By Benjamin Powless
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
After more than three weeks of an occupation of downtown Ottawa by a motley coalition of truckers, conspiracy theorists and extreme-right activists, local Indigenous leaders are denouncing a faction of the protest that claimed to represent First Nations and Metis peoples.
The convoy arrived in Ottawa January 30, ostensibly to protest a vaccine mandate required for truckers to cross between the US and Canada. Since then, the convoy emerged as a focal point of several issues, including demands for an end to all Covid-related vaccine and sanitary requirements, and others calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resign or even be arrested.
However, videos shared on social media showed several other participants drumming, setting up a teepee and engaging in other Aboriginal themed ceremonies in downtown Ottawa. One video shows a group of non-Native individuals drumming and dancing while chanting cartoon character Fred Flintstone’s famous phrase, “Yabba dabba doo.”
In response, Algonquins of Pikwakanagan Chief Wendy Jocko, Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Chief Dylan Whiteduck and Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council Acting Grand Chief Savanna McGregor issued a press release denouncing the convoy’s actions.
“The actions that are taking place in our Territory (Ottawa, ON) is unacceptable,” the chiefs said in a statement. “For those who are participating in these actions, the Algonquin Nation does not support the setup of a teepee, the pipe ceremony and a sacred fire in Confederation Park in support of the `Freedom Convoy’.
“The Algonquin Nation did not give consent for these ceremonial practices and could cause more harm to who are as First Nations/Algonquin people. First Nations and non-Indigenous people should always remember protocol and that permission from us needed to proceed,” the statement continued.
Claudette Commanda, an Algonquin Elder and professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said she felt three emotions seeing the protestors engaged in First Nations ceremonies.
“I said it was so ridiculous I wanted to laugh, but the second part of me was sick to my stomach and third was a sad feeling,”
Commanda observed. “It’s a mockery of our spirituality and our ancestors and culture. These people come from a place of ignorance and racism, it’s clear they have no respect for First Nations people because if they did, they wouldn’t be conducting themselves this way.”
Commanda believes that members of the convoy sought to bolster their demands by demonstrating they had support from Indigenous Peoples.
“I’m told there are First Nations and Metis people who are part of the freedom convoy; some are truckers, so they say we have Indigenous Peoples supporting so we have the support of the Indigenous world,” Commanda said. She argues however that they are being used as tokens, to claim broad Indigenous support.
Commanda is happy that the Algonquin leadership denounced the convoy. “Our Elders in our community were heartbroken to see this taking place,” she noted. “Not just in Algonquin communities but various First Nations and Inuit communities.”
Commanda says she received gratitude and support from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people for raising these concerns, while also being told by a few that she doesn’t have a right to speak on the issue. “It’s more than right, it’s a responsibility,” she responded. “We spoke from that position of responsibility to protect the sacredness of our culture, identity and lands.”
Her message to the protesters was that anything can be resolved with open, peaceful and respectful dialogue, but that the protesters need to understand the impact they are having on peoples’ lives.
“It would be worthwhile for them to meet with First Nations and Indigenous Peoples to hear our story about lost freedoms and what freedom really means,” she insisted.
Commanda underlined the jarring contrast between the police reaction to the convoy and protests by Indigenous Peoples. “When our people protest, the police don’t even need an excuse to come in, they have snipers and everything. I hope they extend the same kindness when it’s us next time.”
Ottawa police faced criticism for allowing the convoy to continue for so long, blockading a large portion of the city’s downtown, closing bridges connecting Ottawa to Quebec, and disturbing residents and downtown workers with incessant honking at all hours.
Police Chief Peter Sloly resigned February 15 in response.
Benjamin Powless is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the NATION. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.