Canada's Apartheid System

Writer: Rummana Choudhury Category: প্রবন্ধ (Essay) Edition: Dhaboman - Winter 2017

The house is freezing. Ice cold. The temperature is minus 27 degree below zero, but there is no heat. Brown water. The paper mills have spilled so much mercury into the drinking water supply that accessing clean drinking water is now considered a luxury. A woman dies during childbirth because the nearest hospital is located 4 hours away, not enough time for her to get the blood transfusion she needs during a complicated birthing process. Did I mention her child was born without 2 of her 10 fingers? That’s due to all the mercury water her mother drank during pregnancy; mercury water causes malformations in unborn babies. But that brown water is all they have. Today Selena came home learning about the British and how wonderful and graciously they behaved during colonization. They are glorified in her textbook because the textbook she is learning from is 85 years old. But there is no funding to buy updated textbooks, ones that paint British colonizers as the monsters they were.  The school doesn’t even have a working computer. But Selena doesn’t care about her textbook or computers because she is too hungry and stressed to care. Hungry because the price of spinach in her hometown is now $27 a bundle, as opposed to the $5 it costs to buy it in any other major city. So her parents have been buying a lot less food these past few months. And so Selena is worried that being hungry could mean that the Children’s Aid Society will take her away from her parents and put her in a foster home with people who will treat her worse than garbage but at least will give her 3 meals a day.  Over 50% of children who are in government custody with Children’s Aid are Aboriginal. Why should Selena not be afraid?

So where are we? We are here in Canada. On an Aboriginal reserve. Where hundreds of thousands of people live. An apparent first world country with living conditions worse than the third world if you happen to be indigenous. On what planet did it become acceptable for a country so wealthy, so developed, so evolved to treat its own inhabitants this way? Perhaps this is a harder pill to swallow because we are Canadian. Because our reputation for being a tolerant, welcoming, diverse and highly developed society is globally notorious. According to the U.S. News & World Report, in conjunction with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Canada is listed as one of the top 5 countries in the world to live in. Unless you are poor, racialized, and indigenous. Because then, a different reality comes to fruition. 

Let’s look at a few facts. Let’s start with who exactly are the Aboriginal people of Canada? According to Statistics Canada, there are 1,172,790 First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in Canada, collectively called Aboriginal, making up about 3.8 percent of Canada’s total population. Between 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population grew by 45 percent, compared with 8 percent for the non-Aboriginal population. There are over 50 Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada, of these, only Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibway have a large enough population of fluent speakers to be considered viable to survive in the long term. (There are 78,855 fluent speakers of Cree.) Ontario has the largest concentration of Aboriginal people at 242,495. Six Nations is the largest Aboriginal reserve in Canada, with over 21,000 members. The Iroquois Confederacy, or Six Nations, was originally made up of only five tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. The Tuscarora joined later, becoming the sixth nation. These are just our Aboriginal people. This does not cover the spectrum of indigenous people who live in Canada, who come from many more tribes and lineages.

So now let’s look at a few more facts. These come straight from the Assembly of First Nations. One in four children in First Nation communities live in poverty. That’s almost double the national average. Suicide rates among First Nation youth are five to seven times higher than other young non-Aboriginal Canadians. The life expectancy of First Nation citizens is five to seven years less than other non-Aboriginal Canadians and infant mortality rates are 1.5 times higher. Tuberculosis rates among First Nation citizens living on a reserve are 31 times the national average. In a country with one of the best public health care systems in the world. How? Let’s talk about education – one of the clearest markers for how a country treats its citizens. A First Nation youth is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate high school. There are 40 First Nation communities without schools, and there are First Nation communities where children haven’t been to school in more than two years. The K-12 completion rate for First Nation students living on reserves is 49%. First Nation students attending on-reserve schools are funded at a rate of $3,000 – $7,000 less than students attending other schools in Canada. In 2006, 61% of First Nation young adults (20-24) had not completed high school, compared with 13% of non-Aboriginal Canadians. At the current rate, it will take two decades to close the education gap between First Nations and other Canadians. Why is this being allowed in a nation that ranks in the top 5 for best public education system in the world? First Nation children, on average, receive 22% less funding for child welfare services than other Canadian children. Can you see what Selena was afraid of? 

