Ritual | Aboriginal Rewrite of The 10 Plagues

Last night in Montreal, the Mile End Chavurah– a grassroots Jewish community organisation- held their annual community seder and dedicated it to drawing parallels between the story of Exodus and the Idle No More movement.

Melissa Mollen Dupuis, a co-organiser of Idle No More in Quebec and an artist was there to share stories from her Innu culture and to share with the seder participants what Idle No More is about for her.


A Long March in the Wilderness

One attendant at the seder drew a parallel between the 40 year march through the Sinai desert and the Nishiyuu journey where Cree youth walked 1600km in -40° C weather to petition the Canadian ruler/Prime Minister to hear their need for language and cultural preservation.  (Unfortunately Harper was meeting with panda bears at the time so was unable to be present for this historic moment).  It was quite an incredible coincidence that the Nishiyuu walkers arrived in the nation’s capital on the very first night of Passover.

A Red Feather on the Seder Plate

The symbol of the Idle No More movement has become the red feather and that was added to the seder plate in addition to the newer innovations of the orange (symbolizing women’s and lesbians’ place in Judaism) and the olive (a symbol of hope for peace in the Middle-East).

After the traditional Manishtana was sung by the children, Four Questions about Idle No More were asked, and Mollen Dupuis gave the answers.  An example of a question asked by one seder-goer was, “As non-aboriginal Canadians, what can we do to support the Idle No More movment? What is our role?”

The seder is a retelling and remembering of a difficult history of slavery and oppression. It is also a journey to freedom. One of the most memorable rituals  is when seder-goers recite The 10 Plagues which God used to convince the Pharoah to “Let My People Go”.  With each plague, a drop of wine is removed from the wine glass to highlight that no one’s misfortune should ever bring any of us joy.

Nathan and Howard Adler,  twin brothers from Ottawa, participated in the seder by writing up a list of 10 Plagues from a First Nation’s perspective. The Adlers are both artists and writers and were born into families of mixed Jewish and Anishinaabe /Ojibwe heritage.  Here are The Plagues as they have interpreted them.


The Ten Plagues of Colonialism in Canada

1. A Plague of Blood: Water

Water is said to be the lifeblood and the veins of mother earth, and for over a hundred years, industry has been polluting the waterways.  Uranium mining under the River Basin of Elliot Lake has left the water and the sediment of the serpent River contaminated.  The Anishinaabe are left with the consequences of environmental damage long after the resources have been extracted, attached to the land by treaties, history, and tradition.  This template of resource extraction, and pollution has been repeated countless times across Canada, and spanning a number of industries.  150 First Nations Communities live downstream from paper mills and mines.  Since 2003 Josephine Mandaamin, an Ojibway grandmother has been walking around the great lakes in a ceremony to purify and to raise awareness around water issues.

2. A Plague of Frogs:  Reserve System

The Reserve system was created to ‘civilize’ Indigenous Peoples by introducing them to agriculture and a sedentary way of life based on private property.  Many reserves were unsuitable for farming, and those that did farm were prevented from selling their produce or livestock, in order to limit competition for colonial settlers.  The underlying motive for the creation of reserves was to free up vast tracts of land for settlement, and extinguish title to the land, not to “share the land” as per agreements laid out in the Treaties.

3. A Plague of Gnats: Legislation

The Indian Act was enacted in 1876 to control every aspect of Indian life, including prohibiting Indians from being intoxicated off reserve, restricting the right to vote in federal elections until 1960, or serve in the army, or attend post-secondary school, or even leave the reserve for extended periods of time.  The Indian Act determines who is and who is not an “Indian” within the meaning of the Indian Act.  It restricted Indian status in many discriminatory ways (such as marrying out, or being born out of wedlock among others), and cuts off status after the third generation (and all attendant rights and benefits).  Any given population, subject to the same rigorous standards of inclusion and exclusion, would become legally extinct within a few generations.  The act determines how Indian reserves are governed by Band Councils, and displaces Indigenous sovereignty and traditional forms of governance.  The slew of recent legislation, including the recent omnibus budget Bill C-45 (a realization of The 1969 white paper), makes changes to the Indian Act that make it easier to lease reserved lands, and surrender band territory.

4. A Plague of Wild Animals:  Drugs/Alcohol

Addiction to drugs and alcohol remains an issue for many Indigenous peoples.  Historically alcohol and drugs were not a huge part of most Indigenous cultures, and where they did exist, these substances were strictly controlled, usually for ceremonial or religious purposes.  Government policy to assimilate Indians and obliterate Indian cultures has left many Indigenous communities in poverty, and in a state of shock, attempting to adapt to a rapidly changing way of life, and confronting a constant battle against further assimilation, which has created a situation ripe for the spread of alcoholism and drug abuse.

5. Pestilence:  Stereotypes

The way Indigenous peoples have been portrayed, and continue to be portrayed, in various stereotypical, racist, and sexist ways, justifies the continued subjugation and destruction of Indigenous peoples and their culture, as both natural and inevitable, and even justified.  The myth of the vanishing Indian relegates Indigenous peoples to a distant past, and a culture frozen in time, where any trappings of modern life are an invalidation of “Indian-ness.”  The Doctrine of Discovery asserts that Indigenous peoples are inferior and less than human, and therefore cannot own land so it is Terra Nullius, empty.  The way Indigenous women are repeatedly represented in highly sexualized ways has resulted in higher instances of rape and they are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women, usually by non-native men.

