by Lorraine Rekmans
– The Indian Act
These are very grim times for our country. Within this era of pandemic, the most vulnerable suffer the most. This past week, CBC News reported on a seven-year-old Cree boy who attempted suicide. He is recovering now in hospital. His community organized two funerals this week due to suicides, one for a 19-year-old girl and the other for a 32-year-old woman.
In 2016, Statistics Canada issued a report titled, “Suicide among First Nations people, Metis and Inuit 2011-2016,” which found that Indigenous people die by suicide at a rate of three times higher than non-Indigenous Canadians.
The news of this crisis in the small northern Manitoba community of Shamattawa First Nation came at the same time the inquest was in process into the death of Joyce Echaquan. Joyce was a 37-year-old Atikamekw woman who died at De Lanaudiere Hospital Centre in the Joliette region of Quebec. She was the mother of seven children.
Minutes before she died, she broadcast herself live on Facebook, while an orderly and a nurse were hurling racist slurs at her and mocking her. The irony of this inquest into Joyce’s death is that the nurses who abused her in this horrific manner have their names protected under a publication ban. Joyce’s pain and vulnerability and death are on display for us all to see, while the abusers are nameless.
The Statistics Canada report noted that the highest rates of Indigenous suicides are more than six times higher for Indigenous youth aged 15-24 than for the Canadian population. It is nearly twenty-four times higher for Inuit people.
The Centre for Suicide Prevention states that, “The effects of colonization and governmental policies of forced assimilation continue to cause acculturative stress and marginalization amongst the Indigenous population.”
What most Canadians likely don’t know is that colonization is an act that continues in Canada under the Indian Act, which is an Act of Parliament, and that colonization is not an action that is relegated to historical oppression, displacement and subjugation of Indigenous peoples. It happens every day, and it seems no place is safe, including hospitals. State led racism is followed by acts of racism and aggression against Indigenous peoples in all segments of society. The Indian Act is a racist and genocidal piece of Canadians legislation that is still in effect this very day. Canadian policy over more than 100 years can be defined as a genocide of First Nations under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. Why do Canadians allow this to continue?
In the news, we often hear about the detrimental effects that national government policy has on First Nation communities. Stories include Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, the lack of clean drinking water and deplorable living conditions, moldy schools and abject poverty. What we fail to understand collectively, is this is a result of current governmental policy and approaches, and not just the result of historical wrongs.
Under the Indian Act, First Nations are beneficiaries, and the Crown is the trustee, holding all First Nation assets in trust, on their behalf. Imagine if you will, that Canada was your uncle and was administering a trust fund on your behalf, and you found yourself living in a shack with a slop pail and no clean drinking water. Your recourse would be to hire a lawyer and have your trustee fired. The Indian Act made it illegal for First Nations to develop their own economies. In fact, it was illegal for “Indians” to leave the reserves up until the 1940s, when Canada ended its “Pass System.” It was illegal for “Indians” to hire a lawyer until 1951.
The Department of Indians Affairs, now Indigenous Services Canada, manages the Indian Trust Fund on behalf of First Nations. The monies in this fund came in part from the sale of reserve lands, and from resources taken off reserve lands, oil and gas revenues, gravel, and the sale of timber without a reforestation permit.
“Trust moneys are all moneys collected, received or held in trust by ISC for the use and benefit of First Nations and their members. Trust moneys are held in the Consolidated Revenue Fund, where public moneys are deposited, as defined under the Financial Administration Act.” – Indigenous Services Canada
I have heard the pleas of Chief Eric Redhead, of Shamattawa First Nation, as he declared a state of emergency in his community, asking for resources to deal with mental health. He is entreating Canada, asking for assistance to deal with a crisis that results in the loss of human lives. The Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller, says he doesn’t think Canada is doing enough to support mental health in Indigenous communities. They have had the report on the suicide crisis since 2016.
Shamattawa First Nation has been under a drinking water advisory for two years. We know Canada hasn’t been doing enough to support basic infrastructure. I hope Chief Redhead’s pleas get a better response than all the cries for clean drinking water, coming from all the communities across Canada.
In the meantime, most Canadians are probably wondering what they can do. They can stand up for justice and demand government action.
The Canadian government is your government, and the Indian Act is your legislation. Do you really want to keep it? Can we really allow for this to continue?
Editor’s Note: The use of the term “Indian” is the reference used when attributing things to the Indian Act. Canada has signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As a result, the term “Indigenous peoples” is used to describe the original people of Canada generally. When Canada amended its Constitution in 1982, it made reference to Aboriginal peoples and defined this group as including Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.