According to the 2016 Census, minority and indigenous communities include French-speaking Canadians (7,166,705), Eastern European Canadians (3,431,245), Asian Canadians (including West Central Asian and Middle Eastern) (6,095,235) and African Canadians (1,067,930). Among other ethnic origins, English (6,320,085), French (4,680,820), Scottish (4,799,005) and Irish (4,627,000) were most often reported.
Canada’s indigenous population was estimated at almost 1.7 million (1,673,785) in the 2016 Census, an increase of 42.5 per cent from the 2006 Census, amounting to around 4.9 per cent of the national population. This includes First Nations people (977,230), Métis (587,545), Inuit (65,025) and other groups.
Around 7.7 million Canadians identified themselves as a visible minority in the 2016 Census, accounting for 22.3 per cent of the population. In Canada, visible minorities are defined as ‘persons, other than Aboriginals who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour’. People of South Asian origin are Canada’s largest visible minority group, with a population of 1,924,635. They are followed by Chinese (1,577,060), Black (1,198,540) and Filipino (780,125). The next largest groups are Arab (523,235), Latin American (447,325), Southeast Asian (313,260), West Asian (264,305), Korean (188,710) and Japanese (92,920).
The proportion of the foreign-born population is at its highest in 70 years. About two-thirds of current population growth is the result of migratory increase, while natural increase accounts for the remaining one-third. Based on the current numbers, migratory increase could account for more than 80 per cent of Canada’s population by 2031.
Main Languages: Canada’s two official languages, English and French, are the mother tongues of 78.9 per cent of Canadians in 2016, compared to 82.4 per cent in 2001.
French is mostly spoken in Quebec, but there are substantial francophone populations in parts of New Brunswick, Ontario and southern Manitoba. Of those who speak French as a first language, 81 per cent live in Quebec, where French is the official language. New Brunswick is the only bilingual province in the country. English is the official language in all other provinces. On 7 July 1969, under the Official Languages Act, French was made commensurate to English throughout the federal government. This started a process that led to Canada redefining itself as an officially ‘bilingual’ country. English and French have equal status in federal courts, parliament, and in all federal institutions. The public has the right, where there is sufficient demand, to receive federal government services in either English or French.
There are 53 Indigenous languages associated with Canada’s First Nations and Inuit peoples. Several Aboriginal languages have official status in the Northwest Territories. In Nunavut, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages alongside English and French.
Non-official languages are important in Canada, with more than 7.7 million speakers of immigrant mother tongue languages according to the 2016 Census. Important non-official languages include Mandarin (641,100), Cantonese (594,030), Punjabi (543,495), Spanish (495,090), Tagalog (510,420), and Arabic (486,525).
Main religions: in the 2011 Census, 22,102,700 Canadians (67.3 per cent) identified as being Christian: of these, Catholics make up the largest group at 12,728,900 (38.7 per cent of the total population). The largest Protestant denomination is the United Church of Canada. Roughly 7,850,600 people or around one quarter of Canada’s population (23.9 per cent) had no religious affiliation. The remaining religious demographics includes Muslim (3.2 per cent), Hindu (1.5 per cent), Sikh (1.4 per cent), Buddhist (1.1 per cent) and Jewish (1.0 per cent).
Updated June 2019
While Canada has attracted considerable international attention for its liberal stance on issues such as diversity, asylum and inclusion, with current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised by many for his progressive attitudes towards minority and indigenous concerns in particular, the country’s long history of discrimination continues to be felt to this day. Indeed, Trudeau’s administration has also been criticized for perpetrating many of the same abuses that these marginalized communities have suffered for generations, such as the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, supported by the government but condemned by indigenous representatives as a violation of their communal land rights. A significant portion of Canada’s indigenous population and many members of its varied ethnic and religious minorities, such as Black Canadians and Muslims, still face higher levels of poverty, hate speech and other challenges.
Nevertheless, in recent years a cultural, social and political revival has occurred among many minority groups and indigenous peoples in Canada that has strengthened their communities, cultures, institutions and languages. Especially involved are minority and indigenous youth. The commitments made by the federal and provincial governments to address indigenous peoples’ rights since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs published its recommendations in 1996 represent an important break from past assimilationist strategies. Similarly, the government has embarked on a number of reconciliation efforts, aimed towards indigenous peoples, Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians, Ukrainian Canadians and Acadians (francophone people of New Brunswick and parts of Nova Scotia) in recognition of historic injustices towards their communities.
