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Grow up, Canada

2012 August 27

(Second in a multi-part series on Aboriginal issues in Canada. See Part I: Growing up Canadian.)

Last month, I wrote about what I learned about Canada’s native* peoples over the course of my first two dozen years, as I grew up in a white English-speaking Canadian family, consumed English-language mostly-Canadian media, and attended Canadian public schools and a Canadian university. I knew poverty and social problems were deeply entrenched in many Native communities; I figured that since losing traditional lands and livelihoods in the distant past, these problems became entrenched, and, well, poverty anywhere is just a tough nut to crack. We’re all doing our best, though.

I’ve since learned a little more.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll only highlight a few of the key pieces of history that I think we non-indigenous Canadians need to be a lot more aware of. I won’t try to provide a great deal of historical context explaining how settler-indigenous relationships, including treaties and trade, evolved since first contact; I won’t try to deconstruct the racist attitudes and the historical and cultural misunderstandings that underlie these policy decisions; I won’t try to describe in detail their effects and the reactions they’ve provoked from Canada’s indigenous peoples. My goal here is just to make it clear that Canada has treated its indigenous peoples very badly, and it still does. Like I said before, this is likely to be upsetting. (And once again, I must credit âpihtawikosisân for much of this knowledge, as well as the format/tone I’m adopting.)

Residential schools

Let’s start with the whopper, the revelation that set my worldview off on a different path. Get this: from the late 1800’s up until 1948, it was mandatory for native children to attend church-run schools, where they learned English or French, and were forbidden to speak their home languages. The explicit intent was “to kill the Indian in the child”: to erase native culture. Languishing on reserves, beset by poverty and neglect, native culture was clearly failing these children: their best chance was to be brought up as normal Canadian citizens, to take their place in our new society. And by “mandatory”, I mean “round the children up onto buses, and threaten their parents with prison”; by “forbidden” I mean kids were physically beaten for speaking their languages or otherwise expressing their traditional culture, so that a deep shame was usually instilled towards one’s very identity. Children were cut off from their parents for ten months of every year, so that parenting skills were systematically wiped out. This was the residential school system: Canada’s decades-long attempt at genocide.

The “mandatory” requirement was ostensibly lifted in 1948, but most schools carried on until the 1960’s and 1970’s, with no alternatives offered; the last one closed only in 1996. Some students did come out with skills they found useful, and not every student’s experience was negative, but the trauma inflicted in these schools was unimaginable. Physical and sexual abuse were rampant. Mortality rates were high, and families were frequently not informed of deaths. In one school at the turn of the century, half the kids died of tuberculosis in five years. I mention this not because it’s the worst example, but because it’s one of the only documented examples. Children may have died by the tens of thousands; many survivors were deeply scarred and ashamed.

This is not the past: these people are in their 40’s and older. These are today’s parents and grandparents and great-grandparents: they grew up cut off from their families, experiencing frequent abuse and cultural shaming; and this massive generational trauma has carried on through the generations. And there I was, a typical young Canadian, attributing all these social problems—like poverty and addiction—merely to first contact, hundreds of years ago.

I’ll never forget the day I learned about all this, in my first year in medical school. You’ll recall that I thought Canada was “a pretty good country“. So much for that. I felt disgusted, betrayed—and I still do. That this happened, and through two straight decades of formal, publicly-funded education, nobody ever thought it worthwhile even mentioning it to me. All those years of smug Canadian self-satisfaction when hearing about, say, Japan still not teaching its students about the atrocities it committed in WWII, China occupying Tibet, Russia suppressing Chechen rebels, Israel defiantly building settlements in Palestine, the USA supporting dictators and manufacturing pretense for invasions… turns out we’re no better. Sure, they taught me about it in medical school, but we doctors a tiny proportion of the population. Everyone should know about this, and most of us—at least people my age or younger—apparently don’t. Honestly, Canada? I thought we were better than this.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with anger; I’ve always tried to see the best in people, and I always thought anger was a barrier to more positive, constructive approaches. I try to stick to a blame-free worldview whereby the powerful people making harmful decisions suffer from a poverty of empathy or understanding, no less pernicious in its social damage than the material poverty of the more obviously poor. But I’m angry about this. I’m hurt. Not that my feelings amount to a hill of beans compared with the direct and indirect mental health impacts of this program on Aboriginal people, but they’re certainly motivating.

So, residential schools were bad enough. Well, they were much worse than “bad enough”. But that’s only the beginning. Here are a few more choice highlights of what I can only characterize as an abusive relationship between Canada and its indigenous peoples.

