I have an opinion. Of course that's the name of this podcast and I'm totally going to get into that, but right, now I want to ask you a question. Is Canada as polite as the internet thinks it is? I mean, I know we say sorry a lot and we have a really handsome prime minister and all that good stuff but I see a glaring problem in this logic. And that problem lies with Canada's treatment of indigenous people. I'm not blameless. Up until about six months ago, I had no idea that Canada had this problem either. I thought probably exactly the same as you right now. We're just America's friendlier cousin! We don't have an orange president, we don't have a gun problem, and we have free healthcare. What's there to complain about? But, I think there is more to this story, and that begins with an opinion piece by Niigaan Sinclair. What skeletons are in Canada's close? Well, we're about to find out.
From Scratch Media, this is A Matter of Opinion, your guide from opinion to the facts. I'm Giuliana Quinto and today we are talking about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada.
I realized Canada had a problem with representing its Indigenous peoples in a digital cultures class that I took this past year at York University. My professor was teaching us about alternative news sources and I began to realize how little Indigenous issues were really covered in a mainstream Canadian media. This is where I really realized how misguided settler Canadian are in regards to indigenous issues, culture, and experiences. Then I came across Niigaan Sinclair’s opinion piece for the Winnipeg free press. On the surface it seems like it is just about food, but upon further examination you realize what food represents in the grand scheme of Canadian cultural history. As Sinclair states in his article, “food is related to indigenous identity. But, like most things Indigenous in Canada, these identities are legislated, controlled and limited” (Sinclair, 2018). When I read this line, I had never thought about it before, but it really made perfect sense.
After I spoke to a couple of my white settler friends, I was sure something was up regarding Canadians’ framing of Indigenous identity, laws and culture. From the time we are children, we are taught to think of indigenous people in a very narrow and close-minded framework. I know I’ve experienced it myself but I talked to a few of my friends and I realized that this is a pretty widespread issue. Here’s what Hannah and Brendan had to say:
Hannah: I have learned that we have definitely treated them poorly, for instance with colonialism, but I find colonialism was taught very briefly and in a very cushioned way. Yes, they highlighted that we did take their land but it wasn’t in a way that was as damaging as the real effects that were realizing now.
Brendan: Personally, I do remember being taught something, but it was very little, not enough to leave a strong or a lasting impact on me to remember it.
This uncertainty and ambiguity is exactly what Sinclair is talking about. It’s become a really big problem, and it’s seeped into levels of the government. In 2015, Justin Trudeau promised to make reconciliation a priority in his liberal campaign (See Liberal Party of Canada). And you might be wondering what reconciliation is, so I’ll hit you with a quick definition.
In Canada, reconciliation means bringing together Indigenous peoples and Canadian settlers to repair their relationship and to come to shared understandings. This could mean working to overcome the inequality between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous citizens on issues such as poverty, income, health, living standards and life expectancy, as well as prejudice and racism (University of Toronto). There are even dedicated government agencies which are working to repair our relationships and make reconciliation a reality. But more on that later. Let’s get back to Trudeau and his shenanigans.
Now it’s 2019, the federal elections are just around the corner and reconciliation isn’t that much closer as it was when Trudeau started. And why is that? Because most people just don’t know about indigenous issues and they’ve been taught not to care. but we should. Because Canadian people don’t know what is going on the government lets these issues slide. Most Indigenous cases that end up in courts are tossed aside because judges simply don’t know. The jury simply doesn’t know. Then once again, indigenous issues are left at the wayside (See Sinclair, 2018; Rudin, 2018; Kane, 2019). This is why reconciliation has to become a priority to people like me, and probably you too. And the way we can start is by learning.
To start, let’s get real about Canada’s historical amnesia (See Dion, 2009). As Canadians, we tend to forget what our history really is and that is one deeply rooted in colonialism (See Joseph, 2018). In the name of patriotism, history tends to paint the early Canadians settlers as true heroes of Britain and France looking to create a new world free and independent creating what we now know as the True North Strong and Free… but give me break. We need to get our facts straight. So, with that in mind I’m going to try to give you the world’s fastest crash course on Canadian Indigenous history.
From the time Europeans stumbled onto Indigenous lands they took from them as they pleased. However, the two societies managed to keep their distance at first. The First Nations tolerated the colonizers and allowed them to reside on their territory, however settlers took diseases with them that began killing off countless numbers of indigenous people. And this is where the first problems started to arise. Now, around 1580, the growing non-Indigenous population tried to foster co-existence mostly in the form of trading and in the military alliances. There was mutual tolerance and a degree of respect between the two groups because they had to (FemNorthNet, 2016).
