Canada celebrated its 150th birthday over the weekend, and while the Land of the Maple Leaf has plenty to be proud of in terms of economic and social development over the last century and a half, the Canadian motto of “A Mari Usque ad Mare” (“which roughly translates to “From Sea to Sea”), has not always extended to and still does not encompass the country’s much beleaguered indigenous people.
Indeed, Canada’s 1.4 million Inuit, First Nation and mixed-race Métis have, more often than not, been shunned and circumvented from the country’s social progress, treated more like alien introducers than venerable ancestors.
Although it was these native indigenous people whose land was stripped from them by Canada’s early European settlers, today the vast majority of the country’s aborigines and their descendants live in abject poverty, where, according to a report published last week in The Economist magazine, more than 130 First Nations communities do not have access to potable water and precious little medical care outside a rudimentary clinic that dispenses aspirins and wraps sprained ankles.
And while the majority of Canadians partied hardy over the weekend – including a tiered cocktail reception here in Mexico hosted by the Canadian Embassy at the posh Four Seasons Hotel – most of the country’s indigenous people opted to forgo the celebration.
As The Economist article so astutely pointed out, quoting Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer and university professor, the reason Canada’s native communities did not participate in the festivities is that they saw it as “a celebration of the worst 150 years of indigenous peoples’ lives.”
The indigenous people of Canada – the true founders of the North American nation – have a long and proud history dating back more than 10,000 years, with the Iroquois Confederacy creating a peaceful regional alliance of diverse tribes a full 250 years before the Dominion of Canada expropriated their lands to become a British commonwealth.
Even through Canada’s indigenous people signed numerous treaties with the European invaders that were supposed to guarantee and protect their land rights, the British Crown blatantly ignored its promises and corralled the native populations it did not eradicate into overcrowded and poorly attended reserves.
And, despite a lot of political lip service and grandiose promises to undo past wrongs through outreach programs especially geared to indigenous people, the situation of Canada’s marginalized native populations has changed little over the last century and a half.
The Economist article points out: “The reserve at Rapid Lake measures less than a square kilometer, though its Algonquin residents claim a territory 10,000 times that. After the birth of Canada, efforts to assimilate or wipe out indigenous peoples were redoubled. Between the 1870s and 1996, over 150,000 indigenous children were put in residential schools to ‘kill the Indian in the child’.”
A decade ago, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for the abuse afflicted on his country’s aboriginal people under the White Man’s rule, and even went so far to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But while some of the victims of the most flagrant cases of mistreatment and their families were compensated financially, there is no disguising the fact that, in Canada, indigenous people are still considered and treated as second-class citizens.
The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently reported a history of degrading strip searches and acts of sexual assault by Canadian police against indigenous women in Saskatchewan, documenting 64 specific cases since 2014.
Farida Deif, HRW’s Canadian director, said that the Saskatchewan abuses were not isolated, but pointed to “much larger systemic issues of institutional racism and discrimination, and certain stereotypes of indigenous women as having ‘high risk lifestyles’.”
The incidence of suicide is rampant among Canada’s indigenous people, the highest of any ethnic group in the country, and there have even been cases of children as young as 12 years old taking their own life out of desperation with their living conditions.
Last Wednesday, a small group of indigenous protesters decided to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary in what they believed was a more appropriate style, by hoisting a ceremonial teepee in the middle of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill as a symbolic gesture of “re-occupation” of the land they once owned.
Several of the inciters of the protest were arrested for their efforts.
Clearly, Canada has a lot to celebrate on its sesquicentennial anniversary, but it also has a lot to answer for, especially to the people it stole its territory from.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]