“History is not the past,
It is the present.
We carry our history with us.
We are our history.
If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.”
– James Baldwin (I Am Not Your Negro)
On July 1, 2017 many people across Canada and internationally celebrated the country’s 150th birthday. At the same time, many excellent articles were written about why we should question this “celebration”, especially from Indigenous perspectives. Many asked what the last 150 years of Canada has offered the Indigenous nations of these lands. At the same time, critique was not limited to Indigenous people, for example, July 1 also marks what many Chinese-Canadians refer to as “Humiliation Day” when on July 1, 1923 the government of Canada instituted the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning all Chinese people from immigrating to Canada, a law maintained until 1947.
Often in spite of this history, many people wonder how one can be such a downer about Canada’s birthday, when in comparison to life in other countries around the world, things in Canada seem so peaceful and good. While it is true that many people in Canada live in relative peace and comfort, this has never been extended to Indigenous people in this country. However, rather than review 150+ years of injustice in Canada, this article will focus on news stories about Indigenous people in Canada, which have made headlines since July 1, 2017, just one month ago. Rather that explain the injustice of history, I hope to illuminate the injustices of the present, which of course, as the James Baldwin poem mentions, is intrinsically linked to history. However, I hope to tear down some of the too often made arguments that injustices against Indigenous people lay somewhere in Canada’s past. I believe that the news headlines of the last month are a fine illustration of how the ‘history’ of injustice, is not really ‘history’ at all.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s nation to nation promises vs. paternalistic reality
On July 1, 2017 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks for the 150th birthday of Canada read in part, “As we mark Canada 150, we also recognize that for many, today is not an occasion for celebration. Indigenous Peoples in this country have faced oppression for centuries. As a society, we must acknowledge and apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward for the next 150 years – one in which we continue to build our nation-to-nation, Inuit-Crown, and government-to-government relationship with the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation.” This promise, to work with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples on a “nation to nation” basis, is what many Indigenous people have been demanding of the government of Canada for generations. It is supposed to mean that Indigenous peoples and their governments will be treated as unique nations and their work with the government of Canada will be one of mutual respect and protocol, much like international relations. Basically it should mean an end to the paternalistic relationship or the guardian/ward of the state system, where the government of Canada forces Indigenous people to compete for resources, makes decisions on their behalf, treats them as children/subjects, etc. However, so far there has been no attempt by the Trudeau government to surrender any power to Indigenous peoples or to respect them as nations with legitimate demands for their human rights; specific Indigenous rights; and land rights and self-determination.
Not only that, but since July 1, Justin Trudeau did a cover-story interview with Rolling Stone magazine, which titled its article, “Justin Trudeau: The North Star.” In the article Trudeau made some grotesque remarks about a charity boxing match he did in 2012 against an Algonquin Conservative Senator named Patrick Brazeau.
In the July 26 article, Trudeau says of the boxing match and beating his opponent, "It wasn't random, […] I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an indigenous community. […] I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell." Many commentators have asked what “narrative” Trudeau is alluding too, because it seems he means the “savage” versus “civilized” narrative that has been a part of Canada’s racist mythology for the last 150+ years.
In an article for the Canadian Press, Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan professor and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, responded to Trudeau’s comments to Rolling Stone. She says, "The idea that you would go searching for an Indigenous person to engage in an exercise with the aim, really, of making yourself look good, as that seems to imply, is disturbing." What does it mean when you feel the country will rally around you because you beat up an Indigenous “scrappy tough-guy”? Trudeau is no “northern star”, indeed he is closer to U.S. President Trump’s tactics, gaining admiration through populist racism and stereotypes.
Trudeau probably made these comments to Rolling Stone just days after his July 1 speech promising to “apologize for past wrongs, and chart a path forward.” Sadly in the week following Canada’s birthday four Indigenous youth commit suicide: one 21 year old male from Fort Severn, a 15-year-old girl from Nibinamik, and most tragically two 12-year-olds from Pikangikum. Words cannot express how urgent the situation is for Indigenous youth in Canada, yet the government is doing very little. While Trudeau reminisces about his victories in the boxing ring, there is no national strategy or viable plan to help First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities. Instead they are offered Band-Aid solutions that often come too late.
