How Much More Needs to Happen for Canada to Wake Up?
A piece on Canada’s reprehensible, colonial history and the realities still being faced by Indigenous communities today
Sitting in my room, scrolling through story after story containing calls to action and recent news of the unmarked graves of residential school students on Instagram, I came to a halt.
I was overwhelmed by a deep feeling of shame, on my part and thousands of others across Canada; on all of those who are non-Indigenous and have never taken a single minute to educate ourselves on the original inhabitants of the land that we live on, their histories, and the issues that they face today outside of passing attempts at reading then reposting “activism” posts.
I felt shame thinking about the number of times I’d dressed up in red and white to celebrate what I thought to be a country where diversity was celebrated and equity was something we should be proud of, the historic wrongdoings of our government being forgivable, being set aside in my mind as purely history.
“A dark chapter in Canadian history” as many call it, was the only time, in my head, at which Indigenous people faced marginalization, violence, and separation from mainstream Canada — but no statement is further than truth.
I created this article to allow myself to learn of the truths that were originally clouded by mere ignorance. It is my hope that, in posting this, I play a role in encouraging others like me to educate themselves, and stop getting away with the bare minimum.
In no way do I want to give rise to pity towards Indigenous people. This article is simply meant to strike thought and act as a starting block to help bring about the realization that instead, they deserve our respect and allyship.
I understand that this may not be my place to share information, however I tried my best to use the most reliable sources written by Indigenous people themselves.
While I understand that Indigenous people are more worthy of your time in learning about their experiences, I wrote this with the intention of doing my part as I can. And on that note, if there is any false information or unintended bias in my words, I invite you to correct me in the comments or through email. Thank you.
Background: terminology and definitions
Groups of Aboriginal people
The Canadian Constitution recognizes three different groups of Aboriginal people: First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
These are three separate peoples with unique heritages, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.
- First Nations are the descendants of the original inhabitants of North America. The term “Indian” refers to the same group of people, however being coined by Christopher Columbus in reference to the relationship he had assumed between First Nations and true Indians from South Asia, many First Nations peoples find the term outdated and offensive. There are currently 640 First Nations governments in Canada.
- Métis (‘may-TEE’) , meaning “mixed” in French, refers to the descendants of the European fur traders and First Nations women. The term Métis is broadly used in Canada to designate people who have mixed First Nations and European, Asian, or African ancestry.
- Inuit (‘IN-yu-EE’) — descendants of the orginal inhabitants of the arctic region of Canada. Today, the Inuit peoples comprise 80% of the Arctic population. The Inuit of Canada are united by a common language (Inuktitut), a common culture, a unique way of life, and a traditional economy. Inuit means “people” in Inuktitut.
The words Aboriginal, Native and Indigenous refer to all three groups.
Status and Treaty Indians
All registered status First Nations peoples (Indians) are members of a First Nation community (Indian Band) or Tribe and are the only Indigenous peoples that are referred to as First Nations and governed by the Indian Act.
A Treaty Indian is a registered status First Nation person who is a member of a First Nation community that signed a treaty with the Crown.
First Nations peoples whose ancestors signed peace treaties with the colonial and Canadian governments have treaty rights. The treaties were signed in exchange for land to be enjoyed by mainstream Canadian society.
No two treaties are identical, however treaty rights typically provide for reserve lands, annual payments, and hunting, trapping, gathering and fishing rights.
Treaty costs are nothing compared to what First Nations peoples gave in return, the ability for Canadian society to benefit from and enjoy their land.
First Nations treaty members receive $2, $3 or $5 per year in treaty payments.
Policies of displacement and assimilation deprived Indigenous peoples of their traditional, social, economic and political powers. Throughout the world this activity is commonly known as cultural genocide.Indigenous peoples are now struggling to re‑establish control through a process of healing, negotiation and partnership.
Intergenerational trauma, or transgenerational trauma, is the result of untreated trauma-related stress experienced by survivors that is passed on to second and subsequent generations.