And in 1869, a couple years after Canadian Confederation, the federal government swiftly began to choke Indigenous people with European standards and claimed Canada in its entirety. Land was taken without consent, reserves were established, and by 1876, “status Indians (1)” were not legally considered people (Joseph, 2018). This change occurred when the Indian Act was implemented, and it marks over 150 years of suffering.
The Indian Act’s primary goal was to assimilate First Nation’s peoples (Joseph, 2018; CBC News, 2008). This act also bore the creation of residential schools. These were government mandated boarding schools that subjected Indigenous children to abuse and forced assimilation (See Monpetit, 2011; Joseph, 2018). While this may seem like ancient history, this horrific reality is much closer than we can ever imagine. The last residential school closed in 1996 (Monpetit, 2011). Approximately 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were stripped of their families, communities, cultures, and humanity (Monpetit, 2011).
Of course, my description barely touches the surface of the hundreds of years of colonization that Indigenous Canadians experienced, and I highly recommend that you do some reading on your own. But I need to make this clear because we can’t have reconciliation without knowing what we’re reconciling for.
Another reason you really need this crash course to understand what I am about to get into and that’s how Canada’s history has affected Indigenous people now. Bob Joseph is the founder of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. and he’s outlined eight key issues for Indigenous peoples in Canada today. According to Joseph, some of these issues are poor health related to both mental and physical. Mentally, Indigenous people are dealing with generational trauma which leads to mental health issues such as depression and there are confirmed higher rates of suicide among Indigenous individuals versus non-Indigenous (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc, 2012). Physically there are many clean water issues on reservations and a lot of Indigenous people don’t even have access to clean water (2012). There’s also increases in diabetes and heart disease, and if you look back on our opinion piece Niigaan Sinclair attributes this to the denial of culture because Indigenous people are not able to access their traditional and healthy foods (Sinclair, 2018). They’re not able to access healthier traditional foods which leads to poor diets.
Another key issue that Joseph outlines is lower education. According to the 2011 Stats Can Survey of Aboriginal Peoples, only 22.8 percent of Indigenous people have completed both a high school and post-secondary education (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc, 2012). And finally, there are higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, and death rates in youth due to unintentional injuries in the Indigenous communities (2012). And these issues aren’t being handled by the federal government. Take for example the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women that have been reported across the country.
To this day, there are over 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that have not been found (Brant, 2018). Their families can’t find peace, their communities can’t find peace and that’s because nobody is taking their issues seriously. This is wrong. Indigenous issues are Canadian issues. The country is Indigenous. We live on land that was stolen, and most of us are guests who have long overstayed our welcome. As settlers, we owe it to Indigenous Canadians for letting us stay on their land way longer than we were supposed to. The Canada we know today would not be possible without the cultural and generational contributions of Indigenous Canadians.
The name Canada itself comes from Indigenous roots. It’s a Saint Lawrence Iroquois word meaning “village” or “settlement” (Muskrat Magazine, 2015). But the Indigenous part of Canada is never acknowledged. As Lee Miracle writes in her essay “Who are we separately and together,” while Canada is not Indigenous anymore, it is not without Indigenous influence (2017). This influence, however, is unknown to Canadians and unrecognized by Canada’s government. Canadians believe that their cultural foundations are British (Maracle, 2017). As settlers, we are blind to the foundation Canada was built on. And ignorance is not an acceptable defense. Lee Miracle so perfectly explained this phenomenon in her book that I mentioned earlier. She says that everyone knew Indigenous people “came from here and not Indigenous people came from somewhere else. But no one got curious about what was here before. Any information was available and written in plain English, the language that is prioritized and taught to every single person. Yet we claim not to know. She says to be a white Canadian is to be sunk in deep denial” (Maracle, 2017). And she’s right.
That realization hit me really hard, but it is important because we are taught skewed ideas from a British colonial perspective our entire lives, and it is about time that we change that. It’s time because Indigenous Canadians have been and are still stigmatized and silenced by mainstream media. That’s because the exploitation of Indigenous Canada generates profit (See Maracle, 2017). But denial’s not an option anymore. Now I know, and now you know too. So it’s time to reconcile. But of course, that’s so easy to say. How can we go about doing it?
