150 Years of Colonialism and Poverty

This blog is the second installment in our series for Canada 150 through a poverty and human rights lens.

“How long have I known you, Oh Canada? A hundred years? Yes, a hundred years. And many, many seelanum more. And today, when you celebrate your hundred years, Oh Canada, I am sad for all the Indian people throughout the land.” – Chief Dan George

In 1967 at the country’s centenary, Chief Dan George (Geswanouth Slahoot), former chief of the Tsleil-Waututh and a residential school survivor, delivered his “Lament for Confederation”, a stirring recrimination of the loss of freedom and land, the historical cultural annihilation, and continuing subjugation of the Indigenous people of Canada.

50 years later, many aspects of the poem still ring true. Despite our human rights obligations on the right to water, Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Confederation while there are approximately 150 drinking water advisories in First Nations communities across the country, 71 of which have been in place for over a year. Even more shocking, Indigenous women in Canada experience some of the highest rates of poverty in this country, which leads to and flows as a consequence of violence. Canada 150 occurs alongside the long-demanded Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, which many say is failing to meet its commitments, and the second anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, which are far from achieved. Just as disturbing, Canadian news is filled with the heartbreaking reports of suicide epidemics and mental health crises in communities like Attawapiskat and the Nishnawbe Aske First Nation.

This is Canada at 150. In the face of the shocking reality for many Indigenous communities in the country, the $500 million price tag for the July 1st celebrations is an added slap in the face.

Canada at 150 is a place where rampant inequality persists, with the greatest impact on Indigenous communities, particularly with regards to poverty and socioeconomic status. 28%-34% of shelter users are Indigenous people, though they are only 4.3% of the total population. 1 in 2 Status First Nations children lives in poverty and 60% of Indigenous children on reserves live in poverty and 7 of 10 Inuit preschoolers live in food insecure households.

While people across Canada seem to be more aware of these conditions, what is often lost in the conversation is how the lack of potable water, health and housing crises, and poverty are the legacy of colonialism, institutional discrimination, forced assimilation, violence, and intergenerational trauma. These apparent “third world” conditions continue because of policies that directly and indirectly create and maintain inequality.

Many people in Canada do say they want to help their neighbours; in a recent Yahoo Canada survey, 71% of Canadians identified assisting families experiencing poverty as a top priority for where their tax dollars should go. But at the same time, less than a quarter of those polled believed investing in Indigenous communities should be a priority – despite these being the communities among those most impacted by poverty. Canada 150 marks the beginning of a new chapter, but we can’t move forward until we also include indigenous communities as a top priority, since these poverty issues are indivisible.

Across the country, Indigenous artists, activists, academics, and community members (and even the odd coffee shop) have expressed their own views on a celebration that ignores the history of the Indigenous peoples, a history that far exceeds 150 years, and the painful, continuing impact of colonialism.

Many have created powerful responses to Canada 150, like the #Resistance150 project’s Canada I can cite for you 150 video:

These calls are calls for rights: the right to food, the right to water, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to life, the right to language, the right to family, the right to culture, and the right to health.  These are all rights deeply entrenched in international human rights law – and ones Canada has agreed to fulfill since signing onto the twin Covenants in 1976.

As Jesse Wente explained in an interview about why he wouldn’t be celebrating Canada 150, it is time for the country to “centre a different voice”. It has long been our rallying cry at Canada Without Poverty that the first voice perspective – the view of those who have lived experience of poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity – must be central to all conversations on policy to end those social harms. The same must be true for Indigenous peoples, especially at a time when Canada is reflecting on its history and its future.

Canada 150 is happening at a time of many first steps towards reconciliation, but there is still a long way to go. When the countrywide festivities come to an end, there’s an opportunity to recommit to addressing the intergenerational trauma and impacts of colonialism. This comes with investing in, listening to, and centring Indigenous communities and Indigenous voices.

It may be 150 years too late, but Canada needs to start somewhere. Perhaps by Canada 200, Chief Dan George’s lament will only reflect the past and not the present.

Laura Neidhart is the Development and Communications Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty.

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