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Aboriginal Issues

Overview: Struggling to Escape a Legacy of Oppression

Aboriginal people have a long and proud history that includes rich cultural and spiritual traditions. Many of these traditions, however, were altered or even taken away upon the arrival of European settlers. The forced introduction of European culture and values to Aboriginal societies, the dispossession of Aboriginal lands, and the imposition of alien modes of governance began a cycle of social, physical and spiritual destruction. You can see the effects of this today. Some effects include poverty, poor health, and substance abuse. Underlying these problems is a loss of identity and a learned helplessness from having their values oppressed and their rights ignored.

But hope is emerging from this dark picture. In all facets of life, Aboriginal people are struggling to improve their lives while re-discovering their traditional values after years of oppression.

Similarly, non-Aboriginal Canadians are becoming more aware of the injustices that have and are occurring to Aboriginal peoples as well as the richness of Aboriginal cultures. Non-Aboriginal people can further support the healing process by continuing to learn about the experience of Aboriginal people in order to promote mutual understanding and respect.

The Cycle of Destruction

Poverty, ill health, educational failure, family violence and other problems reinforce one another. To break the circle of disadvantage – where family violence leads to educational failure, which leads to poverty, which leads to ill health and back to violence – all these conditions must be tackled together, not piecemeal.

Breaking the Cycle

Despite the systemic nature of the countless oppressive forces that continue to burden many Aboriginal people, Aboriginal communities are making strides along their healing path. There are now many Aboriginal scholars, artists, activists and leaders that are working to challenge the status quo for Aboriginal peoples and create a fairer world that offers meaningful and fulfilling opportunities.

Poverty/Inequality

The roots of poverty for Aboriginal communities can be traced back to the forced relocation of Aboriginal peoples onto plots of land that are called Reserves. With no planning, infrastructure or economy set up, Aboriginal people were restricted to small tracts of land. The destruction of traditional ways of living, combined with the poorly organized set-up of reserves resulted in impoverishment for those on the reserves. Many Aboriginal people died due to lack of shelter, food, health care and money. To worsen the problem the Canadian government put tight restrictions on relief efforts to reserves, resulting in an even higher level of poverty.

Once Aboriginal people were allowed off reserves, many came to larger urban centres in an attempt to rid themselves of poverty. Instead of employment opportunities or even relief in the form of charity, many Aboriginal people were faced with racist attitudes that had already been long entrenched in Canadian society.

The legacy of poverty for Aboriginal people in urban centres continues today. In Urban Poverty in Canada: A Statistical Profile (CCSD, 2000), evidence from 1996 Census data showed that Aboriginal peoples in urban areas were more than twice as likely to live in poverty (as defined by the Low Income Cut-Off) as non-Aboriginal people.

  • On average, 55.6% of Aboriginal people living in Canadian cities were poor in 1995.
  • In cities like Regina where there is a larger Aboriginal population, Aboriginal people accounted for 24% of the poor. This was more than three times their proportion of the total population in that city. Several factors can explain this high incidence of poverty among Aboriginal people, including significant barriers in education and employment opportunities.
  • 52.1% of all aboriginal children were poor in 2003. (Ontario Fed. of Indian Friendship Centres).
  • Shelter is a significant issue among First Nations communities, as only 56.9% of homes were considered adequate in 1999­/00. Adequate shelter is defined as not needing minor or major repairs or replacement (INAC 2002).

Similarly, many reserves still do not have the resources or money that it would take to raise the standard of living out of third-world conditions.

Despite the fact that there is rampant poverty among Aboriginal peoples in Canada, many Aboriginal people and communities are attempting to make poverty a part of the past. The Seabird Island community of British Columbia serves as an excellent example. They have launched a Seabird Sustainable Community Project in which their aim is to “provide an information transfer opportunity to assist First Nations and other communities through-out Canada to solve housing challenges in a sustainable, environmentally sensitive, healthy, energy-efficient and affordable way” (www.broadwayarchitects.com/sustainable-community-planning.html). Similarly, many Aboriginal communities are beginning to analyse their communities through the framework of Community Economic Development (http://unpac.ca/economy/ced.html).

In some instances Aboriginal peoples are finally being offered opportunities out of poverty. Non-Aboriginal Canadians can support this process by linking with others who are working to support Native/non-Native reconciliation, lending financial or other forms of support to indigenous organizations, lobbying the government for Native self-government, or advocating for greater funding for specific programs related to inequality and Aboriginal peoples.

Health Care

Upon arrival to North America, Europeans brought with them many foreign diseases that had a devastating effect on Aboriginal people who were neither immune to them nor knew how to cure them. Due to the underlying racial backdrop against which Aboriginal peoples lived, health care was traditionally saved for those deemed deserving of it – namely the white European settlers. Furthermore, Aboriginal medicine practices were generally regarded as inferior to the European medical practices, and were often dismissed, frowned upon or even banned.

