Leonard George remembers the first time he heard his dad, Chief Dan George, send his moving and prophetic address on Indigenous rights, “A Lament for Confederation.”It was 1967 and the acclaimed performer and former Tsleil-Waututh leader was set to speak in Canada’s centennial celebration in Vancouver. After his soliloquy was ready, he stood in the family’s living room and then read it aloud.
“We all applauded since it had been so amazing and so powerful,” says Leonard, 70.They weren’t sure, however, that the crowd of 32,000 at Empire Stadium would do exactly the same. The address critiques colonization and calls on Indigenous individuals to “grab the white man’s tools of success” to grow again.“Dad and the whole family were very worried,” says Leonard. “To stand up and tell the facts in this deep way, he had no clue how the people could choose that.”
George rehearsed every night for two weeks, along with his adult children, who were put to join him on stage. When the day finally came, Leonard could not have predicted how the crowd would respond.After his father finished speaking, there were a couple of seconds of stunned silence. Then the crowd rose to their feet and filled the stadium with roughly 10 minutes of deafening applause. “We were crying as well, and we held on to each other”.
The speech came at a time when George was a powerful figure in an emerging Aboriginal rights movement. He helped bring shameful parts of Canada’s history from the shadows and inspired young Indigenous leaders, ” says one researcher.“I believe he talked both to their own oppression and their rights and to their resiliency and their potential,” said Hugh Shewell, a professor with expertise in Indigenous-state connections at Carleton University in Ottawa.
They say while the government’s treatment of Aboriginal Peoples has not changed considerably, First Nations themselves’ve climbed up in many of the ways he predicted.The speech begins on a mournful note: “Today, when you celebrate your hundred decades, oh Canada, I’m sad for all the Indian people through the property.”
Dan George recalls Canada “when your woods were mine” if they gave him meat and clothing and when fish hauled in abundant rivers and streams. But at the long hundred years because the white man arrived, he says he’s seen his freedom evaporate.
“When I struggled to protect my land and my house, I had been known as a barbarous. When I neither understood nor welcomed this way of life, I had been called lazy. When I attempted to rule my folks, I had been stripped of my own authority,” he says.The speech ends with a call to grow again, like “the thunderbird of old” and to seize the white man’s education and skills.
It forecasts young braves and chiefs will sit in the homes of government and law.“So shall another hundred years be the biggest at the proud history of the tribes and nations,” it concludes.George’s speech was so radical, his daughter Amy George remembers, she feared he would be murdered for delivering it. “Some folks did get very upset, too. When we were walking off the field at the stadium, a few people were saying ‘You are nuts!’ Plus they were throwing bottles and empty cups,” she says.
He points to substantial numbers of Indigenous children in government maintenance and inadequate funding for housing, education and clean water on reserves.But just because his grandfather envisioned, Indigenous people are sitting at the House of Commons and the courts, and have a say in resource projects in their lands, says Rueben.
“We took back what is ours. That’s our identity, our culture, our spirituality … our law,” he says. Mortifee, that was 20, says George opened her eyes to the brutality of colonialism.“I’m profoundly privileged to have lived through that moment ever,” she says. “He was like a portal to a richer world for me and he also changed my life”The text of Chief Dan George’s address “A Lament for Confederation:”How long have I known you, Oh Canada? A hundred decades? Yes, a hundred decades.
And many, many seelanum more. And now, when you observe your hundred years, Oh Canada, I’m sad for all the Indian people throughout the land. For I’ve known you when your woods were mine; when they gave me my meat and my clothes. I have known you in your rivers and streams where your fish danced and flashed in sunlight, where the waters said ‘come and eat of my abundance’ I have known you in the freedom of these winds. And my soul, like the winds, once roamed your great lands.
But in the long hundred years since the white man arrived, I have seen my freedom disappear such as the salmon moving mysteriously out into sea. The white man’s strange habits, which I couldn’t know, pressed down I could no longer breathe.As soon as I fought to protect my property and my house, I was known as a savage.
When I neither understood nor welcomed his lifestyle, I had been known as idle. As soon as I tried to rule my people, I had been stripped of my own authority.My state was ignored in your history textbooks — they had been little more important in the history of Canada compared to the buffalo that ranged the plains. And I forgot.Oh Canada, how can I celebrate with you this centenary, this hundred decades?
Shall I thank you for the reservations which are left to me of my lovely woods? For your canned fish of my rivers? For the reduction of my pride and ability, even among my own men and women? No! I have to forget what’s past and gone. Give me back the guts of the olden chiefs. Allow me to wrestle with my environment. Let me again, as in the times of old, dominate my environment.
Allow me to humbly accept this new culture and through it rise up and proceed.Oh God! Before I follow the great chiefs who’ve gone before us, Oh Canada, I will see these things come to pass.I will see our young braves and our chiefs sitting at the homes of law enforcement and government, ruling and being ruled by the knowledge and freedoms of the great land. So will we shatter the barriers of our isolation. So will the next hundred years be the biggest at the proud history of our tribes and nations.