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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

The biggest story of the year in Canada was also one of the oldest stories in the country. The discovery of unmarked children’s graves on the grounds of a former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, sent shockwaves of anger, sadness, shame and remorse across the country and around the world.

The discovery led to investigations at other residential school sites and revelations of likely thousands more graves.

In response, the Canadian government made Sept. 30 a federal holiday called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

But it was also an amazing year for Indigenous women. The Assembly of First Nations elected its first woman chief, Roseanne Archibald. The Métis National Council elected the first woman president, Cassidy Caron. Mary Simon was the first Indigenous person to be named governor-general of Canada.

In music and the arts, legendary artist Buffy Sainte-Marie was put on a postage stamp, and actor Graham Greene was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

It was also a year in which two long-standing disputes over Indigenous rights and Indigenous lands and waters bookended Canada – the Mi’kmaq lobster dispute on the East Coast and the Wet’suwet’en pipeline dispute on the West coast.

Here are some of the top stories that unfolded in 2021.

Jan. 18: Inuktut language broadcaster Uvagut-TV launched

Television broadcasting in the Inuit language is now available in homes across Canada on Shaw TV, Canada’s largest cable and satellite television service.

Uvagut-TV broadcasts children’s shows, movies, documentaries, cultural and current affairs programming in Inuktut to communities across the north and throughout the country. It is owned and operated by Nunavut Independent Television Network (NITV), an Inuit-owned nonprofit media arts group founded in 1991 in Igloolik.

Television remains the most important and most widely available form of broadcast communications for Inuit and other Indigenous peoples living in remote areas. Internet service remains spotty and expensive, so television remains a critical tool in sharing and preserving Indigenous languages and culture in the Canadian north.

Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Murray Sinclair, in a black suit, marches along with Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde (in headdress) in an Ottawa march on Sunday that was part of the closing events of the commission's work. Between 7,000 and 10,000 participants marched.

Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Murray Sinclair, in a black suit, marches along with Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde (in headdress) in an Ottawa march on Sunday that was part of the closing events of the commission's work. Between 7,000 and 10,000 participants marched.

Jan. 31: Indigenous judge retires from Canadian Senate

Justice Murray Sinclair, Cree/Saulteux, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first inquiry into the Indian Residential School System, retired from the Canadian Senate at age 70, despite having received an appointment for life.

The Senate is a part of the Canadian Parliamentary system that is largely symbolic; it does not have the power to stop any legislation from moving forward or any law from being made or broken. The members are appointed at the whim of the ruling prime minister to a lifelong position that cannot be revoked.

Sinclair was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016 and used the position to speak up on issues regarding Indigenous peoples that have been his life’s work. The first Indigenous judge in Manitoba, he would lead Canada’s first deep examination into institutional racism in the legal system as commissioner of the Manitoba Justice Inquiry. From 2009 to 2014, he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Sinclair said he was planning to mentor young Indigenous lawyers, and before the end of the year had joined Cochrane Saxberg, a self-described “Indigenous advocacy law firm.”

March 22: Racism found in police handling of Cree man’s death

The Civilian Review and Complaint Commission found racist discrimination in the conduct of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in its handling of the killing of 22-year-old Colten Boushie by farmer Gerald Stanley.

Stanley shot and killed Boushie when the young Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nations and some friends had driven onto Stanley’s property in rural Saskatchewan in 2016. Stanley was not convicted of any crime.

The commission’s investigation found that “the RCMP members who notified Mr. Boushie's mother, Debbie Baptiste, of his death treated her with such insensitivity that her treatment amounted to discrimination. The RCMP members' actions included questioning Ms. Baptiste about her sobriety, smelling her breath, and looking inside her microwave to verify her statement that she had put her now-deceased son's dinner there.”

There was also criticism by the commission regarding how evidence at the scene was handled, including a failure to protect the vehicle Boushie was sitting in when shot. “This, in conjunction with an unreasonable delay in obtaining a search warrant for the property, led to the loss of evidence as a result of inclement weather,” the commission concluded.

May 28: Discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops

The remains of 215 children were found buried at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the largest of Canada’s infamous boarding schools housing children forcibly taken from their families.

The discovery drew international outrage and led to discoveries of thousands more buried children at former school sites. Searches are continuing across Canada and the United States for children who were forced from their homes and families to face indoctrination in the boarding schools, but who never made it home.

Flags were lowered on all government buildings to acknowledge the lost children, and remained lowered until November.

