as the nation prepared for Saturday. 

In an interview with CBC's News Network, Indigenous activist and scholar Tasha Spillett said that celebrating 150 years is a "huge understatement in terms of our place here in our homelands," adding that, "there are no Indigenous issues in this country — there are colonial issues in this country.

Innu Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee travelled from Labrador to confront the minister over the epidemic of young Indigenous children being taken into foster care or sent thousands of kilometres from home for a basic education. (CBC)

"I think that if we are going to celebrate anything on this day it will be 150 years of our ancestors surviving Canada, surviving the genocidal policies of Canada, surviving the dispossession, the displacement," Spillett explained. 

'This is not the future we want'

After entering the picnic, the protesters joined a sharing circle with Bennett and others who had gathered to hear their stories. 

What transpired was a deeply emotional discussion, punctuated by pangs of frustration and anger. 

Anastasia Qupee, grand chief of the Innu Nation in Labrador, travelled to Toronto to see Bennett face to face. 

"Our kids are not speaking the language ... How can we protect our future when they're so far away from us?" she asked, referring to Indigenous children in the foster care and education systems who are forced to leave northern communities.

"How can they have a a connection with their families? How can they do that? There's broken connections and it's hurting them, its' hurting us," she said through tears. 

Protesters were deeply critical of the current government, arguing that while it may be better at creating an appearance of change, little substantive difference has come under their governance. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

"Yet the government talks about the future. How the future's really important for Canada, for the Aboriginal people. But this is not the future we see, this is not the future we want for our children," she said to cheers from the gathered crowd.

Bennett would only say that changes are coming, and that she believes the policies put in place by the current government will ultimately help Indigenous communities secure self-governance.


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.