A deafening silence on Aboriginal issues

In the past 60 days, an estimated 33,000 Indigenous Canadians have been violently victimized. Not that the campaigns have noticed.


 
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(Marta Iwanek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

(Marta Iwanek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

News of Jamie Prefontaine’s death, apparently by suicide, shattered Winnipeg’s Indigenous community last week. There, the 30-year-old Metis father of four was better known as Brooklyn, the stage name he adopted five years ago, before rocketing to fame with the award-winning hip-hop trio Winnipeg’s Most.

They were assailed for glorifying the criminal lifestyle. But Winnipeg’s Most also used their star power to help draw attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, buying headstones for Carolyn Sinclair, a 25-year-old from the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, whose body was found in a city Dumpster, and Divas Boulanger, a transgender Berens River woman, whose body was found at a highway truck stop. Prefontaine, who’d lost an aunt to murder growing up, said the issue hit “close to home.”

In much the same way, his death is affecting young men around him. Karmen Omeasoo, considered the “grandfather of Native hip-hop,” penned a moving tribute to the fallen rapper, opening up about a suicide attempt that’s left him unable to close his left hand: “I feel for all the lives we have lost to this demon—it’s time to start speaking about it daily. We can’t lose any more.”

Prefontaine’s death came days after the start of a coroner’s inquest into Nunavut’s horrific suicide rate—40 times the national average for boys aged 15 to 19. But in that 450-word Facebook post, Omeasoo—better known by his stage name, Hellnback—said more about the suicide epidemic tearing apart Indigenous communities than all the federal party leaders combined have at a major public forum in this election cycle.

Indeed, in the past seven weeks—during which there have been four leaders debates covering wide-ranging topics—the leaders have been effectively silent on the critical issues facing Indigenous people. In a typical eight-week period in Canada, more than 33,000 Indigenous people are violently victimized and 11 are murdered, more than 17 times the national average. Yet in the Maclean’s National Leaders Debate on Aug. 6, Indigenous issues earned only passing mentions. In the Globe and Mail debate on the economy, they got a mention when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau plugged his plan to boost spending on First Nations education. At this week’s Munk Debate in Toronto, they got no mention. Liberal candidate Michèle Audette, an Innu and Liberal candidate in Quebec, notes the leaders were not solely to blame: they weren’t asked the urgent questions.

Related: Scott Gilmore: A real nation would not let this happen

On the campaign trail, in a country that has lost more than 800 Indigenous women to violence since 1995, compared to two men lost to domestic terrorism, the discourse has been dominated by fears of Islamic State and a new anti-terror law—a wedge issue that’s split progressive votes.

“I don’t want to play oppression Olympics,” says Indigenous scholar Hayden King, contrasting the parties’ silence to the massive debate on the Syrian refugee crisis sparked by the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi last month. “But we have Native children being taken from families, kids dying of preventable causes in northern communities, and we haven’t talked about any of it. You really have to ask: What will it take to compel Canadians to make these electoral issues?”

It’s all the more galling given the election was called just weeks after the release of the findings on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on June 2. Canada, it seemed then, was finally at a turning point, ready to acknowledge its dark past and formative role in creating a situation whereby an Indigenous child born tomorrow is expected to live seven fewer years than any other Canadian. He has a 50 per cent chance of growing up in poverty and better odds of being jailed than of graduating high school. If born on Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, he has a better chance of being infected with HIV than in some African countries.

“Canadians should be appalled,” says B.C. consultant Michelle Corfield, former vice-president of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, where she oversaw economic development. “Every citizen of Canada deserves to live in a country that recognizes them as equals. If we continue to do nothing, Indigenous people will fall from Third to Fourth World living conditions.” The TRC provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meaningfully address these issues, she adds. Unless something changes in the next three weeks, she fears we’ll have wasted it entirely.