Kyrie Buffalo, 13, of the Seneca Nation (Turtle Clan), peers at the Canadian Horseshoe Falls while wrapped in a blanket on May 31, 2021. All three waterfalls, totaling about 800,000 gallons of water per second, were illuminated orange on Memorial Day in honor of the 215 children found in a mass grave at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. (Photo by Kateri Capton-Serpas via Ken Cosentino)

Canada’s Indian Residential School System was a system of genocide that took children forcibly from their homes and placed them into prison-like institutions to strip them of their language and culture, following the motto “Kill the Indian, save the man,” that formed the basis for the first U.S. boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

The system left thousands of children’s remains all over the country. The Kamloops school was one of 139 federally operated Indian residential schools that the Canadian government ran in partnerships with the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches. There were many more missionary and boarding schools run independently by churches.

Searches are continuing for other remains of children who never made it home.

Just three days before the end of 2015, Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, a member of the Ulkatcho First Nation in British Columbia, picked up the Lionel Conacher Canada Athlete of the Year

Just three days before the end of 2015, Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, a member of the Ulkatcho First Nation in British Columbia, picked up the Lionel Conacher Canada Athlete of the Year

May: Hockey player carries dreams of nation as nightmares revealed

The son of the long-serving chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation in northern British Columbia and a descendant of a residential school survivor, Carey Price propelled the Montreal Canadiens hockey team on a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup finals.

It may have been a burden beyond what anyone had endured in the history of Canadian sports. Three days before he led the Canadiens to a surprising first-round victory over the heavily favored Toronto Maple Leafs, hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Price’s home province of British Columbia.

When his team played the Winnipeg Jets in the second round of the playoffs, Price took time out to meet with a residential school survivor in the city. He led his team to the finals and carried the dreams of all fans to finally bring the cup back home to Canada.

There were only two things that dominated the news in Canada during that time: hockey and the discovery of more and more unmarked graves.

The Canadiens would lose in the Stanley Cup finals to the defending champs, the Tampa Bay Lightnings, but it was a spectacular run all the same.

Before the end of the year, Price would enter the National Hockey League’s players support program to deal with personal issues. It was seen by many on social media as another step taken in leadership by Price as mental health challenges can be unspoken and lonely battles for many.

June 7: Man sentenced in trailer hitch killing 

With international attention focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, an Ontario man was convicted in the random and brutal killing of Barbara Kentner in 2017 in Thunder Bay.

Brayden Bushby had thrown a steel trailer hitch out of a moving vehicle at Kentner as she walked along the sidewalk with her sister. The object hit the 34-year-old Anishinaabe woman in the stomach with such force that she did not recover from her injury. She died a few months later in hospital.

Bushby was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in jail. In a country yet to deal with the scourge of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, it was another example of the random and hateful violence directed at them.

Pictured: Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald.

July 8: Assembly of First Nations elects first woman national chief

Roseanne Archibald of the Taykwa Tagamou Nation was elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an organization representing the First Nations in Canada.

"Today is a victory, and you can tell all the women in your life that the glass ceiling has been broken,” Archibald told delegates after her win. “I thank all of the women who punched that ceiling before me and made a crack.”

Archibald had previously served as Ontario regional chief and was elected chief of Taykwa Tagamou Nation in 1990.

July 26: Inuk woman tapped as Queen’s representative

Mary Simon, Inuk, was sworn in as the first Indigenous governor-general, serving as the Queen of England’s representative in Canada.

Simon has been a leader for the Inuit on land claims, climate change and international relations. She was president of Makivik Corporation, where she helped to protect and promote Inuit rights through the implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon will not seek a third term, she has announced.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon will not seek a third term, she has announced.

She also served two terms as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, now known as the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and was president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representative organization for Canada’s Inuit from 2006-2012.

Canada operates with a Parliamentary democracy and remains a part of the British Commonwealth.

Although the governor-general’s role is largely ceremonial and consists of public appearances and handing out awards, there is one ceremony the post performs that is essential to the democracy of Canada but which also retains a whiff of the monarchy. The Canadian prime minister can unilaterally decide to dissolve the government and send the people to the polls for an election. All that is required is a request to the governor-general to dissolve Parliament.

One month after his swearing in, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the governor-general to do just that, and Canadians went back to the polls for a “snap election” less than two years into his four-year term.

Pictured: Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation fishing boats have begun fishing for lobster in the community’s traditional territory – referred to as Gespe’gewa’gi – in the Bay of Chaleur, off the southern coast of the Gaspé Peninsula.

Aug. 16: First Nations chief questioned in lobster dispute

The dispute over lobster has been going on for decades in Canada, with Indigenous fishers standing up for their rights to harvest from the ocean.