Updated June 2019
The traumatic history of Canada’s indigenous population in particular, which makes up around 4.9 per cent of the population and includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis, has been well documented. Despite the diversity of these indigenous communities, each with distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds and traditions, they also share similarities, including a troubled history of land rights and jurisdictional violations by corporations and the Canadian government, as well as impediments to realizing self-determination and political representation.
In 2015, after seven years taking statements from thousands of former residential school survivors, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its initial report exploring the impact of the residential school system on its Indigenous peoples, which it declared amounted to ‘cultural genocide,’ whereby ‘families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.’ Children were removed from their homes and communities, often forcibly, and forbidden from speaking indigenous languages, severing a crucial link with their cultural identities and thus their ability to speak their mother tongue. The findings were accompanied by 94 Calls to Action to improve the lives of indigenous Canadians and address the long history of discrimination, exploitation and abuse they have suffered.
One issue highlighted by the Commission was the disproportionate impact of violent crime on some urban indigenous communities, particularly in relation to gang membership in cities. However, this is precipitated by a number of factors which influence gang and violent crime involvement. For the First Nations, Inuit and Métis of Winnipeg and other urban centres, discrimination, poverty, cultural alienation, spatial segregation, sub-standard housing and decreased access to labour markets have helped push many indigenous youth towards gang affiliation. Yet it is critical to also recognize the gains that have been made by the indigenous population: in Winnipeg, the Indigenous middle class is growing rapidly, thanks in part to increased access to better education.
Nevertheless, the urban exclusion that drives many into violent gangs has also contributed to increased rates of violence inflicted against indigenous women, which is also strongly associated with their secondary status based on gender and their belonging to a marginalized community. Indigenous groups were instrumental in increasing awareness about the high numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, as part of the Idle No More movement. This was thanks in part to the efforts of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NAWC) as well as the release of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report in May 2014 which cited 1,017 homicides and 164 missing persons cases of indigenous women and girls between 1980 and 2012. Rights groups have also questioned the accuracy of available police statistics and believe the true figures may be much higher. What is certain is that indigenous women are disproportionately targeted. According to some estimates, for example, indigenous women aged between 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die from violence than Canadian women of other ethnicities in the same age group.
While the prevalence of disappearances and murders of indigenous women and girls over the past 30 years has increasingly becomes a focal point of public dialogue and local-level action, for most of the years prior there had been widespread public indifference. Indigenous peoples and women’s rights groups, including the NAWC, have advocated for years with little success for improved prevention initiatives. However, public apathy has begun to shift and over the last few years a number of individuals, women’s groups and indigenous rights organizations have worked tirelessly to reduce violence against indigenous women and girls. It was their efforts that helped ensure the murder of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in 2014, as well as the sexual assault and attempted murder of 16-year-old Rinelle Harper in November the same year, both in Winnipeg, did not go unnoticed. Multi-ethnic vigils were held and groups urged local officials to take action. On a broader level, Leah Gazan, the president of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, started the ‘We Care’ movement to raise awareness of violence against indigenous women among all Winnipeggers. Most of the homicide cases against indigenous girls and women remain unsolved, despite normally high clearance rates for homicide in Canada: indigenous women consistently report a distrust in police, due to bias and misconduct, and a reluctance to report violence.
Historically, lands rights for Canada’s indigenous communities have frequently been violated, with land seizures and forced resettlements a recurrent feature of life for many decades, with echoes today as ancestral territory continues to be exploited for mining, oil and other extractive industries. However, a landmark ruling in June 2014 set a new precedent for indigenous land claims and demonstrated the ability of indigenous communities to successfully defend their traditional land titles against state and private interests. In June that year, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on the case, recognizing the title of the Tsilhqot’in Nation over approximately 1,700 square km of land south-west of Williams Lake, British Columbia. Indigenous title as defined by Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia (1997) requires an indigenous people to prove that land was occupied by them solely prior to sovereignty, something no group had successfully done until this most recent case. In doing so, the Tsilhqot’in Nation proved that the British Columbia provincial government breached their duties to consult them 20 years ago prior to issuing logging licences on Tsilhqot’in Nation traditional lands.
The ruling therefore has wide implications for future development projects planned by the Canadian government over the next decade, amounting to hundreds of billions Canadian dollars of investment in mining, forestry, gas and oil projects, many of them to be undertaken on traditional indigenous lands. The creation or extensions of pipelines from the oil sands of Alberta to other areas within Canada or onwards into the United States have been strongly opposed by indigenous communities. While the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline was hotly debated and protested against in the United States, other pipelines such as Enbridge’s proposed C$7 billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, has been publicly opposed by indigenous groups since 2010. In the summer of 2014 several First Nations from British Columbia launched as many as nine legal challenges trying to block the pipeline and by September the legal case lodged by Gitxaala Nation became the first approved for hearing by the Federal Court of Appeal. Following the election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister in 2015, a ban on tanker traffic was put in place in the northern coast of British Colombia and in 2016 the rejection of the proposal was formally announced.