It is usually seen within one family in which the parents or grandparents were traumatized, and each generation of that family continues to experience trauma in some, unique form.
First Nation Government
Each First Nation government has its own governing council, usually consisting of one or more Chiefs, and several councilors. Community members choose the Chief and Councilors by election, or sometimes through traditional customs.
The members of a first Nation community generally share common values, traditions and practices rooted in their ancestral heritage.
False Myths and Their Roots
With the misinformation and lack of adequate education, many stereotypes, myths and misconceptions exist about Indigenous peoples in Canada. Often, this can lead to the racism and discrimination that they continue to experience today.
All Aboriginal people are the same
A common misconception is that all Indigenous people are the same, however this is far from true. In fact, the Indigenous population is diverse.
Though the Canadian Constitution does recognize three main groups of Aboriginal peoples, within these groups there are several distinct communities, that were historically associated with the geographic region on which they lived.
In Canada, there are over 600 recognized First Nations communities with First Nation governments. Each has a different history, culture, values, beliefs, religious views, language, and social, political, and legal systems.
Indigenous peoples do not pay taxes
Federal tax exemptions for First Nation peoples, regardless of whether they are treaty, are part of the Indian Act. However, unlike many people believe, only registered status First Nations persons whose incomes are earned on-reserve are legally exempt from personal income tax.
Taking into consideration that 50% of all status First Nations people living off-reserve and 75% of all Indigenous people are required to pay all income taxes, provincial sales taxes and the Goods and Services Tax in full, it becomes clear that to consider this statement true is an exaggeration.
The exemptions only apply in very specific and limited conditions, and most Indigenous people pay taxes like everyone else.
Indigenous peoples receive free education
The government provides direct payments to reserves to fund schooling, in place of provincial school taxes. As per the Government of Canada’s website, “Budget 2021 proposes to invest $1.2 billion over five years, and $181.8 million ongoing” for K-12 education.
However, when it comes to post-secondary education, the budget proposes to provide merely $150.6 million, far below the demand and frequently creating loopholes for Métis, off-reserve students, and non-status First Nations who are not eligible.
In the end, this results in the truth that a) post-secondary students rely like other students on loans, bursaries, scholarships, family support and personal savings, resulting in student debt, or b) many don’t have the chance to pursue post-secondary education at all.
Other myths include that:
- First Nations have ample reserve lands
- First Nations can do what they want with their reserve lands and resources
- Indigenous Peoples living on reserves get free housing
- There’s no connection between Indigenous unemployment and Indigenous health and social problems
- Residential schools are ancient history
- The myth of the vanishing Indian
Read more on the above here.
Learning of the truth behind these false statements and notions implying that Indigenous peoples receive “special treatment” and are majorly advantaged allows us to see that these so-called benefits get them nowhere as close to equally positioned as non-Indigenous Canadians as they deserve to be.
If reconciliation is to ever be more than an aspiration the onus must be on all Canadians to abandon the myths that blind us to our culpability for the historical systems of oppression that continue to marginalize the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
— Keith Thor Carlson, The Conversation
Indigenous Rights & Legislation Timeline
1763 — The Royal Proclamation is issued, setting a foundation for the process of establishing treaties between the First Nation and government parties. The British Crown initially recognized Canada’s first inhabitants as self-governing nations (tribes of Indians, not nation-states).
Written and designed by solely British colonists, it forbade settlers from buying and selling Indigenous land, this power being given only to the British monarch.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 laid out four fundamental principles of Canadian policy:
- The First Nations people possess all lands not formally surrendered.
- First Nations lands or lands claimed by the First Nations peoples cannot be granted to non-Indigenous people without formally surrendering it.
- The government must remove all persons illegally occupying First Nations’ lands.
- First Nations peoples can only surrender land to the Crown and only through negotiations and treaty.
1876 — The Indian Act is created, in an effort to assimilate Indigenous peoples into mainstream society and terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Indigenous peoples. It regulates nearly every aspect of a registered status First Nations person’s life.
Some of its main functions include(d):
- Outlaw traditional governing systems and replace them with elected First Nations Chiefs and Councils.
