Canada’s Aboriginal people see glimpses of hope, justice - finally

Canada’s Aboriginal people see glimpses of hope, justice - finally

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

The latest poll suggests that more than 71 percent of Canadians see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the best leader for their country. In power barely a month, Trudeau has displayed leadership, resolve, flexibility, humility, cheerfulness and the determination to bring Canadians together.

He made numerous promises, such as reversing the worst policy decisions of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Harper. He also took other steps, such as bringing diverse, talented people to the cabinet and giving them directions about what they are expected to do and then giving them wide latitude.

So sweeping are these promises that critics are predicting that the new government will stumble in some areas. The government, in fact, had to break its pledge to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year. When the time proved too short for security and health checks, and for tending to them once they arrived, the government announced that 10,000 will come this year and 15,000 will follow by February.

While Trudeau listed several areas as priorities for his government, including electoral reforms, perhaps the most significant is his pledge to Canada’s Aboriginal people that they will finally get justice and hope.

When he went to the Paris climate change talks he took along the provincial premiers, opposition party leaders and a key Aboriginal stalwart - Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde. He is also meeting leaders of all national Aboriginal organizations: the AFN, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Metis National Council and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

The Liberals had promised in their election platform to set up an inquiry into the disappearance (and likely murder) of about 1,200 Aboriginal women in the last few years.  Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had refused to arrange it, despite pleadings from Aboriginal leaders, provincial premiers and others.

Harper had also snubbed the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report when it was released in June. The Commission looked into the past,  in particular the residential and boarding schools for Aboriginal children that the Canadian government had set up in the 1870s with the support of Catholic, United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches to assimilate Aboriginal children. In many cases children were forcibly taken from their parents and forbidden to speak their languages or practice their culture. More than 150,000 children were forced into 130 schools to strip them of their faith and identity and impose Christianity on them by force.

The children suffered horribly but the government remained unmoved. It was only in 1996 that the last residential school was closed. In 1904 the government had asked Peter Henderson Bryce, chief medical officer for the Department of Indian Affairs and the Department of Immigration, to produce a medical report on the residential school system. Bryce was shocked by overcrowded dormitories, poor ventilation, heating, nutrition and health care. Many children were also sexually assaulted and physically abused.

Bryce’s findings were devastating and held the government and the churches responsible. He wrote that nearly 25 percent of the children surveyed were dead, with tuberculosis listed as the cause. Bryce’s report was spurned by his superiors and it was only after his retirement in 1921 that the public got a full account of the horror.

Subsequent Canadian governments made half-hearted efforts to improve the situation of the Aboriginal people who remained mired in Third World conditions with poverty, hunger, ill health, alcoholism, crime, unemployment, poor housing, drugs and suicides.

But few Canadians cared, even when the United Nations censured Canada for neglecting its Aboriginal people. In the recent federal election, nobody talked much about Canada’s shame.

As Scott Gilmore wrote in Maclean’s magazine, in the first 60 days of the election campaign, 1,425 Aboriginal children dropped out of school, 45 infants died before their first birthday, 1,074 children were sexually assaulted, 6,265 women were sexually assaulted, 33,534 were violently victimized, 182 committed suicide and 11 were murdered.

He stated: “… we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community…. I do not know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.”

To Trudeau’s credit, he has made the Aboriginal issue a top priority. He stated in the House of Commons that for the Aboriginal people “life in Canada has not been - and is not today - easy, equitable or fair.”

He has not only promised to hold an inquiry into the missing women, and to implement the recommendations of the Reconciliation and Truth Commission, but to consult widely with the Aboriginal people and come up jointly with solutions that erase Canada’s shame and make Aboriginals valued citizens of the country that was theirs till European whites took it away from them and herded them into inhospitable, barren and remote reserves to rot in misery till they die.

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