Artist Alex Janvier pictured at his gallery in Cold Lake First Nations 149B Alta, on Wednesday February 8, 2017. Alex Janvier is a pioneer of contemporary Canadian aboriginal art in Canada.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

After surviving 11 years in a residential school with art as his only escape, 19-year-old Alex Janvier was ready for freedom.

But in mid-1950s Canada, freedom still depended on the colour of one’s skin.

Janvier was offered a spot at what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design. But his destiny lay in the hands of the Indian agent from his home reserve in Alberta.

The agent said no -- the man who would become one of Canada's most celebrated indigenous artists wasn't smart enough to go.

A chance to study in the United Kingdom was similarly denied.

Under Canada's pass system — a vestige imposed during the failed Northwest Rebellion to prevent others from leaving reserves to join the uprising which lingered into the mid-20th century — there was no appeal, no recourse.

Janvier was allowed to attend art school in Calgary under the watchful eye of the local diocese, but he had to keep a piece of paper with the Indian agent's signature on it in his shirt pocket.

Artist Alex Janvier works at his studio in Cold Lake First Nations 149B Alta, on Wednesday February 8, 2017. Alex Janvier is a pioneer of contemporary Canadian aboriginal art in Canada.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

He met a fellow student there and he recalls taking her to a movie one night. He had his arm around her. He was feeling good. It felt as though life was beginning to open up.

The couple were at the bus stop when a police cruiser pulled up.

"You! Come here!" he recalls one of the officers shouting. "Not you, him. What are you doing?"

Janvier says he walked over and explained they were waiting for a bus, but the interrogation continued.

"Am I to be arrested?" Janvier asked.

"A smart ass, eh?" he remembers the officer responding and then came the question: "Do you have a pass?"

Janvier pulled out the note the agent had signed. He remembers the cop glancing at it and then throwing it on the sidewalk for Janvier to pick up.

"That's how it was," Janvier, now 82, shrugs. "There was no law to do it and yet those Indian agents pushed it like you wouldn't believe."


Here is a look at some of the key dates in the relationship between Canada and its First Nations:

A royal proclamation notes First Nation claims to lands and says treaties with indigenous people will be handled by the Crown.
A painting depicting an Ojibway Camp, Spider Islands, Lake Huron, 1845. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Library and Archives Canada
The British North America Act gives the federal government responsibility for First Nations and their lands. PHOTO
Photograph of painting by Robert Harris, entitled "Conference at Quebec in October 1864, to Settle the Basis of A Union of the British North American Provinces". THE CANADIAN PRESS/James Ashfield (Royal Studio)/Library and Archives Canada
The first five numbered treaties deal with indigenous lands in northwestern Ontario and what is now southern Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta.
The Indian Act is passed, essentially extinguishing any remaining self-government for First Nations and making them wards of the federal government.
The first residential schools open. At least 150,000 First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students pass through the system over the years and their painful legacy stretches to today. PHOTO
Grade 1 classroom on main floor, looking southwest, Ermineskin Indian Residential School, Hobbema, Alberta, June 3, 1938. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canada. Dept. Indian and Northern Affairs / Library and Archives Canada
Amendments to the Indian Act ban cultural indigenous practices including the potlatch and sun dance.
The Northwest Rebellion takes place. It’s a brief and unsuccessful uprising by the Metis people of Saskatchewan under Louis Riel. The rebellion gives rise to the pass system, meant as an emergency measure to prevent indigenous people from leaving reserves to join in the resistance. It is acknowledged as illegal by the government, but stays in place for 60 years. PHOTOS
Metis leader Louis Riel is shown in a file photo, circa 1876. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Manitoba Archives
Major changes to the Indian Act remove a number of discriminatory rules, including a ban on indigenous ceremonies and indigenous consumption of alcohol, although it is only allowed on reserves.
Indigenous people get the right to vote in federal elections without giving up their treaty rights.
As residential schools start to close, indigenous children are taken from their homes by child-welfare services and placed with non-indigenous families, some in the United States, in what becomes known as the '60s Scoop. The practice lasts into the 1980s.
Sixties Scoop survivors and supporters gather for a demonstration at a courthouse on the day of a class-action court hearing in Toronto on Tuesday, August 23, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu
The federal government draws up the White Paper on Indian policy which proposes to abolish the Indian Act and all that remains of the special relationship between indigenous people and Canada, offering instead "equality." First Nations are nearly unanimous in their rejection of it.
In the Calder case, the Supreme Court holds that indigenous rights to land do exist, citing the 1763 Royal Proclamation. The ruling prompts the government of Canada to overhaul much of the land claim negotiation process.
British Columbia cabinet minister Frank Calder talks to media in Ottawa Feb.8, 1973 after meeting with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien. (CP PHOTO/Chuck Mitchell)
Quebec signs the James Bay agreement with Cree and Inuit communities, opening the way for new hydro projects.
The Inuvialuit Claims Settlement Act gives the Inuit of the western Arctic control over resources.
Changes to the Indian Act extend formal Indian status to the Metis, all enfranchised indigenous people living off reserve land and indigenous women who had previously lost their status by marrying a non-indigenous man.
The Oka Crisis takes place. It’s a 78-day standoff between Mohawk protesters, police, and the army over the proposed expansion of a golf course and development of condominiums on disputed land that included a Mohawk burial ground. It lays the groundwork for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kanesatake reserve in Oka, Que. September 1, 1990. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen
The commission releases its 4,000-page report aimed at restoring "justice to the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems." It contains recommendations on everything from self-governance, treaties and health to housing, economic development and education.
Nunavut is created, with lands set aside where Inuit can live, hunt and control sub-surface resources.
The federal government approves the Nisaga'a Treaty, the first modern-day treaty in British Columbia, giving the tribe about $196 million over 15 years plus communal self-government and control of natural resources in parts of northwestern B.C.
Gary Alexcee, Chief Councillor of the Nisga'a from Gingolt at the mouth of the Nass river in British Columbia, celebrates the passage of the Nisga'a Treaty outside the Parliament buildings in Ottawa Thursday Apr 13, 2000. (CP PHOTO/Tom Hanson)
The Kelowna Accord calls for spending $5 billion over five years to improve indigenous education, health care and living conditions. Paul Martin's minority Liberal government falls before the accord can be implemented.
Prime Minister Paul Martin delivers his opening remarks to start the First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders meetings in Kelowna, B.C., Thursday, Nov. 24, 2005. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, comes into effect and establishes a multibillion-dollar fund to help former students in their recovery. The settlement includes $60 million for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the impact of residential schools.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offers a formal apology on behalf of Canada for residential schools.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Mary Simon shakes hands with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine (headdress) watches in Ottawa, on June 11, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Canada signs the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
RCMP release a report calculating a total of 1,181 indigenous women are missing or have been murdered since 1980. Pressure grows for the federal government to call an inquiry.
RCMP Deputy Commissioner Janice Armstrong speaks during the release of the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: 2015 Update to the National Operational Overview Report in Ottawa on Friday, June 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission releases its final report based on visits to hundreds of communities and the testimony of more than 6,000 survivors who shared stories of rampant sexual and physical abuse. The report contains 94 calls to action which includes addressing the disproportionate number of indigenous children in government care, improving education funding, language rights and health care.
Justice Murray Sinclair (centre) and Commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild (left) and Marie Wilson pull back a blanket to unveil the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the history of Canada's residential school system, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
The newly-elected Liberal government launches an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women which is expected to last two years and cost up to $53 million.
Women drum following the announcement of the inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

