Two powerful, painful and potentially course-changing reports on the Indigenous should impact how Canadians view our past and present, and how we chart our future. But much work remains.
Most recently, there’s been much reflection, assessment and discussion on the report from the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). It’s the second major report in recent years on the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada – the first being the report on residential schools.
These reports describe how we fell short of our principles despite being a society that defines itself by our commitment to human rights, justice and the rule of law, respect for diversity, tolerance and inclusion.
It’s not surprising that the inclusion of the term ‘genocide’ resulted in much focus on the assessment and reporting of MMIWG. Genocide implies a systematic, deliberate and sustained policy of co-ordinated targeting of an entire group. Any society that values itself as an exemplary model for social justice would respond to such labels as problematic, if not offensive.
The broad societal conversation in the wake of the report has highlighted the importance of public education related to Canadian diversity. We need to reflect on who is Canadian, where they live and what’s important to them.
While we tend to emphasize the advantages of diversity, we should not overlook the challenges it presents, particularly how that diversity impacts how we prioritize and perceive Indigenous issues.
Failing to do so will merely aggravate the divide and marginalization of the Indigenous, if not contribute to a continued soft genocide. We risk a wilful blindness to the types of policies and practices that promote the well-being of most Canadians while sustaining racism and injustices.
It’s wrong to expect that new Canadians will develop the same bonds with Indigenous that they may with other cultural groups.
According to the last census (2016), about 6,775,800 Canadians were foreign-born, representing 20.6 percent of the total population – up from 19.8 percent in the 2006 census. Ninety percent of recent immigrants live in one of 33 major census metropolitan areas (CMA), with more than 50 percent within Toronto and Vancouver alone.
While it’s natural and easier for those of us in the CMAs to celebrate multiculturalism with our neighbours from around the world, it also separates us from the Indigenous, who reside primarily outside our major cities. So new Canadians are likely to develop bridging bonds with members of other immigrant communities, particularly in urban areas, rather than with the Indigenous.
It’s also much more likely that the perspective of recent Canadians related to First Nations cultures are either influenced or defined by the stereotypical portrayals in popular media, and/or by the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the countries they came from. Countries like Brazil and Australia, for instance, have far less egalitarian relationships with their Indigenous than we have in Canada.
Recent-immigrant Canadians often faced religious intolerance, persecution and political repression in the parts of the world where they’re from. Their concerns about the family members they left behind and their connections to other places and issues can take priority for some time over the issues of Indigenous they barely know.
Furthermore, diversity and multiculturalism present recent immigrants with new struggles as they work to advance and gain recognition within the Canadian mosaic.
Concerns for the Indigenous are prone to result in a feel-good, politically-correct liberal benevolence towards a marginalized group. This response is far from genuine or useful.
Additionally, the Indigenous are generally viewed as a homogeneous society. That’s a reductionist and false view. Canada’s Indigenous speak 53 distinct languages. There are 366 bands in Canada with culturally distinct groups residing on 2,000 reserves.
It’s a mistake to assume that recent immigrants to Canada will advance an understanding of the uniqueness and diversity of the Indigenous. Nor will they understand their special status in Canada, their historical challenges, and our obligation to assess and remedy historical injustices in the same way as other Canadians.
What’s required, after all the hard work of conducting and concluding major inquiries, is an equally comprehensive public education campaign. We have fallen short in effectively percolating down through the ranks of the public service and the public at large the findings, results, outcomes and expectations of major public inquiries – particularly those that involve the Indigenous.
Government policies can’t be seen to be legitimate if the people don’t understand, accept and support policy decisions. And even where policies are implemented, they’re not likely to result in changes in attitude and values.
We continue to see disproportionately high levels of Indigenous in our corrections system. They represent 4.3 percent of the general population but account for 24.6 percent of the prison population. Some have referred to this as the new residential school policy, despite a policy that allows judges to use sanctions outside of mainstream prisons when appropriate.
And how well do Canadians understand the provisions under Section 35 of the Constitution Act?
It recognizes the right to self governance, and the recognition of treaty rights and land claims agreements.
More than effecting changes in attitudes, policy changes first result in behavioural changes, in how we frame laws and processes. It takes much longer to impact changes in attitudes. This can only be achieved by getting to know our Indigenous, understanding their culture and understanding their special status within our constitutional framework.
Official apologies, treaty settlements and compensation payments are essential and necessary responses to social injustices. They can never make up for the harm and pain, but they are indicative of a commitment to make amends and to not repeat mistakes.
But if these gestures aren’t reflective of a comprehensive social evolution on attitudes, we will fail. We need to chart a course that aims at a truly cohesive, inclusive and compassionate society.
Anil Anand served as a police officer with a Canadian service for 29 years in a variety of roles, including being assigned to Interpol. He has a master of law degree, as well as an MBA, and has taught criminology and community policing courses. His book Mending Broken Fences Policing, looks at the role of contemporary policing in modern society.