On February 14, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer made the shocking statement that protesters and activists need to “check their privilege” and let people whose jobs depend on the railway systems get to work. In this case, it is Scheer who needs to check his own privilege. His comments appear to be racially motivated as the people occupying the rails in Ontario are very obviously Indigenous peoples. Scheer’s comments reflect worn out stereotypes about Indigenous peoples that are not worth repeating, but are not based on facts. These kinds of comments serve only to promote societal division and manufacture hatred towards a specific group — Indigenous peoples.
Scheer’s white male privilege as a top 1 per cent income earner (according to Statistics Canada) stands in stark contrast to the staggering socio-economic conditions of the majority of First Nations peoples in Canada. First Nations have the highest rates of poverty in the country, the lowest health indicators and the highest rates of suicide in the world. Far from “privilege,” their under-privilege is a direct result of the violent colonization of their territories and the continued oppression of their peoples.
In 2019, the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls found, as a matter of fact and law, that Canada is guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide. Both the Organization of American States and the United Nations expressed deep concern about this finding and officials have offered to assist Canada address this. So far there has been no urgent action to address ongoing acts of genocide against Indigenous peoples. The rates of Indigenous overincarceration continue to skyrocket with Indigenous women (less than 2.5 per cent of the population) making up 42 per cent of those in federal prisons. Why? Aside from noting many areas of discrimination within the justice system, the Office of the Correctional Investigator expressed concern that the federal corrections system seems “impervious to change.”
Indigenous children represent half of all children in foster care, which even federal ministers called a “humanitarian crisis” — yet numbers continue to rise. The numbers of abused, exploited, disappeared and murdered Indigenous women also continue to rise, despite a national inquiry drawing attention to the crisis. Indigenous women and girls are the primary targets of human traffickers who are able to exploit them with relative impunity. It should come as no surprise to anyone at this point that some First Nations in Canada have the highest suicide rates in the world, even higher than post-conflict countries. Indigenous peoples make up 40 to 80 per cent of homeless peoples in Canada, depending on the region, and we all know about the lack of access to clean drinking water that has plagued some First Nations for decades.
The United Nations has called on Canada many times to address its grave human rights violations against Indigenous peoples to no avail. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has made similar recommendations to Canada to end the human rights violations. The former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples James Anaya, wrote in his report on Canada that the relationship with Indigenous peoples was getting worse over time and that “It is difficult to reconcile Canada’s well-developed legal framework and general prosperity with the human rights problems faced by Indigenous peoples.” He went on to report that “The most jarring manifestation of those human rights problems is the distressing socioeconomic conditions of Indigenous peoples in a highly developed country.” Canada is wealthy because it stole the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples, carried out violent acts of genocide to reduce Indigenous populations and then constructed a complex set of laws, policies, practices, actions and omissions to oppress Indigenous peoples, and clear the lands for settlement and extraction.
Recent actions of solidarity across the country are about more than pipelines — they are about the continued genocide of Indigenous peoples and the failure of Canada to abide by the rule of law in respecting their land rights and their right to say “no” to development. These solidarity actions with the Wet’suwet’en Nation are about bringing attention to the ways in which Canada criminalizes Indigenous peoples for peacefully living, asserting and defending our sovereignty over our lands. While politicians make flowery speeches about reconciliation and respecting our rights, when it comes to wanting our lands for development or extraction, they will send in heavily armed RCMP officers or the military to take what they want. That is what solidarity actions are about: the failure of federal and provincial governments to abide by the rule of law — all the laws in Canada, not just the ones that suit their political or economic needs.
Scheer’s ill-informed comments serve only to cause confusion and apprehension in the public, instead of offering thoughtful solutions that would bring everyone together. His words are shameful, and thankfully don’t represent those of most Canadians. Canadians continue to be our strongest allies in seeking justice for our peoples as lawyers, teachers, academics, social workers, labourers and unions from all backgrounds continue to stand with Indigenous peoples at solidarity actions all across the country.
That’s what the treaty relationship is all about. We need to work together to find a way to harmonize all laws in Canada — Indigenous, Canadian and international laws — and restore social justice for all peoples. We must urgently end genocide against Indigenous peoples, which includes the ongoing theft of our lands and resources. It also means telling the RCMP to stand down.
Reconciliation doesn’t manifest at the end of a sniper rifle.
Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads Ryerson’s Centre for Indigenous Governance. This article was originally published in Indigenous Nation.