However, other land rights violations have continued, including the much contested extension of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. If constructed, this would significantly expand the existing pipeline, first built in the 1950s and subject to a series of oil spills since then. While the proposed expansion has generated widespread protests from indigenous and environmental activists since Kinder Morgan announced its plans in 2013, in November 2016 the Canadian government approved the construction, though with 157 provisions that it claimed would address indigenous and environmental concerns. However, indigenous representatives argued that the government had not properly consulted the communities who would be most affected by the pipeline. Amidst ongoing demonstrations, the Canadian government announced in May 2018 that it would acquire the pipeline and then seek outside investors to complete the work. Despite the Federal Court of Appeal reversing in August 2018 the government’s approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion project on the basis that indigenous communities were not meaningfully consulted, nor the threats posed to fragile marine life adequately resolved, the government nevertheless purchased the pipeline for C$4.5 billion the day after the ruling.
Among Canada’s religious minorities, particularly the country’s Muslim population, hate crime has recently been on the rise, with a reported doubling in the frequency of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Quebec in 2017. The beginning of the year saw a French Canadian student launch a deadly attack against worshippers at one of the city’s mosques, killing six people, and anti-Muslim sentiment has also intensified in the wake of violent incidents such as the July 2018 shooting carried out by a Canadian of Pakistani descent in the Greektown distrinct of Toronto that killed two people. Hostility towards the country’s Muslim minority is troublingly high, especially in Quebec, with a study published in 2018 suggested that as many as 70 per cent of Quebecers harboured ‘significant’ negative attitudes towards Muslims.
While there have been some positive developments in terms of political recognition and freedom of religious expression for Canada’s Muslim – Naheed Nenshi, for instance, became the first Muslim mayor of a major city not only in Canada but throughout North America when elected as mayor of Calgary in 2010, with consecutive re-election in 2013 and 2017 – Muslim communities also appear to be targeted a policy level. The proposed Quebec Charter of Secular Values, bill 60, first introduced by the conservative Parti Québécois (PQ) in November 2013 but later dropped by the Liberals following the August 2014 elections, had proposed banning government employees from wearing religious symbols at work: while it had implications for individuals of all religions, concerns were raised that it was specifically discriminatory against Muslim women who wear various forms of hijab. Yet despite this victory in defeating a bill that progressives denounced as racist and xenophobic, following the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January 2015, support for the charter rose and efforts to pass the bill were reignited among the PQ. This culminated, in October 2017, with the Quebec government passing legislation banning all face coverings, including the burqa and hijab, with the ban coming into effect in July 2018.
Canada is the world’s second largest country with most of its population residing along its southern border with the USA. It has 10 provinces and three territories which extend to the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. The seat of government is located in Ottawa.
When European settlement began in the 1600s, the entirety of the territory that was to become Canada had already been settled by millions of indigenous people and divided into hundreds of nations, each with a distinct language, culture, social structure and political tradition. European settlement was pioneered by the French, who established Quebec City in 1608 and Montreal in 1642, and declared New France a colony in 1663. Britain acquired these territories from the French in a succession of military victories between 1759 and 1763. Canada achieved independence from Britain in 1867 and is now a federal dominion of ten provinces and three territories.
Initial relations between Europeans and indigenous peoples ranged from cordial trade exchanges and military alliances, to mutual indifference, to outright hostility and armed conflict. Many of the indigenous peoples were decimated through deliberate campaigns of extermination; including the devastating impacts of residential schools.
As European settlement progressed in the 1800s, intensive development spread into the interior in the form of railways, roads, mines, urban growth, farmland, logging and later hydroelectric development – in the process steadily pushing indigenous communities off their ancestral territories through assimilation, compulsory schooling and resettlement in Native ‘reserves’.
Particularly damaging was the widespread practice of residential schooling imposed by the government on many indigenous families through various forms of coercion, including the threat of withdrawing federal funding. Only in recent years has there been recognition of the abuses this system exacted on indigenous Canadians, including the deaths of at least 3,000 children, the physical and sexual abuse of thousands of others and their enforced separation from their native languages, customs and spiritual beliefs. The impacts continue to be felt to this day, with ongoing issues such as suicide, alcoholism and abuses linked to the legacy of the residential school system.
