Indigenous issues can’t be fixed by statues and holidays alone

Posted on August 20, 2018 in Equality Delivery System – Opinion/Editorials
Aug. 20, 2018.   By

Canada’s residential school system is a dark and terrible stain on this country’s history.

From 1876 until 1996, about 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their communities to attend those schools. There they were stripped of their culture and language and, all too often, lost contact with their families and a connection to their communities.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools. And some 3,200 to 6,000 children are estimated to have died of malnutrition or disease while in care at these state and church-run schools.

The country has long been trying to find ways — both big and small — to right that grievous wrong. And, most recently, that manifested itself in the form of a debate around taking down statues of historical figures with complicated legacies and creating a new national statutory holiday.

The first item came courtesy of Victoria’s decision to remove a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, because of his role in the creation of the residential school system.

And the second, surrounded the announcement last week that Ottawa intends to declare a new national statutory holiday to commemorate those who attended those schools.

The details of when it might be — June 21 or Sept. 30 currently top the list — and who, beyond federal employees, will get the day off which depends on how the provinces and businesses proceed, are still to come.

(June 21 is already National Indigenous Peoples Day and Sept. 30 is marked as “Orange Shirt Day,” a residential schools awareness campaign started in British Columbia.)

Both items reflect a laudable intent to help heal the wounds those terrible schools inflicted on Indigenous peoples. And, in the case of the statutory holiday, the idea came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

These are both symbolic moves, and symbols do matter. But they are far from enough. And, far too often, symbolic moves have been used by governments in place of the more concrete actions, funding and programs that are needed to solve the underlying problems.

In the case of Indigenous peoples, federal and provincial governments can’t lose sight of the need to solve appalling and ongoing issues, including racism, poverty, unemployment and addiction.

The disturbing truth is more Indigenous children are being taken from their homes and communities today than at the height of the residential school system.

In 2016, more than 14,000 Indigenous children were placed in foster care, often far from home. And routinely for family problems that are rooted in poverty. Indigenous children made up just 7 per cent of all the children in Canada but accounted for over half the kids taken into care.

At the same time, the significant gap in high school graduation rates between Indigenous children on reserves and other Canadian students has grown over the past 15 years.

Indigenous youth, 18 to 24, are twice as likely to be poor than other youth, according to census data. And they far more likely to commit suicide.

All those challenges, combined with systemic racism in the justice system, mean Indigenous adults are also vastly overrepresented in prisons. In 2017, they accounted for less than 5 per cent of the Canadian population but over 26 per cent of all federal inmates.

Indeed, there seems to be no measure by which Indigenous peoples do well compared to other Canadians. Far too many living on reserves suffer from unemployment, inadequate and overcrowded housing, undrinkable water, poor health and addictions.

Taking down a John A. Macdonald statue so it’s no longer a reminder of a “painful colonial history,” or declaring a new holiday to reflect on a path to reconciliation, doesn’t change any of that.

And that’s something no government should forget.

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