When #CancelCanadaDay began trending on social media – weeks after a series of unmarked Residential “School” graves filled with the remains of Indigenous children and youth were unearthed – some took to social media and podiums to decry Canada Day as the latest victim of cancel culture. But for Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, including Vancouver-based Indigenous rapper and activist Dakota Bear, they knew this was untrue.
“Cancel Canada Day was a thing before hashtags were invented,” says Bear. “The very first Canada Day that there was, Indigenous people were not celebrating it, so this is a continuation of resistance. People say this is cancel culture, but for Canada to be what it is today, they had to cancel us completely, and then build on top of what we already created. We had infrastructure, government, kinship, and educational systems. All of these were thriving. The United States Constitution was built off of the back of the Iroquois Confederacy. So, we’ve been cancelling Canada Day since Canada day was a thing.”
The rapper/poet speaks with the force of an orator and activist born decades ago… but only four years ago, he was beginning the path to overcome addiction and reclaim his stolen identity.
Born in Saskatoon, Bear recalls witnessing (and later experiencing) family members struggling with addictions, malformed coping mechanisms, and unhealed inter-generational traumas caused by Residential “School” abuse, neglect, and identity-cultural persecution. During childhood, his pen became medicine – gifted with the love of words from his grandmother, young Bear wrote poems and short stories. But Eminem’s 8 Mile changed his life. The film’s unflinching look at addiction, family trauma, poverty, and self-reliance profoundly resonated, as did the music.
“The hip-hop soundtrack inspired and empowered me to start creating music to tell my own story and uplift others,” he says. “I just got attached to it, I just got drawn in.” When his mother gave him the option of a high-tech microphone or boxing classes, he picked the mic, and by 16 he was headlining his own DIY show to debut his self-made mixtape. It was a success, built on YouTube videos shot by his then eight-year-old brother on a flip camera, and lyrical content that resonated. Today, his music accolades include sharing the stages with hip-hop icons like Bone Thugs n’ Harmony, Redman, Method Man, and Tech N9ne. And now another side of his life has quickly stepped up beside his music to take centre stage: activism.
Bear grew up hearing about Residential “School” horrors, and the children, women, and family members throughout his community who’d simply gone missing. Like many before him, addiction and survival became his way of life. But inspired by his grandmother’s and mother’s resilience, he began a healing journey.
“I feel like I was positioned by the creator and ancestors, who have really guided me, on this whole process of a healing journey – what we call the red road. It’s free from your addictions, and living a good life, grounded in your prayer and your good intentions,” says Bear, citing sweat lodges, his spirit name ceremony, and loving connections to elders as support systems. (Bear credits Idle No More founder Sylvia McAdam [Saysewahum] as one of his greatest teachers, and his family is also learning Cree).
“That’s exactly when I started to find my roots and my purpose here,” he says. “I knew it was greater than just being a hip-hop artist. I could feel it. Once I started to get more clarity, I started positioning myself as a helper. To help with the work that needs to be done, stand up against injustices, and use music as a vehicle to push that message of unification.”
Bear found himself not only attending rallies, but organizing them, his music videos fueling fans to join. “It created an online movement,” he says. “We were able to cultivate calls to action, bring people into the streets for different causes, like Protect Our People: the rise of human trafficking in the prairies.” But while the most recent Cancel Canada Day was the biggest thus far, spurred on by visible proof of what many already knew existed – a quiet yet relentless genocide, which includes Missing and Murdered Women – Bear wants everyone to keep building community and momentum for justice.
“There’s a lot of grief and worry about those aunties and uncles and babies that we had lost,” he says. “Those are language carriers. Those are ceremony holders. We lost them. Their spirits are now in the spirit world, but it’s a big loss for our community. In 2008 there was an apology, but it was really brief. After the apology, the Prime Minister said that Canada doesn’t have a history of colonialism. It’s like saying, ‘Sorry for doing this but also we didn’t do this.’
“So now we have leverage to stand on. We have more fire inside of us that helps us to continue and carry on this fight, the collective voice of us and our allies are continuing to grow louder and louder. Do something. Whatever it is, you have to not let this be another story in the media. We have to make changes. We can’t be the generation to just brush this under the rug because that’s how things continue to repeat themselves.”