On a recent visit, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, said that while Canada is among the most developed countries in the world, the living conditions of its Aboriginal peoples more closely resemble those of much poorer nations. Anaya wasn’t exaggerating. The average child poverty rate is 40% among Canada’s Aboriginal population, compared to 15% for non-Aboriginal children. Health inequities are rife — while Canada has one of the lowest overall tuberculosis rates in the world, TB disproportionately affects Aboriginal communities. Why such stark inequality in an otherwise “developed” country, and how can we begin to address it?
The story begins in the 1880’s, when the Canadian government, with the help of Christian churches began administering an education system meant to assimilate more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children into white colonial settler society. At one point there were 130 of these schools across the country, the last of which closed its doors in 1996. Under this system, Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in boarding-style schools designed to strip them of their culture and sense of heritage: they were not allowed to speak their native languages, and mental, sexual, and physical abuse were rampant. It’s been reported that at least 3,000 aboriginal children died from exposure to disease during this time. There are estimates that approximately 80,000 survivors of residential schools live throughout Canada today.
It was only in 2008 that the Canadian government finally issued an official apology. Part of this apology involved the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), committed to uncovering the truth of what happened in the residential schools and informing the Canadian public. Among other consciousness-raising activities, the event consisted of public hearings where residential school survivors and their relatives could share statements about their experiences. These opportunities for public dialogue are healing events for families and communities impacted by this dark legacy.
A friend recently called me after attending a TRC event in Vancouver. The event impacted him profoundly. Despite the fact that he grew up living only a few kilometers away from one of Canada’s many Aboriginal land reserves, he was entirely unfamiliar with this piece of history. This speaks both to inadequate coverage of the residential school question and reconciliation process by the mainstream media, as well as the historical absence of these important issues in Canadian public school curriculum.
Conflicts surrounding land rights, problems with abuse, drugs, alcohol, and suicide in Aboriginal communities are commonly highlighted in public discourse — and usually in a way that is more derogatory than constructive. Indeed, discrimination against Aboriginal people is systemic and pervasive. What is discussed much less frequently is that the history of residential schools is intimately tied to the fact that Aboriginal peoples in Canada experience poverty at a rate several times higher than other Canadians.
These are big issues that need to be addressed. This must begin with the education of the broader Canadian public, most of whom know little if any of the facts. The TRC sessions are an excellent way for Canadians to become educated on a crucial part of their history. Uncovering past injustice and inviting it into public discourse are basic steps in addressing discrimination against Aboriginal communities. Understanding this troubled history should foster a more complete, compassionate, and just understanding of current issues. This should be the first step in addressing the glaring gap in living conditions highlighted by the UN special rapporteur. As recently pointed out by economist Joseph Stiglitz, inequality is not inevitable. Canada should do the right thing and go the distance — not only acknowledge the wrong that has been done, but take the steps necessary to amend it.
Image Credit: By David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada (First Nations Cemetery Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]