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Reckoning and Reparation: Canada Navigates Past Mistreatment of Indigenous Populations

Rose Skylstad Headshot

Canada and the United States differ in their approaches to Indigenous reconciliation at the policy, legal, and social levels. Canada Institute Intern Rose Skylstad explores these historical differences and the implications for contemporary Indigenous issues.

With similar political systems, a shared border, and a common history, one might think that the United States and Canada would have developed similar policies on Indigenous populations. Historically, however, U.S. policy has followed a system of separation, granting more sovereignty but with less consideration for social welfare, while the Canadian system was rooted in assimilation, attempting to integrate Indigenous populations. Beyond policy differences, the U.S. and Canadian systems also differ in political culture surrounding Indigenous rights and advocacy. 

Over the past few years, Indigenous issues have been increasingly prevalent in the Canadian media landscape and political discourse. These same issues often take a spot on the backburner of modern American political consciousness. The salient question, then, is what drives this difference in Canadian and American awareness. In addition to a political culture that–at least ostensibly–embraces inclusion and openness, a number of catalyzing events have directed these political discussions in Canada.

In May of this year, the bodies of 215 children were found at a former Indigenous school site in British Columbia. As students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, these children were part of a network of 139 schools in the federally-run “residential school system.” From 1883 to 1997, the Canadian government forcibly placed more than 150,000 children in these schools in an effort to reeducate and assimilate Indigenous populations in what was later characterized as a “cultural genocide.”

On September 30th, Canada observed the first National Truth and Reconciliation Day in recognition of the suffering of victims and survivors from the residential school system. The debut of this holiday comes as the Canadian public reckons with the country’s past mistreatment of Indigenous populations and considers the lasting impact on Indigenous people today. Indigenous protections are increasingly a topic of discussion in Canadian politics, with rising global attention on issues of systemic racism and the resurfacing of past injustices in recent investigations into Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous people. 

The Canadian government has funded a number of investigations, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2007 to 2015 and the National Inquiry into Missing Women and Girls from 2017 to 2019. Over the next five years, the Canadian government plans to spend $18 billion “to improve the quality of life and create new opportunities for people living in Indigenous communities.” Additionally, the Canadian Federal Court upheld a ruling in September that will require the Canadian government to compensate Indigenous children separated from their parents in the foster system, with reparations summing in the billions. The US has also funded a few comparable initiatives–but none as publicized–such as the creation of the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children in 2016.

To understand these recent policy measures, it is helpful to first establish an overview of the characteristics and history of Indigenous populations in Canada. Around 4.9% of Canada’s total population, or 1,673,785 people, self-identified as Aboriginal in the 2016 census. The Canadian government classifies three distinct Indigenous populations: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. Each group consists of a collection of nations with shared histories and cultural ties. First Nations make up the largest group, the Métis include people of mixed indigeous and European descent, and the Inuit people make up the smallest group, characterized by a geographical center around the Arctic.

Over the course of Canada’s history, a number of important court cases, treaties, and legislations have defined the extent of Indigenous rights and protections. Notably, the Indian Act of 1876 established the precedent of Indian status, an official government registration that guarantees certain rights to status Indians. Métis and Inuit people are not eligible for status, and protections for these groups are often derived from court precedents or past treaties.

Because of this, much of the law guaranteeing Indigenous rights is based on judicial precedent decided on a case-by-case basis as it applies to individual nations and groups. This means that some rights, such as land claims or hunting and fishing agreements, are only granted to certain groups that have won court cases. Other rights, however, such as self-government, general rights to ancestral land, and treaty protections, are federally guaranteed by legislation such as the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Constitution.

Canada has not always been expeditious in granting Indigenous rights. In 2007, the United Nations general assembly voted in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with 144 nations signing in support. Canada was one of four countries to vote against the declaration, alongside the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Hesitancy to sign and ratify the agreement was largely due to UNDRIP clauses protecting land and resource rights, as the Canadian government would be required to notify and potentially gain permission from Indigenous populations before undergoing natural resource projects.

Following a change in leadership, Trudeau’s government signed the declaration in 2016 but still lagged in formally implementing the principles. On June 16, however, UNDRIP was adopted into Canadian federal law. There is still a path to fully implement the regulations of UNDRIP, but the formal ratification provides a more firm protection of Indigenous rights. Steps to implement UNDRIP include environmental, cultural, and legal protections

Canada’s recent wave of legislation and conversation on Indigenous issues is fueled, in part, by the work of Indigenous activists. Government action aligns closely with spikes in protests and activism from Indigenous communities. In 2020, Canada saw a peak of activism, as protests sparked surrounding police raids on indigenous land and the construction of a pipeline that would pass through some Indigenous territories. Protests started as activists blocked trains and railways, leading to stoppages in commercial and passenger rail travel. Eventually, protests were met with a response from Canadian police, with dozens of protestors arrested. 

While the US has not had as high profile protests as recently, similar activism is prevalent among Native American groups. In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North and South Dakota protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline. These protests were met with media attention, and, eventually, the National Guard was called in to manage the protests. Yet, the Standing Rock demonstrations resulted in little tangible action from the government, and the legal fight against the pipeline continues to this day. 

Despite comparable advocacy efforts from Indigenous populations in the United States and Canada, Indigenous issues tend to be less visible in U.S. politics. One trip to the front page of Canada’s government website reveals a number of resources on Indigenous rights, programs, and history. Multiple federal holidays in Canada celebrate Indigenous culture or atone for the government’s historical treatment of Indigenous peoples. Canada certainly has further progress to make in guaranteeing Indigenous rights, but the government seems more keenly focused on reconciling the past than does the United States.

The United States has legal protections of Indigenous people, including a right to self-government and land rights, but falls short in addressing inequalities. In 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that social welfare programs to Native Americans are “chronically underfunded” and fail to provide adequate support, perpetuating systemic inequities. Furthermore, the United States signed UNDRIP in 2010, but the declaration remains unratified in US law and has no legal standing.

While discussions of systemic racism are prevalent in both the United States and Canada, the discourse in the United States has not translated as directly to considerations of Indigenous rights. The reasons for this discrepancy are not entirely clear, but it will remain to be seen whether Canadian legislation and activism will influence U.S. policy. Another consideration, however, is whether increased visibility in the Canadian system will actually translate to actual change in Indigenous protections. Promises to create change are one step, but both the Canadian and U.S. governments must also draft and implement effective policy, and listen to Indigneous voices, to meaningfully impact equality and civil rights protections. 


About the Author

Rose Skylstad Headshot

Rose Skylstad

Former Staff Intern, Canada Institute
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Canada Institute

The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community.  Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests.  Read more