Over the weekend, author and university administrator Wab Kinew, Rwandan genocide survivor Eloge Butera, Broadbent Institute director Jonathan Sas and 19 honorary witnesses to the TRC issued a call to action, urging Canadians to “make reconciliation an election issue.” Kinew told Maclean’s he remembers NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau “immediately in front of news cameras” after the tabling of the TRC report. “When it was politically expedient to jump on the stories of my father, of our ancestors, I remember them being there.”

“At this late stage, it will certainly be difficult to insert reconciliation into the conversation,” says Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Time’s a-wasting; and the opportunity has almost passed.

“The reality is the federal government has been largely responsible for causing this harm, and the chaos that results lies in their lap. And to a certain extent, they are a bit confused—looking for direction, continuing to dither while they try to gauge the public appetite.”

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Sinclair says he always knew the federal government would be the slowest agent of change; he notes strides made by educators—who are changing school curricula in several provinces—by churches and private industry. But federal players are approaching this from a political perspective: Are there votes in it or not? “I think that’s what’s at play here. But at some point we’re going to have to have a serious conversation: The federal government can’t continue to ignore this. They’re going to have to show some leadership.”

In the meantime, Sinclair says, the public needs to recognize where it can effect change. This, he adds, “is going to be the most effective way to combat racism, which is still quite prevalent in our society.” Sinclair believes reconciliation will take hold neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street, family by family. “The reality is, it took us 150 years to get to this situation so it’s going to take us a while to get out of it. Let’s not get frustrated by lack of action in the immediate future.” Frustration, however, is what many people feel right now.

There were hopeful signs, after all, that things would be different this time around. Soon after the campaign launched, the leaders of the Liberal, NDP and Green parties addressed the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). They made significant promises: The Liberals and Greens have agreed to adopt each of the TRC’s 94 recommendations and the NDP have pledged to act on adopting them. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP have costed their reconciliation planks. The Conservatives have said they will wait for the commission’s full report, due next year, before making any commitments. The Liberals, NDP and Greens have said they would adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; all three are calling for an inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women.

One of the Liberals’ first campaign promises in August was to invest $2.6 billion for on-reserve education and $500 million over three years for school infrastructure, notes Michèle Audette, a Liberal candidate and former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada; over the past 18 months, Audette, who is challenging NDP incumbent Charmaine Borg in the Montreal-area riding of Terrebonne, was part of the team that drafted the party’s Indigenous platform with Paul Martin.

The Conservatives have not released an Indigenous platform, but in the 2015 budget, they pledged to direct $200 million over five years to Indigenous education and re-announced plans to direct $500 million over six years to on-reserve schools.

The NDP, meanwhile, is planning to release more details on its Indigenous platform later in the campaign; sources suggest it will include investments to First Nations education and infrastructure.

The Idle No More movement initiated a massive push for change; and a huge number of activists have been channelling their energy to get-out-the-vote initiatives like Indigenous Rock the Vote.

Sara Mainville, chief of the Couchiching First Nation, near Rainy Lake, Ont., is among them: “If it’s the only arrow in your bonnet, use it, because voting is the only way this is going to change,” the 46-year-old lawyer tells potential voters. “The status quo is so dangerous. I don’t want my 10-year-old daughter to grow up feeling unsafe on city streets the way I did. This has to change.”

In nearby Kenora, Tania Cameron, the riding’s former NDP candidate and a key Idle No More organizer, has devoted her every free minute to helping Indigenous voters navigate the new restrictions brought in with the government’s Fair Elections Act. Cameron considers the new rules a “voter suppression tactic,” akin to “what used to be done in Mississippi.”

Indeed, many fear the new identification requirements, which insist on addresses, will disproportionately disqualify people on crowded reserves. The new rules also end the practice of vouching, which allowed chiefs and council to affirm the identify of someone lacking complete ID, which many on-reserve voters do.

“The relationship between the current government and Indigenous people is unnecessarily adversarial,” says AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde in an interview. “They spent [$110] million this year fighting court battles over Aboriginal rights and title. If we continue this approach, we’ll continue to lose generations of people; we’ll continue to lose languages and potential and opportunity.

