Blog: Special Series — A History of Indigenous Resistance

November 17, 2020

The 2020 resurgence of Black Lives Matter (BLM), while centered on Black communities, has also highlighted racial injustices on a broad scale. In particular, BLM Canada has recognized that their struggles are tied up with the decades-long struggle of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and that “there is no black liberation without Indigenous liberation” (BLM Canada, 2020). This larger movement is illuminating the connections between injustices towards Black and Indigenous communities in Canada, as well as the ways in which they have been fighting back.

In the 1492 Landback Lane dispute in Caledonia, Ontario, the Haudenosaunee are resisting a subdivision being built on their ancestral lands by occupying the land. Courts sided with the developers, and Ontario Provincial Police have arrested many of the land protectors (Kennedy, 2020). In Nova Scotia, the Sipeke’katik, a Mi’kmaq band, created a self-regulated, rights-based fishery. Non-Indigenous fishers have responded in violent protest, engaging in acts such as blocking boats and destroying property (Coletta, 2020).

These resistances can be boiled down to one major theme: Indigenous communities asserting and protecting their treaty rights, while White Canadians, with the backing of the state, attempt to stop them. This theme can be seen throughout the history of Canada. Since before Canada was founded, colonial authorities have tried to control Indigenous communities and erase their culture, and these communities have fought back.

Early “Canadian” History

Indigenous resistance goes back to before the so-called “founding” of Canada. In the 1800s, for example, Louis Riel organized the Métis to fight for governance and land rights during the Red River and North West Rebellions (Bumsted, 2019; Beal & Macleod, 2019). Throughout the 1880s into the early 1900s, many Indigenous groups formed to fight for issues such as loss of land, failure to recognize land and treaty rights, culturally destructive policies and practices, and poor economic and health conditions on reserves (Dyck & Sadik, 2019).

In 1967 the National Indian Brotherhood and several provincial groups joined to oppose the White Paper, a proposal to abolish the Indian Act and Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Dyck & Sadik, 2019). A paper which would have effectively removed the legal status and special rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada (University of British Columbia, n.d.).

Contemporary Struggles

Indigenous communities are protecting traditional lands that non-Indigenous people continue to encroach on. During the Oka Crisis (1990), the Kanien’kehá:ka (People of the Flint, or commonly known as Mohawk people) of Kanehsatà:ke resisted the construction of a golf course on their ancestral lands by setting up a barricade. The town of Oka responded by sending in the military to shut down the protests (Marshall, 2020).

Idle No More is a grassroots movement that arose in opposition to Bill C-45, which eroded environmental protections and treaty rights. The movement sought to honor treaties and re-establish nation-to-nation relations between Indigenous communities and Canada. It used teach-ins, rallies, protests, flash mob round dances, and social media to share messages and influence decision-makers (Barker, 2015). Around this time Chief Theresa Spence went on a hunger strike to protest poor conditions on her reserve (Barker, 2015). This hunger strike received national media attention, and together with Idle No More, boosted the profile of the poor conditions on Indigenous reserves and the violation of treaty rights.

More recently, plans for a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en Nation territory, without the hereditary chiefs’ consent, led to a protest checkpoint in order to stop developers. In response, the government sent police to shut them down (Temper, 2018). Indigenous peoples were protesting colonial power by asserting their rights to land and traditional Indigenous authority (McCreary & Turner, 2018).

Failures of the Government

Indigenous peoples in Canada have worked with the federal government to address the many injustices they face but have rarely seen actionable changes. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (1991) recommended that the government commit to a new set of ethical principles with Indigenous peoples that respects the inherent right to Indigenous self-determination; this was never implemented (Dyck & Sadik, 2019; Marshall, 2020). In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to address the legacy of residential schools. It recommended 94 calls to action, but so far only 10 have been completed (CBC News, 2020). In addition, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) listed 231 calls to address injustices against Indigenous women, but the federal government has yet to implement the recommended national action plan.

Indigenous communities have been fighting against colonialism, the erasure of their culture, and the erosion of treaty rights for decades. This history shows that real change cannot occur within the current system. Many Indigenous activists in Canada are advocating for an anti-racist and de-colonial approach, in which we dismantle the structures that were designed to assimilate and control them, and replace them with structures that are based in and uphold Indigenous thought and sovereignty. We, as allies, need to listen to the voices of Indigenous people in Canada and advocate for a better social world.

Further Readings

Alongside these movements, Indigenous academics, journalists, and literary authors have written about colonialism, the oppression of Indigenous peoples and ways of life, and solutions to these issues based in Indigenous thought. Below are just a few examples:

  • Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist. Her work is centered around Nishnaabeg intellectual practices. Her work spans genres and topics, from academic work on indigenous resistance, to literature about contemporary Indigenous issues. Read: Simpson, L. B. (2017). As we have always done. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe journalist. Her work looks at how colonialism, the separation of Indigenous people from their land, communities, and culture, and legacies of human rights violations have harmed Indigenous youth. Read: Talaga, T. (2018). All our relations: Finding the path forward
  • Eve Tuck’s work focuses on how Indigenous social thought can be engaged to create more fair and just social policy, more meaningful social movements, and robust approaches to decolonization. Read: Tuck, E. & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.


Barker, A. J. (2015). A direct act of resurgence, a direct act of sovereignty: Reflections on idle no more, Indigenous activism, and Canadian settler colonialism. Globalizations, 12(1), 43-65. DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2014.971531

Beal, B., & Macleod, R. (2019). North West Rebellion. The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Black Lives Matter Canada (2020). About Us.

Bumsted, J. M. (2019, Nov 22). Red River Rebellion. The Canadian Encyclopedia.

CBC News (2020). Beyond 94: Truth and reconciliation in Canada. CBC News.

Coletta, A. (Oct 26, 2020). Indigenous people in Nova Scotia exercised their right to catch lobster: Now they’re under attack. The Washington Post.

Dyck, N. & Sadik, T. (2019). Indigenous political organization and activism in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Kennedy, B. (Oct 23, 2020). As standoff at ‘1492 Land Back Lane’ heats up in Caledonia, land defenders say, ‘This is a moment for our people to say no.’ The Star.

Marshall, T. (2020) The Oka Crisis. The Canadian Enclyclopedia.

McCreary, T., & Turner, J. (2018). The contested scales of Indigenous and settler jurisdiction: Unist’ot’en struggles with Canadian pipeline governance.

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (2019). Reclaiming power and place: The final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Temper, L. (2018). Blocking pipelines, unsettling environmental justice: from rights of nature to responsibility to territory. Local Environment 24(2), 94.112.

University of British Columbia. (n.d.). The White Paper, 1969. First Nations and Indigenous Studies.



Posted by:

Sydney Sheloff

Related categories: Blog: Racism
Share This