Further migration in the late 1800s, particularly from Eastern Europe, saw the development of new minority communities in Canada who also struggled with discrimination. This included, notoriously, thousands of Ukrainians who having fled the Austro-Hungarian Empire found themselves ostracized following the outbreak of the First World War. They were subsequently incarcerated in harsh living conditions for the duration of the war.
In recent decades Canada has made significant strides in the recognition and protection of its indigenous and minority communities, including a series of landmark rulings acknowledging historic abuses and the granting of a number of land agreements reaffirming the territorial rights of indigenous peoples over some, though by no means all, of their historic territories. Nevertheless, many issues persist: indigenous Canadians continue to experience targeted violence, for example, in particular representing a disproportionate number of the country’s murdered and missing women and girls.
Inter-ethnic tensions divide non-indigenous ethnic groups, particularly English and French Canadians. Many francophone Canadians are critical of the provisions of the Canadian federation. In 1994, a provincial government was elected in Quebec dedicated to achieving independence for the province. It held a referendum the next year, which the pro-independence movement lost very narrowly. The federal government has since passed the Clarity Act (1999) to regulate future bids for secession. Despite a strong desire among ordinary Canadians to accommodate Québécois demands and aspirations within a united Canada, communal divisions remain, although less marked than in previous periods. In recent years, however, popular demands for secession appear to have reduced.
A solid legal framework exists in Canada to promote the principles of diversity and the rights of all individuals, protecting them from discrimination. In 1971, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy (see the Canadian Multiculturalism Act). In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognized the importance of preserving and enhancing the multicultural heritage of Canadians. In 1985, the equality article of the Charter, Section 15, came into effect, specifying that every individual was equal before and under the law and had the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination. Minority groups may appeal to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Part I of the Constitution Act of 1982) and to similar provincial charters to defend themselves from discrimination.
Overall, the legal position and rights of indigenous peoples are determined by the Indian Act, the Constitution, and such treaties as were concluded between them and the colonial powers (with Canada as successor). Certain indigenous peoples’ rights, like the right to hunt, trap and fish, were enshrined in the Constitution, as were all existing treaties signed between the federal government and First Nations. Practically, however, the enshrinement of these rights has often meant gains on paper only. Several important court cases have aided in the implementation of these rights.
An individual who claims that her or his rights were violated can appeal to both federal and provincial government human rights commissions, which rule on complaints depending on jurisdiction. The commissions have helped many complainants seeking redress, but they are understaffed and lack resources. Minority and indigenous activists complain that while the commission process may solve individual cases of abuse, little has been done to dismantle systemic patterns of discrimination or promote full and effective equality.
The Employment Equity Act of 1996 attempted to address workplace discrimination for indigenous peoples, women, persons with disabilities and ‘visible’ minorities, defined as ‘persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour’. This includes members of the Chinese, South Asian, Black, Arab, West Asian, Filipino, Southeast Asian, Latin American, Japanese and Korean minorities. The Act applies to private and public sector employers under federal jurisdiction that employ 100 or more employees. Unlike the US model, the Canadian process is not based on quotas and requires the removal of barriers to the employment and advancement of designated group members without imposing numerical targets on employers. Canadian employers are required to conduct a workforce analysis and are expected to close gaps in representation based on labour market availability in their recruitment area, as determined by census data.
Updated June 2019
French Canadians are by far Canada’s largest minority, with some 7.2 million (20.6 per cent) Canadians having French as their mother tongue in the 2016 Canadian Census. French Canadians are considered to be one of the country’s three founding nations, along with English Canadians and indigenous peoples. Most are Catholic and trace their heritage to French colonists who settled in the Atlantic region and along the St Lawrence River in the 1600s and 1700s. French is one of Canada’s two official languages, along with English, and it enjoys special protection under the Canadian Constitution. Many French-speakers consider the homeland of French culture in North America to be the province of Quebec, where the large majority (6.2 million in the 2016 Census) of native French–speakers are based. Not all French-speakers are of French descent, especially in modern-day Quebec, and not all people of French-Canadian heritage are exclusively or primarily French-speaking.