“Party leaders need to pay attention to our issues and priorities; they are Canada’s issues and priorities,” Bellegarde tells Maclean’s. “If we win, Canada as a country will win.”

In Nunavut this week, the coroner agreed with the inquest jury that suicide should be declared a public health emergency. The inquest had heard from families of the 45 people who killed themselves in the territory in 2013, a torrent of tragedy that sparked the inquest. Rex Uttak, who turned 11 just weeks before he hanged himself on Aug. 10, 2013, was the youngest.

He was a happy boy who loved to laugh; before he died, his family had been living with as many as 24 relatives in his grandmother Bernadette’s four-bedroom home. They’d been waitlisted for social housing.

Rex was not the first in his family to succumb to suicide: his older brother Bernie had killed himself, as had an aunt. And he was grieving the murder of his older sister. “I’m lifeless,” his grandmother Bernadette testified in Inuktitut. “You think: ‘What did I do wrong?’ ”

It’s hard to imagine a topic more urgent in Canada than this one. Twenty-seven Nunavummiut have already died by suicide this year. Will this be a topic the leaders grapple with and debate in detail in the final leaders debate in Montreal this week? Given their interests and talking points so far, it seems very unlikely.


 

A deafening silence on Aboriginal issues

  1. Of course Maclean’s hosted a debate, let’s not forget, and opted, for some reason, to not ask any questions on ‘aboriginal issues’.

  2. What can the federal government do about suicides? More money does not seem to be the answer, as it never seems to be spent on the folks, but disappears to other places. Don’t give the federal government a bad rap on this. Most of the violence on the reserves are caused by natives hurting other natives.

    • Yes, lateral violence within Indigenous communities is a reality, but it became a reality as a consequence of 200 years of the systemic racism inherent in the Canadian history. When that systemic racism is finally and truly acknowledged, and attended to with genuine reparations that heal these long-term wounds, lateral violence will also stem substantially.

      Get to work, Canada on living up to your Treaty and Indian Act promises.

      • Most glaring in your comment is the lack of reference to Indians “living up” to their Treaty and Indian Act promises. If you have actually read any of the treaties, you will note that there are obligations on both sides.
        Numerous examples exist of Indians not honouring their part of the treaties and yet very little is mentioned in the media or by commenters such as yourself about these issues. Also conspicuous by its absence is any references to the numerous additional services and benefits which have been bestowed on the Indians on the taxpayers’ dime.
        Also absent in most media articles is any mention of the Gladue ruling initiated back in the time of Cretien suggesting that Indians are not mature enough to be judged the same as other Canadians and that “kid gloves” must be used in any criminal cases. The results are reduced charges, increased crime among themselves, and the constant reinforcement that they must be inferior or otherwise such race-based laws wouldn’t be necessary.
        And we wonder why crimes among the aboriginals are on the increase?

    • Your lack of curiosity about root causes (in this case, of violence on reserves) would, no doubt, be appealing to PMSH and his acolytes. To paraphrase, Skippy Poilievre, “the root cause of violence on reserves is violence on reserves”. Ergo, the government is absolved of any moral responsibility for the phenomenon.

  3. We spend $10K or more on every native, per year. Given that kind of money, the question needs to be put to every aboriginal leader: How are you using those funds to bring your people into the 21st century, and what steps are being taken by your band administration to reduce the incidence of native on native violence?
    Blaming Canada’s “inherent racism” is a load of horse-puckey. If we’re so racist, how is it that the children, and now the grandchildren, of the wave of Vietnamese boat people who arrived in Canada circa 1980 are now doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers and business owners? Supposed racism is no more a factor in this issue than is the fluctuations of the level of the Great Lakes.
    The only people who can fix the problem of inter-Indian violence are the Indians themselves.