What else did we do?

1876: The Indian Act created a system for defining who was to be legally considered Indian, denying native peoples’ authority to define that for themselves, and gave the federal government exclusive legislative authority over Indian people and the lands reserved for them. Naturally, they were denied a vote in federal elections unless they renounced their status, in an impressive feat of irony which persisted until 1960. The act is usually characterized as making native people “wards of the state”, like children in protective custody. It defined the reserves, which were always much smaller areas than native peoples had previously been using, out of the way of land that was important to Europeans for resources, and which were usually subsequently shrunk, bit by bit, over the years, because white people wanted it, and sorry but we have just as much right to that land as native people. It imposed the system of Band Councils which bore no relationship to the way native peoples governed themselves, but that’s okay, because these savage, uncivilized people probably didn’t have any of their own governance structures, right? It also forbade them from raising money or using Band funds to pursue land claims.

There have been over 20 amendments to this act. A few of my favourites: an 1895 amendment criminalized traditional ceremonies such as Potlatches and Sun Dances (where community deliberation and decision-making traditionally occurred alongside cultural and spiritual practices), punishable by prison sentences. A 1914 amendment required western Indians to get permission from the federal government before appearing in traditional costume at any public event.

Can you feel the love!

1920’s through 1970’s: Forced sterilization for “unfit” people such as the “mentally deficient” in BC and Alberta, which disproportionately targeted Aboriginal people.

1950’s: Tuberculosis (TB) epidemic in crowded new Inuit villages, treated via kidnapping. Medical ships were sent to the Arctic to screen people. People were brought onto the ship for a chest X-ray; if it looked like TB, they never got off the ship, they were taken down south to live in a sanatorium until they recovered or died, and their families frequently were not told what happened to them. In 1956, 10% of the entire Inuit population was hospitalized in the south. Authorities didn’t always bother record where they’d found a particular person, and those who recovered were sometimes simply taken back up to the Arctic and dropped off in a village where they didn’t know the land or any of the people. But their TB got better, right?

1953–55: Forced relocation of a number of Inuit families from Inukjuak, in northern Quebec, to Resolute Bay, in what is now Nunavut (in the “High Arctic”). The change in latitude is the same as that between Mexico City and Edmonton, but the Arctic is the Arctic, right? They’ll be fine! (Note: in Inukjuak, there is not 24h/day sunlight in summer, or 24h/day darkness in winter.) People were told they could be brought back in two years if they wanted to, but that didn’t happen. This was one of the most dramatic forced relocations; there have been dozens of others.

1960’s–1980’s: The Sixties Scoop, mass adoption of native children into White families for their own protection. Starting in the 1960’s, with the development of child welfare systems across Canada (by provinces for most people, and by the federal government for native people), thousands of children were again apprehended from their parents and adopted out into White Canadian families, or sometimes internationally. In the 1970’s, 25% of Status Indian children were apprehended at some point. So, Native children were taken en masse from their families and raised instead by White people … does this sound familiar? Yes, we attempted genocide, again.

Ongoing for decades: academic research reinforced racism. Even the academic research community, including public health and anthropology, contributed substantially to the harm done to Aboriginal peoples. For a long time, most research priorities and questions were defined by (usually well-meaning) non-Aboriginal researchers, who would drop into a community with no prior discussion, ask nosy questions, write up their results for publication in a journal (likely divorced from historical context and misinterpreted anyway based on a lack of cultural understanding), and win accolades for the awareness they had brought of all these awful problems. Aboriginal people had little to no input into these research programs, what questions were asked, what done with the results, how their people were portrayed.

1990: the Oka crisis. A Quebec community wanted to build a golf course on a traditional burial ground of the Mohawk people of Oka, who had been repeatedly protesting the occupation of that land since 1717. Highways were blocked; the government sent in the army to quell the rebellion; one officer was killed in the resulting exchange of gunfire; an effigy of a Mohawk warrior was burned by residents of Chateauguây. This happened on national television; Canada saw itself in the mirror for the first time, and finally started doing some real soul-searching. This led to…

1996: the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), a landmark, comprehensive and damning 4000-page tome (“the main policy direction, pursued for over 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong”) which made hundreds of recommendations for repairing the dysfunctional relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal peoples. Ten years later, a report card composed by the Assembly of First Nations graded the government’s performance: out of 66 clusters of recommendations, they awarded one A (2%), 13 D’s (20%), and 37 F’s (56%). The lone A was for establishing National Aboriginal Day (first proposed in 1982 by AFN’s predecessor, declared in 1996, and not currently recognized as a statutory holiday in most provinces). Nice work, Canada!

