Systemic Discrimination Against Aboriginal Peoples

Editorial Commentary

Systemic Discrimination
Against Aboriginal Peoples

Marie Battiste, Ed.M., Ed.D., LL.D., D.H.L. (h.c.)

Marie Battiste is Mi’kmaq from the Potlo’tek First Nation of Unama'ki, Nova Scotia. She is full professor in the Department of Educational Foundations at University of Saskatchewan, since 1993. More recently she has been appointed Academic Director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre in the College of Education and Co-Director of the national Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre of the Canadian Council on Learning.

Confronting systemic discrimination against Aboriginal peoples is this issue’s key theme. Systemic discrimination dominates political and policymaking spheres, creating massive discriminations against Aboriginal persons, whether as groups or as individuals. Systemic discrimination compounds familiar sources of individual discrimination. It operates through inaction, silence, neglect, and indifference to the aboriginal, human, and treaty rights, stifling the talents and opportunities of individuals while sustaining poverty and malaise and affecting diverse social, cultural, political, economic, spiritual, and physical outcomes among Aboriginal peoples.

The federal Crown has crafted and generated this neglect and indifference for Canadians. Canadians no longer know the truth, believing that Aboriginal peoples’ third world living conditions are derived from racial or cultural inferiority and believing their requests for respect for their rights—treaty, aboriginal, and human— are the products of an irrational or special interests minority who are unwilling to accept their status. These crafted rationalizations generate persistent prejudice and discrimination against Aboriginal peoples rather than remedies. The federal Crown continues to refuse to eliminate poverty among First Nations and Inuit, using allocated money to support the bureaucratic imposed status quo. The bureaucracy and politicians attempt to hide these failures by telling Canadians how much they are spending on Aboriginal peoples’ problems, but ignore the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples and other studies, implying that these failures are part of a lack of character or caused by their own doing. In short, they manipulate the discourses and policies to conceal the consequences of systemic discrimination against Aboriginal peoples.

A second subtheme emerging from this issue on systemic discrimination against Aboriginal peoples is constitutional reconciliation and remedies. Aboriginal people are confronted with systemic discrimination against their constitutional rights, rights they hold as collective peoples derived from pre-existing sovereignty and treaties, which are not like the individual rights of Canadians. Yet they do not have anyone to oversee the protection of those rights. The courts have affirmed the rights, but government resists implementing them. Aboriginal peoples have proposed that creating an Aboriginal Attorney General can protect their constitutional rights from abuse by politicians and bureaucrats, yet this proposed solution has met with deaf ears. Constitutional and systemic remedies can eliminate systemic discrimination.

Our feature essay written by Patricia Monture offers an overview of the characteristics and the damages of systemic discrimination, how it is understood and tested in courts, as well as the limits of such tests in courts that miss the real context and effects of racism that affect the mental, emotional, as well as the spiritual and physical well-being of individuals and collectives. Canada is not a safe place yet for Aboriginal people. As well, Canadians are not aware of the large-scale impacts and "layers of intersectional oppressions such as addiction, violence, lack of educational opportunities, over-incarceration, fracturing of family bonds, [and] loss of language" on Aboriginal peoples. The gap gets larger yet we do not have statistics that speak to that gap, rather the ones that further pathologize Aboriginal peoples.

To understand why systemic discrimination continues requires that we understand how whiteness is complicit with and is the cornerstone foundation of Eurocentric systemic discrimination in Canada. This feature essay written by a non-Indigenous critical theorist Len M. Findlay helps Canadians understand how racialization of Aboriginal peoples comes without a critical perspective of the contesting position of Eurocentric superiority that underlies race relations. He asserts skin color does matter to Canadians as internalized racism is about perceiving the worth and value of people in everyday relations and in them the distribution of power and privilege. He offers Canadians three pillars to take up challenge.

Kiera L. Ladner’s examines the contributions Indigenous peoples have made to the concepts of governance to Canada, recognizing how treaties made that possible in the first place. Yet, she notes, once established, settlers’ political and economic self-interests motivate them to break the promises of the treaties, ignore Crown orders for payment and consultation with First Nations to receive any land, and attempt to destroy the First Nations governments through legislation, replacing "inclusive consensual and democratic Indigenous political systems with undemocratic and unrepresentative systems of colonizers."

Sakej Henderson argues that the governments of Canada, federal and provincial/territorial "continue to block Aboriginal nations from assuming the broad powers of governance that would permit them to fashion their own institutions and work out their own solutions to social, economic, and political problems." Systemic discrimination ushered in by racial and cultural superiority is its source.

Education is one of those places where Canadians believe Aboriginal peoples get "free" education. My essay, Marie Battiste, offers how First Nations peoples education is a treaty right, different from other citizens of Canada, but needs since 1982 and the Constitutional affirmation of Aboriginal and treaty rights, the constitutional powers of the provincial/territorial and federal laws and policies must be reconciled with the constitutional rights of Aboriginal people.

Intergenerational impacts of residential schools continue to reverberate among the descendents and relatives of those who attended those schools. Jaime Koebel, a Métis youth advocate, seeks to enlarge the space and opportunities for the voices of youth as they build their leadership from within to make their impact on the future and on their collective.

In 1982, Section 35 of the Constitution of Canada provided the recognition of aboriginal and treaty rights, and also named three distinct aboriginal groups: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Those rights are still evolving for the Métis; however, with the signing of a Métis Nation Protocol agreement, Clem Chartier and the Métis Nation see a glimmer of hope for their future work together with Canada.

Inuit food security is intimately connected to the land, oceans, and global warming. A petition to the Inter America Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for violations caused by nations that disregard this fact is the basis for Katherine Minich’s essay that suggests further the limits of international law for helping to address the problems among the Inuit, but provides a process for asserting self-determination on the basis of their Inuit identities.

Sharon Venne asserts we are living in a colonial Canada, not a decolonized neocolonial Canada. By colonial laws, discourses of justification of racism and superiority, court tests of Indigenous peoples rights to title, and doctrines of discovery, forms of legitimacy making on Indigenous homelands are continuing in the national and international arena with the States still holding to the integrity of States sovereignty over Indigenous peoples rights.

It has been long noted that systemic discrimination in the workforce and in the manner by which health services are delivered to Aboriginal peoples lead to significant disparities in the health status of Aboriginal peoples. Alex Wilson and Janet Sarson’s essay asks a question in the title "Can Institutional Systems Learn to Listen? Developing an effective strategy to improve Aboriginal peoples’ health status." This strategy is to increase the number of First Nations, Inuit and Métis health professionals, for as they note, "Aboriginal people are their own experts" and empowering the youth, adult learners, and building on their knowledge will go a lot further in improving health of Aboriginal peoples.

Homeless Aboriginal people are growing in cities, towns and reserves, a problem to which the Native Friendship Centre offer a summary of a report of the migration of Aboriginal peoples to the city, the reasons, the problems of housing, poverty, and multiple ruptures of the social and cultural bonds. They also offer possible alternatives to address homelessness and prevention activities, strengthened by their own work with urban Aboriginal peoples.

‘Two spirit’ is a term that reclaims an identity stolen by homophobia and racism among Aboriginal peoples. Alex Wilson shares its origins and its power and authority for self- representation that two-spirited peoples can use to recentre what is important to them.

Indigenous Studies Portal Librarian, Deborah Lee provides an archival collection from the Library and Archives Canada to refute inferiority in a pictorial story, illustrating persistent forms of accomplishment and innovation, collaboration and collective artistry, creativity and partnerships among Aboriginal peoples.

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