Truth be told, I was really daunted by that question myself! So I asked for a little help. I reached out to Dr. Maggie Quirt, an assistant professor in the Equity Studies and Indigenous Studies programs at York University. Dr. Quirt is busy, so I couldn’t get any audio for her answer, but that’s totally cool! I got an email from her instead:
From what I gathered, true reconciliation is based on education, and education can look like a lot of things. It can be doing research like I did, it can be reading [or] learning about history. It’s all about acknowledging the past. Another great resource about reconciliation is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. Also known as TRC (2), this is a group of real residential school survivors that have come together to form a plan and guide Canada towards making reconciliation possible. TRC spent six years travelling across Canada to hear from thousands of residential school survivors (Northern Affairs Canada, 2019). Then they compiled this information into a six page report, including 94 Calls to Action that all Canadians are encouraged to read. These Calls to Action outline government, institutional and media wide requests that will help bridge the gap between Settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples. While I highly encourage you to read them on your own, there is one Call to Action in particular that I want to focus on.
Call to Action number 61, subsection two calls upon the Catholic Church to put permanent funding into into the establishment of community cultural and language revitalization efforts (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015). This shows the importance of culture in the reconciliation process and that certain institutions must answer to this loss. I don’t think this has to stop with the Catholic Church. I think that Canadians should take it upon themselves to get involved and learn about Indigenous culture. It goes back to to what Niigaan Sinclair was talking about. There’s so much red tape surrounding Indigenous cultural practices and so little coverage for Indigenous voices in the mainstream media and Canadian cultural landscape that I think another part of reconciling truly and deeply is by engaging and embracing Indigenous culture throughout Canada.
Canada’s global identity revolves around sharing, politeness and the idea of a global community. These are inherently Indigenous beliefs, so it’s about time we learn where Canada’s roots really come from. You can also learn a great deal about Indigenous oral history, tradition and views of life by engaging with Indigenous media, literature, music, art, installations and film (Side note: this is intangible culture). Some of my personal recommendations are: A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq and her novel Split Tooth, the hilarious and brutally honest writer Lee Maracle, any of Thomas King’s novels or short stories, and Metis author Cherie Dimaline’s sci-fi novel The Marrow Thieves.
At the end of the day, appreciating Indigenous culture brings awareness to Indigenous issues and allows voices that aren’t normally heard to, well, be heard. Any step towards acknowledging the Indigenous condition, historically and presently, is a step towards reconciliation. So why not start with culture?
It’s essential to Indigenous reconciliation efforts to reconnect with elements of culture such as language, [religion and community]. When the Indian Act took effect, Indigenous children were forced into whiteness, causing them to lose essential parts of who they were. They are still grappling with that loss to this day. This is why cultural revitalization is so important to Indigenous reconciliation efforts. In fact, it is one of the most effective tools in dealing with [by this I mean treating] Indigenous mental health (See Barker, B., M.P.P., Goodman, A., M.A., & DeBeck, K., PhD, 2017; Bhatt, G., Tonks, R. G., & Berry, J. W., 2013).
If you think of Niigaan Sinclair’s opinion piece, you might have though it was just about food. But it’s so much more than that. The red tape that surrounds Indigenous food is marks hundreds of years of suffering, of ambiguity, of apathy. So, is it really about food? Or is it about something much bigger than we can ever understand?
I know I’ve probably given you a lot to think about, but I think that’s probably a good thing. My ultimate goal was to get you to think about things that you probably haven’t thought about before. That small act of questioning what you think you knew, like what is the Indian act?
Hannah: Is it an initiative by Trudeau?
Brendan: I don’t know anything about it.
Or “where does the name Canada or Toronto even come from?” can do you a world of good (See Muskrat Magazine, 2015). Everybody has to start somewhere. Because once you start, there’s always more to an issue than meets the eye. When I first read Niigaan Sinclair’s opinion piece, I could never have imagined the depth of what he was talking about. I mean, it’s just food right? But it’s more than that. It’s the story of a group that dates back 14,000 years. It’s a human right as an element of Indigenous tangible culture. So it’s about time we listen up, learn and support our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
Reconciliation is not on the menu until settlers and their governments can get the ingredients right.
I say “Indians” only in this context because I am directly referencing Bob Joseph, who uses all different terminology to discuss the different views towards Indigenous peoples in the eyes of the law. At the time, Indigenous people were legally considered “Indians”.
I accidentally said TCR in my podcast. I was thinking of Toronto Cat Rescue. o.m.g.
