Contemporary Native Politics in Canada

The Canadian flag, photograph by Siru Tukiainen 2.1.2020

The contemporary native politics in Canada are built on those of the past. A lot has been gained along the way, but there is still a lot to achieve.

Text: Siru Tukiainen

To fully understand contemporary native politics in Canada we must first take a quick look at the history of the country’s native politics. A few relevant pieces of political history regarding the Natives in Canada are the Indian Act of 1876 and the residential schools, both of which have left marks that are still visible.

The Indian Act of 1876 was an act that permitted the Department of Indian Affairs to interfere with the lives of the Indigenous people. The basis of the Act was to determine the Crown as a caring and protecting guardian to the First Nations until they were fully integrated into the Canadian society. The consequences of the Act have been detrimental to the First Nations. Firstly, the Act allowed for the department to determine who was Indian, and who was not. The department also promoted “civilization” amongst the Natives. The Indian Act was used to ban traditional spiritual and religious ceremonies, such as potlatch and sun dance. With the Act the Department of Indian Affairs was also able to control the Natives’ land, resources, and money.[1] In addition to the Indian Act there has been a number of colonial laws, which were used to eradicate the native culture and to assimilate the First Nations into the Euro-Canadian culture.[2]

The Totem Poles of Capilano, Vancouver. Photo by Udayaditya Barua on Unsplash

The residential schools were also used as a tool to assimilate young Natives into the white culture. The first ones were founded in the late 19th century. In the institutions the children were encouraged to abandon their native culture and traditions, and to adopt the white culture. The schools were established by different churches in partnership with the federal government. There were 132 residential schools altogether across Canada, and the last one closed in 1996. Within their lifespan over 150,000 Native children attended the schools.[3]

Nowadays the Indigenous people make up 4.9 percent of Canada’s current population.[4] The government still operates under the aforementioned Indian Act of 1876, though it has been amended multiple times over the years.[5]

It is worth mentioning that Canada does not have a blanket recognition for the First Nations as sovereign nations, except in limited cases in which the government has been forced to negotiate. This refusal to recognize the First Nations as sovereign hinders the Natives’ possibilities for economic growth. The First Nations’ reservations are currently small and spread out. The present policies make it hard for them to govern their own lands, or to acquire more lands which would diversify their sources of income.[6]

The First Nations have the Indigenous self-governance as a way through which they may control their people, land, resources and related programs and policies. They do need to be in agreement with the federal and provincial governments to pursue this, and self-governance is not set in any law. Some progress has still been made. The Nisga’a Treaty in 2000 gave the First Nation a right to self-govern 2,019 km2 in the Nass Valley including the right to manage the lands and make laws regarding the Nisga’a citizenship. Negotiations for similar rights have been held and some have already been fruitful.[7]

DSC00329 – National Aboriginal Day in Canada by Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There has been a recognition of past wrongdoings. One example is when Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau recognized the killing of Native women and children as a genocide. There is also a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was founded in 2008 to address the Residential schools and the harm they caused. Furthermore, the First Nation policies have a more visible role in politics than they did before.[8] A National Aboriginal Day, June 21st, was also founded in 1996 to appreciate the Indigenous people of Canada. This took a long negotiating process to be achieved.[9] Thus, as can be seen from the examples, there has been progress with the Indigenous people’s rights, but there is still a lot to achieve. Acknowledging the past and making amends is a good start.












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