Michelle St. John on the tough issues behind her hard-hitting film Colonization Road

One of the many streets bearing the controversial Colonization Road name in Canada
One of the many streets bearing the controversial Colonization Road name in Ontario

Toronto filmmaker and actress Michelle St. John’s searing documentary on First Nations issues cuts to the core of what it means to be Canadian.

Colonization Road, airing tonight and streaming thereafter on CBC’s Firsthand, follows the history of Ontario roads and how they changed indigenous peoples’ lives.

Anishinaabe comedian and activist Ryan McMahon takes us to his small hometown of Fort Frances, Ontario, northwest of Lake Superior.

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The town’s main thoroughfare is called Colonization Road, raising ancient memories of First Nations falling under the weight of “settler” culture and politics 400 years ago.

St. John saw the sign on a trip with acting and producing colleagues in 2001. She was part of Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble based in Toronto who were brought to Fort Frances by Seven Generations Education Institute to teach and perform.

They took pictures of themselves with the sign, then researched the history of roads and how they altered the course of history and the balance of life for indigenous people.

They created a theatre piece around the idea and presented it in Toronto. Eventually they went their separate ways but St. John never let go of that troubling road sign.

She says: “I went back to that workshop research and updated it further to see if the dead ends we hit back then could be pushed back.

“The internet’s more sophisticated now and there are different people to talk to. We received some development funding that enabled us to travel to Fort Frances and Kenora.”

McMahon and St. John used that road sign as a starting point for a documentary examination into what went wrong, why First Nations are still separated from their own ancestral lands in 2017.

They discovered that ten Ontario roads bear the same name and many more did at one time, so they took it to historians, lawyers and community leaders for their take on native and settler. 

“So let me get this straight, in Canada’s earliest days if you were a rich and powerful white dude, actively colonizing, you got a road named after you. But sometimes they just flat out named the road Colonization Road! This was Manifest Destiny…Canadian style.”  —Ryan McMahon in Colonization Road

St. John continues: “Colonialism is a hard pill for some people to swallow. We’re in this age of reconciliation so if you’re going to have those conversations we must deal with the realities of what got us to this place.

“This was the prevailing sentiment amongst those in the newly formed government and they did not care that there were Indian people living there — that they had always lived there.

“The City of Winnipeg came to Shoal Lake and forced the community on to a peninsula then cut them off by digging a canal so that they could no longer access the rest of their reserve and travel in or out without trespassing.

“This was about the theft of land and taking Shoal Lake’s water for the City of Winnipeg.

“Shoal Lake is uninhabited, with the exception of a few Indians.” — Winnipeg Consulting Engineer’s Report 1913.

“It’s Canada’s 150th birthday and they’re spending half a billion dollars for a birthday party this year. Meanwhile over 100 First Nations communities are on ‘boil water’ and drinking water advisories [meaning the local water is contaminated, unfit to drink from industrial waste].”

Monsters and Critics: The small First Nation community at Shoal Lake are living on an island. The surrounding mainland doesn’t belong to them, so they are trapped. Tell us what it was like to hear their stories.

Michelle St. John: It was painful hearing their stories, but I am forever grateful to the people of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation (Ontario/Manitoba) who allowed us in to tell their story.

They are the most resilient, gracious, generous, people I’ve ever known. I was inspired by everything that happened.

I was really humbled to have had the opportunity to spend time there and hear and share their stories, as hard as they are.

I’m inspired by their ability to stand and say it, speak that truth and fight so hard and long for justice.

M&C: We also learn tough truths about the violent history of the founding of Canada.

MSJ: We don’t think of Canada’s founding in the same way as America, all bloody wars fought against the Indians by the government, but there was violence here, physical violence.

Anytime you remove people from their land, there is implicit violence in that removal. We have to be willing to make peace with those histories that we don’t know, that we think don’t apply.

M&C: Early agreements between Europeans and First Nations were formalised on a “wampum belt”, a woven history of significant events and stories. That’s an important element of your film. Why?

MSJ: The Treaty of Niagara Wampum Belt of 1764 formalises the Royal Proclamation and foundation of this relationship.

There is no misinterpretation of that. Everyone knew what they were agreeing to. There was news footage during the time of #IdleNoMore leaders bringing that Wampum Belt into Parliament and being barred from entering the House.

They brought it to remind the government and crown of that relationship. It was significant; the relationship is over 400 years old. Since then, all the treaties have been broken.

M&C: There is a dark side to common phrases like “wilderness” being wild and raw and unfriendly for settlers, whereas the “wilderness” was the warm home of First Nations for millennia. Also, the idea of “discovery”, that Europeans “discovered” America and Canada.

MSJ: Doug Williams an Elder and former chief of Curve Lake First Nation said that and he was spot on.

He gives perspective to that colonial narrative that we’ve been fed all our lives and has to do with the justification and coming here and taking over and conquering the land and erasing the people who have claim to the land.

It was about domination, the name the Dominion of Canada derives from that word.

M&C: You made a wise choice in using Ryan McMahon’s humour to get us into the content. He performs a skit about a native going to a government agent to ask for his land back. The agent says “Um, let’s see here. Um, er, no.”

MSJ: I think it helps, it’s hard to hear some of this stuff; he helps us digest it bit easier, by being able to laugh at it and by taking us on that journey. It becomes personal, not abstract.

What is not funny is a point raised in the film by Dr. Pamela D. Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.

She says the bond between First Nations and Canada Bond is crucial, that “one stupid move” could leave Canada vulnerable to foreign threats.

Palmater says: “Indigenous Nations were sovereign Nations and recognized by such by representatives of the Crown. We had powerful militaries to defend our sovereignty and lands and it is for this reason that the Crown negotiated treaties with many of our Nations.

“They knew then, that their legitimacy in our territory rested on our consent and cooperation. Citizens or subjects of the Crown don’t sign international treaties with their rulers. It is a principle of international law that treaties are signed between Nations.

“That’s why you’ll never see a treaty signed between Canadians and their government. The Treaties between Indigenous Nations and the Crown are Nation to Nation.

“Canada’s sovereignty rests on our sovereignty and their right to negotiate treaties with us. However, large parts of Canada are unceded lands — never surrendered or given away in treaties or land claims.

“Canada’s right to claim over those unceded lands vis-à-vis other countries rests entirely on the legal fact of our sovereignty.

“Without us, Canada has no claim and other countries to the north and south of us might find that to be an opportunity to encroach in our lands and waters.

“Russia is always searching for oil and resources in the north and in the northern waters. The USA would have something to say if Russia did this and the last thing we need is two other countries fighting over our land.

“While Canada acts like it has friends on the international stage, the only REAL friends Canada has are the Indigenous Nations that protect and defend these lands from being claimed by others.

“Indigenous peoples even went to war in other countries to defend our lands in Canada because that’s what our Nation to Nation treaties committed us to do.”

Colonization Road airs tonight, January 26, at 9pm on CBC-TV and streams thereafter on CBC’s Firsthand.

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