Let’s talk about poverty, sex work and crime. Aboriginal women are 11 times more likely to be prostitutes in order to make a living compared to non-Aboriginal women. Did you know that there are close to 700 unresolved cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada? These are women who have been potentially kidnapped, raped and murdered – and our police won’t bother to investigate what happened to them. Because our state resources have never been for them. Can we imagine a world in which a White woman goes missing and the police do not bother to investigate her whereabouts? Can we imagine living in a nation where a White woman is raped and killed, and her murderers are not even convicted of murder? We can’t. But this is the world that Aboriginal women are forced to reside in. Take the case of Pamela George of the Sakimay First Nation. She was picked up by two White University males, brutally raped by both men, beaten, and then left in the snow to die. On the morning of April 18th 1995, her body was found in a ditch west of Regina. The 28-year old mother of two was clearly the victim of a brutal homicide. Yet her murders, Steven Tyler Kummerfiled (20 years old) and Alexander Ternowetsky (19 years old) were not charged with murder, as they pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter. For those who are unfamiliar with the difference between murder and manslaughter, manslaughter means there was no intent to kill. In other words, the death that resulted from a crime would be considered involuntary. If Pamela George was white, had she not been poor, had she not been indigenous, her murder would have been seen as just that – a murder. But because even our judicial system sees indigenous people as less than equal, her life was considered less important than the lives of her murderers, who got free after serving less than a 7 year sentence. This would be inconceivable had Pamela not been indigenous. Unfortunately, Pamela George’s story is not a one-off. There are over 600 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women whose murderers we cannot even find because we refuse to bother looking for them. Because the lives of indigenous people are considered less worthy. Because we live in an apartheid nation where one set of laws exists for Canadian people, and another set for indigenous people. An apartheid state. We can and must do better.

Yet the list goes on. In 2006, the unemployment rate for First Nation people living on-reserve was 25% - approximately three times the rate for non-Aboriginal Canadians. In 2006, the average household income for First Nations living on-reserve was $15,958, compared to $36,000 (before taxes) for non-Aboriginal Canadians. First Nation citizens face much higher rates of chronic and communicable diseases and are exposed to greater health risks because of poor housing, higher unemployment, contaminated water and limited access to healthy foods. 12% of First Nation communities have to boil their drinking water, impacting about 75,000 citizens. In a country with the cleanest drinking water in the world? First Nations are experiencing a housing crisis with approximately 85,000 housing units needed across Canada. In many cases multiple families of 10 or 12 people live in one and two bedroom homes. Mould contaminates almost half of all First Nation households. Of the 88,485 houses on reserves, 5,486 are without sewage services. As if we are in the 1800’s England. 

While I wrote this article to draw attention to the plight of indigenous people here in Canada, I don’t want to end with such a grim view. It is crucial to point out that indigenous people have been fighting for their rights since the beginning of time. And they remain steadfast, strong and resilient in their efforts. They have sustained a strong belief system in their way of the world, and have fought to preserve their morality and principles. This has benefitted all of us, because indigenous people believe that everyone has a right to food and shelter, that the environment is in need of human protection and that humans are as much a part of the environment as the soil itself, and that we must put human need over greed and profit. They have lived on these principles for hundreds and thousands of years before the first colonizers came to Canada, and despite the slaughtering of their lifestyle by colonizers and capitalists alike, they continue to remain steadfast in their beliefs for a better and more humane world. I dedicate this article to indigenous peoples across Turtle Island who, as author and activist Desmond Cole points out, continue to face government surveillance and violence for protecting this land. I'm talking specifically about groups including the water protectors at Standing Rock who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline Project, Treaty 8 First Nations, who are protecting the land near the proposed Site C dam, the Tiny House Warriors Resistance Camp, which is standing against the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the Idle No More movement, a vibrant movement of indigenous youth teaching other young people about their ancestry and politics, the land protectors who reoccupied Parliament Hill during the Canada 150 celebrations, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, who are fighting to prevent the mining company Copper One from exploiting their traditional territory, the Unist'ot'en camp in Wet’suwet’en territory who are preventing pipeline surveyors from trespassing on the land without consent, the Haudenosanee Confederacy, which is fighting for its right to hunt on traditional Six Nations Territory and the Inuit people who are worried about mercury contamination from the Muskrat Falls dam, amongst others. Many of these groups have been criminalized in Canada for freedoms that are supposed to be protected in law: the right to peaceful assembly, to free expression, to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Indigenous people who are fighting to protect this land are often not free to express themselves in Canada, not without surveillance, intimidation, and arrest. To all those protecting the land and fighting for our collective future, I thank you and encourage others, including myself, to join you in the struggle for a better world. By wronging you, we have wronged ourselves and each other. We can, and must do better.