John Clarke reports from Canada on the government’s efforts to escape accountability for historical abuse against indigenous people
Faced with horrific evidence of the murderous nature of the residential school system that Indigenous children were confined in, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government have responded with measures of damage control. They declared a ‘National Day for Truth and Reconciliation’ on September 30 and issued a statement from the Prime Minister to mark the occasion. Trudeau suggested that we should ‘reflect on the painful and lasting impacts of residential schools in Canada..honour survivors, their families, and their communities’ and consider ‘the harsh realities of our collective past.’
It was rather inevitable that, since he had issued this call to reflect, the question of how Trudeau would use the time himself would come up. Though his office assured the country that he was going to be in ‘private meetings,’ it transpired that he had actually gone off on a luxurious holiday on the coast of British Columbia. In typical Trudeau style, he penitently declared this little trip to have been a ‘mistake’ and observed that “There's a lot of work for us all to do and I'm committed to doing it."
Indigenous people would be fortunate indeed if Trudeau’s extravagant trip to the beach was the most damaging expression of his government’s duplicity. Its legal representatives are currently in court, fighting a protracted battle against a human rights tribunal ruling that it must compensate for the massive underfunding of child welfare in Indigenous communities. It’s clear that not all of ‘harsh realities’ are as safely consigned to the past as Trudeau would have us believe. Longstanding injustices and recent experiences in the northern territory of Nunavut readily confirm this.
The Inuit people live in northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Siberia. Their population in Canada is about 60,000 but ‘their lands make up 35% of Canada’s total land mass and 50% of Canada’s total coastline.’ The full impact of colonialism came much later for the Inuit than other Indigenous peoples but, from the 1950s, a policy of forced settlement was implemented that has had devastating effects. Conditions of poverty, sickness and despair have been imposed on them that can seen in the fact that the rate of suicide among Inuit people is at least ten times greater than that of the general Canadian population.
April 1, 1999, saw the ‘creation of the Nunavut territory, where 82 percent of the people are Inuit.’ The government of this newly distinct territory would enjoy very significant powers within the Canadian federal system. However, the legacy and continuing impacts of colonialism would not be so easily overcome.
Though there is pervasive poverty among the people of Nunavut, the cost of food is very much greater than it is in southern Canada. Two years ago, with a boil water advisory in effect in the territory’s capital city of Iqaluit, a pack of bottled water cost $29.99, while the price for the same item in Winnipeg was $4.99. A package of noodles that would have cost $1.50 in the south, cost $9.49 in Iqaluit. The ‘Nutrition North’ programme of the federal government this is supposed to address this massive source of hardship has utterly failed to do so. In fact, the rate of ‘food insecurity’ among Nunavut’s children went from 50% in 2011 to 70% by 2016.
This spring, Nunavut’s MP, Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, released a report on the territory’s housing crisis that was utterly shocking. In the community of Taloyoak, home to about 1,000 people, she found 112 on the waiting list for social housing and one family had been on the list for 13 years. In Coral Harbour, 130 among the population of 900 were waiting for housing with 43 of them homeless. Qaqqaq found that ‘Wait-lists for new housing units and repairs that span years were common themes across the communities, as well as overcrowding.’ Appallingly, she found that ‘a child who became sick from the mould was placed in foster care in the south because the home was deemed unfit.’ “No parent should ever have to lose their child because of a government’s inability to properly build and maintain housing,” Qaqqaq wrote.
The health outcomes that are generated by such conditions of social abandonment constitute an indictment of the Canadian state. The average rate of infection for tuberculosis in the south is 4.46 per 100,000 people, while in Nunavut it is an appalling 265.8 per 100,000. That means the rate is 290 times as great and this is completely in line with the level of infection to be found in the poorest countries on earth. Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious and tropical disease specialist at the University of Toronto, points out that "Many Inuit people live in overcrowded homes that are poorly ventilated ...they're very airtight..Also, there is quite a bit of poverty, which can make tuberculosis worse. Malnutrition can exacerbate tuberculosis."
In June of this year, a lawsuit was launched that challenges the treatment faced by Inuit and other northern Indigenous people at the hands of Canada’s colonial police force, the RCMP. It ‘alleges that Indigenous people are frequently arrested, detained and abused by RCMP officers in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon on the basis of their race.’ It details egregious cases of police brutality inflicted on Indigenous people in the ongoing exercise of social control that is imposed on their impoverished communities.
“I have been assaulted by RCMP officers almost too many times to count,” wrote Willie Aglukkaq, one of the complainants. He details unlawful arrest and unspeakable brutality amounting to torture at the hands of the RCMP. Tellingly, the lawsuit also alleges that the federal government has been ‘systematically negligent’ in allowing this police violence to continue over the years.
At the present time, the 8,000 residents of Iqaluit have no clean drinking water. The city’s water supply is contaminated with fuel that may come from an old oil spill. The water tank is being emptied and flushed and an attempt to find the source of the contamination is underway. Rachel Blais, who is with a local food centre that is scrambling to meet the needs of the community, observes very accurately that “the water situation in Iqaluit is not unusual in many Canadian Indigenous communities, where boil-water advisories are the norm.”
Inuit people in Nunavut are now taking legal action to challenge the failure to provide any meaningful opportunity for education in their own language. In 2018, 9,300 of the territory’s students spoke Inuktut as their first language, with only 520 using English or French at home. Yet every school in Nunavut operates in English, with the exception of one that uses French. There are more English speaking teachers than students who speak it as a first language. 37 of the territory’s 42 head teachers are English speaking.
The government of Nunavut had committed to provide education in Inuktut by 2019 but last year they delayed the fulfilment of that promise for another 20 years. “So many of our people are survivors of residential schools,” says Aluki Kotierk of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI). “Although it’s our own government, it’s set up in a way that diminishes and degrades who we are as Inuit, and that plays into intergenerational trauma.”
Earlier this year, Inuit people across Nunavut mobilised in support of a blockade of an iron ore mine on Baffin Island that had been taken up to defend Indigenous lives from the encroachment of what is often referred to as ‘resource colonialism.’ It should serve as a reminder that the theft of Indigenous land and the removal or Indigenous people has always been fundamental to Canadian capitalism. The forced settlement of the Inuit, the effort to destroy their language and the attempt to crush their identity are all very much part of this. The struggle against capitalism and colonialism on this stolen land are integrally linked.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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