Out In The Open

'To call myself Canadian would speak to the success of residential schools'

Three Indigenous people reflect on the word ‘Canadian’ and what fuels their individual choice to acknowledge or reject the term in how they identify.
Mylan Tootoosis, Iskwé and JP Gladu reflect on their varied relationships to the word 'Canadian.' (Courtesy of Mylan Tootoosis, Iskwé and JP Gladu)

"I would not identify as Indigenous Canadian or Canadian," says Mylan Tootoosis, a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan in the Department of Indigenous Studies.

'If you look through the TRC Report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, the goal of residential school was to make Indigenous bodies acceptable to colonialism and colonization. The goal was to make Canadians. 

"So, for me personally, to call myself Canadian would speak to the success of residential school."

Instead, Tootoosis identifies as Nêhiyawpwat (Plains Cree-Nakota) from Poundmaker Cree Nation, in Treaty Six Territory. 

He chooses to use the term Nêhiyawpwat because it is rooted "within our language that tie[s] me to a landscape and a people that have been here forever."

But also because Tootoosis says that growing up in rural Saskatchewan, racism is still visible to this day, where he's experienced being 'othered.' 

"These are my homelands. This is my holy land to be on the prairie and live here. This is where my sense of belonging truly is. However, when we're looking at the structures and the systems of colonialism and colonization, they are very offensive and aggressive in terms of who they want me to be...So, me choosing to stand in the truth of my Indigenous identity, my inherent rights as an Indigenous person on this landscape, is the truth that I choose to live by." 

"I identify as an Indigenous Canadian. I identify as a First Nations man, but I'm also a Canadian," say Jean Paul (JP) Gladu, President of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business.

"My grandmothers are both Anishinaabekwe… both were taken away to residential school when they were young girls. My grandfathers are French and Scottish," says Gladu.

"I look at my grandfathers who were good providers for their families. One was a logger, the other was a pipeline worker… It's a part of who I am." 

But Gladu says he recognizes why many Indigenous people don't identify with the term "Canadian."

"The atrocities of residential school, the Sixties Scoop, that was the Canadian government doing that to our people. I can totally understand the trauma and the response to that. I mean why would I associate myself with a society that would do that to people?"

"I guess where I find myself going, 'Ok, I'm embracing the Canadian side of me ' because I think there are a lot of amazing Canadians in this country that are side by side with our people trying to make this a better country, a better relationship," says Gladu.

For singer-songwriter Iskwé, whether she identifies with the word 'Canadian' is a bit more complicated than a yes or no answer.

"I identify as being from Canada in the sense that a part of my family comes from this territory. But the other part of my family does not come from this territory…And that territory was created post my family being here."

So, when it comes to identity, Iskwé says she's "Cree, Dene, Metis and Irish."

"When I'm traveling, or when I'm in other places, or if I'm being asked specifically, then I will include Canadian in there because I was born and raised in Canada " she says.

"But, in terms of what I feel really fits within my spirit and personality and my teaching and my traditions, those are linked directly to my culture and my Indigenous nations and the nations of celtic culture… That's where the identity really sits. It's more specific to me than Canada." 

This story originally aired on July 2, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Hyphen State".