This is an account of the first evening of the 2017 Reoccupation by a white settler. By virtue of my identity, I cannot provide a comprehensive or fully accurate account of the events that transpired. All I can do is offer my own account and support for this incredible youth and Indigenous-led grassroots movement that achieved international exposure. I wrote this piece as the story was still unfolding, as I felt it needed to be captured in its intensity as it transpired – people should know what it was like to be on the ground, involved in events of historical importance. I apologize if there are errors or insensitive elements in this article. I am still learning and unlearning, and I am bound by my own limited experiences. Before reading this piece, I invite you to familiarize yourself with the Bawating Water Protectors, Idle No More, and the history of anti-colonial resistance in Canada and abroad.
The number of great speakers and writers is far too great to mention, but I would like to specifically name Jocelyn Wabano Iahtail, Fredrick Stoneypoint, Candace Day Neveau, Lynn Gehl, and Ashley Courchene as some of the most inspiring people I had the good fortune of meeting. Please prioritize learning from those who organized the event and from those whose voices, although most knowledgeable, are the most suppressed.
Reoccupation: June 28, 2017
5:00pm – UNCEDED ALGONQUIN TERRITORY. I am seated on a short stone fence by the Human Rights Monument, itself situated by the city courthouse, a heritage building, and ottawa's city hall. The nearby trashcans with an ‘O’ logo pasted on the side remind me of my location. Nobody has yet arrived, save for one person sitting casually yet expectantly on the edifice. The concrete structure, erected in 1990, sits in the shadow of surrounding buildings – across the street sits the Knox Presbyterian Church, whose sign reads ‘THANK GOD FOR CANADA’. The fencing is stuffed with decorative canadian flags (est. 1965), and the industrious sounds of construction fill the air – not much longer until the big day! Another adjacent street corner houses a royal bank of canada, an oft-used symbol of prosperity for these lands. rbc has loaned over $10 billion to tar sand extraction companies over the last 10 years. A cool breeze fills the air and police presence is high. Every 30 seconds, a car or pair of cyclists roll past to reassert their presence and power, keeping me safe from ne’er-do-wells committing civil disobedience (annual budget: $285.9 million). The overcast sky suggests an ominous future, and a colourful tarp covers an under-construction building that won’t be completed in time for the celebrations – ‘Building Towards A Better Tomorrow!’ it shrugs.
5:30pm – Nobody has arrived yet, so I take a brief stroll down bustling downtown streets. Elgin, Lisgar, Cooper, Somerset, McLaren – the names ring out like a list of successful colonial directors: Important men without whom construction workers would never have paved these roads, lined with lush, green, and nearly-indigenous flora. Churches, condos, and business high-rises compete to dwarf one another, and Latin characters inform me of their contents.
6:00pm – I meet with friends by the monument. We exchange amiable greetings, and a nervous air of expectancy lingers on our words. We have not informed the royal canadian mounted police of our plan, and we are self-consciously aware that we are privy to forbidden information. The rcmp would not have granted the organizers a permit to erect a teepee on parliament hill if a formal request were submitted, and besides, why ask for permission to conduct a peaceful ceremony on unceded Algonquin land in the first place? People smile and acknowledge that they may be arrested for what is about to happen. That should make life difficult for the canada150 PR team. The ceremonies begin.
6:30pm – Several people hoist Mohawk Warrior / Unity flags, popularized by the Oka crisis in 1990, and European descendants solemnly hold a sign that reads ‘Our Home On Native Land’. Beautiful and heart wrenching speeches are given by Indigenous elders and organizers from the Bawating Water Protectors who had recently arrived from Sault Ste Marie. Children, parents, brothers and sisters, entire families from across Turtle Island have been taken away prematurely as a result of the colonial settler state. These occurrences are not confined to the past – one speaker spoke of how their cousin was lost just last week. They have yet to be informed of who was responsible or even receive a coroner's report, although they were told they would be notified several days ago. Silent tears are shed.
7:00pm – The rain falls hard, so some friends and I briefly leave to purchase some protective gear from a nearby dollar store. The cashier, surrounded by celebratory canada day merchandise, seemed puzzled when we left with 20 ponchos. We distribute them to our comrades in the thunderstorm, and my pen is rendered impotent by the merciless rain. The last thing I am able to scrawl in my notebook is the name and number of a lawyer who would help me if I get into trouble.
