Though Canada is often the butt of jokes about its white homogeneity, the country actually courts diversity. For starters, its visible minority population continues to grow steadily. In 2006, Canada’s visible minority population totaled more than 5 million people — a sizable increase from the country’s 1.1 million only 25 years before. Experts forecast that the visible minority population will make up about 20 percent of the population by 2017.
One reason for this? Canada welcomes people who want to live there. Its immigration acceptance rate in 2011 was 92 percent, and it has the highest naturalization rate in the developed world — 85 percent of permanent residents eventually become Canadian citizens.
Meanwhile, Aboriginal people in Canada — Inuit, Métis, and First Nations — have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. About 1,200 Aboriginal women have gone missing since 1952 according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has joined many others in calling for a national inquiry into the alarming number or disappearances, which are attributed in part to domestic violence, the murder of sex workers, and a variety of other causes that strongly affect such a vulnerable population.
One in five Aboriginal Canadians live in dilapidated and often overcrowded homes. The UN special rapporteur said, "funding for Aboriginal housing is woefully inadequate." It added that the suicide rate among Inuit and First Nations youth on reserves is more than five times that of other Canadians.
When I spent time in Winnipeg, Manitoba earlier this year producing a VICE News documentary about Aboriginal street gangs, I saw first-hand the racially motivated poverty that defines the urbanized Aboriginal community. And yet when I emigrated to Canada from Iran in 1995, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I was absorbed into the “Canadian community.” At that time, I was one of a handful of non-white kids in my school.
A 2012 poll found that Canadian-born and foreign-born citizens felt about equally "Canadian" — 78 percent and 75 percent, respectively, felt strongly Canadian.
But this inclusiveness has never included the country’s own native peoples.
Canada systematically tried to dismantle the traditions of its Aboriginal people with Indian Residential Schools that were opened as early as 1840. By 1884, attendance was mandatory for all Aboriginal kids under the age of 16. They were taken from their parents and forbidden to acknowledge or identify with their heritage amid numerous reports of physical and emotional abuse at the schools. The last Residential School closed in 1996 — more than 150,000 children went through the system — so the memory of the schools is still fresh in the minds of the Aboriginal community.
'This government only turns to First Nations leaders when there’s a need for validation or for a photo op.'
According to Jonathan Genest-Jourdain, a member of Canada’s House of Commons, the relationship between the current government and Aboriginal communities is only getting worse. Genest-Jourdain is from the remote Innu reserve village of Uashat-Maliotenam. Currently, he’s the Deputy Critic of Aboriginal Affairs and has been a vocal advocate for Aboriginal issues in Canada. For him, the relationship between the two isn’t built on a genuine desire for the government to hear the concerns of Aboriginal communities, but is actually a utilitarian relationship with a primarily economic focus.
“This government only turns to First Nations leaders elected under the Indian act when there’s a need for validation or for a photo op,” Genest-Jourdain said. “There’s only a few token First Nations leaders left who are willing to stand with this government and its policies. What we’re witnessing on Parliament Hill are the first signs of an uprising of the first nation’s citizens. I've seen so many demonstrations, gatherings, and protests led by Aboriginals over the past three years on Parliament Hill that I lost count.”
One of the most notable Aboriginal-led protest movements is Idle No More, which grew in response to the omnibus Bill C-45 that significantly slashed most of the Navigable Waters Protection Act of 1882; that act used to mandate an approval process before any industrial development could begin on national waterways. The new bill limited the consultation process, thereby leaving a significant number of new waterways that are largely on indigenous land vulnerable to industrial expansion and environmental damage.
“We saw the most solidarity that we've ever seen with non-indigenous Canadians over those issues," said Glen Coulthard, an assistant professor in the First Nations Studies Program and Political Science at the University of British Columbia. "But those attitudes were of a variety of forms."
Non-Aboriginal Canadians aligned with the Idle No More movement because they shared mutual interests with the Aboriginal community. But Coulthard believes solidarity based on a shared environmental interest is shallow at best. Once the environmental concern is mitigated, Aboriginal people will lose support. And the government will once again turn to its default of recognition by cultural distinction as promoted by multicultural policies.
“Multiculturalism policies have become a central part of Canadian identity,” said Daniel Westlake, a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of British Columbia. “The core idea behind Canadian multiculturalism is that immigrants and ethnic minorities should be able to integrate into Canadian society without giving up their own cultural practices.”
Some critics say Canada’s multiculturalism policy impacts the movement for Aboriginal self-determination by giving equal weight to all subnational communities. But, when you really look at Canada’s policy, that’s not exactly the case. Aboriginal communities make fundamentally different claims than those of ethnic minorities.
“When ethnic minorities and immigrants advocate for multiculturalism, they generally advocate for programs that allow them to integrate into society while maintaining their own practices," Westlake explained. "Ethnic minorities and immigrants are not claiming political sovereignty in the same way that Aboriginals are."
The No. 1 issue on the current government’s agenda is economics, and more specifically energy independence. Projects like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline run directly through Aboriginal land. Ignoring any land claims and instead acknowledging cultural distinctiveness is yet another example of the government pursuing its own economic interests at the expense of Aboriginals while giving lip service to Aboriginals' place in Canada.
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