Aboriginal Conditions in Canada

Since European settlers arrived in North America hundreds of years ago, the original inhabitants of this continent endured devastating consequences imposed upon them by their colonizers. In modern times, Aboriginal people continue to struggle against the Canadian state in their search for

rights, land, sovereignty and the improvement of social conditions. This essay will examine current living conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada and determine how these conditions can be improved or solved. The issues that are going to be apparent in this essay are the following: The on-going dispute over land claims involving Aboriginal citizens/groups and the Canadian government; the socioeconomic disadvantages prevalent in many Aboriginal communities and the desire for some form of Aboriginal self-government. Again, the above issues will be examined followed by their potential solutions.

One problem contributing to a larger net of social problems is the general lack of knowledge about Aboriginal people amongst Canadians. It is not complicated to understand that with significant knowledge of a certain subject, one can pose better questions and can draw better conclusions about that subject. In this case, knowledge of the histories, cultures, languages and systems of governance of Aboriginal people would lead to a greater understanding of these peoples in modern-day Canada. This knowledge provides a more educated and accurate picture of Aboriginal life that can be studied amongst scholars, citizens and policy makers alike. Unfortunately, Aboriginal people are continuously victimized by racism in society. The media influences common clichés and stereotypes but a misinformed and uneducated populace continue to discriminate against something they do not even begin to understand. Our elected leaders, although not experts on the subject, would presumably have knowledge and be aware of the situation of Aboriginal people in Canada given the serious nature of its’ history. In reality, this is not always true because policy decisions are often misguided, influenced or misinformed. For example, in the 1950’s, the federal government forced Inuit families of Northern Quebec to be removed from their communities and placed in Canada’s High Arctic in order to establish Canada’s ownership of this territory. “Testimony to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1993 referred to the ‘cruel and inhumane’ policy of forced relocations and charged that Inuit were used as ‘human flag-poles’ to ensure Canada’s sovereignty on the High Arctic” (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). Policy decisions like this is a reflection of Canada’s negligence to act upon an important issue. It also suggests that our decision makers are not up to speed regarding knowledge of Aboriginal people in Canada. This ignorance leads to poor policy decisions that affect many Aboriginal communities.

There exist over one hundred cultures or groups of Aboriginal people in Canada. They live in the northern areas of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut to the islands of Victoria on the west coast and Prince Edward Island on the east. There exist eleven main language groups that account for over fifty total languages. Therefore an enormous range of culture exists throughout Canada’s indigenous population. It is difficult to classify these peoples by region or ethnicity individually, as over time culture has changed, languages have gone extinct and different races interbreed. In fact, the generic term “Aboriginal People” is confusing in itself. Although it is widely used to classify all the different cultures in Canada, by definition, it implies ‘people from the beginning’, derived from the Latin phrase ab origine. This label implies a degree of sameness among many people when there is none. Terms such as “Native” or “Indigenous People” cause similar problems and are used for convenience purposes. Perhaps the most important classification of Aboriginal people in Canada is the legal title given by the federal government in the Constitution Act, 1982 which enshrines the rights of Indian, Metis and Inuit people in Canada. Although “Indian” is the most politically and historically wrong, it is the term the federal government uses in order to determine whether a person can qualify for clauses in the Indian Act, 1876. One such clause states that Status Indians living on reserve are exempt from federal taxes (another common misconception is that all Aboriginal people are entitled to this right). Although there are generic terms to define Aboriginal people in Canada, it is relevant to know that there exists a huge range of cultures, all with distinct histories.

