For hundreds of years colonial settlers violently targeted Indigenous peoples through systematic processes of exploitation and forced assimilation. In addition to producing widespread conflict and disease, this resulted in the fragmentation of Indigenous communities. Many have rightly criticized secondary schools across Canada for failing to tell this story without trivializing the brutality. One would think, however, that exposure to different narratives in a university setting would eventually put things into perspective.
Yet, there remains a disturbing lack of awareness of the long-term effects of colonialism on Indigenous communities, which are too often resigned to a place in the past, detached from what continues to occur in the present.
At the university and beyond, the connection between historical injustices and pervasive problems in Indigenous communities is often downplayed or ignored altogether. The result is a disheartening ignorance to even the most pressing Indigenous issues — which are undoubtedly linked to policies and strategies in Canada that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples altogether.
One of the gravest examples of such policy was the residential school system: it forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and subjected them to assimilation at Christian institutions, which often led to maltreatment, physical, and sexual abuse. Residential schools were endorsed and pursued by the Canadian government for over a century; the last residential school in Canada only closed in 1996.
It has been stressed repeatedly that the trauma and violence that children faced within these institutions accelerated the effect of past colonial processes. We have seen the consequences manifest themselves in the form of pervasive poverty, substance abuse, family disintegration, violence, and crime.
The violence that Indigenous peoples continue to face is exemplified by the pattern of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation found that, from 1980 to 2012, nearly 1,200 Indigenous women in Canada went missing or were victims of homicide.
Some suggest that the number of victims is probably much more but that accurate data has been lost or is obscured by the criminal justice system. Possible reasons for this include deliberate decisions made by police to ignore cases of Indigenous women going missing, as well as a long-standing fear and mistrust of police from indigenous women due to historical mistreatment, racism, and abuse.
On top of this, the living conditions on many Indigenous reservations are deplorable. A 2015 CBC News investigation revealed that two-thirds of all First Nations communities in Canada have received at least one drinking water advisory in the past decade. The longest of these advisories is still in effect at the Neskantaga First Nation in Ontario, where residents have been boiling their water for 20 years. Housing is also often run-down and in grave need of repair, often due to overcrowding.
It must also be noted that Indigenous people are grossly overrepresented within the criminal justice system, a phenomenon attributable both to socioeconomic problems within these communities, and to criminal justice practices that have targeted them disproportionately. Indigenous people make up about 3.8 per cent of the Canadian population, but represent over 23 per cent of the total inmate population. Overrepresentation has increased significantly since the turn of the century, particularly for Indigenous women, who experienced a 109 per cent increase in incarceration from 2001 to 2012.
Clearly, we are still witnessing the effects of past regimes, yet the university has not sufficiently accounted for this. Although courses on Indigenous history and development exist — and indeed, the Aboriginal Studies program at U of T is dedicated to this type of scholarship — other courses are often less than satisfactory.
I can name classes where Indigenous oppression — if mentioned at all — is framed solely as a past wrong, presumably confined to darker times in Canadian history. It is absolutely ignorant to relegate these injustices solely to the historical record while these communities are still in crisis.
Unsurprisingly, these overly simplistic narratives are also pervasive within the media and government. Despite their urgency, problems on reservations receive little media exposure and are rarely connected to past and present government action, except from Indigenous groups themselves.
Although the current Liberal government has pledged to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women over the summer, Indigenous activists first had to fight an arduous battle with past Conservative administrations.
Looking back, it is alarming to see how little the Conservatives understood the long-term nature of oppression. The Harper government repeatedly brushed off the victimization of Indigenous women, attributing it to ‘risky lifestyles’ such as substance abuse or sex work and refusing to see it as a systemic problem. On the other hand, the former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs,Bernard Valcourt, blamed the apparent disrespect for women in Indigenous communities on the men on the reserve, advising that the communities take ownership of the issue themselves.
Without awareness of how the past projects and perpetuates systemic injustice into the future, the prospect of resolving these problems is bleak. A push for increasing the visibility of Indigenous issues is imperative both at the university and beyond. One way this can be achieved is through educational collaborations with Indigenous community groups, which prioritizes the voices, narratives, and needs of Indigenous people instead of erasing them from the equation.
Furthermore, as individuals living in Canada, we are responsible for taking conscious steps to self-education. We must commit to doing as much listening and learning as we can, in order to challenge the watered-down conceptions of history that continue to define our surroundings.
Above all, if we are to work towards meaningful change, we must vehemently defy the perception that Indigenous oppression is all in the past.
Teodora Pasca is a second-year student at Innis College studying criminology and ethics, society and law. She is The Varsity’s associate comment editor. Her column appears every three weeks.