Canada gets stern warning on Aboriginals


Canada gets stern warning on Aboriginals

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan



Canada is receiving warnings that it better improve the lives of its Aboriginal people or it might slide into civil unrest that could get ugly.

In a new book, Time Bomb, a Queen’s University academic asserts that the Aboriginal people might launch a “coherent civil action” that could hurt the country’s economy. Doug Bland, a former chair of Defense Management Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, declared that Canada’s First Nations the Aboriginals, as opposed to the country’s Founding Nations France and Britain, are frustrated by the neglect of the Canadian government and could turn to defiance.

Such a confrontation could target vital transportation links - railways and roads - and hit the economy hard, he stated. He emphasized that 48.8 percent of the Aboriginal people are under the age of 24 and that they might not put up with disgraceful living conditions while other Canadians enjoy a good standard of living.

His warning was echoed by the newly elected chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, who said he would seek a meaningful dialogue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. His two main challengers say such a dialogue has not yielded success. Former AFN chief Shawn Atleo resigned in May because other Aboriginal leaders rejected his policy of talks with the federal government.

Bellegarde, who received more than 60 percent of the vote, argued that the Aboriginals “have to engage in dialogue.” But he stated that he expects a serious response by the government otherwise he will shift to a  “legal, political, activist strategy.” Bellegarde asserted that Canada ranks sixth in the world in quality of life according to the United Nations Human Development Index, but Canada’s Aboriginals rank 63rd under the same criteria.

Bellegarde explained to the Ottawa Citizen: “What that means is poverty. There’s 14 people living in one house with two bedrooms. There’s no access to potable water. There’s no access to schools. There’s inadequate health care. There’s First Nations children in care. There’s epidemics with youth suicides. There’s disproportionate First Nations people in jails. The list will go on and on and on.”

The Aboriginals’ plight was highlighted by Ottawa Citizen columnist Terry Glavin. “Asians and federally-registered Indians weren’t allowed to vote in Canada until the 1940s… The conditions that torment Aboriginal Canadians to this day are no less a disgrace than the dead-end impoundments so many African-Americans find themselves within today. Aboriginal Canadians and African-Americans suffer from a nearly identical suite of maladies: high rates of cancer, of heart disease, mental illness, suicide, spousal abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome and tuberculosis.”

He noted that African-American men earn about $31,000 a year compared to white Americans’ $42,000. In Canada, the annual income of an Aboriginal off-reserve is $22,500 (it is $14,000 for those on reserves) while the average for other Canadians is about $48,000. The unemployment rate among working age Aboriginals (13 percent) is twice that of other Canadians… While slightly more than 10 percent of African-Americans are on welfare, about a third of Canadian Aboriginals are on welfare or another form of assistance.” In Nunavut province in the north, where mostly Inuit (Eskimos) live, about half of the population relies on food banks to escape hunger.

African-Americans constitute about 40 percent of the US prison inmates though they are 12 percent of the US population. Canadian Aboriginals are four percent of the population (about 1.5 million) but more than 23 percent of the federal inmates are Aboriginals - ten times more than non-Aboriginal people. About 29 percent of Aboriginals in Canada lack high-school education, compared to 12 percent for other Canadians. Statistics suggest that more than half of Aboriginal children will drop out of high school this year, six times more than other Canadians. Seventy-four percent of schools on reserves - where Aboriginals were confined when European settlers took their lands - lack basic amenities such as drinking water.

Half of the schools do not have a library, a gymnasium, a science laboratory or a kitchen.

Canada has more than 630 Aboriginal bands. Some live in desolate areas, others on resource-rich lands. The grinding poverty on reserves leads to alcoholism, drugs, violence, suicides and despair among Aboriginals that has been condemned by the United Nations. Since 1980, more than 1,181 Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing. Over decades, the federal government forcibly sent 150,000 Aboriginals to church-run schools, to wean them away from their culture, language and beliefs, where they were abused physically and sexually. In 2008, Prime Minister Harper apologized. But funding for educating Aboriginal children is still short. Education is a provincial subject in Canada. Aboriginal issues come under different federal and provincial jurisdictions.

In June, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized a First Nation’s title to a tract of land in British Columbia, meaning that exploitation of land on which title is established will require First Nations’ consent. Even Ottawa is built on Algonquin land. So Canada will have to more actively assist the Aboriginal people attain justice, support and dignity. Half-hearted actions could prove futile and damaging.


— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.