dedicated to Paul, a tireless supporter of indigenous cultures and justice.
Apartheid is a powerful word. It is taught to children worldwide to represent segregation and subjugation of a people by the state, is essentially synonymous with racism and carries the weight of a general evil. It came to worldwide attention thanks to the effort of legendary South African civil rights activist (and later president) Nelson Mandela, and after decades of resistance and global outrage, the system was finally ended officially in South Africa in 1991. I thought it appropriate during Israel Apartheid Week to write about another Apartheid state that quietly continues the practice: Canada.
In Canada, Aboriginal people are subject to the “Indian Act 1876” (part of the Constitution act, section 91(24)), which lays out how the federal government deals with the 641 bands recognized in Canada on some 2300 reserves, through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). This legislation stemmed from the “Gradual Civilization Act” and the language gives away the game. It is a codified version of the so-called “White Man’s Burden”, a deeply racist belief that aboriginal people are essentially savages who need to be taught to think and act like the European settlers. “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” (John A Macdonald, Prime Minister of Canada, 1887)
The Indian Act functions in many ways to oppress the Aboriginal people. Bands are the name given to Tribes recognized by the Canadian government, and are usually tied to locations called reserves. The land itself in owned by the Crown/Canadian Government (although this is changing as many bands are using the courts to sue for ownership of their traditional land) and run by the Chief and Council of the band. This is important to note, as the bands do not own the land, they are generally not permitted to sell it or borrow money against it. This is based on the degrading belief that Aboriginal people are not capable of making decisions about the use of their own land and the state must protect them (1). This also means that individual aboriginals do not own the houses or the land they live on, cannot sell it and move and cannot get loans using it as collateral. They are there at the mercy of their band council. This removes their sense of ownership and their sense of freedom, which cannot do anything but erode their sense-esteem and self-worth. They are essentially serfs on their own land.
Location of the reserve plays a large part in determining the quality of life on that reserve. If you are lucky enough to live on a reserve close to oil and gas operations, or which runs a casino, you might have a decent quality of life, but then again you may not, as the tribal council controls the funds that come into the reserve and their dispensation. Most bands do not have access to extra-governmental sources of income, and the reserves mostly resemble slums in third world countries. I have personally been on reserves that do not have paved roads and housing that looked unsuitable for habitation (including one in Vancouver, one of the wealthiest cities in Canada). Most reserves are in remote locations with no real prospects of employment. The poverty is rampant and multi-generational, health on reserves is woefully below Canadian norms, suicide rates are horrific and drug and alcohol abuse is high, especially for women (2,3). The aboriginal people are keep apart from Canadian society, an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Aboriginals living off-reserve do not suffer these plights as badly, and this allows Canadians to willfully ignore the deplorable conditions that are endemic to the reserve system.
Traditionally the federal government ran all services on reserves, although this has changed and many bands are responsible for their own services, including education and policing, using government transfer funds. While this sounds like a good thing, it actually has detrimental effects on people on the reserves. The Chiefs and Councils receive funding from the federal government and are solely responsible for those funds. This has lead to a system that greatly resembles feudalism. Chiefs and Councils decide who lives where, what services are provided and where the money goes. There are many examples of Chiefs paying themselves salaries larger than Premiers (think state governor), having huge bursaries and expensive vehicles (4) while their band members live in abject poverty. Because they control the purse strings, the “leaders” of bands can unduly influence elections to remain in power and set up systems of nepotism and crony capitalism where friends and family get lavish contracts (5). Many Chiefs you see in the media are no more than corrupt politicians who are responsible for the hardships endured by their band members while they enrich themselves. They do not represent the reality of reserve life; they wear suits and fly around to conferences and mingle with politicians and other elites. To be absolutely clear, there are many Chiefs who work tirelessly to improve the lot of their people and do great things for their reserves, they are true leaders. But in a system built for control, abuse will unfortunately be rampant.
Aboriginal people are divided in the Indian Act into” status” (recognized) and “non-status Indians”, and the federal government keeps a list of all “status Indians”. This status is a legal framework, and many, if not most, aboriginals peoples are not considered “status Indians”, including the Metis people, Inuits and many others. There are further divisions into band membership lists, “treaty Indians” and “resereve Indian”s (6). It is very convoluted and even as I write about it, i barely begin to grasp all the variances. The real problem is this allows the government to decide ethnicity as a legal issue, not bloodlines and family. I personally find it despicable that paper-pushers in Ottawa are allowed to deny someone recognition of their heritage based on arcane laws. (While I have no evidence, I would be willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of employees of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs are white). While we are all smart enough to realize this is a legal fiction, it is a further attack on aboriginal identity, and a slap in the face to many people who are told they are not considered Indians by the government and denied access to the same service others receive. Not only are we separating them from society, we have created artificial divisions amongst the aboriginal people, and use the law to attack their identity.
Many Canadians believe that status is a desirable thing, and some less open-minded people complain that Aboriginals have great advantages, like tax exemption and free tuition to University. While it is true that On-reserve aboriginals receive those “perks”, that argument is disingenuous at best. If an aboriginal person lives and works off-reserve, they pay taxes like any other Canadian. And free access to university would be great if they had access to education that provided them a conduit into higher education, however, they do not. On-reserve education is lagging behind education in a regular public or private school, and they suffer from high drop out rates, around 40% nationwide, and much higher in northen communities (7). Others complain of the huge sums of money the government funnels into the reserve system, which is also true, but as previously mentioned, that money disappears into the council and most aboriginals receive little of it and live in squalid conditions.
The reserve and Status system of the “Indian Act” is a system of segregation and subjugation. Aboriginal people are separated from Canada physically and symbolically, they are kept in ghettos and marginalized. This system of institutionalized racism is responsible for the degradation of Aboriginal culture. Many aboriginal languages and cultures are dying as their elders pass away and youths, desperate to escape the reserves, leave and are not educated in their own history and culture. Historically, Aboriginals were taken to boarding schools and forced to learn english against their will. Today, they are pushed away from their culture by the horrors of reserve life. Either way, the result is the same, disconnecting a people from their roots. This disconnect makes it easier to “integrate” them into our Judeo-christian european culture, effectively brainwashing them to our way of life; we give them no choice but to buy in.
We have to end the apartheid in Canada. The Indian Act is fundamentally a racist piece of legislation and bee used for well over a hundred years to separate aboriginals from society, create divisions among their peoples, disintegrate their varied beautiful cultures and force them to adopt our way of life, and force a system of feudalism on the reserves. There have been many amendments over the years to try and improve the act, but this is not enough. The Indian Act is flawed at its base and needs to go. We have to recognize Aboriginal people as full members of society, not second class citizens who need a paternalistic government to look after them, no matter where they live. Ancestry and heritage is not determined by law, and in a country that prides itself on multiculturalism, we need to respect the culture of the people who were here before us. We decried Apartheid in South Africa, yet we tolerate it in our own backyard. The hypocrisy is galling.
- Apartheid : Canada`s Ugly Secret, The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Tanis Fiss, April 2004
- Aboriginal Women & Healthcare in Canada, Native Women`s Association of Canada, May 2002
“Politics family affair on reserves.” Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Parker, James, February 2002