6. Boils: Disease

Since Europeans first set foot onto Turtle Island, they brought with them diseases that had never before been seen in this part of the world; such as measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, influenza, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, chicken pox, and sexually transmitted diseases.  In contrast, syphilis is the one disease thought to have passed from the Indigenous peoples of America to Europeans (Wikipedia).  According to one estimate, the North American Indian population was reduced from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 (Churchill).  Reports of biological warfare can also be found in many history books, in which blankets inoculated with smallpox were intentionally given to Indigenous peoples.  Debates over death and disease of Indigenous peoples in the Americas often turn to a numbers game, or a game of denial, but the sad truth is, that the plague continues. Today, Indigenous peoples face some serious health-related challenges, such as high rates of chronic and contagious diseases and a shorter life expectancy. For example, 15 per cent of new HIV and AIDS infections occur in Aboriginal people.

Compared to the general Canadian population,

•                Heart disease is 1.5 times higher,

•                Type 2 diabetes is 3 to 5 times higher among First Nations people and rates are increasing among the Inuit; and

•                Tuberculosis infection rates are 8 to 10 times higher.


 7. The Plague of Hail and Fire:  Justice

It’s difficult to have justice on stolen land.  Aboriginal peoples in Canada are 4% of the total population, yet they comprise 21% of the male prisoner population, and 30% of the female prisoner population (http://www.prisonjustice.ca/politics/facts_stats.html).

“Sometimes when Native women go missing, I hear they leave it alone.” (Phrase spoken by Ferris Morriseau,  three days after the murder of her 27 year old sister Kelly Morriseau).  In Canada, there is a lack of government, criminal justice, media and public response to this epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Data gathered by the grassroots Aboriginal women’s group “Walk for Justice,” indicates that there have been up to 3000 missing and murdered women, with an estimated 80%, or 2400 involving Aboriginal women and girls. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has gathered data on 600 confirmed cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.  A majority of these cases occurred since the year 2000, and just under half of these cases remain unsolved, comparatively in the rest of the Canadian population, the solving rate for homicide is 84%.  (Statistics borrowed from a March 9th 2011 speech by Kristen Gilchrist of the organization: Families of Sisters in Spirit).

In Canada, there have been many cases of “Starlight Tours”, in which the police pick up an Aboriginal person in their cruiser, drive them to the outskirts of the city, and abandon them on the side of the road. In 1990, Cree teenager Neil Stonechild, died of hypothermia after being taken by police to the northwest section of Saskatoon, and abandoned in a field on a night when temperatures were below −28°C

8. Plague of Locusts:  Broken Treaties

11 Post-confederation Treaties, also known as the numbered treaties, were signed between 1871 and 1921.  Despite many of these treaties involving coercion, continually being breached by the Canadian government, and not involving Indigenous women who by tradition often had the final authority; they are still regarded as sacred agreements that must be upheld.  Today, Specific Claims deal with the past grievances of First Nations that relate to Canada’s obligations under historic treaties.  Although there are only 630 First Nations Bands in Canada, 1114 Specific Claims agreements have been made, and 344 are currently in progress, suggesting that almost every First Nation likely has one or more historical grievance related to the breach of a Treaty.  (http://pse5-esd5.ainc-inac.gc.ca/SCBRI_E/Main/ReportingCentre/PreviewReport.aspx?output=HTML)

Modern day treaties have also been signed, such as the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, or the Nunavut Agreement.  These new agreements often contain “Extinguishment clauses” in which the First Nation must agree to the surrender of Aboriginal Title.  Most First Nations see modern treaties as ways of reaffirming and asserting their continuing ownership of their traditional territories. The state sees modern treaties as a way of ending that ownership in “exchange” for much smaller pieces of land and a small chunk of capital.  It seems colonial conquest in Canada still continues.

9. Plague of Darkness:  Religion

There is a dark history in Canada.  A history in which one belief system, one religion and one way of life were thought to be superior, and forced onto other groups of people.   Through missionaries and residential schools, colonial powers tried to convert Indigenous peoples from traditional religions and spirituality to Christianity.  Under the Indian Act, Indigenous religious practices, such as the potlatch, the powwow and the sun-dance, were banned and made illegal.

10. Plague of the First Born:  Residential Schools

Stemming from a policy of “Killing the Indian in the Child”, in 1920, the Federal Government made attendance at a Residential School compulsory for all First Nations children.  They were forcibly removed from their homes and communities, deprived from learning or speaking their traditional languages and cultures, and many were exposed to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school staff.  Mortality rates at some residential schools in Western Canada ranged from 30% to 60% over five years (that is, five years after entry, 30% to 60% of students had died, or 6–12% per annum) [Wikipedia].  Mass graves have been found at many schools, and today many inter-generational effects continue to be seen in the children of survivors. The loss of language, culture, and identity, and the loss of connection to family and community, can all be connected to the genocidal Residential School system.  The federal government of Canada has made reconciliation attempts, and in 2008 the Prime Minister of Canada made an apology for Residential Schools.


Passover began on Monday, March 25th and continues until Tuesday, April 2nd.  Melissa Mollen Dupuis of Idle No More Quebec was given a box of matza and a Hagadah by the Mile End Chavurah in gratitude for her participation and as acknowledgement of her status as honorary Jew.

For more coverage, audio, articles and perspective on the relationship between aboriginal culture and history and the Jewish community please check out our special Indigenous Shtetl Issue.