As Ottawa spends $500 million on throwing the country a 150th birthday party, many indigenous people, including Janvier, wonder what's worth celebrating. To recognize 1867 as the birth of Canada is to celebrate the beginning of an abusive relationship.

Janvier's colourful, abstract art, which was recently displayed in a special exhibit at the National Gallery, has taken him around the world and every time he returns home to Cold Lake, Alta., he feels a surge of relief and affection. But it's the land, not the country, that inspires his loyalty.

"I don't have to celebrate," he says. "That 150 years is none of my business. It never included me so why jump up and down and celebrate?"

Artist Alex Janvier pictured at his gallery in Cold Lake First Nations 149B Alta, on Wednesday February 8, 2017. Alex Janvier is a pioneer of contemporary Canadian aboriginal art in Canada.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

To celebrate 150 years for many means to raise a glass to the continuing legacies of colonization — the disproportionate number of indigenous children in government care, dozens of communities without clean drinking water and some without basic indoor plumbing.

The Canada being celebrated this year would not exist without the suppression of First Nations, says Pam Palmater, lawyer and chair of indigenous governance at Ryerson University.

"The only way that it could exist is from our genocide and the theft of lands and resources and the ongoing discriminatory laws, policies, exclusion from our territories," she says.

"The only way that it could exist is from our genocide and the theft of lands and resources and the ongoing discriminatory laws, policies, exclusion from our territories."

Pam Palmater

"The only reason they are able to maintain this is because they put us in jail, they put our kids in foster care, our women go murdered and missing because they keep us out of the way. Canada 150 is a celebration of how they've been able to keep us out of the way. It wouldn't be Canada 150 without all of that."

Canada's milestone of 150 seems quaint when compared to the history of indigenous people dating back at least 10,000 years, notes Isaac Murdoch, from Serpent River First Nation about 150 kilometres west of Sudbury, Ont.

"Ignoring 10,000 years of our history erases us when they only celebrate 150," says Murdoch, who is behind the #Resistance150 hashtag on Twitter.

"It seems silly for Canada to celebrate 150 in these lands when indigenous people have been here forever. It's quite rude. It really is."

A painting of an encampment on the bank of a river from 1807. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Library and Archives Canada

When European settlers first arrived, they used First Nations for knowledge on how to survive the harsh elements and rugged terrain, as well as military allies and fur traders. Once the fur trade declined and the military threat from the United States subsided, indigenous people became more of an obstacle to settlement and the exploitation of resources.

