Barely a day goes by in Canada without more evidence that this affluent country treats its indigenous people as second-class citizens, or worse.
This week, the federal Human Rights Tribunal issued a stinging ruling.
For decades, the tribunal found, children living on reserves – aboriginal communities mandated by historic treaties between Ottawa and tribal groups – have been denied support, services and funding that every other Canadian child can count on.
It’s no surprise. In almost every category imaginable, Canada’s aboriginal people – defined as First Nations, mixed-race Metis and the Inuit of the Arctic – fare poorly against the rest of the population.
They have lower life expectancies. More children are in foster care. A disproportionate number of aboriginal men and women are in prison and are victims of violent crime.
Unemployment is higher and education achievement is lower.
The Human Rights Tribunal is far from the first institutional body to indict Canada. Independent rights groups have also been critical.
United Nations investigators have called on the country to close such appalling gaps.
The recent and tragic shooting spree in the remote town of La Loche, Saskatchewan, is not unconnected to the absence of mental health services outside of major population centres, many of them cut by governments looking to save taxpayers’ money.
Whether it’s residential schools that tried for decades – with public support – to forcibly assimilate indigenous children, or the failure of successive governments to redress a litany of wrongs, it’s easy to conclude that Canada simply doesn’t care enough about its first peoples.
There is ample evidence of outright racism. Any news story published online about almost any issue related to this community immediately attracts hateful comments.
So virulent can those be that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) dedicated aboriginal news service has disabled comments on its often groundbreaking reports, many of them attempts to show how communities are taking matters into their own hands and working towards a future where aboriginal culture and economic success are melded.
Here’s where we find signs of hope.
Consider that phrase “taking matters into their own hands”. Many aboriginal Canadians are acting to make change happen themselves, faster than governments and much faster than non-aboriginal society.
It’s not a groundswell – not yet – but it is inspiring and undeniable. Youth culture is leading such change.
Aboriginal musicians such as Inuit throat singer Tanya Taqaq are mixing traditional and avant garde to assert a vision that’s both provocative and joyful.
Hip-hop artists A Tribe Called Red pump out powerful, political beats and lyrics pointing out injustice and promoting change.
Journalist, writer and filmmaker Wab Kinew, who works occasionally for Al Jazeera, is a cross-cultural icon whose CBC television series 8th Fire charts how young aboriginal people are seizing the initiative, rediscovering their culture and moving forward with pride and confidence.
The law is another area where Canada’s indigenous people are redressing wrongs on their own.
Across the country, courts have often ruled in favour of aboriginal communities challenging governments or natural resource companies to expand the definitions of their rights.
As author and legal scholar Bill Gallagher points out in his book Resource Rulers, it’s clear that indigenous people have far more land rights than Ottawa and other governments have recognised in the past.
“Their success in the courts has accorded them de facto control over their traditional lands, making them ‘Resource Rulers’ over much of the country,” he writes.
Simple demographics also argue that change is inevitable.
Aboriginal Canadians are the fastest growing portion of the population and this dynamic young community can no longer be ignored on any level, by any political party or interest group.
But for now, it’s over to Ottawa and the federal government, which has always had a quasi-colonial role in management of indigenous people and their concerns.
The new Liberal administration has promised significant change, full implementation of historic treaties and the establishment of a “nation-to-nation” relationship with aboriginal Canadians.
What that means in practice is anyone’s guess. But it’s at least a rhetorical improvement on the halting steps or outright reluctance of previous governments despite decades of damning reports and evident dysfunction.
And whatever happens, it will be implemented by a federal minister of justice who is herself from an indigenous background.
There’ll be plenty of hurdles and setbacks. This may require constitutional change, never easy in a diverse, federal arrangement like Canada.
But if the country wants to end the shame of a two-tier citizenship between its settlers/immigrants and its aboriginal people, it’s time to get moving.