OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met Friday with indigenous activists who have set up a demonstration teepee on Parliament Hill ahead of Canada Day celebrations.
The prime minister and his wife arrived relatively unannounced at the site mid-morning, as the national capital was abuzz with preparations for the July 1 event that’s expected to bring some half a million people into the downtown core.
The Bawaating Water Protectors from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., arrived Wednesday night to erect the teepee and engage in four days of what they called a “reoccupation” to draw attention to the history of Indigenous People in Canada during 150th birthday celebrations this weekend.
Originally the group clashed with police, who arrested nine people and refused to allow the teepee, but all nine were eventually released and the structure was set up, then later moved to be close to the main stage for Saturday’s events.
The prime minister stopped by while he was on Parliament Hill for rehearsals; the activists said they became aware Trudeau was going to visit when the RCMP came to search the structure.
The Trudeaus spent about 30 minutes inside, meeting with four people, and the prime minister said afterwards he delivered a message of “respect and reconciliation.”
The group commended Trudeau for coming but said that didn’t mean an end to their presence on the Hill.
“There’s work that we have to do for ourselves, separate from the Canadian state,” said Ashley Courchene.
“The Canadian state and its citizens have its part to play in realizing what this relationship is, and it’s something that’s new and that’s something that we all realized when we met here today.”
Candace Day Neveau said the group came with the intent of educating the “settler population” on the way Indigenous Peoples are “constantly being treated.” While meeting Trudeau was not the goal of their journey, she said his visit does mean their voices are being heard.
“We want to demonstrate that we’re here with kindness and love in our hearts and we proved that,” she said.
The teepee may come down Saturday afternoon, but whether it does will require consensus among the group, Courchene said.
The Bawaating Water Protestors are just one of many indigenous groups planning protest events and demonstrations this weekend to draw attention to the fact that, for them, there is nothing to celebrate.
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly said Friday the government respects the group’s right to protest peacefully.
“We know that millions of Canadians will be celebrating tomorrow, but not all Canadians,” she said.
“In the context of Canada 150, it is our time to reflect on the darker chapters that happened in our history and also work towards reconciliation and make sure that the next 150 years are way better when it comes to relationships with Indigenous Peoples.”
As she clasped a bundle of tobacco in her hand, Day Neveau said she hoped everyone could benefit from the message she and others are trying to communicate.
“This is a tobacco offering to Canada to stand and support Indigenous People,” she said.
“May this be an educational experience for everyone to say that young leaders are rising, Indigenous People are rising.”