Canada is known as a human rights-promoting, peacekeeping devoted nation. But when one looks at the situation of the human rights of indigenous peoples in Canada, it becomes obvious that not all is bright and shiny in the northern most part of the Americas. Here is a quick (and shocking) overview, in facts and statistics, of the reality of indigenous peoples in Canada.
The Indian Act
First, a bit of constitutional context. Under Canada’s Constitution Act of 1867, the federal governs enjoys legislative authority over « Indians and Land reserved for Indians ». Through this legislative power, it enacted, in 1876, the Indian Act. Overtly racist, this piece of legislation was intended to encourage aboriginal peoples to abandon their « indianness » and assimilate into « modern society ». The Act was substantially revised in 1985, notably to remove discrimination against women (who use to loose their status if they married a non-indian man) and to give more autonomy to band council. Nonetheless, it remains problematic in many regards. Let's not forget that it inspired the drafter of apartheid in South Africa...
The Indian Act regulates aboriginal identity based on an idea of blood quantum, which is absolutely foreign to most, if not all, indigenous nation. It also decides how governance shall be structured, without any regards to local traditions and societal organization. This system has created corruption, problems of legitimacy within communities and the division of reserve population into factions.
The Indian Act also creates the reserve system, enclaves of land reserved for indigenous people, often in remote areas where employment and services are scarce. Reserve lands remain, in many regards, under the control of the federal government, either through the powers granted by the Act to the Minister or to the Governor in Council. Section 2(1) of the Indian Act defines reserves as “a tract of land, the legal title to which is vested in Her Majesty, that has been set apart by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of a band”. Private property in fee simple is not possible under the Act. Lawful possession of land in a reserve requires allotment by the council of the band. As such, individual band members may obtain a certificate of possession, which according to s. 20(2) of the Act is evidence of lawful possession of land on reserve. The acquisition of a certification of possession is somewhat akin to private property rights except that alienation can only be to another band member. Moreover, transfers of land possession rights are subjected to the approval of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Reserve lands may not be seized legally, nor may any real and personal property of Indian or Band situated on a reserve be subjected to charge, pledge, mortgage, attachment, levy, seizure, distress or execution in favour or at the instance of any person other than an Indian or a band. Many argue that the reserve system is one of the main factor preventing indigenous communities to rise out of poverty. Not to mention that many reserve communities face acute housing shortages and overcrowding, with family homes housing up to 4 of 5 generations under the same roof.
Talking about poverty, lets look a little bit at the reality of aboriginal inhabitants of Canada. The following statistics are dooming, but need to be known to explain the depth of the crisis faced by indigenous communities, a crisis that the Canadian government and population refuse to recognize.
According to the 2011 census, there are 1,400,685 indigenous individuals in Canada, out of a population of 33,476,688. In 2001, government statistic indicated that 15% of indigenous youths completed high school, compared to 51% for the non-indigenous population. Regarding employment, 58% of indigenous people were employed, compared to 80% among the non-indigenous population.
Indigenous populations in Canada also face higher mortality rates, higher rates of chronic and infectious diseases, and poorer overall health leading to decreased life expectancies at a rate of 8 to 20 years less than non-Indigenous populations. A 2005 Health Canada report noted that suicide was among the leading causes of death in First Nations aged 10-44 and accounted for over 22% of all deaths on Aboriginal youth aged 10-19. Clearly, Aboriginal status and poverty is linked to the overall poor health and premature deaths of First Nations in Canada. Also, indigenous women have gone missing and have been murdered at much higher rates than non-indigenous women in Canada. A 2014 report released by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police indicates that indigenous women at four times more likely to get murdered. The report also stated that 1,017 Indigenous women and girls were murdered from 1980-2012. Because of gaps in police and government reporting, the actual numbers may be much higher, but investigations are also deficient and most cases have yet to be resolved.
Indigenous people are also over-represented in Canadian jails. Although they constitute about 4 % of the overall population of the country, the percentage of indigenous inmates is currently around 23%. Same alarming scenario in the children care system, where indigenous children represent about 40% of the 76,000 children and youth in care across Canada.
Poverty, racism and intergenerational trauma, to name a few, are fuelling these disparities. Another evident cause of this crisis is the persistent underfunding of social services for indigenous communities. Because of the Constitution Act, indigenous people are « federal persons », meaning that the federal government is responsible to provide social services on reserve land, whereas the provinces are normally responsible for these services. Studies have shown systematic instances of funding inequities. Indigenous individuals are systematically allocated less money for equivalent services than the non-indigenous population. Only $7,200 is spent by the federal government on each indigenous individual in comparison to about $14,900 per non-indigenous person who also has the added benefit of provincial funding.
The list of horrifying statistics could, sadly, go on, but it is not necessary to paint accurately the depth of the human rights crisis facing indigenous peoples in Canada, a crisis for which a legacy of racism, imperialism and oppression is largely responsible, but the contribution of present day governments cannot be denied. The lack of action, the stubbornness to recognized indigenous rights (Canada was the last country to sign the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) and the systematic underfunding for indigenous people have exacerbated this situation rooted in colonialism. Yet, indigenous people are resilient and continue to fight for their rights, their lands and their way of life across the country and their voices are increasingly being heard.
Posted by Eloïse Ouellet-Descote