‘People are tired of their kids coming home in body bags’
As Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, its indigenous communities continue to suffer
Carrie Lester at a vigil in Toronto protesting over the high rates of suicide among young indigenous people in Canada. Photograph: Stephen Starr
Carrie Lester is surrounded by posters that tell of a people in despair. Outside the Indigenous and Northern Affairs government office in Toronto, she maintains a vigil she and others started in July to demand action for deeply troubled indigenous communities in Canada.
Four children aged from 12 to 16, including two sisters, took their own lives in a single First Nations community in northwestern Ontario in July, and activists say 33 people have died by suicide across the northern region of the province so far this year.
“The young people are in a long state of despair, brought about by colonisation,” says Lester, who is Mohawk through her mother’s family. “There’s a feeling of hopelessness.”
This year Canadians have been marking 150 years since the joining of three British colonies into a confederation that established the Dominion of Canada. More than €333 million is to be spent on a year-long series of celebratory events and projects across the country.
But many indigenous activists see the commemoration more as a celebration of occupation than national unity. On July 1st, a group calling itself “UNsettling Canada 150” held protests alongside official celebrations, including at a picnic in Toronto hosted by Canada’s minister for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, to raise awareness of Canada’s dark past.
“Canada is its own state; we indigenous communities have our own laws and governance, we were never part of that development of Canada, nor do we want to be,” says Crystal Sinclair, who was part of the group that confronted the minister. “We’ve been in survival mode with the government for so long.”
Colonialism and abuse
Activists say a centuries-long history of colonialism and abuse by state institutions have left First Nations and other indigenous communities with inter-generational psychological scars. Though the federal government does not track indigenous suicides, research shows the rate among young First Nations people stands at six times the national average.
“Our communities have faced so much. There is no plan to have us advance, there’s so much disparity,” says Sinclair, of the Cree Nation, and who was six years old when taken from her family and placed in foster homes and in a residential school.
By taking children into residential schooling and denying the practice and learning of their cultural and social heritage, the state attempted to “kill the Indian in the child”, by breaking a generational link and thus make assimilation easier.
Textbooks used in residential schools in the late 1800s taught indigenous children that indigenous men who sat around smoking pipes should instead look for work, and that “the white man is kind, he takes pity on the sick”.
Part of the Canada 150 celebrations included a series of air shows, the Canadian Arctic Aviation Tour, to have been performed for 97 mostly indigenous communities across Arctic Canada. By July, however, it ran out of funding, and the tour has been postponed. With weather conditions more unsuitable as the year moves on, 35 communities promised a display will get none.
Recent years have seen Ottawa attempt to address its past wrongs. In 2008, the Canadian government officially apologised for the damaged caused to indigenous communities by residential schooling. A truth and reconciliation commission report released in 2015 found that that system of education, often run by Christian groups, amounted to a state policy of “cultural genocide”. By the time the last schools closed in 1996, some 150,000 children had been forcibly taken from their families.
Under prime minister Justin Trudeau’s government, measures have been put in place to investigate and address difficulties facing indigenous groups. Since last year, Ottawa has announced an additional €8.1 billion in funding for indigenous areas of “critical need”. Set up in September 2016, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been charged with investigating the high rate of violence against indigenous women that has seen almost 1,200 murdered or disappear in recent decades.
But the inquiry has been beset with setbacks. Four senior officials and a commissioner, Marilyn Poitras, resigned in recent months. Funding shortages are an ongoing concern and the inquiry has been criticised for its haphazard system of reaching out to affected families. Furthermore, it has no authority to access police reports to find out what happened victims such as 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, whose body was found in a river in Thunder Bay last May. She was the fourth teenager from the same First Nation community to have died while in the custody of child welfare services.
“People are tired of their kids coming home in body bags,” says Carrie Lester. This week, a separate inquiry into police racism involving the deaths of several indigenous people in Thunder Bay widened to include 40 cases.
Crystal Sinclair says that indigenous groups’ single biggest problem remains their relationship with the government. “Our concerns never seem to be addressed in a nation-to-nation process,” she says.
“They’ve always wanted our land. They came to this continent with a conquest mentality.”