The social and economic condition of Aboriginal people in Canada is alarming. Suicide rates for youth are eight times the national average for females and five times the national average for males (Health Canada, 1997). Rates of incarceration for First Nations persons are over five times higher than the national average (Solicitor General of Canada, 1997). Aboriginal life is disenfranchised in urban and rural areas all over Canada with high levels of alcohol and substance abuse and child mortality. Some 39% of adults report family violence, 25% report child abuse and 15% report rape problems in their communities (Statistics Canada, 1991). Parallel with the social inequalities that Aboriginal people endure is the economic struggles. The 1986 and 1991 Censuses of Canada identified a wage gap between Aboriginal Canadians and the general population (Census of Canada, 1986, 1991). This economic disadvantage goes hand in hand with the social problems associated in the daily lives of Aboriginals. While Aboriginals, including registered Indians on and off reserve as well as Métis and Inuit reported annual incomes between $14 000 and $19 000, average Canadian incomes around the same period were close to $27 000 annually. A family of four cannot be expected to live sufficiently with an annual income of $14 000. The Canadian government needs to address this wage gap with improved social programs that not only give financial aid to those who need it, but that also uncover the underlying causes of why poverty rates are so high. Equally important, Aboriginal leaders need to be at the discussion table when developing and implementing these programs.

There have been successes in addressing social and economic problems. In 1993, an Umbrella Final Agreement was signed between the Government of Canada, the Government of Yukon and the Council for Yukon Indians (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). The agreement gave title to over 40, 000 square kilometres of land to Yukon First Nations (see land claims, p. 6), financial compensation well over $240 million, and rights regarding the interests of wildlife management, resource development and heritage preservation (Ibid.) Restoring control over the resources of their land is an extremely good way of improving social conditions of First Nations people because it creates many new areas of income (hunting/fishing, tourism), as well, it gives back a great deal of autonomy to Aboriginals; something they have been searching for a long time.

The Indian Act of 1876 also accounts for many of the problems endured by First Nations people in Canada. This legislation effectively made all Aboriginals wards of the state. It also created a legacy of dependency as many Aboriginals relied on the state for income. The Indian Act states that title to the land is held by the Crown, which makes the reserves pockets of federal jurisdiction within the provinces. Reserves are specific areas set aside for bands of Aboriginals and they have not had a positive effect since their introduction by the federal government. Many reserves in Canada are without running water, or without proper drinking water, and it is common to find a family of seven or eight living in a small, dilapidated home. A revision to the Indian Act in 1885 forced all Indians to obtain permission if they wished to leave their reserve. Impeding out-migration from reserves and implementing poor policies and initiatives that tended to generate poverty became the legacy of the Indian Act. For example, Indian Affairs policy in the farming sector placed restrictive regulations on Aboriginals; while non-Native farmers used mechanized and industrial farming equipment, Aboriginals were expected to continue to use horse power and hand tools (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). Simply put, the colonial agenda of our ancestors and the reluctance to change these systems by current governments have had devastating effects on Aboriginals in the country. In order to effectively change and improve the conditions, the Indian Act must be radically modified or removed.

There are currently over 800 unsettled land claims in Canada. Land claims are the resolution to Indian treaties in Canada that are constitutionally recognized agreements between the Crown and Aboriginal peoples. The earliest treaties signed were between the British and Aboriginal peoples in the late seventeenth to late eighteenth century as “peace and friendship treaties”. The British sought these agreements to forge a political alliance with Native groups and gain their assistance in wars with the French (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). After Confederation, the “numbered treaties” were signed, affecting the Ojibwa and Cree of southern Manitoba (Treaty 1) and continued until most of western Canada was covered through treaty signings. There was not much difference in each federal treaty. Aboriginals agreed to release and surrender their rights in exchange for reserves and small cash payments. Members of treaty bands still receive an annual payment, amounting to only $5 per person under most treaties (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). The Canadian government must negotiate with Aboriginal groups in order close the outstanding land claims in Canada. Although this is an extremely complicated task, especially with claims that have large urban centres within them, the onus is still on the government to settle the claims – stipulated in the Constitution.

There have been many Aboriginal groups who have settled their claims with the federal government. The Gwich’in and Sahtu Dene and Métis of the Northwest Territories settled land claims in 1992 and 1993 respectively (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). Furthermore, the Nunavut Final Agreement of 1993 brought the territory of Nunavut to Canada in 1999.

