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Canada’s Cultural Genocide – The Legacy of Assimilation

Indigenous homeless man on the streets of Vancouver, 2015. Source: Ted McGrath, Flickr
Indigenous homeless man on the streets of Vancouver, 2015. Source: Ted McGrath, Flickr

The colonial history of Canada’s Indigenous people has been marked by pain and tragedy, and it has evidently imprinted many traumatic memories upon Indigenous communities. As Utrikesperspektiv.se has previously reported, the Canadian state is guilty of forceful assimilation practices which have had various negative effects on the country’s Indigenous population. As the first article concluded, the harm experienced by Indigenous communities calls for an extensive process of reconciliation. However, previous damage is not the only thing requiring amends, and Indigenous people still face a great deal of social issues in modern day Canada. So what is the extent of these issues? And most importantly, what is being done about it?

Whilst only constituting 4% of Canada’s population, Indigenous people represent a relatively large part of Canadian victimization and crime statistics. For instance, reports from 2014 show that Indigenous people amount to almost a quarter of all homicide victims and a third of those accused of homicide related crimes. Additionally, statistics from January 2015 claim that the number of Indigenous prisoners has been increasing on a federal level, with the result being that over a quarter of all inmates in Canada today are Indigenous.

Cases of victimization have been especially notable in the widespread reports of missing or murdered Indigenous women, where between 1200 and 4000 women are confirmed to have disappeared in various circumstances since the 1980s. The previous government’s approach to this issue has been under constant scrutiny, as the conservative government has failed to effectively pursue a national investigation. Moreover, despite the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in homicide statistics, the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to deny it as an issue of ethnicity. In his pre-election campaign he made the claim that: “We have moved forward with a whole series of criminal justice reforms that deal with the problems of violence against people generally, violence against women in particular.”

Ottawa commemoration of murdered and missing Indigenous women, 2013. Source: Obert Madondo, Flickr
Ottawa commemoration of murdered and missing Indigenous women, 2013. Source: Obert Madondo, Flickr

In regards to social exclusion, clear examples can be observed in areas such as homelessness, unemployment, and substance abuse. Reports show that in some cities, and notably in Canada’s most populated province Ontario, Indigenous people stand for more than half of all the homeless. Moreover, unemployment amongst Indigenous persons continues to be relatively higher than that of non-Indigenous. In fact, statistics show that Aboriginals experienced severely increasing unemployment rates between 2006 and 2011. Finally, there has also been a clear problem regarding substance abuse amongst Indigenous youth, which has been recorded in urban areas as well as on Indigenous reserves.

As a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which lasted from 2010 until 2015, many of these issues have been brought to a national discussion together with an extensive call for change. What has come to attention is the extent to which forced assimilation has resulted in the aforementioned and victimization. Indigenous individuals and communities affected by assimilation policies have been left with long-term problems, which have determined their precarious social position in Canada. For instance, many cases of Indigenous homelessness and substance abuse have been connected to residential schools and their legacy. This is because many graduates, without future prospects and opportunities, ended up living on the streets and/or pursuing criminal activity.

It has long been known that there are a considerable number of problems to be addressed regarding Indigenous rights in Canada. The process of solving these issues arguably took a step backwards with the persisting alienation of the Indigenous population by Stephen Harper’s government. The issues have however been brought to increasing attention by the recently elected liberal government. The current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has already displayed his interest in the resolution of many Indigenous issues. Most notably, since the election he has focused attention on the investigation of missing and murdered indigenous women, putting forward a national inquiry into these cases in December last year. Moreover, Trudeau and his party have expressed a determination to act upon various recommendations put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many of which were rejected by Harper’s government, who claimed that policies to protect Indigenous rights were already in place.

While the proposed resolution by the Liberals has a clear part to play in repairing Indigenous-Canadian relations, the presented data arguably shows that many issues of social exclusion stem from a systemic negligence of Indigenous peoples and identities. As is visible in a wider context concerning ethnic exclusion, crime and delinquency can often be a result of exclusion from society. The resulting social situation has, in turn, the tendency to further enhance negative attitudes towards Indigenous peoples. In fact, a 2013 poll suggested that 60 per cent of Canadians believe that “most of native peoples’ problems are brought upon by themselves”.

It seems clear that a lot remains to be done politically, economically, and socially, regarding the well-being of Indigenous people. This process has been rather inconsistent considering the lack of proper action by previous governments, and it has caused a great deal of frustration amongst Indigenous peoples. What is evident is that Indigenous communities and individuals seek only to gain equal opportunities to those of all other Canadian citizens, an arguably legitimate demand in a land which they have inhabited for more than two millennia.

Michal Gieda

One comment

  1. Good to see the diversity of material coming from UPF. Thanks for this important introduction to a serious conversation about colonialism in Canada, as well as to indigenous rights & issues around the world!

    But also, I’d like to comment that this article can be more nuanced. The above-mentioned statistics would do well to be grounded in more thorough historical and cultural contexts of the First Nations experience in Canada. My concern is that this article largely relies and retreats to default buzzwords like “assimilation” and “systemic negligence”, without much elaboration on root issues tied to the discrimination against Canadian First Nations peoples.

    I understand that the previous article speaks in depth about residential schools. Certainly, residential schools and their impacts are condemnable and key in what has been termed “cultural genocide” of First Nations peoples in Canada. But to fully understand why and how First Nations peoples persistently remain “second-class citizens” of Canada requires also looking at the systems that continue to exist even as residential schools have been abolished. In this case, I urge the author to look more into, and provide readers further context on, the First Nations reserves system and the Indian Act (eg. government funding of reserves, accessibility to property rights, quality of social services, infrastructure, and wellbeing), treaty and Aboriginal claims, exploitation of natural resources, and more. For instance, I challenge you to scrutinize the “forceful assimilation” explanation – beyond the residential schools, the treaties and legal obligations that currently exist in Canada create a separate system for First Nations peoples rather than a merely assimilative one. The Indian Act is what protects the identity, group rights, and provision of land for First Nations peoples. But this same Indian Act is arguably also the long entrenched source of constrained social mobility and sub-par living standards for today’s aboriginal individuals on reserves. The poorer living and education standards on reserves also predisposes individuals to more limited economic opportunities and lower wellbeing if they choose to leave the reserve — contributing to the levels of substance abuse and homelessness as mentioned in the article above. What I’m trying to say is, the First Nations issue deserves more justice in its representation than an implied “forced assimilation led to lack of integration, led to poverty, led to discrimination” kind of truism.

    Nonetheless, First Nations issues, and indigenous issues worldwide, are evidently sensitive, complex, often highly intractable, and difficult to talk about, so I appreciate and acknowledge the immense effort in highlighting the issue. Hopefully perhaps this comment will provide some thoughts, if there will be more articles on Canada’s First Nations challenges. I’d look forward to reading them in any case. I’d be interested also to see if the author’s deeper inquiry would lend more valuable insight on the actual effectiveness of the proposed Liberal policies on aboriginal issues.

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