A big part of these suicides are the living conditions on reserves, which are often compared to conditions in impoverished third world countries. But it is also a lack of hope, a lack of services, and feelings of isolation and alienation – which come back to the paternalistic ways the government of Canada has treated indigenous people over the last 150+ years.
Even if these big historic questions, such as nation to nation dialogues, are hard for us to grasp, below are two examples of very obvious problems, with obvious solutions, which the Trudeau government has not acted on.
First, the fact that many Indigenous communities in Canada are under boil water advisories, which means the water is not safe to drink out of the tap, it must be boiled first. In a Metro newspaper article from June 29, 2017 they explained, "As Canada spends a half-billion dollars celebrating its 150th year since confederation, it appears more than 150 drinking water advisories still exist, most of them in First Nations communities." The article continues, "For Shoal Lake 40 First Nation—which straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border and provides Winnipeg with access to clean drinking water—2017 marks 20 years (7,436 days) since boil water advisories began." For the government of Canada this lack of access to safe drinking water is an expensive problem to fix, however, if it was happening anywhere else in Canada the response would be lightning quick. We would see the government appealing to NGOs like the Red Cross and other institutions to assist in their emergency action. However, it has been years (even decades) for some first nations, with no solutions in sight. Making clean drinking water a priority for every person living in Canada requires a bare minimum dedication to equality. It seems the Trudeau government lacks this basic priority.
Another issue that demonstrates the Trudeau government lacks even the most basic commitment to Indigenous people is the case of Indigenous children in care. Over a year ago, Cindy Blackstock won her 10 year battle against the government of Canada at the Canadian Human Rights tribunal. The tribunal found that the federal government has been discriminating against First Nation children on reserves, by underfunding their services when compared to children living off-reserve. While I would argue that all children and youth services are underfunded, the truth is that on-reserve services are given less per child than others. This amounts to discrimination by the government against 165,000 children based solely on their race, and should have been easily rectified in the budget this year, but was not.
Delays & Restart for Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
In 2014, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) published a report acknowledging 1,181 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. This was a breakthrough for communities who have been fighting for over 40 years for the government and police to take the cases of their missing and murdered loved ones seriously. However, as usual, this report is believed to have grossly underestimated the number of murdered and missing Indigenous women, which many believe could be as high as 4,000.
After decades of pleading from families, community members, and their supporters, the government of Canada agreed to launch a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. However, since almost the first week, it has been mired in controversy. This culminated in July with the demand for a ‘hard reset’ on the inquiry by many family members, community leaders, and their supporters. In a Toronto Star article, journalist Thomas Walkom outlined the broad strokes of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. He writes, "It is trying to focus on broad structural questions. Why are Indigenous women and girls more at risk of violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts? What can be done to improve the situation? What role does systemic racism play? On the other, it is supposed to provide some form of comfort to real, individual Indigenous families who have lost female relatives and want to know what happened to them. [...] The inquiry is in chaos. Five senior officials, including one commissioner, have quit. The remaining four commissioners narrowly escaped a motion of censure last week from the influential Assembly of First Nations, which wants the inquiry’s terms of reference rewritten."
Indeed this inquiry has been heavily criticized in the media by the families of the missing and murdered. One of the main points of contention is that the inquiry does not have a mandate to reopen police cases, even though a huge part of the story is police inaction, mishandling of cases, or corrupting evidence. While it seems the government of Canada and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett want this to be a report which finds the “systemic” or “root” causes of the violence against Indigenous women, many argue those reports have already been written and published by the government. In his article Walkom further writes, “The root causes of systemic violence against Indigenous women are already well-documented. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples blamed a cycle of despair rooted in a history of broken treaties and cultural demoralization. British Columbia’s 2012 Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry singled out “the legacy of colonialism in Canada.””
