The state of First Nations

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Normally, this is the time of year when Canadians like to reflect on the greatness of our country. We are, the story goes, a nation that achieved its independence without violence, that has been a world leader in global peacekeeping, civil rights, multiculturalism and the welcoming of refugees. We invented hockey and basketball, the caulking gun and the egg carton, the garbage bag and the goalie mask. We are, we tell the world or the world tells us, exceedingly polite and overly apologetic.

What we don’t remind the world — and ignore as best we can — is the fact that much of what we have created was built with resources that we stole from our Indigenous populations. Yes, yes, I know it wasn’t “us,” it was our ancestors. But in our failure to address the sins of the past, we are no different than the collector who struggles to hold onto jewellery stolen from Jewish families by Nazi occupiers. You don’t need to commit a crime to profit from it, and we are a nation that has profited greatly from vast natural resources that were wrested away from Indigenous peoples by hook and by crook, by genocide, fraud, mass deportations, exposure to illness and even by a deliberate attempt to stamp out their culture by stealing their children and placing them in “residential schools” so we could indoctrinate and experiment, burying the failures in unmarked graves by the thousands.

This, too, is the past — a very recent past — but the ripples of 400 years of colonial exploitation and systemic discrimination continue to roll over native populations in this country to a sickening degree. Although Indigenous peoples (First Nations members, métis and Inuit) represent just 3.8 per cent of the Canadian population, they occupy one-quarter of Canadian penitentiary cells. It’s even worse in women’s prisons, where one inmate in three is Indigenous, an incarceration rate that is rapidly worsening. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of Indigenous women in federal prisons doubled, according to the federal justice department.

Ivan Zinger, the head of the federal prison watchdog agency known as the Office of the Correctional Investigator, told Le Devoir earlier this year that the rate has been climbing steadily in the 20 years since the Office was founded.

“It’s rare for us to comment on public policies, but if you had to choose a single indicator to determine the health of Aboriginals in Canada, I would say that the incarceration rate would give you a good idea. The steady increase in the number of jailed Aboriginals is deeply rooted in Canadian society.”

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Many of those roots can be traced back to the residential school system, where entire generations of Indigenous children were yanked from their families and subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of people whom the Canadian government had appointed as their caretakers. Some 6,000 children are estimated to have died there, but many more returned home to a slower death triggered by the trauma they had endured and would pass on to their children in the form of physical, sexual and substance abuse. A report this week from the University of Saskatchewan reveals that we even managed to infect these involuntary wards of the state with the western plagues of obesity and diabetes, which were virtually unknown in previous generations of Aboriginal peoples but are now disproportionately represented in native communities.

In yet another report this week, this one from Statistics Canada, we have learned that members of Aboriginal communities are three times more likely to suffer sexual assault as non-Aboriginals. As with incarceration, Indigenous women were even more disproportionately represented than their male peers. They were twice as likely to have been victims of violent crimes than men in their communities, and three times as likely when compared to non-Aboriginal women.

The numbers, shocking as they are, are probably underestimated given that the same StatsCan study reports that 77 per cent of domestic violence cases go unreported by Indigenous women, vs. 66 per cent among non-Aboriginal women.

Suspicion of authority figures is hardly surprising, given the role the state has played in systemic violence against their communities, and the damage that has been inflicted within the communities by the violent heritage of the residential school system. To counter this, in Sept-Îles, where numerous allegations have been raised of abuse of Aboriginal women at the hands of the Sûreté du Québec, the Native Friendship Centre has even hired a special legal counsellor to help victims of crime navigate through the complicated legal apparatus and to prepare for the rough ride they can expect from our adversarial court system.

In other communities, such as the Cree First Nation of Attawapiskat on the western shores of James Bay, the effects of our indifference have been felt in a wave of 100 attempted suicides in seven months by local youth who had lost hope of seeing solutions to the many problems plaguing their home, from annual flooding to a dire lack of housing to the myriad ills affecting Indigenous communities across the country. Located 90 kilometres away from the De Beers company’s Victor Diamond Mine, Attawapiskat’s tiny 132 hectares is dwarfed by the impact area of the open pit mine, estimated at 5,000 hectares. Following the recent crisis, Ottawa has finally agreed to give the 2,000-member community an extra 1,200 hectares of land outside the annual flood zone.

Meanwhile, De Beers has extracted $2.5-billion in diamonds from the Victor mine — which was surrendered to the province by the Attawapiskat First Nation in a 1930 amendment to Treaty 9 — and has paid almost nothing to the Ontario government. CBC reported that De Beers pulled $392-million from Victor Lake in 2014 alone but handed over just $226 in royalties. (No, I didn’t forget any zeroes.)

The Attawapiskat situation is a perfect illustration of how Canada and the provinces have progressively stripped Indigenous communities of their resources, sold those resources at fire-sale prices to exploitation industries, and responded to crises in those same communities by throwing a few dollars or a few hundred hectares their way when the headlines get too intense.

And, no, Quebec has not been a model of progressive politics in this area. The famous James Bay Agreement was not a result of a charitable government but a court-ordered settlement that forced the province to negotiate and finally gave native communities a say in how their territories are developed and that provided financial compensation. The fact that this has become the model for other treaties should be credited to the Quebec Cree and Inuit who took a blithely indifferent government to court and won, not to the politicians dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table.

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Feeling pride for what we have accomplished as a country should not blind us to the often destructive path we have taken to get here. The new Trudeau government in Ottawa has at least begun to acknowledge some of those historic wrongs, but it is continuing a long and ignoble tradition of viewing modest reparations as a gift of the Canadian people to Indigenous communities rather than the return of a tiny fraction of what we stole from them over four centuries.

The problems faced by those communities, many of which are documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report last summer, can partially be addressed in the 94 proposals for action included in that report. By accepting all of those recommendations, Trudeau has taken a step that his Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper flat-out rejected, but action has been slow in coming.

Next July 1, we will be celebrating 150 years since the modern nation of Canada was born. Let’s hope we’ll also be celebrating a country that has committed itself to repairing some of the damage it caused along the way. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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