Over the course of history, such racism and discrimination took its toll on the Aboriginal population. Despite the fact that the Canadian health care system has been praised as one of the best and most progressive in the world, quality health care is out of reach for many Aboriginal Canadians. Federal, provincial and jurisdictional disputes, cultural barriers and geographic isolation have impeded Aboriginal peoples’ access to the health care system.

  • In 1999, First Nations people experienced a disproportionate burden of many infectious diseases. Similarly, the tuberculosis rate among First Nations people remained 8 to 10 times that seen in the Canadian population as a whole.
  • Dental decay rates for Aboriginal children in Ontario are two to five times higher than rates among non-Aboriginal children. They are far less likely to be decay-free.

Although the health care picture looks bleak for Aboriginal people in Canada, efforts are being made to make health care accessible and relevant for Aboriginal people. Noojimawinn health Authority (NHA) is one of six Aboriginal Health Authorities within Ontario that were created through the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy (AHWS) in 1997. The Authority serves the health needs of Aboriginal people living off reserves and in urban centres across the province, and interacts with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal health professionals involved in the delivery of service to Aboriginal people. Similarly, McMaster University recently implemented a new course focusing on aboriginal health issues. The course will aim to increase medical students’ awareness of the healthcare issues unique to the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.

Approaches to Aboriginal health care are now starting to incorporate traditional healing practices. Traditional healing is "holistic" in that it does not focus on symptoms or diseases but rather deals with the total individual. Healing focuses on the person, not the illness. In his statement to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples a non-Aboriginal doctor, David Skinner, testified that “It is our belief that because our white man’s medicine is very technical-oriented, very symptom-oriented, very drugs- and surgery-oriented, that it lacks something that Native medicine has, which we desperately need but don’t practise: spirituality….In many of these things we are talking about — family violence, alcohol abuse, trauma, suicide — I believe that the Native public health nurses, Native nurses, Native doctors would have that in their approach as well — a spiritual component.

Employment Barriers

The paternalistic views that many of the early European settlers in Canada held contributed to the foundation of misunderstanding, ignorance and racism that early white-aboriginal relations were built upon. While the white settlers tended to view Aboriginal people as inferior and savage, the Aboriginal people increasingly viewed the White people with distrust, anger, resentment and fear. Many Aboriginal people had no hope of attaining any kind of employment, so long as beliefs that Aboriginal people were inferior prevailed in society. Add to this the problems of poverty and ill health, and one can see how the prospects for Aboriginal employment in Canada were dismal.

The history of discrimination and disadvantage for Aboriginal peoples is reflected today in the current situation regarding Aboriginal people in the work force. An analysis of 1996 Census data estimated that the unemployment rate for Aboriginal people is double that of the national average, and in some areas of the country the rate is five to six times higher than that recorded for non-Aboriginal people.

  • In 2001, Aboriginal Youth 15-24 were twice as likely to be unemployed.
  • In 1991, the unemployment rate of Aboriginal peoples was almost twice the Canadian average – 19.4 percent compared to 10 percent. In the same year, the unemployment rate for the on-reserve Indian population was 31 percent.(www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ai/awpi/fac_e.html).

In addition, the First Nations population is younger than the non-Aboriginal Canadian population, and while the Canadian population moves closer towards retirement age in the next two decades, the Aboriginal population will experience growth in the number of individuals who reach working age.

A 1995 survey found that 77 percent of employers faced challenges in hiring and retaining Aboriginal employees. They cited barriers in the following areas: communication, culture, skills and training, misconceptions. Similarly, low educational attainment affects the participation of Aboriginal and First Nation people in the Canadian labour market.

  • Only 31 percent – about half the Canadian average – of the Aboriginal on-reserve population has a high school education.

The good news is that many of these trends are changing, and the Aboriginal labour force is increasingly highly educated and skilled.

  • In 1969, only 800 Aboriginal peoples had a post-secondary education. By 1991, the number was 150,000.
  • In the mid-1960s, there were about 200 Status Indian students enrolled at Canadian colleges and universities. By 1999, the number had soared to more than 27,000. (www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/info/info110_e.pdf).

Many employers are currently looking for ways to tap into the skills of potential and underutilized workers. There are numerous employment equity initiatives and policies that are currently being implemented in order to ensure that oppressed people groups have access to work. Both employers and potential employees can educate themselves by becoming involved in such initiatives and lending their support to them. Visit Aboriginal Business Service Network for an example of the efforts being made to remedy the unequal access to employment.

Education

The colonizing view that many European settlers in North America took towards Aboriginal people devastated their cultures. As early as the late 1800’s Canadian government and church bodies began removing Aboriginal children from their homes and placing them in what were referred to as Industrial Schools. These would later become known as Residential Schools. Residential schools were the most effective tool for destroying Aboriginal culture and identity, and for promoting the assimilation of Aboriginal people into mainstream Canadian society.