The families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls want justice. They want this inquiry to help dig and find the truth about what happened to their loved ones. It is time for the government of Canada to work with them to uncover what the police and RCMP are trying to sweep under the rug. It is time for this inquiry to ‘get real’ and not just become another report filed away with the 1996 and 2012 reports. The best thing we can do to honour these Indigenous women and girls is to find justice for their families. During that process we must we must build pressure on the government to deal with the ‘root’ problems: the unjust legacy of colonialism, land rights of Indigenous people, and the right of Indigenous nations to self-determination.
Within the ongoing news stories about the challenges faced by the national inquiry, another horrifying story about Indigenous women emerged at the end of July 2017. The Saskatoon Health Region came forward to apologize to a group of Indigenous women who were deceived and/or coerced into tubal ligation surgery, a permanent form of birth control, which clamps or severs a woman's fallopian tubes. While these were cases from the recent past, unfortunately, Indigenous women's right to informed consent over their bodies, has been an ongoing issue in colonial Canada. Forced sterilizations of Indigenous women happened across Canada at various times in this country’s history.
The 2014 book, “An Act of Genocide, Colonialism and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women” by Karen Stote documents 580 cases of Indigenous women being sterilized from 1971 to 1974 in federal hospitals. Going back further in history, Sexual Sterilization Acts were passed in Alberta (1928) and British Columbia (1933), both were policies of eugenics - to have women with "undesirable traits" sterilized to prevent “undesirable” children. It was often used on those declared mentally unfit to parent, and was disproportionality used against Indigenous women. Stote writes, “Indigenous peoples were targeted under Alberta's eugenic legislation (1928-1972), making up 6-8% of those sterilized overall, despite only being about 3% of the population; although in later years (1969-1972), they made up over 25% of those sterilized.” This is why the recent issues in Saskatchewan might seem like a few ‘bad apple’ doctors or nurses, but when it happens within the historical context, it is hard to see it as random. Is this not the same system that is not dealing with the Indigenous youth suicide epidemic? Is it not the same system which has let hundreds and possibly thousands of Indigenous women and girls go missing or be murdered? While not everything falls on the shoulders of Justin Trudeau, it is government policies that have had the same result for Indigenous people, not just for the last month, but for the past 150+ years.
Supreme Court of Canada rulings & Indigenous land rights
In July 2017 the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) made two rulings affecting Indigenous people, as well as the exploitation of Indigenous territories for resource extraction. This resource 'development' is generally done through corporations, which need to go through the National Energy Board (NEB), an "independent" institution in charge of regulating pipelines, inter-provincial powerlines, and imports and exports for the gas and energy industry. The NEB has also been in charge of consultations with Indigenous communities about the impact the development of these industries has on their communities. Often the NEB is seen as a rubber stamp doing the bidding of the government and corporations, rather than meaningful consultations.
In an article for the Globe and Mail newspaper, Tracey Lindberg (Kelly Lake Cree Nation) and Angela Cameron, both professors of Law at Ottawa University write, "The Supreme Court of Canada has legally empowered Canada’s lower level administrative agencies [such as NEB] to make decisions about Indigenous rights in venues where they should not have that authority. In a cynical sense, you could say that Canada is allowing corporations access to Indigenous peoples’ territories and lives with a diminishing/nominal requirement of administrative box-checking. Indigenous rights negotiation and nation-to-nation dialogue are pushed further away from Canada as a nation." So while some aspects of the Supreme Court decisions were declared a victory for Indigenous peoples (The Clyde River Inuit were able to stop a proposed project for seismic testing in the Arctic), the SCC's rulings overall reassert the NEB’s role in "consulting" with Indigenous nations. This is despite the fact that most Indigenous people believe their consultations are done in bad faith, and as Lindberg and Cameron explain, allowing the NEB to do this work removes the pressure on the Trudeau government to follow through with their promise of nation to nation negotiations.