2005: the Kelowna Accord to improve living conditions for Aboriginal people was signed between the provinces, the federal government (under Paul Martin), and the leaders of five national Aboriginal organizations, following 18 months of roundtable consultation. The Accord was hailed as a “breakthrough” by the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. In 2006, Stephen Harper took power; his government has mostly ignored it.

2011: the Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency due to a severe shortage of adequate housing as the winter approached. The Red Cross went in to help. The federal government—which carefully monitors Band budgets and requires approval by a federal agent for every spending decision, a level of scrutiny and bureaucratic burden which far surpasses that of any other type of local government in Canada, and which makes both short-term and long-term budget planning incredibly difficult—focused on blaming the community, alleging financial mismanagement (despite producing no evidence), and sending in an already-unpopular third-party federal manager to take charge. The courts have since deemed this response “inappropriate“.

Not to mention the absurd legal doctrines of terra nullius and of discovery, the non-respect of Treaties, the paternalism of the White Paper, the paternalism of the First Nations Property Ownership Act, the chronic underfunding of social services and education (even just on a per capita basis, never mind on the basis of needs), Canada’s heel-dragging on signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a litany of other unfortunate stories.

Every last one of these policies: “for their own good”, of course. We were just trying to help, you know? None of these decisions was proposed or widely supported by native people themselves (except the RCAP report and the Kelowna Accord, which have been ignored), but they obviously don’t know what would be good for them. But hey, we meant well.

This is the broad-strokes history of official policy, in so far as I’ve learned about it, and I’ve only scratched the surface. How much of this did you know? How do you feel about it? If you didn’t know most of it, why do you think that is?

But… aren’t things are better now?

Oh, sure. In 2008, the government apologized for the residential schools. In 2010, they apologized for the High Arctic relocation. Never mind that these apologies were recommended in reports of government commissions as far back as 1990, and it took 20 years before we could bring ourselves to say so much as “sorry”. Both apologies came from the Harper government, and were generally appreciated, but they haven’t been accompanied by any substantive commitment to actually do much of anything like what was recommended by the RCAP or agreed to in the Kelowna accord.

The RCAP, writing in 1996, made things plain:

“Successive governments have tried – sometimes intentionally, sometimes in ignorance – to absorb Aboriginal people into Canadian society, thus eliminating them as distinct peoples.  Policies pursued over the decades have undermined – and almost erased – Aboriginal cultures and identities.

“This is assimilation.  It is a denial of the principles of peace, harmony and justice for which this country stands – and it has failed.  Aboriginal peoples remain proudly different.

“Assimilation policies failed because Aboriginal people have the secret of cultural survival.  They have an enduring sense of themselves as peoples with a unique heritage and the right to cultural continuity.” (page x here)

“After some 500 years of a relationship that has swung from partnership to domination, from mutual respect and co-operation to paternalism and attempted assimilation, Canada must now work out fair and lasting terms of coexistence with Aboriginal people.” (page 1 here)

So when I hear people say “but things are better now”, you can probably imagine my reaction. Fine, certain things are better, and I could tell you about a number of initiatives from both indigenous and Canadian people and organizations that are doing amazing work (and I eventually will). But as far as I can tell, only a relative handful of Canadians are really trying to make things right, and most of us are barely even aware that we should. I hear people protest, “don’t say ‘we’—these things aren’t my fault”; that’s true, but you and your family may be living on stolen lands (land never ceded in treaties, including most of BC) and are benefiting from stolen natural resources (extracted from those lands without its inhabitants’ consent), your elected officials are still treating native people with contempt, and you’re probably propagating racist views even if you don’t realize it. Most importantly, large numbers of people are still suffering, and you have some influence over the Canadian state apparatus that bears historical responsibility for the abuses that mainly underlie that suffering. It might not be our fault, but it’s partially our responsibility. So what do you think we should do now?

In light of this history, the answer, to me, is not very complicated: get some humility, Canada. Own up to our history of abuse, stop trying to come up with our own unilateral “solutions”, and start treating people with the basic dignity of listening to them. What do they say we should do?

In future entries: a look at this “traditional culture” thing people seem so crazy about, widespread myths about Aboriginal people, privilege and power, and more. If you want to learn more about what I’ve discussed so far, or lots of other things I haven’t addressed yet, just read all of this.

* Native, indigenous, aboriginal, First Nations: confused? Read this.

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