The process for dealing with land claims was established in 1974 as the Office of Native Claims, a branch within the Indian and Northern Affairs Commission (INAC) (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). In order to qualify for a hearing, Aboriginal groups had to prove that they were part of an organized society that had occupied the land before the English arrived and established in the area.
A revolutionary case involving an Aboriginal man from the Northwest Territories changed a section in the Indian Act and guaranteed more rights for all First Nations people. In 1967, Joseph Drybones was charged with under section 94(b) of the Indian Act for being an Indian intoxicated off a reserve. In reality, he was prosecuted for being Indian. The case would be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and in a six to three decision, the court struck down section 94(b). The decision was monumental for Aboriginal people because it allowed them to enjoy the rights that other Canadians enjoyed, including the rights of mobility and the freedom to make their own choices. After the decision, Aboriginals, accustomed to taking orders now suddenly had the option to decide for themselves where to live and many decided to leave their reserves. The Supreme Court decision also brought to light the other discriminatory clauses in the Indian Act. The recognition of the rights of Aboriginals in the Constitution Act, 1982 made certain clauses in the Indian Act incompatible with those in the Constitution. As a result, the courts following 1982 struck down more clauses in the Indian Act such as the clause that said an Indian woman lost her status by marrying a non-Aboriginal man.

Another significant issue pressing Aboriginals in Canada is the cry for a form of self-government. Many First Nations people agree that the only way to begin to address the many problems of their people is to create an independent Aboriginal government. With a complicated political structure, many other competing interests and a reluctance to act on Aboriginal issues, this task is not easy. Anna Hunter (2006) has developed a range of options that work in and around the Canadian state. Her continuum comprises of five different styles of government. Aboriginal self-regulation is a municipal-style system, which relies on federal and provincial/territorial governments for funding and authority (Ibid). Constitutional self-government includes the capacity to assume jurisdiction over the education, health and welfare of community members within their traditional territory. It also includes the authority to make economic and social policy, administer taxes, pass laws, manage land and natural resources, and negotiate with other governments (Ibid). Aboriginal self-determination encompasses the internationally recognized right to a broad range of cultural, economic, legal, political, and jurisdictional content (Green, 2003). It should be noted that Aboriginal self-determination does not imply the right to secede. The preceding three ideas are the most important on Hunter’s continuum. They present interesting and plausible options for Aboriginal leaders and elected officials. Of course, flaws exist in all three systems. Also, each option is not necessarily universal for all Aboriginal people in Canada. Different communities have unique needs and therefore progress can only be made with partnerships between Aboriginals and government representatives to adopt the system that suits a particular community best.

Although it has taken decades for Aboriginal people to bring the topic of self-government to mainstream discussions, significant gains have been made by some groups of First Nations in Canada. For example, the Sechelt Indian Self-Government Act (1986) allowed the Sechelt people title to their reserve lands, the right to draft their own constitution and laws, and are no longer bound by the Indian Act (McMillan and Yellowhorn, 2004). This was a tremendously successful experiment with self-government that allowed the Sechelt to prosper both economically and culturally.

The living condition of Aboriginal people in Canada is far from perfect. Improvements need to be made on many fronts. Specifically, social conditions of Aboriginal people need to be reviewed and improved through social programs, a more active Aboriginal voice in politics and other innovative approaches. Also, existing land claims in Canada need to be resolved. Although many of these land claims are very complicated and require extensive care, agreements need to be made one way or the other in order to fulfill the commands of the Constitution, restore faith for Aboriginal people in the Canadian government and finish this outdated dispute. Finally, along with their right to land, Aboriginals deserve to govern themselves appropriately within the Canadian state. There exist many forms of Aboriginal self-government and it is up to Aboriginal leaders and non-Aboriginal leaders alike to delegate together the possible outcomes. Addressing the above issues will not be easy for Canadian governments. Reluctance to act as well as many other issues pressing Canadians stands in the way of improving the conditions of Aboriginal people. Morally and legally the Canadian state must improve their policies in order to restore a legacy of mistakes from past generations.


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Health Canada. 1997. Basic Departmental Data. Ottawa: Medical Services Branch,
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Hunter, Ann. Canadian Politics: Democracy and Dissent (eds). Joan Grace and
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McMillan, Alan and Eldon Yellowhorn. First Peoples in Canada. Douglas McIntyre,
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Solicitor General of Canada. 1997. Basic Departmental Data. Ottawa:
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