Barker, B., M.P.P., Goodman, A., M.A., & DeBeck, K., PhD. (2017). Reclaiming indigenous identities: Culture as strength against suicide among indigenous youth in canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 108(2), E208-E210. doi:http://dx.doi.org.libaccess.senecacollege.ca/10.17269/CJPH.108.5754
Bhatt, G., Tonks, R. G., & Berry, J. W. (2013). Culture in the history of psychology in canada. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 54(2), 115-123. doi:http://dx.doi.org.libaccess.senecacollege.ca/10.1037/a0032645
Brant, Jennifer. "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 21 March 2018, Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-and-girls-in-canada. Accessed 11 May 2019.
CBC News. (2008, May 16). A history of residential schools in Canada. Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/a-history-of-residential-schools-in-canada-1.702280
Last updated March 21, 2016.
Dion, S. (2009, May 1). Braiding Histories: Learning from Aboriginal People’s Experiences and Perspectives. Vancouver: UBC Press.
FemNorthNet. (2016). Colonialism and its Impacts. Resource Development in Northern Communities: Local Women Matter #3. Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women. Retrieved from http://fnn.criaw-icref.ca/images/userfiles/files/LWM3_ColonialismImpacts.pdf
Joseph, B. (2018). 21 Things You Might Not Know About the Indian Act. Port Coquitlam: Indigenous Relation Press.
Kane, L. (2019, April 24). Feds trying to ‘manage the problem’ with Indigenous people, rather than work on reconciliation: Wilson-Raybould. Retrieved May 10, 2019, from https://globalnews.ca/news/5199899/jwr-first-nations-justice-council/
Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (2012, September 10). 8 key issues for Aboriginal People in Canada [Web log post]. Retrieved May 9, 2019, from https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/8-key-issues-for-aboriginal-people-in-canada
Last updated March 23, 2018
Liberal Party of Canada. (n.d.). A NEW NATION-TO-NATION PROCESS. Retrieved from https://www.liberal.ca/realchange/a-new-nation-to-nation-process/
Maracle, L. (2017). My Conversations with Canadians. Toronto: BookThug.
Montpetit, I. (2011, July 14). Background: The Indian Act. Retrieved May 8, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/background-the-indian-act-1.1056988
MUSKRAT Magazine. (2015, August 27). CANADIAN CITIES ROOTED IN TRADITIONAL INDIGENOUS TERRITORIES. Retrieved April 12, 2019, from http://muskratmagazine.com/canadian-cities-rooted-in-traditional-indigenous-territories/
Northern Affairs Canada. (2019, February 19). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1450124405592/1529106060525
Rudin, J. (2018, April 30). The (in)justice system and Indigenous people. Retrieved from https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/april-2018/the-injustice-system-and-indigenous-people/
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Calls to Action. Retrieved from http://nctr.ca/assets/reports/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
Sinclair, N. (2018, December 17). Chewing through red tape to save Indigenous foods. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved from https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/columnists/chewing-through-red-tape-to-serve-save-indigenous-foods-502977841.html
University of Toronto (n.d). What is Reconciliation in Canada? Retrieved on May 9, 2019 from https://www.oise.utoronto.ca/abed101/what-is-reconciliation/
CBC. (2018, March 19). Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Retrieved May 10, 2019, from https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform-single/beyond-94?&cta=83
Native Land. (2015). Retrieved May 11, 2019, from https://native-land.ca/
True North Aid. (n.d.). How to Help Canadian First Nations. Retrieved April 2019, 10, from https://www.truenorthaid.ca/how-to-help-first-nations
Vermette, K., Henderson, S.B., Yaciuk, D. (2017). A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars (Vol. 1). Winnipeg: HighWater Press.
I recorded this podcast on Anishinabewaki, Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee territory. I am grateful to be a guest on this land.
Thank you to Olivia Hanson and Jonell Ebreo for helping me through the process of creating this podcast and helping me solidify my ideas.
Thank you to Brendan Brown and Hannah Dewitte for agreeing to be interviewed and allowing themselves to be vulnerable enough to admit they didn’t know something.
Thank you to Walter Gehm-Torrez for all your support and helping me transcribe.
Thank you to Dr. Maggie Quirt for agreeing to let me feature your answer in this episode.
The songs used are:
"Pyro Flow" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
"Echo Sclavi" The Mini Vandals (youtube.com/audiolibrary)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
"Epic Battle Speech" Wayne Jones (youtube.com/audiolibrary)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License