- Limit the Indigenous land base to small reserves.
- Prohibit First Nations members from selling land, agricultural goods or farm animals.
- Prohibit Indigenous peoples from investing monies earned by their communities (most of this has been eliminated in recent years).
- Prevent Indigenous peoples from voting provincially or federally (removed in 1945 and 1960 respectively).
- Prohibit Indigenous peoples from retaining a lawyer or to raise funds with the intention of hiring a lawyer (changed in 1951)
- Forcibly remove Indigenous children from their homes and families to attend distant boarding schools to remove “the Indian from the Indian”. The last Residential School closed in 1996.
- Deny First Nations women the right to possess land and marital property, or retain status after marrying a non-status person, like men do, or participate in the band system. The oppression of women under the Indian Act resulted in long-term poverty, marginalization and violence, which they are still trying to overcome today.
- Eradicate Indigenous identity by creating arbitrary categories of “Indianness”: i.e. status, non-status, Bill C-31 and Bill C-3 Indians.
- → source
The Indian Act applies only to status Indians, and has not historically recognized Métis and Inuit peoples. Absolute power and authority is given to the Minister of Indigenous Affairs over every aspect of registered status First Nations peoples on a reserve.
1880 — The Indian Act outlines that First Nations people who earned a university degree or any Registered First Nation woman who married a non-First Nation or an unregistered First Nation man would lose their status, connoting a non-flexible association between Indigenous people and poverty/lack of education.
1884 — The Indian Act outlines prison sentences for anyone taking part in traditional Indigenous ceremonies. **
1960 — Registered status First Nations peoples obtain the right to vote.
1982 — Section 35 of the Constitution Act provides constitutional protection to the Indigenous and treaty rights of indigenous peoples in Canada
1990 — The Oka crisis leads to the formation of the Royal Commission on Indigenous People (RCAP)
1997 — The Supreme Court of Canada recognizes Aboriginal Title
2001 — The federal Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada is created to manage and resolve the large number of abuse claims filed by former residential school students against the federal government.
2002 — First Nations peoples become eligible for the Canada Pension Plan.
2006 — The Government of Canada announced the approval of a final Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
The Settlement Agreement includes five different elements to address the legacy of Indian Residential Schools:
- A Common Experience Payment (CEP) for all eligible former students of Indian Residential Schools
- An Independent Assessment Process (IAP) for claims of sexual or serious physical abuse
- Measures to support healing such as the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program and an endowment to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation
- Commemorative activities
- The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)
2008 — The rights of First Nations people living on reserve are covered by the Canadian Human Rights Act
2013 — Canada’s First Nations peoples receive formal protection under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the same as all other Canadians and new immigrants.
2015 — The TRC releases its final report, including 94 calls to action that focuses on promoting healing, educating, and listening.
- Only recently have Indigenous peoples begun to obtain the same rights as other people in Canada.
- The Indian Act stemmed from an objective to assimilate. Today, although it has undergone multiple amendments, the Act still allows the Canadian government to have power and control over nearly every facet of an Indigenous person’s life on reserve, limiting their quality of life, freedom, and wellbeing.
With several policies which were developed deliberately to “remove the Indian from the Indian”, eliminate Indigenous governments, and end Indigenous rights, the Canadian government sought to assimilate Indigenous peoples into mainstream Canada through the systemic separation of Indigenous children from their families and culture. This took place in residential schools, all the way from 1840 to 1996, where tens of thousands of Indigenous children suffered physical and sexual abuse and traumatic experiences which passed down through generations, resulting in intergenerational trauma.
The policy which enforced these atrocities are best described as a cultural genocide. Residential schools were created to fulfill the objective of terminating the Canadian government’s legal and financial obligations to Indigenous peoples, in order to gain control over their land and resources.
Having being funded by the federal government and run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, Indigenous people were made to embrace Western values and Christianity through Christian education, teaching them English (or French), taking them from their family environments and replacing their values with European ones. As the Indian Act included a clause that attendance was mandatory, failure to comply would result in fines or imprisonment of the parents.
