In a small bar somewhere in Europe, a young woman arrives and sits down; she carries a big backpack, obviously a traveller, and orders something from the menu. The waiter, guided by her accent asks her… “American?” the young traveller corrects him in the monotone tone that denotes she’s done it a hundred times. “Canadian, actually. ” At this point, the waiter doesn’t even try to hide his reaction, and with it, his perception that “Canadian” is an improvement. “Ah! The Good Americans!” he replied.
This interaction is something every Canadian who has travelled abroad has experienced. Rumour has it, even Americans are buying Canada Goose jackets and Canadian flags for their backpacks, due to this very perception. The latest trend among young Canadians is to buy their travelling clothes and equipment from MEC, a 100% Canadian, members-only store where you need an actual address and a membership fee to buy. That way they can, beyond the hint of a doubt, assert that they are not indeed, “the bad Americans”… Until they are, that is.
Outside of Canada, this young-ish democracy is known for being extremely active in the UN Security Council and every UN peace committee ever, from Palestine, to Angola to South America. Even in the most remote parts of the planet, Canada is known and perceived as the big, generous nation which takes so many refugees. Within its borders, however, the narrative is split between baby boomers, who were never educated on the multigenerational effects of colonialism, and a younger generation that, depending on the province they grew up in, might have heard a bit of Canada’s dark history.
It is only a small subset of these left-wing young-er adults who really look inside themselves for the root of the “Indigenous problem,” as conservatives have labelled it.
English-speaking Canada laughs at US patriotism, but I challenge you to cross one street, any street, without being subject to advertisements of a Canadian flag or its characteristic maple leaf multiple times. French-speaking Canada laughs at both American and Canadian Patriotism.
Alongside Apple, Coca Cola and Tesla, Canada is one of the biggest brands in the world. Its flag is known all over the world. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I bet you every Canadian is exposed 10x more to the Canadian flag than they do to any other single brand. Maybe all of them together. Heck! Even McDonalds (a lesser brand) rebranded its logo for Canadians. But why the obsession? Other than the cohesion efforts of a multinational (not multicultural) teenage nation.
People talk about “the Indigenous problem” with the negative colonialist connotation it entails; I’d say we call it “the colonialist problem”. I mentioned baby boomers never were educated on the matter… but what is the matter? Isn’t Canada an exemplary multicultural nation, as every Canadian prime minister repeats over and over? Is Canada racist? Didn’t Canadians save countless black slaves during the “Underground Railroads” days? Isn’t colonialism a thing of the past? No. Or to answer every question, no it isn’t; Yes, it is, at an institutional level but no, it isn’t a thing of the past. Bear with me.
Canada has done great things. It’s not the purpose of this article to enumerate those things, mainly because the big PR Machine that Canada runs has been pounding us with these facts for generations. So let’s talk about the facts that mainstream media will not communicate.
Canada has a problem of systemic racism towards all Indigenous peoples. This is not a matter of opinion, it is 100% based on data. The numbers: According to 2019 government statistics, an Indigenous person is five times more likely to be murdered. Indigenous women are five times more likely to go missing or murdered. Indigenous women are 4% of the Canadian population yet serve 33% of the federal sentences. Urban Indigenous Peoples are 8 times more likely to experience homelessness, young Indigenous males are five times more likely to suicide. The list goes on and on.
When speaking about the opioid crisis, it is especially harmful to Indigenous peoples. In Alberta, where a lot of Indigenous people live today, Indigenous peoples are 3 times more likely to die from opioids. The cause? Indigenous people were twice as likely as other Albertans to be prescribed opioids by their doctors in the last 5 years. I’ll let that sink in. Furthermore, 61% of the deceased had filled an opioid prescription in the last 30 days. These are people who unknowingly developed an opioid addiction directly caused by doctors’ prejudices or biases, at best.
Social exclusion, incarceration, unsolved crimes, prejudices… all veiled in systemic silencing. But the big Canadian PR machine is not going to tell you any of this. Of course, speaking about specific cases would fill — and has filled — countless encyclopaedias.