    • “We” do not pay for anything for First Nations. The “we’s” you allude to benefit from all Indigenous resources, which are exactly where the funding for them comes from, since the beginning of the treaties and the insidious Indian Act. As well, as a matter of public record, 95% of the Indigenous pay taxes too, so everyone is benefiting even further from their funding.
      As for records of transparency, the AANDC must approve virtually every financing decision and more for the majority of bands. For that privilege, they demand between 160-200 financial reports from each band per year on top of audited financial statements. If this government department – in charge of billions of Indigenous monies – can’t be bothered to apply oversight to prevent any corruption those record demands, then you are asking the wrong questions.

    • “Most of the violence on the reserves are caused by natives hurting other natives.”

      Could that be because the people living on reserves are mostly native?

      We don’t see the headline “most crime in cities is perpetrated by people living in cities”. Most people who are murdered are murdered by people they know, but we don’t see the headline ” most non-natives are murdered by non-natives”. We know the what, we need to ask why?

    • I wonder what percentage of that $10K goes is wages to non-native civil servants at AANDC and the running of that top-heavy bureaucracy.

  4. I suggest everyone read the the 10 stages of genocide and do some research on the true facts of violence against indigenous peoples. First you must know the truth, then you should make comments. To make comments about a situation or a peoples, before you have done your research will only show your ignorance of the situation. Please do your research. Research on what was done to the indigenous people in the past and research the inter-generational effects of the past abuse and trauma heaped on the indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. Then research the present situation…you will find nothing has changed…the only change is the situation is being exposed internationally.

    • Until Aboriginals stand up and refuse to be perpetual victims their lot will never improve.

  5. Aboriginals need to start holding their corrupt and self-serving chiefs to account and stop playing the racism card every time the wind blows the wrong way.

  6. MacLean’s survives because it receives tax payer support from the federal government.

    The Indians get more tax dollars than many small countries have a bloody national budget.

    I am tired of Maclean’s and their lefty tax supported agenda.

    I am also tired of the sob story for the Indians – by now they could have had their act together if they were not so drowning in corruption.

    If they want to know why there is so much trouble – time for them to look in the mirror.

        • Just a couple of little nit-picky things about your comment. Nothing too important, though. It doesn’t really matter that the $15 million quoted in that link that you provided was actually $1.5 mil. Not an insignificant figure to be sure, but I doubt that Maclean’s is going to sink off into the sunset if they didn’t get that grant from the Canadian Heritage fund. And, since it’s a pretty standard fact that some people are going to accept whatever amount is lightly tossed around without actually reading past the bright red lettering, whether it’s been inflated by a factor of 10 or not, it does provide more useless fodder for your diatribe. Heck, I’m pretty sure that you didn’t get to the story either, ’cause it was rather simple to discover that that article was written in 2010. So, for some reason I find its relevance to the current discussion to be a tad shaky. At best.

  7. Round up the right suspects -aboriginal males

    • Cannot do that – forcing folks to be responsible for their actions only applies to those who pay taxes – all others can and do claim victim status.

  8. Reporters sure are getting lazy these days, because we seldom get all the facts or even statistics of past inquiries (40 plus) on the topic. Instead of giving us the truths, we get opinion.
    I haven’t read them all, but I would bet not one addresses an unspoken reality. I would venture to say that a number of the lost women were in the sex trade, a direct consequence of being sexually molested as a child. Where were the parents then?

  9. Accadians were forcefully marched out of New Brunswick; blacks were treated as subhumans; the Chinese were used to build the railroads, thousands died of unsafe and brutal work conditions, they were not allowed to bring their women, the were not allowed citizenship till 1964; the Japanese were robbed of status and goods and then marched into internment camps; the Irish were unwanted immigrants; Jews were denied entry and forcefully returned to be gassed by the Nazis. What am I missing? Where is the Truth and Reconciliation clamour for them?
    Wanna claim special treatments for ills done in the past? Take a number!!

  10. I hope the indians can find more peace and happiness and less trouble, the world is so full of pain and suffering. Listen to wise people and get an education.