There were a total of 130 residential schools in Canada, 88 of which were operated by the 4 Christian churches. An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools.
50% of children who attended Residential Schools died at the school or shortly after returning home.
Needless to say, the horrifying efforts of Indigenous assimilation that took place has had long-lasting, dreadful effects.
The system deprived the children of the experience of family and parenting role models, which means they had little to fall back on when they raised their own children. Sadly, this has led to the intergenerational transmission of child abuse and neglect, and the passing down of destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity.
In addition, residential schools caused disrupted social structures and displaced Aboriginal governments in their wake, disintegrating the culture, language, religion, political and social institutions, and economic sustainability of countless Indigenous communities.
Other intergenerational impacts are high rates of:
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Psychological / emotional abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Dysfunctional families and interpersonal relationships
- Parenting issues such as coldness, rigidity, neglect, poor communications and abandonment
- Teen pregnancy
- Chronic, widespread depression, anger and rage
Today, as hundreds of unmarked graves are being discovered, it is painful to learn of that fewer than 50 people have been convicted for sexual crimes related to the schools, according to analysis by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Moreover, almost all are sex offenders who spent mere months in prison for actions that damaged the civic life of generations of Indigenous communities.
In learning about residential schools, it is also important to recognize that residential schools were only one part of the colonial project in Canada.
More than 2 million people identify themselves as having Indigenous ancestry, meaning around 5% of the total Canadian population is comprised of Indigenous people. Unfortunately, despite efforts that are beginning to be made by the government, Aboriginal people continue to face injustice, discrimination, human rights violations, and marginalization.
- Indigenous peoples are moving from rural to urban centres in Canada. 65% of all Indigenous people live in urban areas up from 50% in 1996.
- This is in part due to off-reserve migration, as a result of the desire to remove themselves from the poor living conditions and government control.
- Less than 35% of registered status First Nations peoples (First Nation community membership) continue to live on reserve. However, even though 65% currently reside elsewhere, 95% of our federal government spending continues to go to these First Nations communities.
- The Indigenous population is much younger than the non-Indigenous population. 51% of the total Indigenous population is under 24 years of age, while 31% of the Canadian non-Indigenous population is under 24.
- As this younger generation of Indigenous peoples move into the labour market, they will account for an increasing percentage in the working-age population — making it crucial now more than ever to empower Indigenous youth and do what it takes to reduce the obstacles they face to gain employment.
Unemployment and Poverty
In 2006, the rate of Indigenous poverty was a staggering 29%, almost three times the overall poverty rate. Alongside this, the unemployment rate among all Indigenous peoples is 18%, and on-reserve First Nations face an unemployment rate of 30%, or 60% if you’re counting the working age population that are deemed “unemployable” and excluded from this statistic.
In comparison, the Canadian unemployment rate is 7%.
Though statistics cannot paint the full picture, they illustrate the troubling story of Indigenous people being excluded from the labour market as a result of historical disadvantage, a lack of education and learning opportunities, funding, and poor health and justice outcomes.
Another factor at play is the large income gap between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous peoples.
As per census data, Indigenous peoples earn a significantly lower income than the non‑Indigenous population. For example, within the 25‑54 age group, it was found that registered status First Nations men earned incomes equivalent to merely 45% of non‑Indigenous men’s incomes.
“First Nations community poverty is the single greatest social injustice facing Canada. Canada is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, all because of the generosity and land of our ancestors. Yet First Nations peoples endure poverty and third world conditions in their own homeland. This injustice is met with silence. The unacceptable is accepted.”
— Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine
Indigenous Reserves and Access to Basic Necessities
Reserves were created as part of the treaty-making process with First Nations peoples. Even if a First Nation did not sign a treaty, however, they were relocated to reserves anyway.
As of 2017, only 0.36% of Canada’s landmass has been set aside as reserve status. When put into perspective, it becomes clear that this number is horribly scant.
