TORONTO – First Nations leaders and supporters stood steps from where their ancestors fought bloody battles against American invaders during the War of 1812 as they called Monday for greater recognition of aboriginals as Canadians pause to remember the conflict’s bicentennial.
“It was in that first year of the war that the native warriors saved Canada. Without their participation we would be just part of the United States,” former Ontario lieutenant-governor James Bartleman, who is Ojibwa, told the crowd at Toronto’s historic Fort York.
He pointed to the role Ojibwa sharpshooters played in the April 1813 Battle of York, where 12 U.S. ships pulled up to the shore of Lake Ontario and disgorged waves of invaders to take Fort York, which was jointly defended by the British with the Ojibwa.
“They held off the first wave of Americans until they were overwhelmed, and the British managed to escape to fight another day,” said Bartleman.
He said such examples of aboriginals’ contributions to the war have often been left to sit in the margins of the country’s history books.
“It is alluded to but it is never emphasized… The fact that if it hadn’t been for the native warriors, Canada would have been lost.”
Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo told the crowd that aboriginals went to battle in defence of what would become Canada as compatriots, not inferiors, to the British forces in the war.
“We are remembering here today that those veterans… fought not as subjects but as allies. Shedding blood, in fact dying in the fields of battle to the number of 10,000.”
“This is something that this country must remember.”
Atleo, who is up for re-election as national chief, said the equal-footing status of aboriginals with government during the war must be revived again.
“This is and must be the way forward. Returning to that original relationship, working together based on mutual respect and implementation of rights and of treaties, not on denial and extinguishment.
“Those who went before us have laid down for us a solid foundation for our continued efforts.”
The foundation must lead to change in conditions for aboriginals and how their rights are respected, he said.
“I urge First Nations and all Canadians to stand with this history,” he said, pointing to the shared historical past as a guide to the next chapter of co-operation between aboriginals.
“This is the only way that we can move forward… for a better future for all of us and for future generations.”
Atleo is one of eight candidates vying for the national chief spot on Wednesday. He was first elected in 2009.
Challengers in the leadership race claim he has been too reluctant to take on Ottawa over treaties and allege lacklustre treatment of native rights, as Canada’s booming resource sector magnifies the importance of access to valuable commodities on aboriginal territory.