Image: PMO Photo by Adam Scotti

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Last week, former prime minister Paul Martin told the media that the failure to address the many overlapping crises faced by Indigenous peoples is not a problem with Canadians — Canadians are not racist. The problem is with Indigenous peoples — we are invisible. Martin further alleges that Canadians are “a generous people” that will “rise to the occasion” to support others in need — if they are aware of the issue. 

Had these statements been made by anyone else, I might have let this insanity slip by as a severe case of willful blindness. However, Mr. Martin is a former Prime Minister and he knows better. Not only do we have a very deep and long-standing race problem in some segments of Canadian society, this racism has also infected every level, branch and institution of the municipal, provincial, territorial and federal governments.

This race problem is not new. It is in fact, one of the primary root causes of the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples today. Canadians are well aware of both the racism issue and the many overlapping crises in First Nations.

Racism in Canada is Real

The racism experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada is not just a matter of insult or offence. While there are no shortage of racist, hateful comments made about us as individuals, communities and Nations — the racism we face is lethal.

It doesn’t just hurt our feelings — it leads to our premature deaths in a large variety of ways. Scalping bounties led to the deaths on thousands of Mi’kmaw people. There was a higher death rate for Indigenous kids in residential schools than for soldiers in the Second World War. Thousands of Indigenous peoples are murdered or are disappeared. We have higher rates of disease and injury. And deaths while in the custody of hospitals, foster parents and police show how prevalent racism against Indigenous peoples is in Canada. 

This isn’t just my opinion. The Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Prosecution in 1989 found that he was wrongfully prosecuted and failed by everyone in the justice system because he was Native. 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples spoke about racism against Indigenous women. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba in 1999 admitted the justice system fails Indigenous peoples on a “massive scale.” The 2007 Ipperwash report confirmed that racism in the Ontario Provincial Police was widespread. And there have been many other reports which all speak to the deep-seated racism within Canada and its institutions.

We’ve known for a very long time that stories in the media about Indigenous peoples draw a high number of racist and hateful comments from all segments of society including teachers, professors, authors, professionals and politicians. In November of 2015, the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News Canada issued a statement explaining why CBC will no longer allow comments on stories about Indigenous peoples. The reason for this is that Indigenous-related stories brought out “higher-than-average” comments which were not only hateful but also racist. 

Maclean’s magazine even went so far as to say that Canada’s race problem is far worse than America’s and part of what makes it so bad is that Canadians keep denying they are racist.

In case you require something a little more official, the Ontario Human Rights Commission confirms that Canada has “a legacy of racism — particularly towards Aboriginal persons.” 

The fact that Canada is so systemically and overtly racist is one of the reasons why Canada has so many laws against racism and hate speech, including federal and provincial human rights acts, the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and is a signatory to numerous international human rights instruments. There would be no need for these protections if there were no issues around racism in Canada.


Invisibility versus Racist Indifference 

Let’s just address this fiction before it becomes the new Liberal mantra. Neither Indigenous peoples, nor the many overlapping crises we face are invisible. While 50 per cent of Indigenous people live in remote reserves, about 50 per cent live in or near urban centres. One can’t walk down the street in Winnipeg or Saskatoon without seeing Indigenous people. In terms of the challenges we face, First Nations like Attawapiskat have put our higher rates of suicide, poverty, homelessness in the forefront and is a prime example of Canada’s racist and differential responses to First Nation crises versus Canadian crises (Walkerton, Halifax, Fort McMurray).

Indigenous activists like Cindy Blackstock have ensured that Canadians are well aware of the over-representation of First Nations kids in foster care. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal concluded that the reason for the chronic underfunding and disproportionate number of kids in foster care was because they were Native. The problem of racism in Canada means that a tribunal actually had to direct Canada to stop its discriminatory treatment of Indigenous kids — and we are all still waiting for Canada to abide by this decision.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada led the way with public education and advocacy to focus the country’s attention on the thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women. Even Canada’s own Attorney General and Office of the Correctional Investigator rang the alarm on Canada’s discriminatory treatment of Indigenous peoples which led to under-funded education systems and prisons over-represented with Indigenous peoples. We are far from invisible, but don’t take their words for it — the numbers speak for themselves.

In 2010, a study by Environics showed that 60 per cent of Canadians are either somewhat or very familiar with Indigenous issues. This is nothing new. In fact, over the last two decades, at least half of Canadians were familiar with Indigenous issues. The majority of Canadians also believe that the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples are the result of the attitudes of non-Indigenous people and government policies. Since 1993, Canadians have ranked addressing the living conditions on reserve as one of the top priorities. There is absolutely no doubt that Canadians and their politicians know about the issues. 

Idle No More, the largest social movement in Canada’s history, brought the issues of social conditions and unresolved treaties and land claims to the front of the media, government and world’s attention and held it there for nearly a year. But Indigenous peoples didn’t just capture the media headlines in 2012. There have been regular flash points over the last few decades that garnered a great deal of media attention including Listuguj, Oka, Gustafsen Lake, Ipperwash, Burnt Church, Elsipogtog, Caledonia and others.

There are few in Canada who could claim that Indigenous peoples are invisible. They may not want to acknowledge the lethal results of this kind of racism, but they are aware it exists. After the Truth and Reconciliation Report, few can deny the racist underpinnings of Canada’s genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples.

So, no, racism is not a figment of our imaginations. The many tombstones from Indigenous peoples killed at the hands of priests, doctors, foster parents, police and bureaucrats prove otherwise. And, no, Indigenous peoples are not invisible. There isn’t a newspaper, news channel or magazine that hasn’t had pictures of dirty water, run down homes, or deceased Indigenous women as their lead story at some point. And finally, no, most Canadians are not unaware of our dire circumstances. It’s the racist segments of society that make a conscious choice to turn a blind eye to our suffering while running to the aid of their non-Indigenous neighbor.

With all due respect, former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s statements are themselves inherently racist. To deny the racist intentions held by the countless individuals and institutions who have stolen, sterilized, experimented on, scalped, beaten, raped, murdered, and dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their identities, cultures, children, lands, resources and independence is itself an act of racism.

It is far too convenient to be willfully blind or indifferent to the lethal impacts of racism on Indigenous peoples. Apologies are easy, as are empty diversity policies and promises for a new relationship. The hard work is in making amends for the damage done and which continues to be done to Indigenous peoples by people and governments that still have racist ideologies and intentions.

Canada was built on the dispossession, oppression and genocide of Indigenous peoples. Addressing racism now means far more than apologies, photo-ops and fancy words — it means the return of our lands and resources, the recognition of our jurisdiction, and the full implementation of our rights. This means land, wealth, and power changes hands — it means an uncomfortable recognition that Canada benefits from our continued oppression. Justice will require some discomfort. If it isn’t uncomfortable, it isn’t justice.

This isn’t a multicultural issue or one of diversity — we are not asking for “equality,” we are demanding justice. If we are going to move forward, we can’t hide behind the convenience of the status quo or the relief felt when a former Prime Ministers say there is no racism. We have to be brave enough to shine a light on the problem and work together to address is. Indigenous peoples have many allies in Canadian society — not everyone is racist. Unfortunately, many still hold racist views which threaten our lives.

I think we can all do better than pretend the problem of racism against Indigenous peoples doesn’t exist.While the new theme may be reconciliation, reconciliation is not a process in an of itself — it starts first with the truth. If Canada cannot admit it has a racism problem, then we can never take steps to address it. Let’s start the process.

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Image: PMO Photo by Adam Scotti