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Canadian Natives Fight Grave Odds

A baseball-bat wielding Mohawk Indian guards a barricade blocking access into the Kanesatake Indian reservation in Oka, Quebec. (Photo: Ian Barrett / AFP-Getty Images)

It may read like a corny western movie spewed out by Hollywood. Unfortunately, the continuing abuse of aboriginal people in Canada is fact, not fiction.

One in every 24 Canadians is of aboriginal origin. They are North American Indians, Metis, Inuit, and those of more than one aboriginal origin. Of these 1.3 million Canadians, about 280,000 live on reserves which are spread across the country and into the north.

The abuse that these Canadian citizens have been subject to has been going on for hundreds of years. Most recently an example of theft of native land in Caledonia has been a headline grabber in all the media.

Caledonia is a small town a few hours drive south of Toronto, Canada's largest city. There, a construction company called Douglas Creek Estates has over the past few months been building a subdivision of new homes beside the Grand River. The project was well under way. Ten homes were already partially built.

In February, the nearby native Six Nations of the Grand River Territory reserve began to block access to this construction site. They set rows of tires on fire. Their cars blocked the highways leading to the area.

The natives claim that this 939,000 acres of land was actually granted to the Six Nations in 1784. Further, they claim it was never officially transferred to non-natives. To assert their right, they filed a land claims suit in 1999 over this area. Apparently, all levels of government have ignored this claim and given the home builder the go ahead.

Within days of the protesters blocking access to the site, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved into the area and tensions escalated. Local non-aboriginal folks reacted. The builder won an injunction ordering the natives off the site. The natives ignored the injunction. Confrontations heated up week by week. Police staged a pre-dawn raid but then retreated. Finally, a few days ago a former Premier of Ontario, Dave Peterson, was brought in as mediator to try and settle the dispute. Nobody is optimistic about how it will turn out.

Everyone is nervous about this confrontation. They recall relatively recent incidents which turned ugly. It angered natives, alarmed all Canadians and embarrassed governments.

Back in 1990 there were tensions between native Mohawks and the town of Oka, in the province of Quebec. A local company wanted to expand their golf course. The Mohawks claimed the land was sacred. They barricaded the land. Armed Quebec police stormed the barricades amid tear gas and the firing of bullets. A 31-year old police officer named Marcel Lemay was killed.

Each side claimed the other side shot first. This confrontation went on for 78 days. In the end, no charges were because of his death. And, after all that chaos, the golf course was never expanded.

A commission was formed to investigate and resolve the problem. That's always a good way to sidetrack a problem: study it to death.

Two years, $60 million, 4,000 pages and 400 recommendations later, there was little resolved. In a report titled "Looking Forward, Looking Back," the commission stated, "After some 500 years of a relationship that has swung from partnership to domination, from mutual respect and cooperation to paternalism and attempted assimilation, Canada must now work out fair and lasting terms for coexistence with aboriginal people."

In another incident, in 1995 the Ontario Provincial Police made a raid on a native protest occupation of the Ipperwash Provincial Park which they claimed was Indian land. An unarmed protester was killed by a police sniper. Yet another inquiry followed.

Meanwhile, unrest continues. Over the past decade or more, roads and rail lines have been blocked, notably in Ontario and British Columbia. Northern natives, the Innu, have protested about military installations in Labrador, too.

The aboriginal natives of Canada are not passive. They have learned how to protest and use the media. They have smart lawyers. They are giving as good as they get. They have learned the ways of "white" men.

Canadian Indians used to have a tradition of oral contracts. You were as good as your word. They learned that newcomer's promises "as long as the river flows," even on paper, were worthless.

Under the Canadian constitution and Bill of Rights, aboriginals have the same rights as non-aboriginals. You wouldn't think so when looking at the facts. Here's an example.

In Oct. 2005, the population of 1,000 Cree natives of Kashechewan near James Bay in Ontario had to be evacuated because of a tainted water supply. Many of them required medical treatment. The reason: the residents who operate the water filtration plants have been poorly trained; and, shockingly, the water treatment plant is a short distance downstream from the village's sewage lagoon. Federal and provincial governments have passed the buck back and forth on who is responsible.

This water quality incident also served to bring out the long-ignored fact that across Canada, many native reserves have boil water advisories. A study by Indian Affairs, the federal agency, found that there were risks in the drinking water of three quarters of the 633 native communities that were studied. In one reserve in British Columbia, an advisory to boil water has been in place for the past nine years. Band-Aid solutions hide the problem — but only temporarily.

Some wish the problem would go away. Back in 1928, a government official suggested that Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two generations. They had church-operated, government-funded residential schools set up for the native children. The intent was to "prepare them for life in white society." This act of assimilation was a disaster. Children were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Only recently, the federal government has acknowledged and compensated those aboriginal people, well, the ones who are still living.

Are the land claims made by aboriginals valid? Not surprisingly perhaps, in a poll conducted a few years ago by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada, 49 percent of Canadians indicated they believed that "few or none" of the hundreds of land claims are valid.

Putting land claims aside, aboriginals in Canada still have plenty to complain about. A First Nations Longitudinal Health Survey for the period 2002-2003 titled "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" provides some alarming statistics. Here is a selection from that survey:

  • People aged 60 years or more in First Nations communities don't live as long as other Canadians (6 percent vs. 18 percent).
  • More than half of First Nations people over 18 years old have not completed high school compared with one third of Canadians, 15 and over.
  • More than half of all adults (51 percent) are not employed.
  • First Nations homes are about four times more likely to require major repairs compared to Canadians overall.
  • First Nations people live in homes that are nearly twice as crowded, on average, as Canadians homes overall (4.8 persons per room vs. 2.6).
  • About one in six homes are considered overcrowded. In homes with children, the rate was one in four.
  • Nearly one in 30 live in homes without hot running water, without cold running water, and without flushing toilets.
  • Almost one in five First Nation homes is without telephone service.
  • About one in three First Nations residents surveyed consider their main drinking water supply unsafe to drink.
  • Nearly two-thirds of First Nations residents drink bottled water.
  • About one in five attended residential school — the schools where so much abuse of their children took place. Nearly half of those who attended residential school reported that it had negatively affected their overall health and well-being.
  • Nearly three-quarters are considered either overweight, obese, or morbidly obese. Most adults with diabetes are classified as obese.
  • Three in 10 reported having had suicidal thoughts.
  • One in six has attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

A few days ago, Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said, "We die earlier than other Canadians, (and) almost one-quarter of our people live in overcrowded, unhealthy homes which breed disease. The social consequence of these living conditions is despair."

This article first appeared in OhMyNews International, online at english.ohmynews.com.

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