The combined landmass of all First Nation reserves in Canada is smaller than the landmass of the Navaho Reservation in the United States. In fact, the Navaho Reservation has a landmass of 17,544,480 acres; 2 times the area of all Canadian Reserves combined.
What’s worse, the Canadian government located First Nations over 80% of reserves in remote areas, effectively isolating them from the rest of the population and denying them access to the quality of life that other Canadians enjoy.
First Nations are segregated, isolated, marginalized and separated from Canadian society by law, legislation, policy and geography.
— Indigenous Awareness Canada
Such extreme distances from service centres and other basic amenities cause a range of cascading effects on Indigenous communities. For example, Inuit people living in northern Canada face ridiculously high costs of sustenance, like a $15 bag of apples. Then, there’s also the fact that more than two-thirds of homes on-reserve do not have high-speed internet, or that, despite having the third-largest supply of freshwater, nearly 75% of First Nations water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination.
Education, Healthcare, Food, Water — The Basic Necessities
Regardless of where they are situated, First Nations, Métis and Inuit children receive fewer educational funding and learning opportunities compared to other Canadian children. Seeing as though education was a key lever in the minds of Indigenous peoples while signing treaties, it is a tragedy that they have yet to receive the education they had been promised in order to allow future generations to survive and prosper as a people.
First Nations, Métis and Inuit children receive fewer educational funding and learning opportunities compared to other Canadian children regardless of where they live. The education offered generally does not facilitate the learning and retention of Indigenous languages and culture.
Currently, 63% of the Indigenous population obtains a high school diploma, a number which has not seen much improvement in the last 15 years, compared to 89% in the mainstream Canadian population. The gap in attainment rate of post-secondary education for First Nations peoples is nearly as large as secondary; 21% less compared to the Canadian population.
Once again, this ties back to the underlying systemic racism, socio‑economic factors, inadequate Indigenous input/control and poor funding and resources. Since 1996, there has been a cap on First Nations education support.
While the rest of Canada enjoys world-class healthcare, there is an epidemic of chronic disease on First Nations reserves going unnoticed and insufficiently addressed, despite large federal budget allocations.
The overwhelming gap of health issues, both mental and physical, among First Nations peoples in contrast to the general Canadian population can be seen in several saddening statistics. For example, First Nations peoples are 8–10 times more likely to contract Tuberculosis and 3 times more likely to contract diabetes than Canadians at large. Other chronic disease that are plaguing First Nations communities include AIDS, HIV, and FASD.
Due to diseases like these, infant mortality rates among First Nations peoples are double the national average (2017, and indigenous children are almost five times more likely to die before they reach age 16 than non-indigenous children, a recent report by a committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba indicates.
Another critical issue among Indigenous communities is mental health.
As a result of untreated trauma-related stress experienced by residential school survivors, each generation of a family once involved in a historic atrocity like a residential school continues to experience trauma in some form.
Destructive behaviours can become normalized while left unaddressed due to a lack of treatment and for these reasons, suicide rates are devastatingly high — like in Nunavut, where the Inuit face a suicide rate that it 700% than the general Canadian population.
In a healthcare setting, factors like personal biases and unintentional stereotyping due to systemic racism, lead to inappropriate treatment and barriers to accessing health care, with the poor living conditions and underfunding of Indigenous communities only serving to exacerbate the issue.
Indigenous people, especially on reserves, endure some of the worst housing and shelter in the country today.
Though the federal government spends about $300 million annually on First Nation community housing through various programs, investments have not been up to par with the demand for new housing or the need for major renovations to existing units.
More than one-third of First Nations peoples have, a “core housing need,” indicating that their homes do not meet the most basic standard of acceptability. In 2016, nearly one in five (19.4%) Aboriginal people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs. A similar statistic denotes that a large portion (26%) of Aboriginal people are also living in overcrowded housing.
According to Canadian government representatives, the lack of adequate funding is largely due to the difficulties presented by the communal ownership of Indigenous lands in obtaining mortgages or financing for housing.
