Chapter 4: Indigenous Peoples, Communities, and Cultural Safety
Canada is a settler-colonial nation. This means that the country as it currently exists came to be by encouraging the settlement of people on the land from other places, primarily from Europe initially. The history of the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples is complicated. While there is some history of engaging in trade together and sharing the land, even signing treaties that governed agreements between the settlers and individual Indigenous communities. Treaties are formal legal agreements between two or more nations, which often included clauses ceding land to the settlers. Since the Indigenous peoples already had their own governance structures, these agreements were between two different governments, each with their own agency. Were these treaties fair? Like more recent agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, United States, and Mexico, the conditions tend to favour those with more power. Over time, the settlers gained more and more power and retained power through inequality. The treaties were not followed by the settlers, were interpreted in favour of the settlers, and were taken advantage of by settlers, who continued to take more and give less.
Colonization controlled Indigenous people through a number of different formal means. Wilson (2018) summarizes these as: treaties, laws and acts of parliament, the reserve system and residential schools. We recommend you read Wilson’s Pulling Together: A Guide for Indigenization of Post-Secondary Institutions for a more complete explanation of colonization in Canada. Though treaties existed throughout Canada, they were not common in British Columbia. As the province of British Columbia’s website “History of Treaties in B.C.” (2021) summarizes, “[w]hen British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the Province did not recognize Indigenous title so there was no need for treaties. However, the Province did accept the rights of Indigenous people as written in the Canadian Constitution and recognized the federal government’s authority to make laws for Indigenous people and their lands” (n.p.). This means that the majority of the land in British Columbia is unceded land. In cases where land is unceded, Indigenous peoples’ traditional territory was unrecognized by the colonial government and was taken without consent or formal agreement. As the quotation suggests, BC did not recognize the land rights of Indigenous people, but still applied policies and laws about the people themselves through the Canadian government.
After the initial treaties, formal laws, and acts of parliament codified treatment of Indigenous people both before and after Canada became its own country. The Indian Act of 1876 is one of the more important of these documents, because it defined who was and who wasn’t an “Indian” and determined how Indigenous people would live, where they would live, what kind of education they would receive, and more. The Indian Act is still an active law, it still impacts all Indigenous peoples in Canada, and continues to outline Indigenous rights and structures including reserves, education, healthcare, and internal government.
Because the land the settlers wanted was already occupied by Indigenous peoples, settlement of these new people eventually resulted in violent forced displacement of Indigenous peoples. The settlers were not just controlling and governing themselves, they were also controlling and governing Indigenous people. Many Indigenous communities were removed to land ‘reserved’ for them by the settlers, sometimes far from their traditional territories and often on land that was deemed less valuable or conducive to life than the land the settlers occupied. The reserve system is how the Canadian government allocates land to First Nations communities. Though not all Indigenous people live on reserve land now, there was a time when this was actively, sometimes violently, enforced by the Canadian government.
The Canadian goverment also attempted to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society. There were many policies intended to strip Indigenous people of their Indian status so that they would become more like their settler-colonial rulers. To help break cultural, spiritual, and family ties, the Canadian government sponsored special schools for Indigenous children, called residential schools. These were mandatory schools that took children away from their families, sometimes sending them far from home. Most of the schools were boarding schools where students received a Western education, which included religious teaching in Christianity and English language. The idea of this assimilation policy was that Indigenous people would adopt the lifestyle they were taught and that their cultures would become a thing of the past. The children would be punished if they spoke their language or sang their songs. To make this happen, force, violence, and deprivation were sometimes used in schools. Abuse was emotional, physical, spiritual, and often sexual. When students came home after attending these schools, they were traumatized and often unable to communicate or connect with their families and communities.
More information about Residential Schools and Health, Death, and Disease at Residential Schools.
Colonization has taken unimaginable tolls on First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. In addition to the horror of being displaced and unable to practice their traditional ways of life, the Canadian government has actively controlled and regulated every aspect of Indigenous life. It has also imposed a combination of sexism and racism that motivates gender-based violence against Indigenous women. For example, the 725 km of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert in British Columbia known as the Highway of Tears. There are dozens of murdered and missing Indigenous women who have been lost on this route. The violence against Indigenous women is motivated by race, gender, economic factors, all of which has direct roots in colonization. The governmental control and subjugation of Indigenous people has been brutal and you can still see its effects everywhere today. Some of these current issues impacting Indigenous people are summarized by Indigenous Corporate Training Inc (2019): poorer health, lower levels of education, inadequate housing, crowded living conditions, lower income levels, higher rates of unemployment, higher levels of incarceration, higher death rate among children and youth due to unintentional injuries, and higher rates of suicide.
Mikaela never forgets the warmth that Imeli showed her on her first day. Though they don’t work together often, she looks forward to the days when they work a similar shift. When Mikaela gets to the breakroom, Imeli is eating her lunch. “How is your language class going?,” Mikaela asks. Imeli responds, “It’s a lot of work, but I am learning a lot! My parents don’t speak Dakelh, but my grandparents did. They are gone now. I wish I could ask my Grandma for help. Dakelh grammar is very different from English. My teacher says the word order is similar to Japanese!” Mikaela thinks for a moment. “I never thought about that! You aren’t just learning new words, you are learning a whole new way to see the world.” Imeli smiles, “Definitely!”
One of the many consequences of residential schools has been a massive loss of Indigenous language. In 2016, the most common Indigenous languages spoken as a mother tongue in British Columbia are Carrier, Gitxsan, Chilcotin, Cree, and Shuswap (Statistics Canada, 2017). However, only a small percentage of Indigenous people spoke their language as their mother tongue, while slightly more had the ability to conduct a conversation in their language (Statistics Canada, 2017). Many languages are on the verge of extinction. This is an example of the cultural aspect of the genocide that continues to impact Indigenous people in BC and beyond. Though this reality is tragic, there continues to be resilience within Indigenous communities and there is a resurgence of language learning. As the work of Truth and Reconciliation continues, as you will learn below, the intergenerational trauma will continue to surface along with research that brings to light a broader extent of the cultural loss Indigenous communities continue to live with and come up against. The fact that Indigenous people continue to advocate for justice and equality is a tribute to the strength and resiliency of Canada’s First Peoples.
The First Peoples Cultural Council (2021) explains that “our languages are the roots of our culture—connecting us to the land, traditional knowledge and stories offered in our Language Program. All that we know and all of our relationships grow from the words of our ancestors” (n.p.). The First Peoples Cultural Council is specifically mandated in British Columbia to support language revitalization, as well as arts and culture revitalization. They are currently investing deeply in the reclamation, revitalization, preservation, and strengthening of First Nations languages.