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Racism doesn’t just hurt our feelings – racism kills. The two senseless deaths of First Nations children in a house fire in Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in Saskatchewan from an unpaid bill of less than $4,000 has sparked outrage across Canada. In no other place in Canada would an ambulance, fire fighter or police officer ask a provincial resident if they had paid their taxes before answering an emergency call for help. Canada has a deep-seated racism problem which is killing our people. But to truly understand Indigenous outrage and sadness, one must understand both the context and true depth of this problem in Canada.
Indifference is nothing new
In the mid-1700s, colonial governments in what is now Nova Scotia considered the Mi’kmaw Nation to be “rebels” because we refused to give up our land. As a result, Governor Cornwallis issued a scalping proclamation that decimated the Mi’kmaw Nation by as much as 80 per cent. In 1971, Donald Marshall Jr., was sentenced to life in prison for murder and spent 11 years in jail before his wrongful prosecution was exposed. A subsequent Royal Commission found the reason for his imprisonment was racism against Mi’kmaw people by all levels of the justice system.
In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that the Mi’kmaw right to fish and trade it commercially was protected in our constitutionally-protected treaties. The result? Canada sent in law enforcement to beat, pepper spray and run over our fishing boats — in addition to legal charges. In 2013, Elsipogtog First Nation and other members of the Mi’kmaw Nation who supported their anti-fracking stance in Mi’kmaw territory were labeled “terrorists”, “militants” and “bad Indians”. The scalping law was not used but our people were beaten and imprisoned.
From small pox blankets and scalping bounties to imprisonment and neglect — Canada is killing our people and Canadians will be next if nothing is done to change the value (or lack thereof) that we collectively put on human life – all human life. This dictatorial, police state is not what newcomers to Canada had in mind when they came to Canada. A territory shared with Indigenous Nations based on formal agreements (treaties) and information agreement (alliances) were founded on three principles: one, mutual respect; two, mutual prosperity; and three, mutual protection. Indigenous peoples, their families, communities and Nations protected and cared for newcomers. Our people fought in Canada’s world wars to protect our shared territory and people. Now it’s time for Canadians to stand up for Indigenous peoples.
In 1971, Helen Betty Osborne was kidnapped and murdered in The Pas, Manitoba. Her grieving friends and family were treated like criminals while the accused men were given the royal treatment by law enforcement and left to walk free for years. This wasn’t the first time our Indigenous women and little girls have been victims of a racist Canada, but no action was taken. Today, Canadians are well aware of the thousands of Indigenous women and little girls have gone murdered and/or missing in Canada. Yet, there is no sense of alarm in Parliament, nor has the Canadian state taken any steps to work with First Nations to embark on an inquiry or implement an emergency action plan.
By 1996, the last residential school had closed which was supposed to mark an end to the theft of Indigenous children from our Indigenous families, communities and Nations. Literally thousands of Indigenous children were victims of murders, rapes, tortures and medical experiments — and in the early 1900s, upwards of 40 per cent never made it out of those schools alive. The legacy of thousands of our children who died as a matter of state law and policy should at least have included a promise to stop stealing our children. Today, we have more than 30,000 Indigenous children in care and growing. The problems have not stopped — they are getting worse.
The use of small pox blankets on our people to try to kill us off faster has been described by medical doctors as the first example of “biological warfare” during non-war times. Indigenous women and little girls were forcibly sterilized without their knowledge and consent for decades in an effort to stop us from reproducing. The Canadian state does not need to use such blatant policies to reduce our populations anymore — willful neglect has the same lethal effect. Federal, provincial and municipal governments are standing by while our people die. This is not an “Indian problem” — this is a Canadian problem that impacts every single Canadian and our collective future.
In 2005, Jordan River Anderson, a little boy from Norway House Cree Nation with many medical issues, died in hospital at five-years old never having seen his home because the federal and provincial governments couldn’t stop arguing over who would pay. In 2008, Brian Sinclair, a double amputee, whose family had roots in Berens River and Fort Alexander First Nations, died after waiting 34 hours in a hospital waiting room waiting for treatment for a bladder infection — while nearly 200 people passed him by — including staff who wrongly assumed he was “sleeping it off”.
Canada’s failure to act
The former Auditor General for Canada raised the alarms about discriminatory funding and the failure by Indian Affairs to take action on programs that would significantly impact the lives of First Nations. The Office of the Correctional Investigator has called the increasing over-representation of Indigenous peoples a crisis that needs to be addressed. The United Nations Special Rapporteur has made numerous recommendations on how Canada can address this multi-faceted crisis in First Nations. But Canada fails to take action.
Despite Canada’s failure to act, First Nations continue to try to raise the alarm bells on this lethal situation. A failure to address the chronic underfunding has led to First Nations being 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than Canadians. Indian Affairs’ own report done in 2011 indicated that a minimum of $28 million dollars was needed to prevent deadly fires in Manitoba alone — yet all 633 First Nations in Canada only get $26 million.
Canada sits back and watches our people die needless deaths while we struggle to heal our families and communities, to rebuild after the theft of our lands and resources and to resist ongoing attempts to assimilate and eliminate us. The herculean effort at the grassroots level to protect our people is made more difficult by state propaganda that would blame us for our own misery, or deflect media attention by vilifying our leaders. Now Bill C-51 will make those of us who speak out against such inhumanity all “terrorists.” Then who will defend this territory?
The Chief Coroner for Ontario released an especially rare and powerful report in 2011 on the child suicide epidemic in Pikangikum First Nation which had declared a state of emergency — a desperate call for help that went unanswered by Canada. Within a two-year period between 2006 and 2008, 16 children between the ages of 10-19 committed suicide. 16 children died — not from accidental car crashes or unpreventable diseases but because the “basic necessities of life are absent” in Pikangikum who struggles to heal and survive amidst the “backdrop of colonialism, racism and social exclusion” and government neglect.
Sixteen little First Nation children committed suicide because the Canadian state creates and maintains the conditions of life that will either kill them or make them so hopeless they will kill themselves. That’s the UN definition of genocide.
In the words of the coroner, this “was not a story of capitulation to death, but rather, a story of stamina, endurance, tolerance, and resiliency stretched beyond human limits until finally, they simply could take no more.”
In what vision of Canada are the ongoing deaths of our people okay? We need Canadians to stand beside First Nations and support us as we defend the health of our lands and waters as well as the rights and freedoms of Canadians. This should not be our burden to bear alone anymore. Help us turn this ship around before we lose any more precious children.