  11. It appears to me, unfortunately, there is tremendous amount of implied racist tones in many comments. The ignorance (lack of knowledge) concerning the plight of the indigenous people of this country is pervasive. It is easy to form uninformed opinions however much more difficult to actually be informed (educated on the topic) and speak intelligently.

    If your knowledge of Canada’s indigenous people is limited to the media and personal observation of the people who have left their communities and now wander our urban streets you are NOT educated enough on the topic to form an opinion or statement.

    I could write a treatise on the topic right here but it would likely not change the mindset of some people. Please educate yourself on a topic prior to discussion. Read the Indian Act for starters. You really must live in a community and walk in peoples’ shoes before you judge them and form opinions. I am an educated (micro economist) white male who decided to dedicate his life to improving the human wellbeing of Aboriginal people in this country. Since 1986, the first time I visited the three first nation communities in Port Hardy, I have lived in their world. I had no idea how the experience would eventually change me and my life, for the better.

    You would be amazed to discover the truth behind the rhetoric and media. The truth, however, hurts. And with certainty places the blame for reserve living conditions and human wellbeing of Canada’s indigenous people on our federal and provincial governments. Colonialism still exists.

    I have worked with countless intelligent and well educated native people who have managed to rise above the imposed poverty on reserves. Note there are thousands of university educated Aboriginal people in Canada who have successfully established themselves within society. There are also many examples of first nation communities and people who have very successful, profitable businesses that contribute positively to the Canadian economy. I know many commercial fishermen with boats valued in the millions. Not because of government handouts; because fishing was their life. They fished and worked all year round up and down the coast of British Columba and around Vancouver Island to support their families, pay off their boats and keep their crew employed. A good skipper supports many families.

    The Indian Act, status, residential schools, reserves and history of serfdom is the cause of today’s problems. I use the word serfdom because Indians living on reserve are serfs on land held in trust for their use by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. They cannot own the ground they live on. They are still living in a pre-Magna Carta feudal tenant system. Land ownership created the middle class in contemporary society and provided independent wealth.

    This was the pivotal moment in history that shook the foundations of aristocracy and created a demographic between the aristocrats and the proletariat. This spurred the rise of the common man and created new wealth and all because of land ownership.

    When will our government and Queen acknowledge this? Give Aboriginal people fee simple title to the reserve land they live on. Absolve Aboriginal Affairs and invest the funds strategically into their communities. Create wealth and independence. History provides the proof of success.

    Now we need to focus on the urban dwelling indigenous people who have also lost their traditional lands due to appropriation, the WWII War Measures Act, Indian Agents giving their land to the wealthy churches, lost their homes, families, culture, dignity, place in a society that our governments and churches have destroyed in the name of God and intent to educate those heathen Indians. Yep let’s take them away from their families, dress them in suits, teach them Christianity, whip them and starve them if they don’t speak English and if they practice their culture. It’ll be good for them.

    The federal budget of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada that constitues the majority of the budget for all on reserve and off reserve programs for Aboriginal people in Canada is probably close or less than the tax savings that are provided to Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and large industry across Canada on an annual basis. More funds are needed to right the wrongs and injustice of the past and incorporate the indigenous people of this country as equal partners in the economy of Canada. They all deserve to share equally in the splendid wealth of this country and live in communities where water does not have to be boiled everyday of your life and dwell in homes that are fit for living in.

    Imagine Canada has been invaded today and the entire population subjugated, our children removed from our families and sent to boarding schools to learn a new language, new religion, new culture and we were all removed from our homes and placed on reserves and could no longer call ourselves Canadians.

    Imagine not being able to practice the most important cultural icon of Canada that unites us from Coast to Coast: hockey. The Agent from Caucasian Affairs calls in the police and armed forces, arresting us, beating us and throwing us in jail for years because we were playing hockey on a frozen pond. Sound silly? Sound crazy? NO it is just history repeating itself but now it is our turn to be subjugated, dominated, controlled, ruled and defeated by a conqueror.

    Well the Indians would say ‘hell not again!” And the white people would have to learn how to survive like the indigenous people of this country have since we came and stole the land from them.

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