It’s easy to think about America when it comes to the challenges of indigenous people’s rights, but much like its outspoken neighbor, quiet Canada has had its fair share of struggles when it has come to giving indigenous people- or the First Nations peoples- equal rights and protections under federal law.
Of Canada’s 37.59 million residents, around 1,400,685 million people have some sort of aboriginal identity, according to the 2011 census. While that may seem small, it totals to around 4.3% of Canada’s entire population. However, of that 1,400,685 million, only 851,560 people identify as a part of the First Nations people- Canada’s all-encompassing term for indigenous groups and peoples- representing roughly 60% of the aboriginal identity and around 2.6% of Canada’s total population.
Despite a good portion of the population identifying as some variation of First Nations, Canada has a controversial history when it comes to equality for First Nations peoples. From selling indigenous land to companies without consulting the people of that land, to what is known as Canada’s ‘cultural genocide,’ the brutal state-funded, church-run Indian Residential School systems that systematically stripped indigenous children of their culture, language, and identities. The schools were home to high levels of abuse, rape, and negligence that ended in an estimated 6,000 aboriginal children dying. The schooling system ran from 1876 to 1996, and while modern authorities apologize, it still remains a nasty, oozing sore in Canada’s history.
Currently, one of the largest barriers facing the indigenous people of Canada is the painstakingly slow implementation of protective laws. The laws exist but are yet to be upheld on a wide scale. This includes laws protecting First Nations peoples from corporations, protection of land, strong federal aid, safer child welfare and foster care, and protections against violence against indigenous peoples.
However, while this is still a clear work in progress, in the last few decades, Canada has been working to improve its rather lackluster system and policies regarding the indigenous people of Canada. In 2010, Canada endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007), which was surprising, because although the Declaration passed with 144 countries voting in favor of it, Canada was one of the four nations that voted against it, alongside Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. However, while the document outlines that governments employ the basic needs, or, as quoted from the document itself: “[What] constitute[s] the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous Peoples of the world.”
The document also grants indigenous peoples the rights to govern themselves, own property, access to nondiscriminatory education, healthcare, and employment, and even rights as simple as collective and individual rights. While Canada has been slow to implement regulations, particularly protections of the land of First Nations peoples against predatory corporations, the Canadian government has been making efforts to improve their rocky relationship with their indigenous residents.
In addition, in 2016 the Canadian government began a national investigation into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls, a group disproportionately targeted in Canada. Indigenous women and girls are twelve times more likely to be targeted for rape, violence, and kidnapping than any other group in Canada. While Justin Trudeau promised a further action plan that was set for release in June 2020 to prevent the disproportionate murder, rape, abuse, and abductions of First Nations women and girls, the Canadian government has halted the project “citing COVID-19.”
In more recent history, COVID-19 struck indigenous communities hard in 2020, although many are back to maintaining a slow decrease in the percentages of cases. One of the main difficulties resulting in a disproportionate amount of infections- not just from COVID-19 but other illnesses such as HIV, Influenza, TB, and HepC- has always been the remoteness of First Nation geographic locations, access to proper housing, clean drinking water, and healthcare. Despite Canada’s long legacy of ignoring or not prioritizing the health of indigenous peoples, they repeated their mistakes in 2020 when they failed to provide any COVID-19 funding or aid at all until indigenous leaders expressed their deep concerns for the endangerment of their people and the growing risks of COVID-19. And when aid finally arrived, the amount allocated to First Nations peoples was a mere 1% of the COVID-19 response budget. Indigenous communities worked hard to allocate the aid evenly and created travel restrictions within their territory, modified many of their traditions, and worked hard to slow the spread of the virus. While ultimately indigenous communities have handled the virus better than the general Canadian public, the lack of initial aid from the government is a sharp reminder that Canada still has a long way to go.
Have things gotten better? Yes. But there is still clearly a long way to go. While it might be easy to see Canada as a gold standard for addressing indigenous rights, that does not erase a history of neglect, and it does not mean the Canadian government’s job is finished. While they seem to be on the right track, to turn eyes away from such a historically challenging and currently pressing issue would be premature.