Ohtkwipitakii to Yellow Old Woman: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples

Canada has a reputation in the international community as being the clichéd “happy” place – the proverbial land of bearded lumberjacks and undue kindness, where the word “sorry” begins and ends every sentence. Canadians take pride in the nation’s reputation of being a cultural “salad bowl,” where diversity is celebrated and encouraged. But underlying this benevolent frontage, there is failure to acknowledge a very large and deep-rooted issue – the crisis of Canada’s indigenous communities.

Since first contact, Canada has displayed institutional racism and oppression towards its Indigenous communities (the date of first contact varied greatly in different parts of Canada, and, depending on where you’re talking about, is not always known [1]). Economic interests from the fur trade and military alliances reinforced a working relationship between colonisers and Indigenous peoples, but over time they were seen as hindrances rather than aids to economic development. The relationship between Europeans and Indigenous communities quickly became one of abhorrent “paternalism”, and became destructive for Indigenous peoples.

Diplomacy between European and Indigenous peoples developed into a system of treaty-making, with land-claim settlements stipulating that Indigenous lands be surrendered to the Crown in exchange for small reservations (areas of land set aside for Indigenous peoples), and access to Crown resources such as medication and education [2]. These treaties were signed in good faith by Indigenous leaders, as there were no adequate translators at the time. (It is also valuable to mention that in some areas of Canada there were no agreements signed, and reservation systems were established without the consent of Indigenous peoples). Indigenous Nations were then forced onto isolated reservations patrolled by “Indian Police”, and pressured to assimilate to European culture.

Assimilation was enforced through enrolment in “residential schools”, which were Christian based institutions used to eradicate Indigenous culture. Thousands of children were taken from their homes and forced into these institutions. Upon their arrival children were exposed to horrific practices; they were doused in kerosene in order to “wash away the savage”, and forced to cut their hair (which is important to Indigenous culture). During their time in these institutions, children experienced severe physical and sexual abuse, and most of their language and culture was lost [4]. The odds of dying in these residential schools was 1 in 26, not dissimilar from the 1 in 25 chance of death during WWII [5]. The last of these residential schools closed in 1996, which was not that long ago…   

In 1867, Canada implemented the Indian Act, which to this day governs all 600 Indigenous Nations across the country. This Act is perhaps one of the most racist pieces of legislation to date, with policies limiting the rights and freedoms of Indigenous people. It is an amalgamation of regulations over Indigenous peoples in Canada which gives the Canadian department of Indian Affairs authority over Indigenous populations. This is by permitting it to intervene in a wide variety of Indigenous issues, such as determining who is Indigenous, managing Indigenous lands, resources, and moneys, and promoting “civilization” [6].

 Today, the experiences of Indigenous populations are not dissimilar to those of their historical counterparts. Residential schools have been replaced with foster care systems, and systematic racism against Indigenous communities is still prevalent.

Evans Yellow Old Woman, a member of the Siksika Nation in Alberta, Canada, works as an Indigenous Family Support Specialist at Northeast Family Connections Society in Calgary. “All of this dysfunction that we are seeing in the Indigenous community is a symptom of something – it’s not who Indigenous people are,” he told me. “It is the symptom of an abusive relationship – between us and Canada.”

Indigenous peoples represent 4.9% of the Canadian population, and this number is only growing [7]. Despite their marginal population size, they are overrepresented in all vulnerable risk groups, including addiction, homelessness, incarceration, and poor health [8].

Explicit historical and current institutional racism has had a longstanding impact on Indigenous communities – the most flagrant being the devastation caused by residential schools. Many of those forced to attend residential school suffer from addiction, chronic homelessness, and mental health issues because of the abuses they experienced during their time in those institutions.

Not only are those who were forced to enrol in these schools suffering themselves, but these generations of Indigenous parents lost their opportunity to develop the skills required to nurture and care for their children, and now their own children are growing up without those skills as well. “I grew up resenting her [mother] because of her parenting skills – but later realised that it wasn’t her fault – she loved me the best way she could, and the best way she knew how. At the time, there was no one there to parent them, or show them what love was, or what affection was, or what a healthy relationship was.” This was Yellow Old Woman’s response when asked about his relationship with his mother.

Today, Indigenous children account for half the number of children in the Canadian foster care system. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, this number increases to 85% [9]. These numbers echo previous residential school experiences, with children being taken from their homes by social services and put into institutions like foster care, or group homes, where they are isolated from their family and culture, and often experience abuse and neglect. This is rather than supporting families to maintain social and financial stability, and develop those soft skills required to care for their children.

The condition of the current reservation systems adds fuel to this fire. Homes are spread out and isolated, while some have no central heating or proper insulation. Inhabitants commonly lack access to appropriate medical care, counselling or addiction services. Public infrastructure too is often found wanting, with a lack of transportation to and from the closest cities to reservations; and some reservations don’t even have access to clean drinking water. 

So, then the question becomes, what next?

Indigenous peoples have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into documentation like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. These documents have over 10,000 recommendations on how to address the Indigenous situation in Canada, yet the government continues to negotiate and make amendments to these criteria. Despite this, there have been a number of initiatives to address the inequality of Indigenous peoples in Canada, but these are often overshadowed by the persistent systemic racism.

Our society has so much potential; we live side by side an entire community of people that share a culture so different from our own, and that have a wealth of history and knowledge to offer. To reconcile this broken relationship between the Indigenous community and the rest of Canada, there needs to be a level of mutual respect. This respect will only be achieved when there is an understanding and acknowledgment of the hand Canada has played in allowing many of our Indigenous communities to fall to the position they are in today.

I want to close by saying that in acknowledging the trauma of Indigenous peoples, I do not want to overlook their resilience. What I have covered in this article is only a small piece of the story that these communities have endured, and their strength and determination is truly inspiring.

 

The name “Yellow Old Woman” comes from the Blackfoot (language of the Blackfoot Nation) word “Ohtkwipitakii”. The first Yellow Old Woman had a vision during a cultural ceremony that she was to use yellow paint instead of the traditional red ochre. She was then named Ohtkwipitakii by her people. When she was forced to register with the Canadian government, Ohtkwipitakii was translated to English, thus the last name Yellow Old Woman was born.


Hanadi Al-Saidi is a first-year Master of Public Administration student at the LSE. She graduated in Psychology from the University of British Columbia in 2014, and worked in social work and counselling within multiple agencies in Calgary, Canada. This includes the Alex Community Health Centre, where she worked directly with youth experiencing homelessness, the majority of which identified themselves as Indigenous.

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