DILEMMA OF THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE OF CANADA
Posted on March 7th, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

Humans colonized the New World earlier than previously thought. Taken together, genetic, archaeological and geologic records suggest that the humans set out from Asian Siberia sometime between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago, entering the New World via Beringia as the ice sheets blanketing the Pacific coastal corridor and the interior corridor of North America receded. By 14,600 years ago, they had made their way to South America. What is beyond all doubt, is that the indigenous people of the two American continents have been a resilient and resourceful people, trailblazers who settled the longest geographic expanse ever settled by humans. Braving the unknown, they adapted masterfully to a vast array of ecosystems on two continents. These early Americans deserve our admiration. They exemplify the spirit of survival and adventure that represents the very best of humanity(Heather Pringle, The First Americans, Scientific American, Vol.305, No.5, Nov. 2011).    

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES – FIRST NATIONS

The indigenous peoples in Canada include the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. The First Nations are the predominant indigenous peoples in Canada south of the Arctic Circle. Those in the Arctic area are distinct and known as Inuit. The Métis, another distinct ethnicity, developed after European contact and relations primarily between First Nations people and Europeans. Within Canada, the term First Nations has come into general use for indigenous peoples other than Inuit and Métis. North American indigenous peoples have cultures spanning thousands of years.

There are 634 First Nations, and First Nations governments (or bands) recognized as such in Canadian law spread across Canada, roughly half of which are in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. Most of these First Nations live on designated reservations, mostly in rural areas. They are generally politically inactive and have little clout in provincial and national affairs. The indigenous people of USA, Australia and South American countries share a similar fate. Everywhere they exist, they do so on the fringes of society, subjected to white racism and neglect. Marginalised and patronised, many have sunk into apathy and despair.

GENOCIDE INVOLVING MASS KILLING OF ORIGINAL PEOPLES

Globally, it is a fact that in regions where white Europeans have settled for good, native populations have never really recovered from the trauma. With missionary zeal, white settlers and administrators have sought to erase every vestige of indigenous civilisations. Thus, continents like Australia, North and South America today have dominant white societies that have accepted and largely integrated with non-white migrants, but continue to ignore the plight of those they displaced. The political entities known as Canada and the United States of America owe their very existence as nation states to a genocide perpetrated against the original peoples of this continent. In Canada, this genocide was facilitated by the creation of the Canadian National Railway, and the consequent destruction of the buffalo, a critical component of Indigenous life and culture.

Highly hypocritical of Canada to speak of human rights violations in other countries, when Canada is overly guilty of worst forms of human rights violations during a long period of time. Canada is  responsible for genocide involving mass killing of indigenous peoples of this land. In the not too distant past, Canada was responsible for inflicting on these people, conditions of life calculated to bring about their total extinction. Going all the way back to the arrival of European ‘white man’ to the western hemisphere, the indigenous communities have been subjected to torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, and relocations.

THE INDIAN ACT OF 1876 AND RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL SYSTEM

The now infamous Canadian Indian Residential School system established under the 1876 Indian Act, subjected native children to forced conversions, sickness, abuse and was an attempt at Genocide. It was an attempt to force indigenous peoples off their lands, sever family ties and diminish traditional Indian culture. This Act and the Residential school system it enabled, ripped native children away from their parents and put them into institutions designed to assimilate them instead into Canadian society, the stated intention being ‘to kill the Indian in the child’. Forcible transferring of children from one group to another and widespread abuse of children was the order of the day in these Residential schools separating children from their indigenous culture and way of life. In Canada, attendance at residential schools was made compulsory for Indian children, as they were known in 1876 when this was made part of official policy. Thus, children were forcibly placed in these church-run schools where they were often subjected to physical abuse and sexual exploitation. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Indian Residential school system was dismantled, and it was as recent as June 11th, 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada made a formal apology to the indigenous people. The logic underlying this cruel social experiment was that in order to ‘civilise savages’, children had to be removed from the influence of their families. To further cut off their links to their own culture, they were forbidden to speak in their own languages in the residential schools.