In 1993, for the first time, Quebecers overwhelmingly voted for a pro-independence party, the Bloc Québécois, to represent them in Canada’s Parliament. So many were elected, in fact, that they formed the official opposition and second biggest caucus of any party in the national legislature. A year later, a separatist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), was re-elected to the provincial legislature of Quebec on a platform favouring independence from Canada (the PQ was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1976 but had been out of power since 1985). A provincial referendum was held on 30 October 1995, and the pro-independence movement lost by the narrowest of margins – just one percentage point. The PQ and the Bloc express the grievances of many French Canadians who feel they are in a subordinate position in the country they helped found. Outside Quebec, many French-speakers feel marginalized, ignored and under pressure to assimilate into English Canadian culture. Within Quebec, many see independence from Canada as the culmination of more than 200 years of resistance to the British conquest of French Canada between 1759 and 1763. After this conquest, attempts were made to assimilate the French. They were forced to swear allegiance to the Crown; British authorities refused to recognize the Roman Catholic religion; and French administrative structures were eliminated.
Within a few years, however, this policy was muted as the American War of Independence broke out in the British colonies to the south. Desperate for French support, British officials passed the Quebec Act of 1774, restoring the power of the Roman Catholic Church and permitting use of the French civil code, which is still in place today. When the war ended, thousands of Americans who had sided with the British – the so-called United Empire Loyalists – flooded north and threatened to reduce the French to minority status. Most settled in what became known as Upper Canada (the southern part of the present-day province of Ontario).
Difficult economic conditions and political discontent prompted a major rebellion by French Canadians in 1837-8. British forces defeated the rebels in a bloody military campaign, executing many of their leaders and deporting others. An inquiry for the British government by Lord Durham found ‘two nations at war within one state’. Durham viewed French Canadians with contempt and recommended that they be assimilated. The resulting Union Act of 1840 curtailed what limited political power French Canadians had won back; the French language was not permitted in the colony’s legislative assembly; British immigration was encouraged, and, within a decade, the descendants of the French settlers were in the minority.
Under these conditions, the French worked to attain limited rights within the colonial political system. Years later, they regained recognition of their language. On a social level, their institutions became conservative and the people devoted themselves to preserving the Roman Catholic faith, the French language and a rural-based way of life in the face of powerful assimilationist pressures.
French Canadians, despite a high birth rate, found themselves increasingly outnumbered in Canada by English-speakers due to the federal government’s preference for immigrants from English-speaking countries. The addition of new western provinces to the federation meant a further erosion of the French Canadian position. French Canadians grew particularly incensed over Canadian support for British foreign policy. During both world wars, major rioting occurred when conscription was forced upon Quebec. As French Canadians in Quebec became more urbanized, resentment grew against their economic domination by the Montreal-based Anglophone elite and the stifling nature of the old Roman Catholic institutions that still controlled the schools, social and cultural life.
The ‘quiet revolution’
In the early 1960s, the resentments burst into the open, ushering in a 30-year period of social, cultural, economic and political transformation known as the ‘quiet revolution’. All levels of Quebec society experienced sweeping change. Government was democratized, measures were taken to strengthen the French language and Québécois culture, the provincial government took over the running of education, health care and social services from the Roman Catholic Church and French was promoted in the workplace.
Another key development was the birth of ‘Quebec Inc.’, a vast project to strengthen Francophone-owned private businesses, develop a Québécois middle class and build strong public companies that would play an interventionist role in the Quebec economy. The creation of the provincial-owned electrical utility, Hydro-Québec, was a key part of this process. Today, it is one of the world’s largest power companies. A network of credit unions, the Caisses Populaires, was formed that today has tens of billions of dollars in assets. Hydro-Québec and a vastly expanded civil service provided the growing Francophone middle class with new job opportunities. The provincial government created a new network of colleges and universities accessible to Francophones. Québécois culture flourished.
These changes were forced by widespread social unrest within Quebec. Trade union militancy reached unprecedented levels. A strike called by the ‘Common Front’ in 1972 briefly brought the provincial economy to a halt. Some 10,000 students marched in Montreal demanding that McGill University, the Anglophone elite’s bastion, be turned into a Francophone institution. Through the 1960s, a bombing campaign was conducted by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), an urban guerrilla organization that professed a blend of nationalist and left-wing ideology. In October 1970, the FLQ provoked an international crisis by abducting the British Consul and then murdering the provincial Minister of Labour. At the request of the Quebec government, Canada invoked the 1914 War Measures Act, sent federal troops into Quebec and arrested hundreds of political activists across the country, most of whom were later found to have had no FLQ links. The harsh state response encouraged sympathy for the FLQ and Quebecers attended large rallies in support of the organization’s demands.
