On Friday, May 28th, 2021 the world learned that the bodies of 215 Indigenous children—some as young as three years old—were found buried on the grounds of a Residential School in Kamloops, BC. This horrific discovery shocked many in Canada and has had a devastating and re-traumatizing impact on Indigenous communities.
Many non-Indigenous leaders have described this news simply as a reminder of a shameful chapter in Canada’s past. This description sanitizes the history and ongoing nature of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples in what is now known as Canada and ignores the reality that this country was built on the oppression and genocide of Indigenous Peoples which continues to this day.
As a nation, we have had, and continue to have opportunities to confront the ways in which Indigenous Peoples have been violently mistreated and take action for change. To date, we have not done well in this regard.
In this series of blog posts, we will review some of the history and core issues around colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism in Canada, provide you with tips and resources to become an ally and accomplice to Indigenous communities, and start making change within your sphere of influence.
While we cannot provide a comprehensive account of the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, we hope these blog posts will support your learning and provide context for your activism and advocacy.
Today we start with some of our shared history.
A Timeline of Colonialism
Before the arrival of Europeans and the advent of colonization, Indigenous Peoples had thriving societies and cultures, with populations in the millions. This included diverse groups of First Nations and Inuit who developed and maintained complex cultural and social institutions, including treaty-making processes between nations. Forms of Indigenous government included consensus-based council systems, and skills-based leadership. Unlike in Western society, in many Indigenous traditions and beliefs, women were valued and respected as leaders in their cultures and communities.
European settlers and colonists first arrived in the Americas en masse in the 1600s. Prior to this, Indigenous communities were exposed to diseases brought to North America by Europeans who arrived seeking resources. Indigenous communities had no known immunity to these illnesses, resulting in the death of up to 90% of Indigenous Peoples, many before even making contact with those same Europeans.
European settlement and colonization of the Americas increased in the 1700s, encroaching on the lands of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples resisted this theft of their land through both diplomatic and military measures. In response, the British Crown released the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which acknowledged Aboriginal Title. It stated that for land to be claimed by European settlers, it would need to be ceded by treaty and purchased by the Crown.
The Royal Proclamation became the foundation for the treaty-making processes between the British Crown and Indigenous Peoples. However, it was written by British colonists without input from any Indigenous Peoples, and heavily favoured colonial goals.
As European colonies expanded across Canada, the Indigenous Peoples who had survived the disease and warfare of early European contact continued to be displaced from their territories and disconnected from their cultures, as tools of colonialism. Canada’s colonial government introduced reserves—areas of land set apart by the British Crown for use by Indigenous Peoples—in the mid-1800s. Despite the promise that this land could be occupied and governed, the Canadian government forced Indigenous Peoples onto these lands through methods like withholding food rations.
The 1800s was a period in which the colonial government aggressively and systematically worked to erase Indigenous cultures, prohibiting cultural expressions like ceremonies, potlatches, music, dancing, and sacred objects. In 1883, the Canadian government implemented the church-led Residential School system that forcefully took Indigenous children away from their families to ‘civilize’ them with European education and culture. These schools were poorly funded and had little-to-no government oversight. Indigenous children suffered malnutrition, disease, violent abuse, and death at the hands of Residential School administrators and staff.
Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, implemented mandatory Residential School attendance for Indigenous children. More than 8,000 children were enrolled in over 80 Residential Schools between 1912 to 1932. The Canadian government continued to take a hands-off approach to the schools, avoiding responsibility for the curriculum, maintenance, funding, or wellbeing of students.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the Canadian government continued the abuse of Indigenous land rights that began in the 1600s. This included attempts to build the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and the James Bay Hydro Project on Indigenous lands; and the Oka Resistance to the development of condos and a golf course at the site of Indigenous burial grounds near Kanesatake, in Quebec.
The conversation around colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism in Canada often focuses on historical incidents, but these issues are ongoing. Currently, First Nations communities, both on and off reserves (which still exist today), are inadequately resourced, and highly exposed to environmental toxins. Many First Nation communities are without adequate healthcare, education, sanitation, and drinking water because of the neglect of the Canadian government.
The 2000s have also been marked by ongoing land rights violations like the Wet’suwet’en land dispute (2019); legal resistance from the Canadian government to the lawsuits of several groups of Residential School survivors; and a failure to address the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
The Way Forward: Your Role as an Ally and Accomplice
Anti-Indigenous racism is an undeniable part of Canada’s past and present. Acknowledging that is an important first step. But that acknowledgement must be followed by action. Here is one recommendation for acting as an ally and accomplice to and with Indigenous communities:
Amplify the Voices of Indigenous Peoples
The histories and experiences of Indigenous Peoples have been sanitized and misrepresented in Canada’s collective consciousness, from the school curriculum to the way Indigenous issues are discussed in public forums. If we want to be accomplices for decolonization and equity for Indigenous communities, it is important that we listen to and amplify the voices of Indigenous communities and activists. This could mean watching documentaries and programming produced and directed by Indigenous Peoples, engaging with Indigenous-run social media accounts, and reading books by Indigenous authors and scholars.
Engaging with the work of Indigenous Peoples is how we educate ourselves on Indigenous issues and understand Indigenous experiences, so we can amplify their voices rather than accepting a narrative created and enforced by colonialism.
Stay tuned for our next blog post in this series where we will explore some of the issues faced by Indigenous communities, their roots in ongoing colonialism, and tips and tools to support equity and justice for Indigenous Peoples.