In the first post in our series confronting anti-Indigenous racism in Canada, we briefly explored our shared history through a timeline of colonialism from pre-contact to the 21st century. Our goal, in part, was to demonstrate that the European colonialism that began in the land now known as Canada over 400 years ago continues to have lasting impacts on Indigenous Peoples.
But we also want to address the common misconception that colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism are problems of the past. Our last post touched briefly on how these issues have continued into the present. Their impacts are evident in the number of social, economic, and political issues that Indigenous communities continue to face in this country.
Across the board, in nearly every metric of well-being and under every system in our society, Indigenous Peoples continue to experience disproportionately poor outcomes as a direct result of inequity and colonial practices built into modern Canadian society.
Over the next two posts, we will acknowledge the reality that colonialism did not end, it only changed forms. In this post, we will draw the connection between historic and modern forms of colonialism and anti-Indigenous racism that have created inequities for Indigenous Peoples in education, criminal justice, child welfare, housing, and healthcare.
The Colonial Roots of Inequity – Past and Present
Indigenous Peoples are massively overrepresented in Canada’s criminal justice system. Compared to non-Indigenous people in Canada, Indigenous Peoples are incarcerated at higher rates and are more likely to have contact with law enforcement because their communities are over-policed – or, in the case of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), under-policed.
The hyper-surveillance and criminalization of Indigenous Peoples and their communities spans every part of Canadian history. Present-day Indigenous activists speak out against the harm and violence Canada’s national police service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), perpetrates against Indigenous communities today.
That harm and violence do not occur by chance. It is a symptom of the racist and colonial roots of the organization. The RCMP was first established in 1872 as the North-West Mounted Police. One of their primary objectives at the time was to protect the nation from ‘lawlessness’, much of which was blamed on Indigenous Peoples, and participated in forcible displacement of communities onto reserves.
Since their founding, the RCMP have continued to be agents of Canada’s colonial agenda. They enforced attendance at Canadian residential schools in the 1930s; frequently and violently dispersed Indigenous land defenders; and have continually mishandled interactions and investigations involving Indigenous Peoples with little consequence.
The recent discovery of remains at a Kamloops Residential School has put a spotlight on the historically discriminatory approach Canada has taken to education for Indigenous Peoples. As we noted in our first post, the primary goal of Residential Schools was to force Indigenous children to assimilate to the colonial culture and abandon their own languages, practices, and cultures.
Though the last residential school closed in 1996, Indigenous Peoples continue to have poor outcomes in the modern education system. Indigenous youth have lower levels of educational attainment than their non-Indigenous peers for a number of reasons. These include anti-Indigenous racism within schools; a Eurocentric curriculum that maintains the colonial narrative and ignores Indigenous history; and inequitable funding for Indigenous education systems.
Though the last residential school closed in 1996, many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities, activists, and allies recognize the modern child welfare system as a continuation of the Residential School system. The parallels cannot be denied. Both systems involve the apprehension of Indigenous children from their families and communities with the assertion that the government can better manage their care and well-being.
Residential Schools were not the only predecessor of the modern child welfare system. In the 1960s, the responsibility of Indigenous child welfare was placed under provincial jurisdiction. But the provincial governments did not provide the funding and resources Indigenous families needed to better care for their children. Instead, they apprehended children in large numbers, upwards of 11,000 and placed them into foster care or adoptive homes. This period was known as the ‘Sixties Scoop.’
Today’s child welfare system has continued this practice. Currently, Indigenous children account for 30% of children in foster care, despite making up only 4.1% of the under 15 population in Canada. John Beaucage, Indigenous leader and the first Aboriginal Advisor to the Minister of Children and Youth Services, termed this the ‘Millennium Scoop,’ acknowledging the ongoing anti-Indigenous nature of Canada’s child welfare system.
Indigenous Peoples in Canada make up 20-50% of homelessness in Canada’s major cities, and eight times more likely than non-Indigenous people to experience homelessness. Those housed on reserves do not fare much better. Housing conditions on Indigenous reserves are generally sub-standard, with issues of overcrowding, inadequate water, poor construction, black mold, and lack of insurance. These concerns are especially dire for northern Inuit communities. Despite activists and advocates fighting for funding and support, the Canadian government has done little to address the crisis.
Like many other modern social issues faced by Indigenous Peoples in Canada, there is a historical precedent for homelessness and inadequate housing. Canada’s theft of Indigenous lands and resources and the enforcement of a reserve system in the 1800s disrupted Indigenous ways of living and being. The ongoing impacts have been (among many others) higher rates of poverty and trauma and lower educational and economic achievement, all of which contribute to housing challenges.
The lack of adequate housing has been a key factor in the poor health outcomes for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Housing is recognized as a social determinant of health, and overcrowding, black mold, inadequate insulation, and polluted water all have direct negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ health.
Canada’s healthcare system consistently fails Indigenous Peoples. There is a lack of access to quality healthcare for many Indigenous communities, Indigenous Peoples are often ignored or mistreated by healthcare professionals, resulting in poor care and, in some cases, death. Inadequate healthcare also means Indigenous communities are the hardest hit in national and global health crises like COVID-19 and SARS.
This, too, is rooted in the history of colonialism. The theft of Indigenous land and resources in the first century of colonization denied Indigenous Peoples their traditional methods of healthcare. Poor conditions on the reserves the Canadian government forced Indigenous Peoples to live on created and exacerbated health issues. At Residential Schools, medical professionals conducted unethical studies on Indigenous children, including denying them food to learn about the impacts of malnutrition.
The Way Forward: Your Role as an Ally and Accomplice
It is clear that the challenges Indigenous Peoples face are the direct result of Canada’s colonial history and the continuing racist and colonial practices that underpin our nation today. Indigenous activists continue to stand up and fight for equity. As their allies and accomplices, it is our duty to fight alongside them.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of Indigenous-led organizations and movements addressing each of the issues we discussed here. You can begin your allyship by donating, volunteering, or amplifying their missions:
Aboriginal Legal Services (Toronto)
Niginan Housing Ventures (Edmonton)
Tipi Mitawa (Manitoba)
Stay tuned for our next blog post where we will continue to explore the issues faced by Indigenous communities, ongoing colonialism in Canada, and more ways you can take action as an accomplice for equity and justice with and for Indigenous Peoples.