In 1976, the fledgling Parti Québécois under the leadership of nationalist intellectual René Lévesque was elected to Quebec’s provincial legislature (the National Assembly) in a surprise victory. The party did not favour outright separation from Canada, but a form of sovereignty-association in which nominally independent Quebec would retain strong formal ties with Canada.
The PQ also continued efforts of previous governments to transform Quebec society, further promoting small and medium Francophone-owned businesses, democratizing the state and strengthening use of the French language in schools and the workplace. The party’s initiatives were popular enough that, despite its 1980 referendum loss, it won a second term as the provincial government in the 1981 election.
Despite the political and social advances made in Quebec during the 1960s and 1970s, alarm still grew among many Quebecers about the weak state of the French language and culture. Their fears were fuelled by a falling birth rate in Quebec and growing numbers of non-French-speaking immigrants who usually preferred learning English to French. In 1968, the provincial government established a commission into the French language and ways of promoting it. The commission recommended in its report of 1972 that French be made Quebec’s official language and that measures be taken to increase the use of French at work and in schools. In 1974, the Liberal Party government of Robert Bourassa adopted a new and controversial language law that made French the official language and placed severe restrictions on parents’ right to choose their children’s language of education.
Further measures were put in place by the PQ government, which issued a French Language Charter in 1977, known as Bill 101, and created a watchdog body to monitor the status of French in Quebec. The PQ also ruled that French was to be the language of government administration, government contracts and collective bargaining agreements. Bill 101 is often credited with improving the position of French in the province. The 1981 census showed that the number of Anglophone Quebecers dropped by nearly 12 per cent, from 800,000 to 706,000, in the five previous years.
The ‘quiet revolution’ also saw the disappearance of a large wage gap between Anglophones and Francophones in Quebec. In 1970, Quebec’s Anglophones were the highest income earners in the province. By the 1990s bilingual Francophones earned an average 3.5 per cent more than bilingual Anglophones. Economists point to two reasons for the changes: a surge in education among Francophones and the exodus of educated Anglophones from Quebec.
The new laws helped Francophones, but they have also been widely condemned as being repressive and punitive by minorities within Quebec, who are also alarmed by frequent outbursts of extremist anti-minority sentiment by some white Francophones. Starting in the mid-1970s, thousands of English-speakers and other Quebec minorities left the province for other parts of Canada, complaining of restrictive language laws and the prospect of ‘sovereignty’ (i.e. secession from Canada).
In 1988, part of the French Language Charter was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as a violation of the human rights of Quebec’s non-Francophone minorities. But the provincial government, controlled at the time by the federalist Liberal Party, was able to maintain key sections of the Charter by invoking the so-called ‘notwithstanding clause’ of the Canadian Constitution. The clause gives provinces a loophole they can temporarily use to allow provincial laws to stand, despite the fact they would be otherwise in violation of constitutional rights.
The Liberal government’s invocation of this clause provoked great division in Quebec. Three English-speaking Liberal cabinet ministers resigned in protest. Anglophone-rights activists and dissident Liberals formed the Equality Party, which won four seats from the Liberals in the 1989 provincial election. With time, however, tensions over language gave way to tensions over the more explosive issue of sovereignty, which is opposed by 90-95 per cent of non-Francophones and is divisive even among Francophones. The Equality Party lost all its seats in the 1994 election, as Anglophone voters, concerned by the PQ’s sovereignty plans, rallied to the Liberals. Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau was later forced to resign after making disparaging comments about the ‘ethnic’ vote.
Tensions also escalated between Québécois and First Nations in the province over two key issues – Quebec sovereignty and natural resource development. The PQ claimed Quebec could separate from Canada, taking with it vast traditional First Nations territories, but that the First Nations did not possess a similar right to separate from an independent Quebec, or even to remain within Canada should Quebec leave. This position angered First Nations people, who pointed to United Nations standards on the right of all peoples to self-determination and to choose their own political status. First Nations people in Quebec worried that their rights would suffer in an independent Quebec and expressed concern that the PQ cabinet included ministers who had made racist remarks against First Nations Canadians.
Disputes over First Nations’ land claims were at the centre of a number of civil disturbances in Quebec. Due to relatively lax environmental protection regulations, resource companies have devastated large tracts of traditional First Nations land in Quebec. The Quebec government’s own entities, particularly Hydro-Québec, have been conspicuous among the culprits.
The PQ’s 1980 referendum defeat threw the project of separation into disarray and forced the party to re-evaluate its priorities. It dedicated itself to being a left-of-centre party that promised good government and would work for Quebec’s rights within the Canadian federation. The PQ lent its political machine to candidates of federal parties perceived to be favourable to Quebec interests. But the party appeared to have lost its raison d’être, especially when it dropped its long-standing goal of sovereignty in 1985, the same year it finally lost office to the Liberal Party. In the 1980s, sovereignty was widely thought to be a spent force.
