Indigenous Activists See Canada’s 150th as ‘Celebration of Colonization’
“The past 150 years have been some of the most brutal, violent, and lethal genocidal years in all of indigenous history,” says Pamela Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University
AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Canada is marking its 150th anniversary as a confederated country, but not everyone is celebrating. Indigenous activists have erected a teepee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, what they call a reoccupation. It’s one of many actions across Canada this weekend drawing attention to the colonization and abuse of first nations. Pamela Palmater is chair of indigenous governance at Ryerson University. Pamela, welcome.
PAMELA PALMATER: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. Can you talk right now about this action we’re seeing on Parliament Hill, and those we’ll be seeing across the country from indigenous peoples, marking this 150th anniversary?
PAMELA PALMATER: I think you’re going to see a variety of actions across the country. What happened on Parliament Hill was really a peaceful ceremony, the bringing of a teepee so that ceremony could be done for youth and elders. It wasn’t intended to be controversial until the government decided to send in arms RCMP to stop the process, but there’s other things that are going on today, like in Winnipeg, there’s indigenous peoples who have blockaded a highway to bring attention to the youth suicide in our communities, and the chronic underfunding for things like children in foster care. Tomorrow, you’ll see a ramping up of a variety of things, marches, rallies, teach-ins, public education events, but also a large number of protests and ceremonies as well.
AARON MATE: Just taking the broader picture, can you talk about what this anniversary means for indigenous communities in Canada? The country is spending something like half a billion dollars on Canada 150 celebrations.
PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah, so the whole thing is really quite offensive. The fact that it’s called Canada 150 focuses all the attention on confederation and the settler population, when in fact, it should called Turtle Island Time and Memorial, because our nations have literally been here for hundreds of thousands of years, and it essentially wipes out our history. The other thing about it is that they’re spending half a billion dollars on what amounts to a party, but the last 150 years have been some of the most brutal, violent, and lethal genocidal years in all of indigenous history. That’s certainly not something that we want Canadians spending half a billion dollars to celebrate, first off, and second off, it’s pretty hard to stomach a national party that’s at the tune of a half a billion dollars when we have indigenous peoples that don’t have clean water. They don’t have enough food. They don’t have equal access to healthcare, housing.
We have thousands of murdered and missing indigenous women. We have tens of thousands that are over-incarcerated in prisons, and we have more kids in foster care and stolen from our communities today than we did during the residential school phase. Any kind of party or celebration for Canada is premature until it addresses the injustice for indigenous peoples in this country.
AARON MATE: You mentioned the residential school phase. Let’s talk about that, and what that meant, just as we look back on this 150th anniversary, because it’s a huge part of Canadian history that many people outside Canada, and maybe inside Canada, might not know what you’re talking about when you reference it. These thousands of children who were forcibly removed from their communities and put into these so-called residential schools.
PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah, exactly, and the same thing also happened. They were called boarding schools in the United States to first nations down there as well. Basically what happened was you had a higher chance of dying as a child in a residential school than you do as a soldier in World War II in open battle. They conducted illegal medical experiments. They didn’t provide them with proper nutrition, and they put children with TB in with other TB children, and they also tortured these children. Electric chairs were used. Sometimes they were kept in handcuffs. They were beaten, physically assaulted, sexually assaulted on a regular basis, and literally thousands of children died in those schools. It didn’t end up being about education at all, and part of the problem is, with Canada 150, is that people think that this is all in the past, and that because it’s in the past, an apology should suffice, and we should just get over, but our response always is, we could get over it if it would stop happening.
The fact that the Canadian state still take children from our communities and puts them in foster care at rates higher than residential schools means that they haven’t stopped doing these things. The fact that we have thousands of murdered and missing indigenous women, some of which the police are involved in racism and sexualized violence against our own indigenous women and girls, means that the state is still actively involved in committing these human rights crimes against our people. That’s the part that we really need Canadians to know, and I think that’s what a lot of these protests are about.
AARON MATE: On the issue of children, if I recall correctly, there was a Canadian human rights tribunal ruling not too long ago that said the federal government was failing to provide adequate healthcare to indigenous children?
PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah, so we have a decision from the Canadian human rights tribunal. It was launched by Dr. Cindi [Blackstock 00:06:02] who heads the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society, and she was saying that it is discriminatory for the federal government to provide far less funding to first nation kids in foster care than they provide for Canadian children in foster care. Sometimes the amount ranges by 50 to 75% less, and because of that purposeful, chronic underfunding, that’s what leads to more and more and more kids in foster care, all of these conditions of poverty. The Canadian human rights tribunal agreed and said, “The only reason why this is happening is because the federal government is discriminating against first nations kids simply because they’re indigenous,” and ordered them to provide equalized funding, and equalized access to healthcare. They didn’t comply with the order, and so the Canadian human rights tribunal keeps issuing additional orders, and additional orders directing to do that.
The federal government refuses to abide by its own human rights legislation.
AARON MATE: When you say the federal government, it’s important to point out that we’re talking about the liberal government right now, of Prime Minister Trudeau, and if I recall right, he came to power avowing to change things in terms of how indigenous communities in Canada are treated. Has he delivered?
PAMELA PALMATER: No, and he hasn’t, so we had this really dark period under the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was ultra right wing conservative, anti first nation, called us threats to national security, cut our funding even further, ignored the murdered and missing indigenous women crisis. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau under the liberal government came in, he said he would do everything different. He would equalized the funding, remove funding caps so that they would be fair, and not appeal court cases, and stop acting in such an aggressive way. In fact, he included in the mandate letters for each of his cabinet ministers the direction that they are to act under the presumption that there is no relationship more important to Canada than that with indigenous peoples, and that they must respect all of our legal rights. To date, that has been all words and no action, as you can see by the Canadian human rights tribunal. They’re in noncompliance. Also recently, indigenous women and children won a court case that said Canada needs to get rid of gender inequality in the Indian Act, because Canada determines who is an Indian under an archaic piece of legislation called the Indian Act.