In August, Chief Mike Sack was taken in for questioning by the federal fisheries department soon after announcing the expansion of Spiekne’katik First Nations self-governed lobster fishery.

Despite having their rights to fish, hunt and harvest guaranteed in one of Canada’s oldest treaties, the Indigenous fishers have been oppressed by government and law enforcement as well as vigilantes who have burned down buildings, cut boats adrift, destroyed lobster traps and committed numerous acts of threats and vandalism.

The Mi’kmaq continued to go out fishing throughout the year and were even joined by chiefs from other First Nations, and from National Chief Roseanne Archibald.

Sept. 20: Canada’s snap election brings new Indigenous faces

Canadians went back to the polls less than two years after the previous election after the prime minister called a snap election.

After a whirlwind, six-week campaign, the election results were essentially the same: Trudeau’s Liberals remained in charge but with a minority government that required the support of other parties to pass legislation and budgets.

Blake Desjarlais, 27, left, a citizen of the Metis Nation, won election to a seat in the Canadian Parliament in the Sept. 20, 2021, snap election. A New Democratic Party member, he won in a traditionally conservative district in the middle of Alberta's oil country. He is Indigenous, two-spirit and openly declares himself a “climate champion.” (Photo courtesy of the New Democratic Party)

The support usually comes from the socialist New Democratic Party, which elected two new Indigenous voices to the halls of power. Blake Desjarlais, Métis Nation, is a two-spirited, self-proclaimed “climate champion” who was elected to the Canadian Parliament in the heart of Canada’s oil country in Alberta, the province that is largely dependent on oil sands revenue to drive the economy.

In the northern territory of Nunuvut, Lori Idlout, Inuk, was elected to represent the region in Parliament. The vast territory is three times the size of Texas and is an Inuit-controlled territory with Inuktut as the official language.

Sept. 30: Métis National Council elects first woman president

Cassidy Caron was elected president of the Métis National Council, a national representative organization for Métis citizens in Canada. Caron arrived with the MNC in disarray after the Manitoba Métis Federation pulled out of the organization a few days before the election.

The MNC represents the Métis Nations of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Caron is the first woman elected to the position, and is also the youngest to serve as MNC president.

Sept. 30: Canada makes Orange Shirt Day a national holiday

A day that had been celebrated as “Orange Shirt Day” in honor of a residential school survivor whose beloved orange school shirt was taken from her as she arrived at school was declared a federal holiday, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

As the remains of children were being discovered in unmarked graves at former boarding school sites, the Canadian government declared Sept. 30 a national holiday. It didn’t get off to a great start, however – many people did not get the day off, and no commemorative events or acts of reconciliation were attended by the prime minister.

Trudeau did take the day off, but traveled to the vacation town of Tofino – where the movie “Twilight” was filmed - to go surfing. He would later admit it was a mistake.

Buffy Sainte-Marie postage stamp, 2021. (Photo courtesy of APTN National News)

Nov. 18: Buffy Sainte-Marie on a postage stamp

Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cree, one of the most significant Indigenous artists of all time, was celebrated with her image on a Canadian postage stamp.

Canada Post made the announcement on Nov. 18 that the stamp would use an image from Sainte-Marie’s album, “Coincidences and Likely Stories.”

Sainte-Marie is a celebrated songwriter who has had her songs performed by artists across genres and generations, from Shirley Bassey, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Courtney Love. She won an Academy Award for her song, “Up Where We Belong,” which was featured in the movie, “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Her classic, “Until it’s time for you to go,” has been recorded more than 125 times, including dozens of recordings as an instrumental.

She emerged in the politically conscious and socially active folk music scene of the 1960s and never lost the fire to speak out in life and in music. In 2015, she recorded perhaps the most acclaimed album of her career, “Power in the Blood,” which was given the Polaris Music Prize, the top music prize in Canada. The record is a vibrant expression of love, protest and passion centered by the title track and the single, ”Love Charms (Mojo Bijou Mix).”

Graham Green as Kicking Bird accompanies Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) in "Dances With Wolves." (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures/MGM)

Graham Green as Kicking Bird accompanies lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) in Dances With Wolves.

Oct. 6: Graham Greene inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame

Actor Graham Greene, Oneida, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as Kicking Bird in the film, “Dances with Wolves,” was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. From Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Graham established himself on the stage and won the Dora Mavor Moore award for best actor for his performance in Thomson Highway’s, “Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskassing.”

Greene has nearly 170 credits to his name in both television and movie productions. In addition to standout performances in big-budget films such as “Green Mile,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and “Maverick,” he has added his star to independent films such as “Skins,” “Wind River,” and “Transamerica.”