Daily racism faced by Indigenous people in Canada
While not explicitly the ‘fault’ of the government of Canada. There have been many cases of the daily racism faced by Indigenous people that have made headlines since July 1. First, a group of young white men who are members of the Canadian Armed Forces and a “Western chauvinist” group called Proud Boys attacked a Mi'kmaq ceremony on Canada Day; Secondly, the attack on an Indigenous man by a Canadian Tire employee calling him a ‘thief’ for no apparent reason other than his race; Thirdly the racist baby onesie that had to be removed from shelves in Walmart Canada; and fourthly the heart-breaking death of 34 year old Indigenous woman, Barbara Kentner. While I will not be able to go into each incident in depth. I would like to look specifically at the death of Barbara Kentner, as a tragic outcome of how the dehumanizing racism of the government of Canada towards Indigenous people leads to violence against Indigenous peoples.
On July 4, just days after Canada’s 150 birthday, Barbara Kentner a 34 year old Indigenous woman, died of injuries sustained in January, when a young man threw a trailer hitch at her from a moving vehicle. Kentner’s sister, who was walking with her on the side of the road, apparently heard the boy yell, “I got one!” In an interview after her death Kentner's cousin, Debbie Kakagamic, told the CBC she believes the charges against the young man who threw the trailer hitch should be upgraded after Kentner's death, and that others in the vehicle should also be charged. She said, "They must know exactly what they were doing. The driver had to pull up alongside, slow down, like, they all knew, everyone in that vehicle must have known what they were doing. And it was a game for them." When for over 150 years the government of Canada has continued to treat Indigenous people as inferior, to justify the theft of their lands; to justify the ‘advances’ of colonialism; and the government’s attempted genocide against Indigenous peoples - how can we not think this will have an impact on the psyche of non-Indigenous people in Canada? Indeed these hate crimes committed by individuals or small groups are related to that history and “legacy of colonialism in Canada” as the 2012 missing women report concluded.
Self-determination for Indigenous Nations!
To be fair, there have also been some good news stories about Indigenous people since July 1, 2017. For example, Vancouver held its first Indigenous Fashion Week; a new tattoo parlor opened in Toronto specializing in Indigenous designs; the North American Indigenous Games took place in Toronto; the 27th Présence autochtone festival (a.k.a. the Montreal First Peoples Festival) will take place in August; and according to Canada’s latest census data Indigenous languages are on the rise across Canada. All of these stories are important parts of Indigenous people reclaiming pride in their distinct cultures, languages and knowledges. Remember, these are the same cultures and languages that the government of Canada systemically tried to eliminate for at least the first 130 years of Canada’s history (the final residential school closed in 1997), however many would argue their assimilation project has not ended, only taken a more humanist mask. Not to mention that the good news stories are mostly cultural gains, there is no sign the government is taking Indigenous peoples’ rights more seriously.
I recently saw the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about the life and ideas of queer Black author and visionary, James Baldwin. While the film mostly spoke about struggles between Black and White people in the U.S., it also spoke pointedly about racism in general as an ideology. I quoted a poem by Baldwin from the film at the beginning of this article, but also wanted to use some of his ideas to conclude this article as well.
On the Dick Cavett Show in 1968, James Baldwin was confronted by the ‘but not all white people are racist’ argument that we hear often today. Baldwin responded, not by attacking all White people, but instead by critiquing the system that keeps white folks in a position of power and privilege. He said, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. […] I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me – that doesn’t matter – but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
There are many lessons in this quotation, especially about the interconnectedness of struggles for justice. For concluding this article I hope you will reflect on why so many in Canada insist that racism is in the past, when all statistics, reports and research demonstrates that we have fundamental inequality in our country between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. When one responds to a discussion with, “why can’t you just let the past stay in the past?” It demonstrates an ignorance of the facts, of the headlines, and of the statistics. It means asking Indigenous people to “make a leap of faith” to find a Canada which they have never seen. Indeed, that Canada does not exist and that Canada is not coming under Justin Trudeau. That society will come when Indigenous people have the power that was taken from them and their right, as Indigenous nations, to self-determination.
Follow Tamara Hansen on Twitter: @THans01
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