Let’s start with a confession. On the right-hand side of this blog there’s a list of all the categories I’ve written about over the past year, and beside each category is the number of posts I’ve made. Every time I look at it, I’m a little ashamed of the number “2” that sits beside the first item on the alphabetized list: aboriginal peoples. There’s a strong argument to be made that of all political issues, none is more deserving of attention yet receives so little then the plight of Canada’s First Nations.
My learning and understanding of Aboriginal affairs has largely come through my work with the United Church of Canada, mostly at the General Council level. Due to what is hauntingly called “the legacy of residential schools,” for years this national governance body has struggled with questions of apology, reconciliation, and compensation. One of the most common mental-roadblocks that people come up against (including, initially, myself) is this idea that what’s done is done, what’s past is past, and that everyone should just move on. If only it were that simple; learning otherwise is a long, painful, and emotional process. Ultimately, however, if we are to take credit for the accomplishments of our ancestors, we must also take responsibility for their sins.
For context, a government report that applied the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) and Community Well-Being Index (CWB) to Canadians using census data from 1981-2001 found large discrepancies between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. Life expectancy for Aboriginal men and women is lower than the rest of Canada, while the rate of infant mortality is higher. Education is significantly less accessible, and suicide is significantly more frequent. The gap in real average annual income between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals widened between 1981 and 2001. The UN itself has stated that if Canada were “judged solely on the economic and social well-being of its First Nations” peoples, our human development ranking would drop from 7th to 48th out of 174 countries. This is an international made in Canada shame.
In 1996 the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was released after five years of study. The five-volume, four thousand page report began with a simple statement: “there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice.” Now, over 10 years later, the report’s hundreds of recommendations remain ignored.
A quick run-down of the headlines regarding yesterday’s Day of Action (Day of Action stops traffic, Blockades snarl traffic across Ontario, Canada Indians Protest Delays Travelers) demonstrates that we still don’t get it. When faced with so much injustice, our main concern is how we’re going to keep moving our cars around. Here in Ontario, (Progressive?) Conservative leader John Tory keeps spouting nonsense about “illegal occupations” and the need for Aboriginals to respect “the law,” as if the governments of Canada and Ontario had never violated legal agreements with our First Nations. As if we’ve never been accused of being illegal occupiers.
I think one of the main reasons I haven’t written about this as much as I’d like is that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. And yet, there sits the RCAP, full of solutions, just waiting to be dusted off. Just as yesterday’s day of action followed years of inaction by us and our leaders, it will take years of action by our governments and our society to find justice. Yet, like so many crises, the longer we avoid taking action, the more difficult and costly the solutions become.
One final thought. The fact that yesterday’s demonstrations were almost completely peaceful is remarkable, and can’t be taken for granted. We know from international and domestic examples that oppressed, poor nations of people within nations of relative wealth rarely stay peaceful for long.