This article, however, would not be complete without one of the best-hidden episodes in Canadian history, an episode so dark that the normal reader wouldn’t place it anywhere in the western world. And it’s not dark because of the thousands of Indigenous peoples affected by it, effectively creating the single strongest cause of intergenerational trauma. It’s not even that dark because of the length of this assimilation project that lasted decades either. It’s because it happened, pretty much, yesterday.
In 1996, Tom Cruise accepted missions in “Mission Impossible”, Pokemon was still new to the world, Oprah launched a book club and I had my first summer crush, as a young 10-year-old scout during summer camp… Meanwhile, Canada kidnapped five-year-old kids, ripping them out from their parents’ arms, removing from them any form of identity, including clothes, haircuts, and language, keeping them hostages, for years. I wish Tom Cruise had taken this mission. As it was revealed decades after, while in these boarding schools, Indigenous kids suffered physical and mental abuse, medical experiments, and sexual abuse. Within these schools, illnesses went without treatment and would decimate the Indigenous population for decades. The Objective? “Assimilation” or in Sir John A. McDonalds words, — one of Canada’s revered forefathers — to “take the Indian out of the child”.
The place? Gordon Indian Residential School, in Saskatchewan, the last residential school to close, in 1996. This immoral torture and human rights violation had been running all across the country since the 1880s. It comes at no surprise therefore, that Canada’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin called this a “cultural genocide”. (Notice the suffix “cultural” to dilute genocide.)
Genocide. I can’t seem to find a word that better encapsulates the blighted feeling of a nation. There are extensive grounds to use such a term.
The United Nations definition of genocide leaves very little room for mistake. The 1948 “Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” has been ratified by as many as 149 States (including Canada, since 1952) and yet, besides mass killings of an ethnic group, it contemplates these as genocide:
- Measures intended to oblige members of a group to abandon their home.
- Attempts to Render an area ethnically homogeneous. (a.k.a. assimilation)
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Why is this important now?
Because as the reader can imagine, Canada did do every one of those things. In some cases it still does.
Nationalism as usual, is short-sighted, and when you use the word genocide, nationalism’s good heart beats closer to the flag than common sense. But you either sympathise with these practices or you condemn them; sometimes it is really that simple.
I always found it interesting how, no matter where you are in the world, the activists, the whistleblowers, and the freedom fighters are accused of a lack of patriotism. As if patriotism was repeating the same old dogmas about how great one’s country is while sweeping everything else under the rug.
This is all important today because right now, it’s happening again. In the last couple of months, the RCMP (Canada’s national police) started an operation with helicopters, tactical gear on and snipers. This quasi-military operation has the objective of removing Indigenous peoples from their land. Colonialism in its purest form. The issue? Coastal GasLink, an oil and gas private company started building a pipeline that would cross unceded Indigenous territories. The full story is quite complex, but the key to understanding the conflict is, in this country’s short history, colonialism gradually removed Indigenous autonomy, and Indigenous ruling and governance. Hereditary chiefs were replaced with politicians, who in an act of randomness, have to be re-elected every two years and in a whitewashing move, these politicians were called “elected chiefs”. Because, boy, don’t we love democracy. Except when the RCMP authorizes operatives to use lethal force, then we love lethal force. Oh, Canada.
The problem is, some Indigenous people, including the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, are peacefully protesting and blockading the construction of the pipeline. Now, the hereditary chiefs’ land claim is backed by the Supreme Court after Canada’s decision in 1997, which reaffirmed (correcting a previous ruling) the Wet’suwet’en’s right to their own land; on the other hand, the colonialist-created “elected councils” may have jurisdiction over reserve land; I say “may have jurisdiction” because they’re supposed to consult hereditary chiefs, but in any case, their jurisdiction only applies to reserve land, and not the area adjacent to the pipeline that falls under Wet’suwet’en territories, and therefore their honorary chiefs. Let me explain this with no level of uncertainty: Hereditary chiefs are not a group of disgruntled opponents; they represent the Wet’suwet’en system of law and governance. So much so, that they were the plaintiff in the landmark Delgamuukw vs British Columbia case before the Supreme Court, rather than the “elected councils”. The Supreme Court was very clear: the Crown must engage directly with the Indigenous group whose rights are at stake. Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau, the liberal prime minister (with his Indigenous tattoos, he acts beautifully as poster boy for the PR Machine that is Canada), as well as John Horgan, NDP’s (left-wing) premier of BC refuse to meet with the hereditary chiefs, again, in a direct violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling. The crown and the hereditary chiefs cannot be substituted by a private company talking to an elected council, period. This is why, scholars all over Canada have signed and sent an open letter stating the above.
