At a recent conference organized by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Paul Dewar of Human Rights Watch argued that “Canada does not speak of how it has treated Aboriginals.”
The truth, though, is that it does. The problem is that recently the Canadian government has been all talk and no action — speaking about how it has treated Indigenous people in the past while failing to take meaningful action to address the problems currently facing our Indigenous communities.
Last year’s report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a recently launched inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, have forced Canadians to deal with the dark and uncomfortable history of how Indigenous people were treated in this country. Canadians are slowly waking up to an unsanitized version of what they read in their history schoolbooks and learning that the truth is not so flattering.
Much more needs to be done to educate Canadians on this front, including passing the microphone to Indigenous communities so they can have their say. But the danger of focusing too much on the past is that you can conveniently lose sight of what the Canadian government is doing, or failing to do, in the present to make things better for these communities.
Racism in health care
Consider, for example, a recent ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The tribunal determined that the federal government’s continued failure to implement repeatedly requested changes to the way it delivers health care for Indigenous children may have contributed to the recent suicides of two 12-year-old girls from Wapekeka First Nation. These reforms, known as Jordan’s Principle, are named after a five-year-old Indigenous boy who died after failing to get the specialized care he needed due to an ongoing dispute between provincial and federal authorities over who would pay for his care.
Racism in health care is a real issue though many won’t acknowledge it, and how Indigenous people are perceived and eventually treated (or mistreated) plays a huge role not only in the quality of their lives, but also their duration, as demonstrated in last year’s annual report of the Alberta Ministry of Health, where it was reported that the province’s First Nations have a life expectancy that is 12 years shorter than the provincial average.
Just this week, the foster mom of a young Indigenous girl denounced the unequal treatment of the teenager, who is being denied coverage for dental implants needed to correct a cleft palate. While costs for dental procedures are routinely covered under the Alberta Cleft Palate Dental Indemnity Program, the prosthodontist who performed the procedure has yet to be fully compensated.
These children are living in a no-man’s land, falling through the cracks of our nationalized medical system, while provincial and federal authorities argue over who should pay the bill. Although Canadians take pride in their supposedly universal health care system, it’s clear that two-tier health care is already a reality for some of the most vulnerable patients.
Nearly two years into his term, many fear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not live up to his promises with regards to Indigenous issues. Although moving to rectify centuries of damage brought on by colonization and decades of institutional neglect is a complex and time-consuming process, the wheels need to start turning more quickly.
Ottawa has only spent a fraction of what was initially earmarked for Indigenous health care disparities ($11.4 million as opposed to a planned $127.3 million, according to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and Health Canada documents), and any improvements and desperately needed changes are progressing at a snail’s pace.
Meanwhile, Indigenous children and adults who need medical and mental care are denied access because they can’t rely on provincial help, and federal help is hampered by limited funds. Numerous Indigenous communities are still waiting for permanent access to mental care, crisis centres, youth centres, and better access to basic medical care. As litigation and intergovernmental squabbling over money go on, the help that’s urgently needed today isn’t arriving.
All this comes with its own share of dire consequences: reduced life expectancy, disturbing suicide rates, and an overrepresentation of Indigenous adults in Canadian prisons. In Canada the Indigenous incarceration rate is so high — 10 times higher than the non-Indigenous population — it prompted a recent Maclean’s article to refer to Canada’s prisons as the “new residential schools.”
Apologies are not enough
In Canada it has become a tradition, and practically protocol, to begin public governmental or academic events with an acknowledgement that we are standing on traditional Indigenous territory. While it’s both respectful and educational to do so, as it serves as a potent reminder of the colonialism that destroyed communities, I don’t want to see symbolism be the only thing at which we excel.
Trudeau’s recent request to Pope Francis for a formal apology to Canada’s Indigenous community from the Catholic Church for its treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools is perhaps a necessary step towards reconciliation and admittance of profound guilt, but is also another example of pure symbolism.
There are remote First Nations communities in dire need of drinking water, fresh produce, hospital beds for seniors, crisis support, and basic medical care. I doubt that they care about an old man in the Vatican issuing an apology as much as they do gaining access to the care that they need.
While it’s important and necessary to focus on past wrongs and potential future apologies, it’s no substitute for real action in the present. Canada’s Indigenous communities need meaningful and lasting solutions, stronger leadership from Ottawa and a commitment from all to collectively address these issues. How many more children have to go to an early grave before we act?