Canadian Narratives: An Aboriginal Truth

(By Winonna Roach, Queen’s University)

Canada is known as a settler’s nation, founded on the colonization by European immigrants. When European settlers arrived, it disrupted the system Aboriginals set up for themselves, leaving them no choice but to adapt. At the expense of indigenous culture and systems, the Europeans treated the Aboriginals peoples as a project of reformation, to become ‘civilized’. Despite the long-standing relationship with Aboriginal peoples, it has been far from healthy. Aboriginal people have a long history of oppression by the Canadian government and an exertion of power that infringes on their rights. This behaviour created a divide within Canada of two groups in an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality of white Canadians versus Aboriginals, respectively. The creation of new legislation and bills has helped to improve some conditions of the people but overall the marginalization persists due to the power dynamic of the post-colonial era. The Canadian state and Aboriginal peoples’ relationship need to be reinvented in order to find a balance of respect and identify as one nation. Through the understanding of aboriginal identity and history of key milestones in the Aboriginal and state power relationship, such as: residential schools, Trudeau’s White Paper vs. Red Paper, Royal Commissions of Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the exertion of power by the government and how the aboriginal people of Canada are still fighting against oppression is exemplified.

The power relations between the Canadian state and Aboriginal peoples are best explained through the indigenous post-colonial theory. This theory explains the imperial effects of colonialism and the oppression faced by a marginalized group and how this culture was effected. It examines the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. Colonization is agreed to be an exploitation of resources on indigenous lands, residential school systems, racism, expropriation of lands, extinguishment of rights, and welfare dependency. Since the beginning of the relationship with European settlers, there has been a continual conflict between these two groups because of forceful converting of Aboriginals to a ‘less savage’ lifestyle through systems of oppression and cultural assimilation. Aboriginal peoples are left with a dependency that has created an experience of struggle and violence in their daily lives which has led to indigenous people feeling “systemic rage”, a reaction to the negative energy created by colonization. The Canadian state continues to exert their authoritative power over the indigenous people and are lacking in improvement in policy to negate unequal power dynamic. Tom Flanagan, a political scientist opposes this view and sees colonization as inevitable and western civilization as justified. Through the enactment of many legal documents, it is clear that it is more than an inevitability, it is cruelty. Each of these outlined milestones of proposed changed have failed when the government of Canada has failed to recognize the environment for which these legislatures are fostered in. A longevity of derogatory nature has been set upon aboriginal peoples and even when there was a plan to change this, the conversation never led to the actions behind these proposals to be fulfilled. Additionally, the formative events theory fits into the persistence of the aboriginal fault line, but it is the existing power relations behind these milestone events which are the actual causation for the prevailing fault line, and not the events in and of itself.

The creation of residential schools was an important because it was the way for the Canadian government to forcefully rid aboriginal peoples of their culture and move them into a Canadian mainstream. Through education, the government decided to eliminate Aboriginal culture by making residential schools mandatory in 1920. The conditions of these schools was extremely inadequate and caused the children in them to fall extremely ill, some dying from the lack of health attention. Children suffered from physical and sexual abuse, addiction, suicide, and many other factors that contributed to the intergenerational trauma aboriginals had to cope with. Many Aboriginal people became socially dysfunctional due to the residential school system and its abusive nature. This leaves the Aboriginal people with a loss of identity and a destruction of culture. Residential schools were a key milestone in the lives of Aboriginals because of its detrimental effects to the culture as a whole and for generations to come. It shows the systemic power exertion of the Canadian state to homogenize the Aboriginal peoples to a more ‘civilized’ life. This inherently deprecating system is one of the many examples of how the government abused their power dominance over Aboriginals and took away their dignity and rights.

This kind of power dynamic has shown to continue and not improve over time. In 1969, the Liberal government led by Pierre Trudeau made a policy decision outlined in White Paper. White Paper attempted to make aboriginal persons abide by Canadian citizenship and forced ‘Canadian’ rights on them. This policy forced Aboriginal peoples to conform to the Canadian mainstream and essentially destroyed their own way of life. The White Paper was supposed to be a way for a minority group such as aboriginals to be able to participate and get the benefits of being a full citizen. White Paper was born out of the Hawthorn Report which argued for the concept of “citizen plus”, allowing Indians to benefit from Canadian citizenship, but also keep their own Indian status claim and the rights of treaty arrangements. Trudeau rejected this and created the policy, White Paper, which in turn distanced the federal government from responsibility to aboriginals and left it in provincial hands. The White Paper policy essentially made the aboriginal peoples left excluded from Canada even more because it emphasized the us and them mentality, making sure they were differentiated from the ‘other Canadians’, resulting in inequality among citizens. The idea of special status results in social isolation – conflicting with liberal equality of citizenship. Aboriginal leaders opposed this policy with the Red Paper which made it clear that aboriginal peoples have the right to be self-governed and benefit from the rights of Canadians. This policy was to combine the identity of an Aboriginal person and make them apart of a Canadian culture. Aboriginal identity is not one defined by being different from “others” in Canada, but rather a mixture of autonomy and participatory engagement at the same time known as ‘nations within’ White Paper was a policy that was inherently racist in nature because it separated the identity of a ‘Canadian citizen’ to an Aboriginal. This enforced the idea that their identity is of less value and needs to be conformed in order to be granted the same rights.

Royal Commissions on Aboriginal Peoples of 1996 was a report that studied the relationship between the Canadian state and aboriginal peoples. This study conducted was a step in the right direction for the government in Canada because it truly concerned itself with the relationship the Crown and the people share. The recommendations outlined in the report are all restructuring the support given to indigenous people to implement their rights and equality. It addresses the need of sovereignty and the cooperation of the government to allow them to rights to their land. In this report it showed that Aboriginal peoples have very low rates on the national average on key socio-economic indicators such as income, education and labour participation. This differentiation manifests itself through the ingrained historical processes of the Canadian government. RCAP was a new research orientation that helped capture the complexity of the processes on a macro-level and portrays the power inequality in Canada. This conversation led to recommendations of the aboriginal peoples of Canada to be involved in governance and to have a say in what happens to them. The conversation was soon ended when none of the recommendations were actually employed and put into action. This report failed to make any real difference and was again another attempt by the government to mend the relationship but seemingly lacked effort in making it happen.

Canada on a global scale has been shamed for their ignorance to Aboriginal rights. In 2008, the Harper government of Canada decided not to accept the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The refusal was behind a claim that the Declaration was actually ‘aspirational’ and not something the state is obligated to fulfill legally. The declaration was a call to Canada to guarantee indigenous rights in the same way they must indigenous rights. What UNDRIP attempted to achieve was to reclaim the rights of Aboriginals that was conditional to colonialization. It must not erase aboriginal people’s culture, economic, social and political rights, because without those basic human rights cannot be exercised. The problem that persists is that the Canadian government is continuing to try and fit the aboriginal people in an economic, political and social framework that is automatically devaluing the Aboriginal framework and building a bigger gap of inequality. This inequality must be addressed in order to liberate the oppression that continues.

Through this historical perspective of formative events such as the policy and legislations outlined, the patterns of racism and social differentiation becomes obvious and serves well to complement how power relations explains the existence and persistence of the Aboriginal fault line. This makes it clear that the relationship between state and aboriginals needs to be reshaped.  A shift in the understanding of policies and language can help prevent the institutionalization of discrimination. The post-colonial indigenous theory best explains the persistence of aboriginal fault lines in Canada and because of governmental policy and legislation actions the inequality of power endures. Once Canada allows for new efforts to purge repression, the relation between these two groups can build a respectful post-colonial relationship.