7:30pm – Passerby are mesmerized by the opening ceremony, some baffled, some occupied by cell phone conversations. Others join us off the street, sympathetic for the cause. The cops maintain an eerily quiet, watchful eye behind us – there are several cars parked by the monument, and the officers maintain their Officially Regulated Intimidating Power Stances. It is cold and wet – I lose feeling in my fingers and the more radical organizers convene to determine the best plan of action.
8:00pm – The crowd is growing restless. The teepee is nearly an hour away, we are told. Organizers say that the RCMP refuses to allow its installation, not that we had expected otherwise. The crowd, now stabilizing at approximately 80 people, forms a circle and passes around a microphone to allow the sharing of stories. I am a white settler, I say. I am here to listen and learn, and to support the Water Protectors against oppression from the illegitimate colonial state. Many stories are of great sadness, but they are never without hope.
8:30pm – Exultant joy – the teepee has arrived. The crowd gathers by the car, its roof adorned with long wooden poles. Although we waited with baited breath, there is no rush to transport the teepee. Ceremonial sage is burned, tobacco is distributed to our left hands along with a sacred message, and elder women form the vanguard. The rain has subsided and there is hope in the eyes of all participants.
9:00pm – The march to parliament hill has begun. Singing and drumming is accompanied by distant sirens and the muffled sounds of police walkie-talkies. Larger people like myself are either carrying the deceptively heavy poles or maintaining a protective human wall evenly along both sides of those bearing the load. We navigate onto streets flooded with vehicles and ensure that the police are not merely corralling us into a fenced-off location near the national war memorial. I start livestreaming as we come face-to-face with the police awaiting us at the entrance gate.
9:30pm – We manage to bring the teepee halfway past the parliamentary borderline before we are met with harsh state resistance - dozen upon dozens of officers physically prevent us from entering. I try to defend the poles while filming potential instances of police brutality. Indigenous singers are wrestled to the ground and detained for ‘obstruction’. White people actually carrying the poles are by in large not wrestled to the ground and detained. We are notified that those holding the teepee will be arrested – people who cannot risk arrest recoil, and I reassert myself under the wooden poles. I couldn't imagine myself getting a job that requires a security check, anyways. My phone dies in the midst of the chaos, as scowling police officers grab and handcuff the peaceful demonstrators. 9 people - men, women, the young, and elders alike - are dragged screaming across the pavement to a detainment zone closer to the peace tower.
10:00pm – The rcmp are yelling, threatening to arrest us at any sign of abrupt movement. Elders note that all other religions are free to have sacred spaces in canada – why can’t they have a peaceful ceremony in a teepee on unceded Algonquin territory upon which the canadian parliament buildings are situated? Even if you accept that the regulations imposed by the settler state are somehow legitimate, the colonial occupation is still illegal on the canadian state’s own terms. I have never heard someone honestly suggest that settlers return to where their families came from (europe, etc.). From what I’ve learned, they simply want canadians to acknowledge the atrocities of the past – cultural genocide, residential schools, forced assimilation, broken treaties, the 60s scoop and so much more – in more than an empty symbolic way. What's more, these atrocities are not confined to the past – the inflicted trauma is passed down to the children of survivors, there are current at least 125 documented boil water advisories in 85 communities, suicide rates are significantly higher among Indigenous peoples, land claims are systemically challenged in court, not to mention the ongoing millennial scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous women, innumerable accounts of police brutality and negligence, and a complete disrespect from a large proportion of canadians – if you need proof, look at any comment section about canadian news or the recent remarks from governor general David Johnson about “quote indigenous people unquote”. These cannot be swept into the history books with a half-hearted attempt at recognition - these are ongoing injustices that we must confront every day. We are all responsible for this state-led destruction of Indigenous peoples and cultures.
Celebrating 150 rotations around the sun since the passing of the first of 20 ‘British North America Acts’ by investing half a billion dollars without acknowledging the unjust foundations of the colonial government’s occupation is not only ignorant, it is utterly incoherent. Although many settlers (including myself) were born here, we are still responsible for canada’s treatment of Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island. We have to educate ourselves, take advantage of our privileged voices, and support full liberation for all Indigenous nations. Silence is complicity.
10:30pm – We are offered food and water by allies who cannot fit under the pole to help. A teepee protector collapses and paramedics arrive, the police using this as an excuse for trying to push us back through the gate. Elders try to make speeches, but are drowned out by the lightshow and booming bass emanating from the massive CANADA150 stage. The teepee is not allowed on the hill because it would have caused a nuisance, so they try to drive us back with a sensory overload.
