In the midst of the never-ending spectacle that is Donald Trump, nervous Americans fantasise about immigrating north, spurred on by earnest and satirical stories depicting Canada as a safe haven for left leaners should Trump win in November. Links to websites like Maple Match – which offers Americans a route to a Canadian partner – and Brian Calvert’s “Canada for President 2016” YouTube video have featured on millions of newsfeeds.
Even further afield, media outlets are putting Canada on a pedestal, proclaiming it “what a progressive Britain could be” – a place that fulfils the three objectives the US claims to offer its citizens: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Although my national pride swells as international neighbours tout Canada as a peaceful, exceedingly democratic country, I’m forced to confront the fact that, like so many other nations, Canada has a dark, yet rarely discussed history of its own with social repercussions that continue to permeate multiple aspects of Canadian society.
We may have a feminist Prime Minister who would never construct a wall between borders, but too often we Canadians overlook the social injustices carried out against our own indigenous people – and not that long ago. As late as almost 1970, the Canadian Government’s aggressive assimilation policy removed over 150,000 Inuit, First Nation and Métis children from their communities and forced them to attend residential schools. There, they were banned from speaking their native languages, severely punished for cultural practices, and many were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996. At least 6,000 children died while in the residential school system; those who did return home suffered emotional grief that altered the lives of an entire generation and created a vicious cycle of poverty, substance abuse and unemployment that continues today.
It’s disappointing, if unsurprising, to see how many individuals and media outlets paint Canada with broad strokes without acknowledging this history, but even within my home country, acknowledgement is deficient. For example, in the Yukon Territory, where I grew up, schools were only forced to cover this dark history in their curriculum eight months ago. Moreover, the Yukon is one of the regions of Canada leading the charge in making this teaching mandatory.
In recent discussions with overseas classmates, it has become apparent just how few foreigners are aware of the atrocities and attempted cultural genocide within our national borders throughout this period, and a part of me is beginning to wonder how many Canadians are even fully cognisant. Last week, former Northwest Territories Languages Commissioner Sarah Jerome spent a week at Harvard University, presenting Canada’s residential school history to Canadian students there. As she reported to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: “They all told us that they had never ever heard about the history of indigenous people being taken away to residential school.”
Past harms and present problems
Past harms are inextricably linked to problems in modern-day Canadian society, a society where indigenous women are four times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other Canadian women; where two thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory for impotable water in the last decade; where suicide rates amongst First Nations people are twice the national average (six to 11 times the Canadian average amongst Inuit people of the high Arctic); where aboriginal children represent 7% of all children in Canada yet account for nearly half of all foster children in the country; and where the median income for aboriginal Canadians is approximately 30% less than non-aboriginal Canadians.
Brian Calvert jokes in his “Canada for President” YouTube clip that he thinks he speaks for all Canadians when he says “what the f*ck?” regarding politics in the US, but these statistics leave me asking the same thing about my home country.
Although Canadian reparations for the residential school period have been made in theory – from the Truth and Reconciliation process that exposed Canada’s residential school history to financial compensation packages for survivors to a formal apology in 2008 by our former Prime Minister – Canada still has a long way to go when it comes to recognition of and respect for our indigenous peoples. Just last week, British Columbia’s premier continued attempts to force a massive pipeline that would transport liquefied natural gas over sacred, ecologically sensitive territory of the allied tribes of Lax Kw’alaams, despite the group’s continuous outcries. Their refusal, for cultural and environmental purposes, happened within days of Prime Minister Trudeau laudably receiving a standing ovation at the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues after he vowed to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. Lax Kw’alaams leaders travelled to the same forum to seek support from the United Nations to prevent Federal Government approval on the pipeline. And don’t even get me started on the injustices the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has endured with regard to Canada’s oil sands.
As more Canadians become aware of these past and present injustices, aboriginal self-governance is growing, co-management regimes for natural resources are increasing and the launch of a national inquiry into the thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada was finally announced earlier this year. Perhaps most importantly, media coverage of such initiatives is promulgating this facet of Canada and creating some confidence that progress is achievable.
Though I adore my country, the image of an exceedingly democratic, hockey-happy nation is simplistic and misleading. Canada is, as the international press writes, “having a moment”, but adoration from the outside world risks concealing complex internal problems. This ‘moment’ should encourage Canadians to educate ourselves about our country’s indigenous peoples and fully address systemic challenges that contribute to marginalisation. It should promote the strengthening of aboriginal communities that comprise essential pieces of our cultural tapestry and fuel aspirations towards progress of the nation that the world is currently praising us for being and which we have the potential to become.
With fanaticism at a political peak within borders worldwide, it’s time we all look squarely at our own countries – their policies, leaders and histories – before casting stones. Canada is beloved for a reason – my home country is a place of tremendous natural beauty with a healthcare system paralleled by few nations, judicious gun control policies and modern refugee acceptance schemes that many worldwide admire and envy – but we’re not the perfect haven Americans and others envisage. No place is.
*Jodi Gustafson  was born and raised as a settler in the traditional territories of the Kwanlin Dün and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, Canada. She is of settler descent on her father’s side and of mixed settler and indigenous descent from southern Labrador on her mother’s side. She remains on a journey of determining how to honour her reconciliation responsibilities in a good way, particularly in the realm of conservation. In 2015-16, she pursued an MPhil in Conservation Leadership as a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge.
- 2015 MPhil Conservation Leadership
- King's College
University of British Columbia