Greene joins fellow thespian Keanu Reeves, singers Jully Black and Bruce Cockburn and former World Wrestling Federation wrestler Brett “The Hitman” Hart and others in Canada’s Walk of Fame Class of 2021.

Oct. 12: Water contaminated in Canada’s largest Inuit community

Residents of Iqaluit – the capital of the northern territory of Nunavut and home to more than 8,000, the majority of whom are Inuit – were told not to drink the water after it was found to be contaminated with fuel.

People began to complain about the smell of the tap water, and the Nunavut Health Department told Iqalummiut (Iqaluit residents) not to drink water from the municipal water supply. Testing proved that the water supply had been contaminated.

Bottles of water had to be flown into the community as there was no other source of freshwater. The restriction was lifted on Dec. 10 but questions remain about the source of what was described as a “historical fuel spill” and whether the water will remain safe to drink.

Nov. 16: Canada loses an iconic literary voice

Lee Maracle, one of the most important and unique voices in Canadian literature, journeyed to the spirit world on Nov. 16. She was 71.

Maracle, Sto:olo Nation, was a caring and generous soul and a leader in creating contemporary Canadian Indigenous literature. She published seven books of fiction, four books of nonfiction and three books of poetry, and contributed to a number of anthologies.

She is remembered by many Indigenous writers as a mentor who nurtured and helped to tend the garden of Indigenous voices, sharing all the recipes, protocols and insider information that she gathered over her life. She didn’t keep her medicine on the shelf.

Her first book, the autobiographical, “Bobbi Lee – An Indian Rebel,” tells a story that rivals American faux fiction such as Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” especially when the reader considers what a terrifying world Canada has been for Indigenous women. It is one of the foundational books in the canon of Indigenous writing in Canada.

In her work and in her life she was a defender of Indigenous women, Indigenous rights and Indigenous voices.

Nov. 18: Wet’suwet’en raid leads to arrests in pipeline dispute

Rolling in with military grade weaponry, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested 14 land defenders on a remote gravel road being used to build the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, a line that will carry natural gas through the British Columbia forests, over the mountains and to the Pacific Ocean.

The raid happened at a time when the British Columbia coast was being pummeled by severe weather driven by climate change. Floods, mudslides and a phenomenon known as an “atmospheric river” caused widespread damage in the province, including wiping out sections of highways.

In a statement released the following day, the Wet’suwet’en Heriditary Chiefs said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police should focus on the current crisis. “The RCMP should be assisting flood victims and communities, not out invading our Territory and arresting our peaceful people and supporters,” according to the statement.

Dec. 13: Canada begins settlement with First Nations children

Less than three months into his new mandate after the September snap election, the prime minister has decided to settle with the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society with a $40 billion deal that would compensate children and families affected by the nation’s child welfare services.

The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society released a statement in response to the announcement.

“This case is about First Nations children, youth and families,” the statement said. “It is to them that we owe a sacred duty of ensuring their safety and well-being. We are committed to seeing through what the residential school survivors have made their top Calls-to-Action – ending the discrimination in child welfare and ensuring the full and proper implementation of Jordan’s Principle. And there is still much work to be done."

In 2007, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Famiy Caring Society filed a complaint against Canada alleging that child welfare services provided to First Nations children and families on-reserve were flawed, inequitable and discriminatory.

In 2016, the Tribunal ruled that the Canadian government had discriminated and grossly underfunded services to First Nations children. Canada continued to dispute the decision during the first two terms of Trudeau’s Liberal government, despite his claim that, “no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with First Nations, Métis Nation and Inuit Peoples.”

The third time around, however, has seen big changes in the government's relationship with Indigenous peoples, starting with the removal of Carolyn Bennett from the role of minister responsible for Indigenous relations. Bennett had been a star in the cabinet and had served as Trudeau’s lead on Indigenous affairs since before he was elected.

Leading up to the election, however, a number of Indigenous leaders had called for her to be removed from the position.

Dec. 25: A leading media light goes out too soon

Candy Palmater, a wildly entertaining and innovative talk show host on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and CBC Radio One, died suddenly on Christmas Day. She was 53.

Her dynamic personality and intellect left an indelible mark on Canadian television. She broke so many barriers in her career that it may only be seen for what it was in retrospect.

Palmater, Mi’kmaq, began her entertainment career as a stand-up comedian but also had a law degree from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. She was a motivational speaker and recently appeared as a part time co-host on the daytime talk show, “The Social.”

Palmater was the one of a few Indigenous personalities on Canadian television and the loss of her intellectual, passionate and humorous voice left an overwhelming silence. 

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