How would you feel if your government has been and still is trying to exterminate your culture?
Indigenous Peoples have always been subjected to unjust oppression by our elected leaders in government; this is something that the people of Canada have voted for. Although Indigenous Peoples are the rightful owners of the land we live on in many parts of Canada, including but not limited to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, nearly all of British Columbia, and the Maritimes are still unceded – meaning that the land has been stolen from the indigenous Peoples without a treaty.
There were over 800 different groups of Indigenous Peoples living in North America and South America when Christopher Columbus first arrived in 1492. Over 100 million Indigenous Peoples thrived off the land, but once European explorers arrived that number drastically decreased. Within 25 years, only 10 million Indigenous Peoples were left. Whether it was because of smallpox, other European-brought diseases, clashes with European settlers, Residential Schools, or another cause, the arrival of the European explorers caused a massive amount of deaths for the Indigenous Peoples.
The Indian Act
The Indian Act was passed in 1876 by Prime Minister Alexander McKenzie, allowing the Canadian government to enact sweeping measures to oppress Indigenous Peoples with the end goal of assimilating their culture and integrate into European culture. The Indian Act took away the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and is a prime example of systemic racism.
Racism against Indigenous Peoples is embedded in Canada’s history and will take a long time to change the racist laws. For example, let’s use Tarni, a Cree woman, as an example. Tarni has her will with her house, her car, her clothing and her belongings included in it. Even if Tarni was to die tomorrow, the Department of Indigenous Affairs has the ability to change her will, a result of the lack of rights that Indigenous Peoples suffer. Any non-Indigenous person can’t have their will changed in this era, yet Indigenous rights are decades if not centuries behind.
The Indian Act has been in effect for over 140 years, but there haven’t been any huge changes to it. Under the Indian Act, Indigenous women were denied status, reserves were for Indigenous Peoples, Residential Schools were introduced and operated, the Pass System as well as many more injustices.
Learn more about the Indian Act here: The Indian Act Explained
Learn more about the Pass System here: What was the Pass System?
Residential Schools were a system created by and run by the Canadian government with the purpose of eliminating Indigenous culture. Residential schools were run by the government and the Catholic or Christian churches. Children were traumatically forcibly taken from their parents and forced to live in Residential Schools, which lasted from 1831 to 1996. An estimated 6000 Indigenous students died in Residential Schools. Residential Schools were boarding schools, so the students rarely, if ever, got to see their parents and relatives. If a student demonstrated any part of Indigenous culture, a swift and sure punishment from a teacher was certain. Students were forbidden to do anything remotely Indigenous: they couldn’t speak their native language, thus creating struggles to understand even the most basic of commands because most couldn’t understand any other language, they couldn’t share their stories, which is a huge part of Indigenous culture, and they couldn’t wear traditional clothes and hair cuts, along with other things. Although Residential Schools were introduced with the outward purpose of educating Indigenous Peoples to become more self-sufficient, schooling was minimal in these schools. Indigenous children were basically forced labourers, segregated based on gender and given gender-appropriated tasks. Girls did housekeeping tasks, such as washing dishes, mopping and sweeping, as well as cooking and laundry. Boys did more manual labour, like construction, general maintenance, and agricultural labour.
Many children suffered at the hands of the Residential Schools and its leaders. Abuse, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, was commonplace. Impatience by leaders and nuns lead to excessive physical punishments, including heavy beatings, chainings, and confinements. Sexual predators often preyed on the helpless Indigenous children, so sexual abuse was normal. All these abuses led to mental health declines in Indigenous children and eventually led to how Indigenous Peoples are 25% more likely to commit suicide.
Nutrition deficiencies, overworking, and overcrowding often lead to deadly outbreaks of influenza, tuberculosis and more. Over 6000 children died in Residential Schools as a result of these outbreaks. Although multiple medical experts, Dr. Peter Bryce, Dr. James Lafferty, Dr. O.I. Grain and Dr. E.L. Stone, recommended measures to improve the health and nutrition of Indigenous children in Residential Schools, the federal government never took their advice.
Learn more about Residential Schools here: A Timeline of the Residential Schools
A comic about Residential Schools: Residential Schools Comic
Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples: Every Child Matters Video
The Doctrine of Discovery
The Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Land, Strong Hearts is an informative documentary about the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, touching on Residential Schools and the Indian Act as well as talking about the effects those two systems had on Indigenous groups.
After learning about the injustices that Indigenous Peoples face in Canada, as well as globally, what will you do? Indigenous Peoples have been subjected to racism throughout history and this is still occurring today. Is this just? Is this reflecting the values of Canada today?
About the Author
Liliana Chow is a high school student in BC, Canada. Liliana aspires to inspire youth into taking initiative to help solve problems that are close to their hearts. Liliana is particularly interested in slowing climate change, preventing genocides and human rights violations, and raising awareness about poverty in developed countries.