Wrongful Arrest of Indigenous Man Highlights Enduring Systemic Racism in Canada
In an incident symbolic of Canada’s history of entrenched racism and mistreatment of its Indigenous population, a middle-aged man and his 12-year-old granddaughter were wrongly arrested while trying to open a bank account at the Bank of Montreal (BMO). Amidst protests and outrage against this incident, the bank issued a shabby apology saying that this was a ‘learning opportunity’ for them.
First Nations activists, including Vivian Contessa Brown—the cousin of the man caught up in the BMO incident—were not satisfied with the bank’s lackluster response, and highlighted how such incidents were daily occurrences for the Indigenous people throughout Canada. Leading the protests against BMO, Brown said that “We want to get a message not just to BMO, but to all of Canada, that racism and discrimination needs to stop.”
Human rights agencies have consistently pointed out the startling gap between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents in accessing basic human rights as a result of discriminatory policies of the past. Some of the darkest periods in Canadian history—such as the residential school programme, described in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation report as a “cultural genocide”—sought to eliminate Indigenous Canadians’ rights and distinct culture through a process of forced assimilation. The effects of these policies linger today. While Ottawa has made significant strides in building a better relationship with Canada’s Indigenous population, First Nations communities still face daily discrimination, environmental racism, and barriers to accessing quality healthcare and housing.
Degradation of Indigenous land, water, and forests
The deliberate situating of polluting factories, dumping sites, and landfills in areas inhabited by Indigenous communities, has been dubbed ‘environmental racism.’ The plight of the Indigenous people living in the Boat Harbour region in Nova Scotia has been highlighted in a recent documentary titled “There’s Something in the Water” starring Juno actress Ellen Page. In particular, the documentary showcases the activities of the Northern Pulp mill— which since its inception in 1965 has enjoyed a long history of degrading the environment by dumping effluents into the Boat Harbour lagoon, formerly an important cultural site for the Pictou Landing First Nation. The Northern Pulp mill’s disregard for the surrounding environment is not surprising as its owner Paper Excellence is a subsidiary of Sinar Mas forestry group— criticized by Greenpeace for its forest degradation and human rights violations across the globe.
As early as 1969 members of the Mi’kmaw community at Pictou Landing, alongside other local residents, organized themselves to demand the provincial government take strict action against the polluting industry. “When our land got polluted,” one Pictou Landing elder explained, “they didn’t just pollute the land, we lost our way of life.”
Successful provincial governments, meanwhile, reneged on their promises to clean up Boat Harbour in 1991, 1995, 1997 and 2008. The government, industrial lobby, media, and other stakeholders have tended to characterize this issue as a simplistic dichotomy between the employment provided by the mill versus environmentalism. In reality, the government’s inaction has not only deteriorated the quality of life of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants but has further isolated a population that was already marginalized in society.
After a pipeline spill in 2015, the Boat Harbour Act was finally passed by the liberal government ordering the company to stop dumping into the harbour by 31st January 2020. In a welcome move for fisheries and Indigenous rights organisations, last month the government rejected Northern Pulp’s proposal to instead pipe its treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The provincial government is offering retraining for mill workers as Northern Pulp is finally on the road to closing down—and none too soon. Former Nova Scotia environment minister Iain Rankin has labeled the degradation of this once-pristine sanctuary into a toxic mess, as one of the worst cases of environmental racism in Canada.
An increasing wellbeing gap between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous
Apart from environmental racism, studies show the Indigenous population is a victim of ‘healthcare racism’ as well. Glaring disparities in health indicators exist between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. First Nations Canadians’ life expectancy is up to 15 years shorter and they have a higher prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Under-15 suicide rates among certain Indigenous groups is almost 50 times as that of the non-indigenous youth. Not only is the government guilty of underfunding health care services for its Indigenous citizens, but other social determinants of health are also appalling.
A 2019 UN report highlights high rates of homelessness, overcrowding, forced evictions and land grabbing in the Inuit and First Nations communities. Unsafe housing is also linked to Canada’s tragic problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Overall, it exposes Indigenous women to atrocious levels of violence both at home and in public. Furthermore, food insecurity prevents more than half of aboriginal families from eating adequately. As a result of systemic racism, the residential school programme, and widespread poverty, the natives consistently fare poorly in educational outcomes as well. Through various treaties and policies like the First Education Act, both the federal and provincial governments have made efforts to address the problems of the population. However, community leaders allege that federal funding across primary, secondary, and post-secondary education remains inadequate.
The wellbeing gap between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous people has not decreased and First Nations communities rightfully continues to mistrust whether the government and its institutions will keep their promises. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Bank of Montreal incident garnered huge outrage as the Indigenous people have always been treated as second-class citizens of Canada. While a national commitment to protect the rights of the Indigenous population is enshrined in the Canadian constitution, successive governments have failed to adequately serve as a guarantor of their rights.