11:00pm – My back giving out from beneath the weight, someone offers to swap out with me. Trolls watching from the sidelines laugh at our efforts: “What do you expect to accomplish? Why don’t you try something else? I don’t know what you should do, just not this, haha.” There is no doubt that society has inculcated a nihilistic attitude in many young people, but the sheer number of human beings who scoff at anyone trying to accomplish anything never ceases to amaze me. Our demonstrative actions are justified even in their apathetic eyes when major news outlets begin arriving to document the scene. Reporters speak to me and my white friends – we redirect them to more appropriate representatives of the movement.
11:30pm – An officer tries to appeal to us in the heat of a shouting match, remarking that we have a choice in the side we’re on – he has no option but to obey orders. When we ask him what side he would be on if he could choose, he says he honestly does not know. The words send a chill up my spine. The careers of police officers are built on the absconsion of responsibility, and there is no room for dissent if state orders contradict their moral intuitions. This has countless dangerous precedents that I don’t need to mention here.
Midnight – The officers finally decide to stop pushing back on the poles, and instead place metal barricades in front us, blocking our access to the hill. On the barricades are stickers reading ‘Heritage Canada’. I make my way up to the barricades to prevent them from pushing us back any further, maintaining firm eye contact with cops who look at me. For all of their smug grins and intimidation tactics, they are clearly made uncomfortable when the steely gaze is returned. They are faced with their own humanity, the guilt they feel when they are not merely agents acting on behalf of the settler state’s interests. They avert their vision and return to their smug conversations.
12:30am – I offer food and water to those still holding the poles, ensuring that everyone is satiated and hydrated. A vegan broccoli soup prepared by volunteers is sipped by many who have lost strength, but not morale. It may seem inappropriate, but I can’t seem to shake the pseudo-Christian symbology from my mind. People bearing a massive wooden burden, a sacred object reaching back for millennia. This instance, however, is diametrically opposed – the weight is shared by people of numerous backgrounds, a token of the oppression that the Water Protectors and so many others have had to bear for so long. At this point, the poles could be placed on the ground – the cops are on the other side of the barricade, merely watching the scene unfold from a distance. However, laying the teepee down would constitute a symbolic failure – those beneath them continue to stand stationary, wincing and grunting under the force of the load. This impasse is not going to end with us backing down.
1:00am – The tolling of the bell. At the strike of 1am, and not a second later, the organizers announced that we would be allowed to erect the teepee where we are – not on the main grounds, but still within parliament hill’s jurisdiction. After hours of struggle we celebrated this concession as a well-earned success. Against the flashing blues and reds of the police lights, which had illuminated our entire experience, the poles were laid down by the group and the assembly commenced. The detainees were released and helped lead the chants as the teepee was erected. The crowd smiles and cheers, the police presence dwindles, and at last we can experience the fruits of our labour. It is beautiful.
2:30am – The work is finally done for the night and we are exhausted. The Water Protectors will sleep here, although the sunrise ceremony is to begin in a mere two and a half hours. I will be back tomorrow to deliver dry socks and anything else I can provide. As I leave, I see banners with Indigenous symbols hung up on a building – on one is a symbolic feather, similar to the ones borne by people who were detained. The banners are fastened to a building that the prime minister had gifted to Indigenous groups a week prior. This former american embassy, architecturally colonial, unoccupied for 19 years, and in need of a full renovation, was gifted to 600 communities. Designed by an American architect in the 1930s, it has been deemed inappropriate by many Indigenous peoples, who would like to assert their right to cultural self-determination – not be gifted inappropriate, broken down buildings when reserves are unlivable. 10 minutes away sit the unceded islands of Chaudiere and Albert, located between present-day Ontario and Quebec. Historically, this was a trading post and mecca for the Anishinaabe peoples from across Turtle Island. Today, this land is being converted into trendy condos. I sleep well this night, in my apartment on unceded Algonquin territory.
No matter where I am in Ottawa, there is constant reminder that these atrocities cannot merely be put behind us into history books – they continually occur in the present day. The remainder of the Reoccupation has been fraught with repugnant behaviour on the part of the colonial government and all involved with the canada150 celebrations, but I leave those stories to other speakers and writers. You can help now by learning about the past and present, acknowledging the atrocities of the past and rest, and by lending a respectful ear to those who have been silenced for so long. The time for action and communication has begun.
Miigwetch for letting me tell my story.