And here we are, with the RCMP ignoring the supreme court’s ruling, occupying Indigenous land and destroying private property that isn’t even in the way of the excavators.
This uncivil and illegal attack is being condemned by the B.C. Human Rights Commission, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
What you can do
If there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it is that these problems are no longer kept in the dark. As citizens, residents, or human rights advocates, our duty is first to inform ourselves, and then to inform others. To share the exploitation and violation of Indigenous rights where and when they happen.
Read about Louis Riel and the Indian Act. Read about Canadian’s Women Association, and the problems they fight, where Indigenous women today, are being sterilized without consent, read about the 1960’s scoop, where, for 30 years, and all the way to the 80s, the government “scooped up” (hence the name) Indigenous kids and put them up for adoption, in security facilities, or in white foster homes across Canada, the US and elsewhere. Read about Pamela George, and how she was kidnapped, raped, brutally beaten up and murdered by two white men because “she deserved it. She was Indian”. A slap on the hand, and 3 years in prison, manslaughter vs homicide, because Pamela was a sex worker. It was 1995. Read about starlight tours, or the Saskatchewan frozen deaths in the 2000s where police officers arrested Indigenous people, drove out of town and removed their clothes, leaving them naked in the snow to “walk back home”; there’s documented evidence since 1976. Read about Richard Cardinal, one of the Indigenous kids kidnapped at the age of 4 and placed in 28 foster and group homes where he was constantly abused until he suicided at the age of 17. Read about Phyllis Jack Webstad, a residential school survivor who inspired Orange T-shirt Day today, a Canada wide initiative. Read about the “Highway of Tears” and all the unsolved Indigenous murders and disappearances that the RCMP could be investigating instead of occupying foreign territory. Watch Riley Yesno’s TED Talk on Canadian’s “niceness”.
We all know the good things that Canada has done and continues doing (i.e. recently defying Saudi Arabia on Human Rights matters), but self-congratulations and little pats on each other backs are not going to help anyone, especially Canadians. We, both Canadians and those who live here now need to start having the tough conversations, the ones that make us cry and accept guilt, the ones that build the pillars of brotherly love and empathy; the conversations that convert the “Indigenous problem” in “the indigenous opportunity” a wise and exploited allied nation, that was here long before us and we shall hope survive us all.
Update: In the last couple of weeks, the news have been oscillating like Newton’s Cradle. First they said that the RCMP might leave the harassment and occupation but then they clarified this will only happen if the protesters keep the roads free, (i.e. if they get away with prioritising and protecting private profits.) and the hereditary chiefs are saying they’ll only talk to the ministers if the RCMP leaves. Stalemate.
Meanwhile ex poster-boy but still president Justin Trudeau is alienating a whole generation by saying the blockade and protests will be removed by force. His constituency’s response? Protests and blockades have multiplied by 10, from Canada’s biggest ports being blocked, to protests in every city’s government’s building. Big examples of these protests are the thousands of people marching in Vancouver and Toronto, the teacher’s protests in Regina, or the aforementioned University scholars all across the country and their open letters.
At the same time, it’ s almost funny being here and seeing the media trying to control the narrative. They want you to believe this is only about a small, tiny portion of the #Unistoten / #wetsuweten people. This is a lie. As the country-wide protests show, this is a whole generation of people, from all backgrounds and walks of life standing up against abuse, colonialist practices, fracking and the comfortable political system. Enough is enough. #WetsuwetenStrong
(This article was originally published [in Spanish] for TheCitizen.es)