The widespread abuse that Aboriginal children faced at Residential school spanned 7 decades – from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. Many of the schools employed curricula that were centred around religious teachings and manual labour skills. Many Aboriginal children came away from Residential school in their teen years barely knowing how to read. What proved to be even more destructive was the emotional, physical and sexual abuse that many Aboriginal children experienced. The history of the Residential School system has certainly contributed to the current education situation with Aboriginal peoples. However, it is not solely responsible for the current state of affairs.

When we examine First Nations education historically, a pattern emerges that consists of a system of education that for the most part has been imposed on First Nations students with blatant disregard for First Nations languages, cultures and collective knowledge and wisdom. (www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ps/edu/finre/qua_e.html)

The legacy of Euro-centric, paternalistic views of the Residential School system continues to effect Aboriginal children today in our schools. There is very little Aboriginal content in school curriculum today. Furthermore, the delivery models used to teach and instruct children are very much based upon European westernized thought and culture. There is a lack of cultural sensitivity and inclusion in our education system. The results of this can be seen in the many studies that have been done on this issue. One such study states that:

  • In 2001 only 8% of the 25-34 age group of Aboriginal peoples had a completed university degree, while 28% of all Canadians did.
  • In 1996, 68% of Aboriginal youth were in school compared to 83% of non-Aboriginal youth.
  • Only 24% of Aboriginal peoples under 25 were able to converse in an Aboriginal language (www.ccsd.ca/pr/2003/aboriginal.htm).

Though educational attainment is lower for Aboriginal children and people than for non-Aboriginal Canadians, there is much work being done to improve the situation. Governmental departments such as the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Development (DIAND) and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) have undertaken reports over the last several years that investigate and raise awareness around the reality of Aboriginal education. Similarly, many Aboriginal groups and individuals have taken on the task of advocating for more inclusive education. In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) presented a paper entitled Indian Control of Indian Education. The following year, INAC adapted a policy of First Nations local control of education. Similarly, many Universities are implementing Indigenous or Native Studies programs. Trent University offers a Doctorate in Native Studies.

  • In 2000, 98% of the schools on reserves were administered by First Nations themselves.
  • There are presently 502 schools on reserve and all but 8 are under First Nations management.
  • Since 1991-1992, the enrolment of First Nation children in elementary and secondary schools increased from 96,594 to more than 119,000 in 2002-2003 (www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ps/edu/elem_e.html).

In order to truly address the education issue for Aboriginal peoples in Canada, there is also a need for improved education of non-Aboriginal children on Canadian history and issues affecting Aboriginal people. Non-Aboriginal people cannot fulfill their treaty responsibilities, work for justice or interact respectfully with Aboriginal people if they do not understand the history of relations between their peoples or the basics of Aboriginal cultures. There are efforts being made to encourage the inclusion of Aboriginal history and cultures in school curriculum by organizations and individuals such as the Indigenous Education Network and the Coalition for the Advancement of Aboriginal Studies. To learn more about the Indigenous Education Network, visit www.turning-point.ca, click “Resources,” click “Education” and scroll down to “Indigenous Education Network. To visit the Coalition for the Advancement of Aboriginal Studies, go to www.edu.yorku.ca/caas/

Teacher or educators can also go to www.kidsfromkanata.org to learn more about an interactive on-line exchange program for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal schools and children.

Self Determination

Throughout history, Aboriginal peoples civil and political rights have been restricted, which was another expression of the racist attitudes and policies that were directed at Aboriginal peoples. This includes the denial of the right to vote, which was only reinstated in 1960 (http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/en/timePortals/milestones/85mile.asp). Aboriginal people were not only denied many rights throughout history, but were also denied the political system required to address the many issues that are a part of their reality.

In response to the many oppressive forces that Aboriginal have faced and continue to deal with, they have long expressed their determination of returning to self-governance in line with their political traditions. Native traditions of governance and diplomacy such as the League of Six Nations were sophisticated systems that embodied highly democratic values. Decision-making by consensus, the liberty of the individual, and leadership by persuasion rather than coercion were the norm in most communities and are still important values. Aboriginal people were self-governing until the Indian Act imposed alien and seriously flawed forms of limited self-government in the form of the band council system.

In 2001, the then Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Robert Nault, proposed Bill C-7. Bill C-7 was to be the First Nations Governance Act, and would amend parts of the Indian Act that dealt with governance issues. Though it seemed as though someone in government was finally addressing the need for self-governance, there was an outcry from Aboriginal communities and peoples all across Canada. Many Aboriginal people thought that the FNGA "reflect(ed) the same mentality that produced the first Indian Act, the same old Indian Agent thinking” (www. kairoscanada.org/e/aboriginal/fnga/fnga-analysis.asp). It was largely seen as just another attempt to assimilate Aboriginal people into mainstream society.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples identified the need to negotiate and reconcile Aboriginal governments within Canada as one key step towards resolving the concerns of Aboriginal peoples and building a new relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples based on mutual respect, recognition and sharing. Aboriginal peoples are now looking towards and fighting for a future that includes the right to have their beliefs and values at the core of a governing body.