This relates back to property ownership and rights of Indigenous people on reserve. With the exception of certificates of possession, First Nations people cannot own land on reserves — this prohibits them from generating credit or equity off of their homes and property. Rather, reserve land is vested with the Crown.
In the bigger picture, constraining property rights limit the freedom to own and control their own land, which is more than just an economic asset in many Indigenous culture.
It is connected to spiritual beliefs, traditional knowledge and teachings, relationships, ecosystems, and social; it is fundamental to cultural reproduction; moreover, commonly held land rights reinforce nationhood.
Finally, not only does subpar housing contributes to health problems, poor educational outcomes, family conflict, and even homelessness, it can lead to the apprehension of children by child welfare workers, breaking families, and subsequently communities, apart.
Violence and Crime
Another consequence of systemic racism, Indigenous disadvantage in Canadian society and a justice system that is not reflective of Indigenous justice, is the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian penal system, both as the accused and victims. Indigenous people are almost 9 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people. On the other side of a story, Indigenous peoples, particularly women, are significantly more vulnerable to crime, as well. This is a reflection of the sustained abuse that many, if not most, Indigenous peoples face as children. 88% of an entire sample of Indigenous people interviews from the four largest Canadian cities had been a victim of childhood and/or adult violence.
It’s the socioeconomic conditions that colonization and genocidal institutions that have made them vulnerable, perpetrators know who they’re going to get away with killing or not.”
— Audrey Huntley, paralegal for Indigenous rights in Canada
As a result, in the homicide rate for Indigenous people was 8.76 homicides per 100,000 Indigenous population in 2017, which is 6 times higher than for non-Indigenous people.
In the same year, there was a 32% increase in the rate of homicides for Indigenous women victims (4.22 per 100,000 Indigenous women) from the previous year. In comparison, the homicide rate for Indigenous men (13.40 per 100,000 Indigenous men) increased by 2% in 2017. (Source)
The major challenges for victims are that they often do not have access to services to alter their life conditions, and a failure on the part of police and others in the criminal justice system to adequately respond to, or provide for, the needs of Indigenous women and girls.
With Indigenous children living in such deplorable conditions, surviving instead of thriving while lacking access to the most basic human rights, it cannot get more obvious that future generations of prospering Indigenous communities will remain but a hope, not a reality, until things change.
The way forward starts with you and me. Today — and quite literally — tomorrow.
After speaking to multiple individuals of Indigenous descent, I understand that different people deem different courses of action appropriate for dealing with the recent happenings.
For example, one individual shared that:
I don’t need your pity of your platitudes. I want a rebalancing. I want equity. I want to feel safe in my own country. So strop sensationalizing my losses, my suffering. You’ve got to dig into your own pockets to start righting these wrongs. If residential schools happened today, you would be the one snatching children from the arms of parents, not the other way round. Own your privileges.
while another individual felt that:
Right now is the time to grieve together. We’re in this together, and we need to in this together we need to co-create the world we want to live in together. Give Indigenous people space, offer a hand, and pray to the people in whatever way you do.
As a non-Indigenous person, I am in no place to speak on the do’s and don’ts of moving forward and mending the decades of wrongdoing and horror that were inflicted upon Indigenous people.
However, from my learnings gained by speaking to Elders and residential school survivors, I understand the following.
At the the minimum, people like you and me can start by learning the history. We can help by showing our respect. And most of all, we can help my listening to and working with the Indigenous Peoples of what we now call Canada, giving them back their pride, and recognizing the privilege we hold as non-Indigenous people in order to bring about positive discourse and a future in which both Indigenous and non-Indigenous live in harmony and equity.
On this Canada Day, I ask you: how much do you feel like we have to celebrate?
Special thanks to Sandra Sutter, a Cree Métis artist who helped me navigate resources and understand topics and gain perspective. Your story is inspiring and your music moving. Give it a listen here. I also want to thank all four speakers at the SFU Lunch N’ Learn event. Elder Margaret, Tim Michel, Ron Johnston, and Gabriel George, your personal recounts on lived experiences touched me deeply and I’m eternally grateful to have gotten a chance to listen.