Even in Canada all that glitters is not gold


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is about to complete two years in office, with its approval rating fairly high. But his effort to reconcile Canada’s dark past with its present policy of respecting diversity and the dignity, rights and cultural heritage of all Canadians is making painfully slow progress.

In seeking Canadians’ support, the prime minister cited his government’s achievements including “advanced reconciliation with Inuit, First Nations and the Metis Nation.” These people inhabited Canada before European settlers arrived and took over. Even the name Canada stems from the Iroquois word “kanata,” meaning a village while “Ottawa” is derived from the Algonquin word “adawe,” meaning “to trade”. Even today Ottawa remains legally Algonquin land taken over by force.

It seems that no government has done more to be fair to Canada’s original peoples than the Trudeau government. It recently offered an $800-million settlement for “Sixties Scoop” survivors – the Indigenous children who were forcibly snatched away from their families and placed into white homes – or in residential schools - to make them forget their families, languages and culture and adopt European ways.

The government also set up an inquiry to look into the causes of the disappearance (kidnapping and/or murder) of more than a thousand Indigenous women in recent years. The previous Conservative regime had refused to initiate such a step.

The government has also accepted the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has the twin goals of publicizing the abuse of the Aboriginal people by the settlers and suggesting measures to promote reconciliation between the Aboriginals and other Canadians. But implementing such steps requires time and money that the Trudeau regime does not have. To its credit, it has made an earnest start but it has a long way to go. Critics say its efforts are half-hearted.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and an academic, spoke for many Aboriginals when she said: “Canada was our land for thousands of years. But the European settlers took our land, forced us on reserves and governed us through the Indian Act. They banned our languages and culture. They removed our children from their homes to assimilate them into white society. They put them in residential schools where they suffered abuse and in some schools half of such children died.”

As University of Saskatchewan Professor Real Carriere told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as quoted in the Ottawa Citizen, the very thought of celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday is an affront to the people who have lived here for ages. “If you’re celebrating the beginning of this country’s 150 years, you’re celebrating colonization.”

Ryerson University Professor Pam Palmater told Canadian Press news agency: “The only way that Canada could exist is from our genocide and the theft of lands and resources and the ongoing discriminatory laws, policies and exclusion from our territories.”

When the European settlers arrived, they were welcomed by the trusting Aboriginal people. Through treaties that the Aboriginal people did not necessarily understand and the settlers did not always respect, or even without treaties, many Aboriginals were uprooted from their lands and pushed into small reserves. They could maintain a semblance of their heritage, but they lacked access to education, infrastructure, health, jobs and social services that are taken for granted by most Canadians, including immigrants.

So while Canadians generally enjoy a high standard of living, the First Nations, including the Inuit (Eskimos) and the mixed-race Métis, are mired in poverty and despair that produce alcoholism, family violence, crime and suicides.

The 2011 National Household Survey showed that 29 percent of Aboriginals and 48 percent of Inuit, aged 25 to 64, lack high school diplomas compared to 12 percent for other Canadians. Aboriginal people are seven times more likely to be murdered than other Canadians. People living on reserves are 10 times more likely to perish in a house fire because of shoddy building standards. Many have no clean drinking water, reasonable schools or realistic prospects for a good education and employment. Male Inuit live 15 years less than other Canadians and female Inuit 10 years.

Not surprisingly, the suicide rate among Aboriginals might be twice that of other Canadians. The 2000 government data said it was 24 per 100,000. Among the Inuit it is even higher. According to a Globe and Mail report, Aboriginal youths are five to six times more likely to die by suicide than other Canadians. Among the Inuit youth it is 11 times the national average. Their suicide rate is among the highest in the world.

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, stated: “Our young people need hope and inspiration. They don’t see that right now. We’ve got to make those key strategic interventions now. It’s a life-and-death situation.”

Some critics are saying that the Trudeau government is tackling the problem half-heartedly. The situation calls for the government, the media and others in Canada to deal with this human tragedy on a top priority or emergency basis. There is no sign of that resolve. Life goes on, to Canada’s shame.

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