But the seeds of a new discontent were sown in 1982, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau repatriated the Canadian Constitution from Britain. Quebec, at the time still ruled by the PQ, refused to sign the new constitutional document, claiming it promoted greater centralization of power in Ottawa and weakened the provinces. In the 1984 federal election, Trudeau’s Liberal government was replaced by the Progressive Conservative Party, led by Quebec lawyer Brian Mulroney. Mulroney campaigned on a promise to bring Quebec back into the Constitution. He orchestrated two attempts to do so, both of which failed, and set the stage for the PQ’s second referendum campaign in 1995.
The first attempt, the Meech Lake Accord, would have recognized Quebec’s distinctive identity and culture and its powers to protect the French language. Meech Lake failed after not receiving the consent of all 10 provinces within a required period of time. Another effort quickly followed, the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, which would have granted Quebec most of the powers in Meech Lake. It was placed before the Canadian public in a referendum, but, despite the endorsement of every major federal party and all ten premiers, a majority of both Quebecers and of Canadians in the rest of the country voted it down. Many Quebecers felt they were not given enough, while many Canadians felt they had given too much.
The defeat of the Charlottetown Accord caused separatist sentiment to surge as many Quebecers came to believe constitutional change was impossible. Anti-French incidents in other provinces further inflamed Quebecers. In federal elections in 1993, a new federal party favouring Quebec independence, the Bloc Québécois, won a majority of the province’s share of seats in parliament. The next year, the PQ swept into power in Quebec promising a second chance for separation.
The referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec of 30 October 1995 almost removed Canada’s geographically largest province from the country. The sovereignty option was favoured by 49.4 per cent of voters, compared to 50.6 per cent who voted against it. Restricted to Francophones only, the sovereigntists would have won the referendum by a 60-40 margin. But Quebec’s 1 million strong non-Francophone minority voted overwhelmingly against separation and expressed concerns during the campaign about xenophobic tendencies in the PQ government. Both sides called the result a victory – federalists because they had won the vote in absolute numbers, separatists because English Canada had been sent a resounding message: Canada has to change or it will fall apart.
On September 30, 1996, the Attorney General of Canada referred three questions pertaining to Quebec secession to the Supreme Court of Canada. On 20 August 1998, the Supreme Court answered these questions by issuing an opinion. It concluded that the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec does not have, either under Canadian law or international law, the right to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.
In 1999, the parliament passed the Clarity Act, legislation designed to give effect to the opinion in the Quebec Secession Reference rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998. The Supreme Court emphasized the requirement for clarity both in terms of a clear question on secession and a clear majority voting in favour of a clear question on secession. Thus the Clarity Act set out the conditions under which the federal government would recognize a vote by any province to leave Canada. Controversially, the Act gave the House of Commons the power to decide whether a proposed referendum question was considered clear and allowed it to decide whether a clear majority has expressed itself in any referendum. It is widely considered by Quebec sovereigntists as indefensible and thus inapplicable. Indeed, a contradictory ‘Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Quebec people and the Quebec State’ was introduced in the National Assembly of Quebec only two days after the Clarity Act had been introduced in the House of Commons.
French-speakers outside Quebec
The Acadian population (descendants of French colonists who settled in Acadia) make up about a third of the population of New Brunswick (Acadians are also present in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island), which is the only officially bilingual province in Canada. It has special legislation to protect the French language and French has official status as a language of education. When the British first conquered the Acadian lands, known as L’Acadie, from the French in the eighteenth century, they attempted to deport most of the population because they were considered a security risk in a militarily strategic area. The ancestors of Acadians were dispersed as far away as Louisiana, although many were able to return. Some Acadians are trying to obtain redress for the traumas suffered by their ancestors.
In Ontario, efforts by French Canadians to have French recognized as an official language by the provincial government have run into heavy opposition. Not all French Canadians speak their mother tongue fluently and many have become assimilated into the majority culture.
French Canadians once formed a majority of the province of Manitoba. Today they represent only 3.2 per cent of the population, numbering just under 41,000 people in the 2016 Census. The protection of French has been a thorny issue in Manitoba for over 100 years. In 1980 a Supreme Court ruling overturned the previous English-only policy of the Manitoba government. But much of the public appears to oppose recognition of French as an official language and a 1984 attempt to make French and English official languages failed.
