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The unsettling truth of the settler state

Canada’s failure to acknowledge its colonial legacy as a settler state only serves to foster silence and complacency towards Canada’s foundation, which will perpetuate its racist and violent tendencies

Wampum Belt
Photo licensed under Creative Commons by St. Lawrence University Art Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At face value, Canadian laws stand decidedly against all forms of hate, violence or discrimination, though this has not always been the case. The recent discoveries of unmarked graves of missing children have resurfaced memories of Canada’s colonial violence. They are also a reminder that, while no longer endorsed by government policies, white supremacy and settler colonialism have long found a comfortable place among our institutions through laws and policy. 

For decades, Canada practiced an active policy of cultural and ethnic genocide. The colonial mindset dictated white settlers and their descendants were entitled to occupy, develop and live on land occupied by Indigenous peoples. While many Indigenous peoples welcomed and helped settlers adapt to the New World, they did not share their world perspective on the occupation of land. What initially began as a partnership between cultures driven by the 1763 Royal Proclamation recognizing long-standing Aboriginal sovereignty gave way to colonial laws in the 1850s and 1860s. Those culminated in the Indian Act in 1876, which sought to eliminate pillars of Indigenous cultures, self-governance and autonomy in favour of assimilation.

The recent passage of Bill C-15, to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canadian law offers new paths to redraw the relationship between the federal government and indigenous peoples. In the preamble of the bill, legislators added a repudiation of the doctrine of discovery and terra nullus, which, until recently, formed the social, legal and political backbone for the erasure of historic Indigenous presence in North America. It’s unclear how the bill will impact the Indian Act and future claims. And we will see how the government and our courts interpret the meaning of free, prior and informed consent in pursuing resource projects. Under the new law, the government will also have to come up with an action plan for implementation.

While modern perspectives largely insinuate a misguided belief by past authorities that assimilation was a beneficial policy, it also ignores its true purpose. The Indian Act exists because Indigenous peoples were seen as a threat to white supremacy and the State’s economic well-being.

A cursory review of documents and reports on residential schools from the 19th and 20th centuries clearly demonstrates a policy rooted in assimilation and racial discrimination. The oft-presented expression “kill the Indian, save the man” finds its Canadian iteration in the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, architect of the expression “Until There Is Not a Single Indian in Canada”, who served as superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs. The State has not been a benevolent guardian in any way, shape or form, actively presenting indigenous peoples as a dying group that would necessarily assimilate into the settler-majority before the 1960s.

In 1873, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) was created to advance the interests of, and prevent any opposition to, the colonial state. When Canada developed a pass system for reserves, the NWMP, which later became Canada’s RCMP was the agency designated to enforce this, forcing pass-less Indigenous peoples back into their reserves. Today, this legacy of cultural assimilation, genocide and state violence to expand the Canadian colonial state has fostered an atmosphere of mistrust and animosity towards the RCMP as an institution. The pass system was phased out in the 1930s, but to this day the RCMP’s actions evoke the oppression of Indigenous peoples. They are called upon to enforce Canadian law and intervene in instances of Indigenous reclamation of land or rights. Last year, it was accused of inaction as a mob violently attacked Mi’kmaq fishers reclaiming their rights over their traditional waters. 

Over time, governments in Canada adopted anti-discrimination laws that aim to protect the human rights of Indigenous peoples and racialized people. But Canada long neglected to have an open conversation about its legislative history of white supremacy. Until 1962, its immigration policy was Eurocentric and openly racist. Ontario schools allowed segregation until 1964. The last residential school was closed in 1996. Many protections exist in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Canadian Human Rights Act, defined in ‘neutral terms, yet the Indian Act was excluded from accountability to the Human Rights Act until 2008

Slowly, awareness is taking hold about how some Indigenous and racialized Canadians live. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) have been instrumental in bringing this to light.

Unsurprisingly, government action remains minimal or is forced upon it by litigation. The government recently released a national plan based on recommendations from the MMIWG inquiry, which was largely criticized for its lack of concrete commitments and targeted actions. It not only casts doubt on the sincerity of the state and its commitments, but fits a pattern of symbolic actions from our government. The federal government recently faced calls to accelerate the calls to action from the TRC, only completing two for every year it has been in office. Legislation such as Bill C-15, supported in TRC calls 44 and 45, can play an important role in this, fostering exclusive Indigenous spaces of self-determination and holding the federal government accountable to acting in good faith. There are also calls for it to end litigation delaying compensation for families victimized by the child welfare system, and on the application of Jordan’s principle. 

Undeniably, Canada’s constitutional and legal framework has been built on the back of its colonial history and is tainted with white supremacy, which is still felt today. The promise of Canada’s reconciliation, as it reimagines its relationship with Indigenous peoples, is in re-examining the structures having fostered the colonial dynamic. Though the challenge of undoing this legacy often seems unattainable, knowledge and acknowledgment of the past are fundamental to addressing and atoning for the horrors of colonization.