This long process of deracination robbed entire generations of self-confidence and pride, turning them into the demoralised, unmotivated people so many of them have become. What took place in residential schools amounts to nothing short of cultural genocide – a systematic and concerted attempt to extinguish the spirit of Aboriginal peoples. It was the Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlan who said in 2015, that Canada’s attempt to commit “cultural genocide” against aboriginal people “that began in the colonial period” is the “worst stain on Canada’s human-rights record”. In the light of Canada’s long history of severe human rights violations within the country, it is  hypocritical on the part of Canada speak of human rights obligations of other countries. Canada has consistently pressed Venezuelan authorities to address human rights violations and has imposed sanctions and suspended its diplomatic operations. Canada did the same against Nicaragua for its human rights violations. Canada has yet to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia- a country with a record of extreme forms of human rights violations. It is highly hypocritical of Canada to hold Myanmar accountable for an alleged genocide of the Rohingya people” and to join some western  governments to urge China to end detentions and violations against Muslims in Xinjiang region. In addition, it is hypocritical of Canada to be involved with USA and western countries on resolutions against Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Yemen at the UN Human Rights Council.

NATIONAL INQUIRY INTO PLIGHT OF INDIGENOUS WOMEN  

The missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic is an issue currently affecting indigenous people in Canada and the United States, including the First Nations, Inuit, Metis (FNIM), and Native American communities. It has been described as a Canadian national crisis and a Canadian genocide. Responding to repeated calls from Indigenous groups, other activists, and non-governmental organizations, the Government of Canada established the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in September 2016. The Final Report of this national Inquiry was published in June 2019. It reveals that persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses are the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls and other marginalized people. The report cites specific colonial and patriarchal policies that displaced women from their traditional roles in communities and governance and diminished their status in society, leaving them vulnerable to violence.

From 1997 to 2000, the rate of homicide for Aboriginal females was almost seven times higher than other females. Compared to non-Indigenous females, they were also “disproportionately affected by all forms of violence”. They are also significantly over-represented among female Canadian homicide victims, and are far more likely than other women to go missing. In the United States, Native American women are more than twice as likely to experience violence than any other demographic. One in three Native women is sexually assaulted during her life, and 67% of these assaults are perpetrated by non-Natives. The two-volume report calls for transformative legal and social changes to resolve the crisis that has devastated Indigenous communities across the country.

GENOCIDE IN THE  AMERICAS

In their book titled In American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present, authors Erin McKenna, Scott L. Pratt report a 90-95% decline in the Indigenous population of the Americas between 1491 and 1691. It is no small coincidence that the genocide has been beneficial for elite corporate interests, both domestic and foreign, seeking to profit from the land base over which various Indigenous peoples have title and sovereignty. In the past, Indigenous peoples were mercilessly decimated by diseases introduced by white settlers, made to sign unequal treaties that confined them to remote reservations and forcibly moved from their ancestral homes. And when it was decided that reservation lands were valuable, the Indians would be forced to move again to other locations.

HIGHLIGHTING OF INJUSTICES

Bruce Clark, Reuben George, John Ahniwanika Schertow, Thomas King, C. Backhouse, Yale D. Belanger, are among the many prominent scholars and authors who have highlighted the injustices and human rights violations against the native people of Canada. Bruce Clark, scholar, author and Canadian Native Rights Lawyer spent forty-six years defending the rights of Indigenous peoples across North America. Clark highlights how the legal system has been twisted and contorted to deliberately suppress indigenous sovereignty to the advantage of wealthy elites. He holds an MA in constitutional history and a PhD in comparative law jurisprudence and is a scholar specializing in the legal history of the evolving relationship between Natives and Newcomers. He is the author of a number of essays for Dissident Voice, and of the 2018 book Ongoing Genocide caused by Judicial Suppression of  the Existing” Aboriginal Rights”. Reuben George is the Chief or Manager of the Tsleil Waututh Nation Sacred Trust Initiative, which is mandated to stop the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion from happening. Constance Backhouse’s publication was titled ‘Colour-Coded:A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900–1950, Yale D. Belanger wrote on Ways of Knowing: An Introduction to Native Studies in Canada.

John Ahniwanika Schertow is an award-winning journalist and multimedia artist of Mohawk and European descent. He is the founder and lead editor of Intercontinental Cry, an on-line media source of news of world-wide Indigenous struggle and resistance. As a poet and freelance journalist, John’s work has been featured in the Guardian, Toward Freedom, the Dominion, Madre, Swerve Magazine and many other publications. Thomas King’s widely read book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America’ (2012) is necessary reading for those interested in the plight of the indigenous people of North America. 

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