They fought against gender equality for indigenous women for the last year, and now they’re in a situation where registration may even be stopped. That’s how much they’re against indigenous rights, so on every single promise that Justin Trudeau has made, he has broken. What we’re saying on this Canada Day celebration of 150 years of genocide is that we have to move from superficial, nice words to substantive action. It’s all well and good for ministers to say, to acknowledge that we’re on the traditional lands of indigenous peoples, but that doesn’t mean anything if they don’t actually transfer the land back to indigenous peoples. That’s what we’re talking about when we want substantive change, not just flowery words.
AARON MATE: On the issue of indigenous women, Trudeau promised to support an inquiry into this epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, but it’s run into some problems so far. Can you talk about that?
PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah, so here’s the other thing. He promised a national inquiry. That should’ve been the easiest thing to do. They got the ministers together and said, “Look, we’re gonna develop this inquiry jointly. We’ll do the terms of reference jointly. We can pick the commissioners jointly,” and they didn’t do that. They did engage the first nations and indigenous women across the country, and said, “What do you need this inquiry to do?” We said amongst other things, it needs to investigate and reopen all of those police files that were done improperly. Why didn’t they investigate the murders of indigenous women? Why didn’t they go looking for missing indigenous women? Also equally important was we want the police to be investigated themselves. We want to determine the exact scope of the level of corruption in police, the level of sexualized violence against our people, and to what extent they’re involved in murdered and missing indigenous women. Those are the only two things that are left out of this national inquiry. The police are completely insulated, which begs the question, so then what are you going to look at in this inquiry?
That’s a problem. The other problem is, the federal government gave very limited and very limited funding in comparison to every other inquiry or commission that’s been held in the past. A year has gone by, and the inquiry hasn’t started, and they have to come up with an interim report in a couple of months. There’s been lots of staff terminations, and staff leaving the inquiry. It doesn’t communicate with people. Families are left feeling re-traumatized, and it’s simply not going anywhere, primarily because the federal government set this inquiry up to have these challenges. We’re not certain whether this inquiry’s going to go forward, or whether we’re going to really need a reset, a brand-new set of commissioners, a new set of terms of reference, and start this process all over again.
AARON MATE: Pamela, you mentioned families being re-traumatized. Can you talk about intergenerational trauma in native communities? It’s a concept that not many people know about.
PAMELA PALMATER: No, and I think former chair of the truth and reconciliation commission, Justice Murray Sinclair, and the corresponding report that he and his fellow commissioners released about truth and reconciliation specific to residential schools did a really good job of highlighting this concept of intergenerational trauma. Canadians often dissociate what’s happening today, and all of the social ills, with what happened in the past. He was able to educate Canadians on the fact that if you have multiple generations of your family, so your great grandma, your grandma, your mom, your dad, being subjected to the kinds of abuses in residential schools, physical, sexual, emotional, physical abuses, this tends to impact the next generation, and the next generation, and the next generation. What these schools did was separate their kids from their family, teach them horrible abuses and a terrible way of life so that when they had kids of their own, they didn’t know how to raise them in a proper way.
Those kids who may not have gone to residential school still suffer from the trauma experienced by their parents. If this happened for multiple, multiple generations, then you have a scenario where you can’t even look to your aunties and uncles for guidance, because they too have all suffered from residential schools. That’s how it impacts, this trauma impacts multiple generations, and not just from residential schools. There was a whole policy of forced sterilizations of indigenous women, scalping bounties, forced starvation, early Indian agents and police officers used to use rations on reserve to sexually exploit and solicit sex from young girls. You have a whole range of genocidal acts committed on indigenous peoples over multiple generations that have many, many people traumatized. That gets passed down onto children unless we find a way to heal from this, and stop it from happening as it is right now.
AARON MATE: It’s a history that we just don’t often hear about. I grew up in Canada, and don’t recall learning in school about any of this. I was shocked to read recently that in residential schools, that if a native child spoke their indigenous language, they’d be punished with having pins stuck into their tongue.
PAMELA PALMATER: Yeah. Exactly, so imagine being taught in residential school from multiple generations that you’re evil, you’re heathen, you’re a pagan, everything about you and your identity is wrong, including your language and culture, and that the only way to keep it and maintain was to do it subversively, which is what many of those children did. At the same time, however, in Canadian public schools, they were also being taught that native people were evil, and heathen, and pagan, dangerous, that their culture was backwards, and sacrilegious. You have a scenario where both populations are colonized, so that today, no wonder we have such widespread racism in police forces, and governments, and in certain segments of society, because they have been taught for multiple generations how awful we are as people.
AARON MATE: Pamela, finally, as we wrap, as Canada marks this Canada 150, your thoughts on what you want to see happen going forward.
PAMELA PALMATER: I think they should’ve delayed the party until there actually was a reconciliation between Canada and indigenous peoples. That means implementing treaties, and respecting and returning land, and dealing with all of these social issues, but that’s not to say that they can’t do that now. If the Prime Minister would listen, and take note from all of these protests, and ceremonies, and actions that are happening on Canada 150, he could move from superficial to substantive action. Some of these things can be changed tomorrow. They could start complying with the law and address the social crisis. They could start doing land transfers. These are things that can happen and make a real significant difference today.
AARON MATE: Pamela, Palmater, Chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University. Pamela, thank you so much.
PAMELA PALMATER: Thanks for having me.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.