Canada Needs Urgent Reforms to Bring Long-Delayed Justice to its Indigenous People

Indigenous Children Buried Canada
Flags mark the spot where the remains of over 750 children were buried at former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, June 25 © AFP / GEOFF ROBINS

Canada is in an exceptionally good position to adopt a justice-based policy towards its indigenous people. It has plentiful land and it is a sparsely populated country. Canada’s area is a huge 9.985 million sq. km. (for comparison the area of India is 3.287 sq. km.). The population density in Canada is only 4 per sq. km. For comparison the population density in India is 481 per sq. km. The per cent share of indigenous population in total population in Canada is only 5. Canada has immense natural resources and one of the highest income levels in the world. Hence Canada is very well-placed to take good care of its indigenous people, in terms of land, development funds and other resources.

Despite this the extreme injustice suffered by indigenous people in Canada has often been in news and has been the subject of official investigations and reports repeatedly, for example in 1996, 2015 and 2019, to mention only some of the more well-known reports.

So the problem is not that of not having the resources to ensure justice for indigenous people, the problem is also not that of the absence of adequate realization of the enormity of the injustice ( as this is already captured in voluminous reports which are officially recognized). Instead the problem is that of powerful forces just not accepting the idea of the indigenous people getting their justice-based rights and a position of equality. Or else the problem may be of systemic racism and discrimination which may be concealed or papered over but does not go away by such cosmetic efforts.

This goes back to the early days of the first settlers from Europe from year 1600 onwards. They could have lived in peace with the indigenous people, relative to the number of people there was enough land for both, but in most cases they resorted to cruel conflict and driving indigenous people away from their land and livelihoods. A large number of indigenous people soon perished from the new diseases brought by settlers, and there have been allegations that sometimes disease was even spread in deliberate ways. However despite their number being reduced the indigenous people continued to suffer from relentless aggression of settlers.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRCC) brought together several aspects of injustice to indigenous communities and made a strong plea for adequate remedial actions. However reviewing the situation since then, Pal Palmater writing in Maclean’s journal in 2021 stated, “Reconciliation has not just gone off the rails; many indigenous people think it is dead. With each broken promise, there is less collective faith that the Trudeau government, like many governments before it, has any intention of making good on its promise…  At every turn, Canada chooses the path of injustice towards indigenous people.”

The TRCC Report stated very clearly, “For over a century the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal Policy were to eliminate aboriginal governments, ignore Aboriginal rights, terminate the treaties and through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal people to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools was a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide’.”

In fact it is these so-called residential schools which were at the center of the inquiries made by this Commission which examined about 6,000 witnesses. On the basis of its extensive study and the innumerable statements made before it and the extensive records examined by it, the TRCC stated, “Canada’s Residential School System for Aboriginal Children was an education system in name only. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages…” Many children here were abused physically and sexually. “They died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country, or in the world”, the TRCC Report said.          The Human Rights Watch Report of 2021 stated in a note on the situation in Canada, “From May to July hundreds of unmarked graves were found at government-funded and church-run residential schools in the provinces of British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Approximately 150,000 children were removed from their families and communities and placed in residential schools, where they were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their culture. Many also suffered physical and sexual abuse at residential schools which operated until the 1990s.” In several cases these children were taken away forcibly from their families.    The TRCC Report was emphatic in emphasizing the cultural genocide aspect of the injustice against indigenous people. This report first described what constitutes cultural genocide and then went on to say “In its dealing with aboriginal people Canada did all these things.”

Regarding the motives behind this the TRCC Report said without mincing any words that the the Canadian government pursued this policy because “it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.”

These policies of many-sided injustice have also led to a situation in which the indigenous people are being driven more and more to prisons. While the indigenous people comprise only about 5 per cent of the population, they comprise about 30 per cent of those who are in incarceration. In the case of the indigenous women, they comprise about 42 per cent of the incarcerated women. This data is for federal prisons. In the case of provincial prisons this share of indigenous people is often even higher and in some extreme cases can be as high as 70 per cent. Indigenous people have often faced more problems in getting bail.

According to a report of the Department of Justice, “Colonization has led to cultural alienation, territorial dispossession, intergenerational trauma, systemic discrimination and socio-economic marginalization which together continue to have profoundly negative impacts on the lives of many indigenous people.” At the same time when the indigenous people have suffered so much injustice, some government authorities have spent millions of dollars in legal cases that may impede the flow of benefits or compensation to indigenous people who have suffered so much.

Clearly the situation of very serious injustice against the indigenous people has persisted for too long in Canada. There are adequate resources to bring justice to indigenous people but it appears that the political will for this does not exist. Hence only half-hearted efforts are made from time to time which are not adequate at all. Much wider efforts are needed. As the TRCC Report said, in order to bring real reform, virtually all aspects of Canadian society need to be reconsidered. Is Canada ready for such significant, wide and holistic change?

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine, Protecting Earth for Children, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071.

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