When Canada was born, it only had two recorded parents — the French and the English. No mention was made of indigenous people.

"I'm not a Canadian. I don't know why it's so offensive to say that. I'm Ojibwa. I was born Ojibwa. That's who I am. Our nation is separate from Canada," Murdoch says.

"Indigenous people have always been known to Canada as the Indian problem. Their whole policies when creating the country … were to contain the Indian problem."

Canada's first prime minister, Sir. John A. Macdonald, made it a goal to "do away with the tribal system, and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the inhabitants of the Dominion."

That mindset would last through the next century.

The British North America Act imposed a European-style bureaucracy on all things indigenous. Ceremonies were outlawed, traditional governance was replaced by powerless band councils, reserves were set up.

Through it all, the Indian agent was king. With the pass system – the same system that prevented Janvier from going to art school and gave police the right to harass him – indigenous people needed permission to leave the reserve or conduct any business on it.

They were expected to become farmers but needed permission to sell a cow.

"It was a way of control," says National Chief Perry Bellegarde with the Assembly of First Nations.

"The pass/permit system that Indian Affairs put in place here in Canada was such a strong system of controlling indigenous peoples that the apartheid system in Africa was modelled after the Indian Act system, the reserve system and the permit system."

They could not vote, consult a lawyer and could be relocated "for their own protection" if their land was needed for settlers. Equally, they could be relocated "in the national interest" if their settlement were built upon mineral-rich soil or along the shores of a river that needed damming.

"The relationship became one of interdependency to one where we became wards of the state," Bellegarde says. " A lot of our people were starved into submission by the Indian agents and the Indian Act and the killing of the buffalo. Our entire way of life was taken away."

Then they came for the children.

"When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages," Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1883.

"Though he may learn to read and write … he is simply a savage who can read and write … Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence."

Interior of class room, students working at their desks, Brandon Indian Residential School, Brandon, Manitoba, 1946. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-National Film Board of Canada. Phototheque collection / Library and Archives Canada

Residential schools were set up and children were removed from their homes — by force if necessary.

Thousands died, buried in unmarked graves. Others were sexually and physically abused, returning to their communities alienated from their culture and haunted by demons that have been passed on through generations.

"It was like a jailhouse for little kids," Janvier remembers. "They used to feed us pills to control us.

"They said it was for my health, but what it used to do is sedate you, calm you down so you didn't get too crazy in that school."

To this day, Janvier doesn't know what the pills were. The records of his lost childhood, like those of so many, were apparently destroyed by a flood.

There was also what became known as the Sixties Scoop — apprehending First Nations and Metis children and placing them with non-indigenous families.

The intentions were more subtle but the resulting trauma was the same.

All of these policies have taken their toll. The majority of today's indigenous people don't share in Canada's health and prosperity.

'60s Scoop survivors and supporters gather for a demonstration in Toronto on Tuesday, August 23, 2016. Scores of aboriginals from across Ontario rallied in Toronto today ahead of a landmark court hearing on the so-called '60s Scoop. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu

Many live below the poverty line in dilapidated housing without access to clean water. Their life expectancy is lower. Their odds of growing up a ward of child welfare, in prison, addicted to drugs or alcohol are much higher.

Sen. Murray Sinclair says the abusive relationship between Canada and indigenous people has gone on long enough. Divorce isn't an option. Neither side is moving out.

The next 150 years will be about learning to co-exist, but that can only happen if it begins with honesty and equality.

Sen. Murray Sinclair, who spent six years hearing stories of the effects of Canada's residential school system for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, poses for a photo outside his Senate office on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa in a September 20, 2016, file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

"Trying to figure out how we can live together in the same territory is really the issue," says the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined residential schools.

"Nobody's going away. If nobody's going away then how do we get along on this land?"

That won't happen unless Canadians acknowledge the foundation upon which their country is built, he says.

"We need to acknowledge that indigenous people are in a position of inferior power, inferior economic status and problematic social conditions largely because of government actions over last 150 years.

"Trying to figure out how we can live together in the same territory is really the issue."

Sen. Murray Sinclair

"We cannot say let's assume from this point forward that everybody's equal because the reality is that we're about 150 yards behind the starting line and you're asking us to now enter the race with you. That's not fair."

Canadian people, who are becoming more educated about their own history, will likely be the ones that push their government into action rather than the other way around, he says.

Canada 150 is a birthday party, "yours, not ours," Sinclair wrote recently.

"Don't be surprised if we keep pointing out that it is not an anniversary about our relationship. It's an anniversary of the joining of colonies and colonizers.

"Invite me and my relatives if you want. We might come and watch you blow out your candles, and sure, some of us will probably eat some of your cake. We might even sing Happy Birthday to you Canada.

"But then, we still need to talk about our relationship."

Marissa Mills practices a fancy shawl dance. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand/Lucas Timmons