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Let's Talk About Indigenous Lives

First I would like to acknowledge the following:

  • The name 'Canada' stems from the Cree term Ka-Kanata-Aski which means "the land that is clean".

  • First Nations lived in what is now Canada, over 12,000 years ago.

  • Indigenous people share(d) philosophies regarding ways in which life exists(ed), and how we continue to coexist with nature, others and our surroundings.


Black and Indigenous communities face many commonalities like environmental racism and social exclusion, just to name two. Out of all the racialized groups in Canada, Indigenous people (First Nations, Inuit, Metis) are disproportionately affected by crime and injustices. Since the COVID-19 outbreak alone (now going on four months), nine Indigenous people have been killed by police. I do not say this for readers to think one group's oppression is lesser or greater than another's. Each has its own story that has been ingrained into its social constructs well before Canada (as the nation we know) was born.

I recently posted a status to my Facebook page about the racism I have faced as a Black woman growing up in a dominantly White community. Some points I mentioned were micro and macro aggressions I've had altercations with, but never have I experienced direct violence, although I feel I have come close. What I did not mention was the overt racism I witnessed towards the lives of Indigenous peoples in surrounding communities. As someone who struggles with her identity regarding her Mi'kmaw roots, it added to the negative experiences I had regarding race. I will admit, I advocated for Indigenous lives well before I started advocating and embracing my Jamaican-Canadian identity because it was a community I felt welcome in and in which I learned my spirituality and traditions that I hold close to heart. I had countless debates that went no where in high school because the only ammo others had to defend their racism was something along the lines of: "Indians get paid to go to school, they are wasting precious tax payer dollars, they are lazy alcoholics..".

The tensions between indigenous communities and white communities I have witnessed in Nova Scotia are real. Going to parties in East Hants (a neighboring community I hung out in a lot) were often ended because there was a fight between someone from that community and someone from the Sipekneꞌkatik First Nation. Sipekneꞌkatik (originally called Indian Brook when I was in high school) was the closest reserve in the area and many teens from this reserve attended the local East Hants high school.

To add, my 'Mi'kmaq Studies' class was always awkward because I would 'correct' my teacher often and had to read between the lines of an outdated textbook. These variables did not help the fact that for some, this was the first and potentially only exposure they would have to an unbiased understanding of the identity and history of Indigenous people in Canada.

Indigenous people in Canada experience far more barriers and brutality than many other groups in Canada. Let's go back to the beginning of colonial 'introduction'. Colonialism itself is the economic, political and cultural conquest of a nation, by another nation through any means. This usually entails military force and economical dominance. Specifically, settler colonialism was meant to replace Indigenous populations with settlers by enforcing apartheid-like policies.

From day one, Indigenous lives have been met with these orders by governments. To destroy their culture, their homes, their feeling of self-worth, their self-determination, the tragic list goes on. The negative image of Indigenous woman, in particular, stems from the transition between how colonialists first perceived them and their land to when they decided they were to be conquered. This transition happened in three stages.

  • Firstly, in the early colonial period, Indigenous women were seen queens and maternal mothers who were exotic, beautiful, powerful and stern.

  • Next was the era when colonialist attempted to claim the land. The respected queens turned into unshielded princesses. Women were seen as less powerful and accessible to white men; They were able to be taken advantage of, as well as their land.

  • Third and final step - when Indigenous people began to resist colonization and land claims the imagery of 'the squaw' emerged, and women were associated with being troublesome and needing to be conquered by force/corrected.

The original stereotypes associated with Indigenous lives like alcoholism, sexual dysfunction and violence come from the history that has been left out of Canadian textbooks.

Kim Anderson, an Associate prof in the Department of Indigenous Studies at Wilfrid Laurier Univeristy states some of the following points are associated with harmful Indigenous stereotypes today:

- In the 1800's, Canadian state & national press deliberately promoted “dirty squaw” imagery (vs. civilized white lady) to justify colonial violence against indigenous peoples

- As native peoples were driven off their lands, women lost status as producers in their economy, so instead they were cast as lazy & slovenly.

- The increased inhumane conditions on many reserves meant poverty, lack of access to proper housing, proper cleaning tools, etc.

I'd like to elaborate on the last point. Canadian governments essentially took Indigenous communities coping skills and ways of living away, leaving communities to navigate a new way of being, without believing in a system being forced upon them. Many were introduced to intoxicants for the first time beyond a spiritual ritual at a time of vulnerability. Hold that thought.

We see the barriers today, and we have seen it in the actions of our governments throughout Canadian history. One of many examples is the once well-hidden secret of Canadian history - Residential Schools. Tax payers money went into this 'initiative' because of the resilience of Indigenous peoples to colonial rule. Canada's governments were desperate to put an end to their settler colonial fight once and for all. Their theory was that if Indigenous children were taken away from their families and put into a Westernized institution, they would be able to cut all ties from their culture, language and ways of being in hopes they would assimilate to colonial ways. These same children who were supposedly being 'fixed' by the church - on the behalf of the government - were instead abused sexually, spiritually, mentally and physically. They were not allowed to speak their mother tongue. They were forced into child labor, forced to study the bible, unable to see family, and often times separated from their siblings. The list and severity of the malpractices that happened between the late 1870's-1990's goes on and on. Let me remind you that the last residential school was closed in 1996; I was born in 1994!

As of 2017, only 48% of non-Aboriginal Canadians blame residential schools for current problems that aboriginal people face. What does the 52% majority think? Today Indigenous lives still suffer from violence, sexual exploitation and systemic brutality that for some reason is seen as justifiable. Look into the recent UN inquiry regarding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada that the Harper government ignored, and Trudeau government has yet to create solid tangible actions for.

****In Canada, Aboriginal Peoples is a legal/administrative categorization of First Nations, Unuit, and the Metis used to describe the Indigenous people within Canadian boundaries. Indigenous refers to the descendants of the groups of people living in a territory before first contact***

Our government's actions have shown that Indigenous lives are perceived by many as less then. A good example is the lie we tell the world about our water accessibility. Canada claims time after time that 100% of Canadians have access to drinkable tap water, as if it is a bragging right. The reality is, slightly over 10% of those living in Canada do not have accessible drinking water. Can you guess what group makes up a larger percentage of that 10%? What does it mean when our government claims that ALL are being served, when they are leaving such a large number of inhabitants out of the picture. Why are some being left out of the narrative?

To finish my fact ramble, recent studies have found that Indigenous children are falling behind other Canadian children regarding their well-being. This includes, but is not limited to, family income, education, water quality, infant mortality, health, suicide, housing and homelessness. And don't get me started on incarceration rates, and school-to-prison pipeline systems. That's for another time.

We must look at the history, not isolated situations to really grasp the extent to which these communities have been broken. These communities try to heal time after time internally from their trauma while external forces like governments historically have been working against them.

This all is just the surface. I took the time to share some history, because it is so important to see why groups act the way they do and how they got where they are. Who has fought for them? Who has fought against them?

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to make waves everywhere, the world is opening their eyes to the injustices that marginalized groups are facing. Canada is going to get (or has gotten) its awakening of the maltreatment within Indigenous communities. These problems are not going away until they begin to be addressed, acknowledged, and changed. As we continually work together to hold systems and individuals accountable, the world will look brighter for all, not a select few. There is solidarity in the struggle.

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