In 2005, Acadian groups held a series of events to remember the 250th anniversary of the so-called Grand Dérangement, the mass expulsion of Acadians in 1755, considered by the Société Nationale de l’Acadie (SNA) as a form of genocide. Estimates on the total number of Acadians displaced in the Grand Dérangement range from 10,000 to 18,000. Acadians used the 250th anniversary as a platform for renewed efforts to seek apologies for the displacement, including from Queen Elizabeth II, who deferred the question to the judgment of the Canadian Parliament. The government officially designated 28 July as ‘A Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval’, commencing on 28 July 2005.
Support for Quebec secession appears to be in decline. While in the 2006 federal elections, the Bloc Québécois – the party committed to sovereignty for Quebec – retained 51 seats (all in Quebec) and 10.5 per cent of the popular vote for Canada as a whole (in the previous election they won 53 seats). This fell to just four seats in the 2011 elections – attributed in part to a rise in Conservative support in the traditional stronghold of Quebec – meaning it was not able to qualify as a formal party in the Ottowa parliament. While the 2015 elections saw it regain some seats, with a total of 10 seats, though this still fell short of the 12–seat minimum for official as a party.
While Quebec-specific representation at the federal level is still a desire for many Québécois, the run up to the October 2018 provincial Quebec elections have been notable in that the issue of independence has largely been side–lined, with the main focus on other issues. A national survey by the Angus Reid Institute in 2016 found that 82 per cent of Quebecers sampled believed Quebec should stay in Canada, while 64 per cent of Francophone Quebecers stating that the ‘issue of Quebec sovereignty is settled, and Quebec will remain in Canada.’ This is in agreement with the majority of Canadians who believe that Quebec should remain part of Canada. The election was won by Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a right-of-centre party that has never held power. The election led to significant losses for the Liberal Party (the previous incumbents) and the Parti Québécois. Another pro-independence party Québec Solidaire made gains, but unlike previous provincial elections, independence for Quebec was not a significant issue in the campaign.
Asian Canadians are those who can trace their lineage back to Asia or Asian peoples. The term ‘Asian’ covers a diversity of groups, from East, South and Southeast Asia. Taken as a group, people of Asian origin are Canada’s fastest growing visible minority. The 2016 Census reveals a total of roughly 6.1 million Canadians reporting an Asian background alone or in combination with another ethnic group (including 4.9 million who identify as single-ethnic), though categorized within this are some 1 million people of ‘Western Asian and Middle Eastern’ origins. The remaining 5.1 million are of ‘South Asian’ origins (2 million, predominantly of Indian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan origin or descent, of whom 1.6 million are single-ethnic) and ‘East and Southeast’ origins (3.2 million, including Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese, of whom 2.6 million are single-ethnic).
Regions with a significant Asian Canadian population include Southern Ontario, Lower Mainland British Columbia and most urban centres. Chinese Canadians are the largest of Canadian Asian sub-groups, numbering 1.8 million, followed by East Indians (1.4 million), Filipinos (837,100), Vietnamese (240,600) and Pakistani (215,600). The month of May is officially recognized as Asian Heritage Month in Canada.
Asian Canadians were first drawn to Canada in 1858 by the gold rush on the Pacific coast. At the time, Canada’s west coast was inhabited only by a handful of fur traders and indigenous people. Suddenly, 25,000 white miners flooded into the area, along with 4,000 Chinese migrant labourers hired as menial workers.
From the outset, white attitudes towards Asian immigrants were hostile. Testimony at the 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration reveals numerous highly offensive and demeaning comments expressed by ordinary Canadians and public officials. Newspapers at the time also published pieces displaying startling ignorance and hostility towards people of Chinese origin.
The Chinese population of British Columbia reached a peak of 4,000 in 1860, fell to 1,500 by the decade’s end as mining activity fell off, and steadily rose after that to 20,000 by the early 1920s. White numbers grew much faster, but Chinese people generally made up between 15 and 40 per cent of the province’s population until Asian immigration was halted in 1908. By 1921, they fell to around 6 per cent. Most of the immigrants were peasants schooled in the intensive wet-rice agriculture of the province of Guangdong southwest of Canton (now Guangzhou) and were fleeing acute poverty and social disorder. Most apparently intended to return home once they had accumulated some savings.
Anti-Chinese agitation grew steadily, prompting the provincial legislature to ban Chinese employment on public works projects and levy a C$40 per year fee on all Chinese people over age 12 in 1878. The tax was struck down by the British Columbia Supreme Court, but the agitation only grew, fuelled by the coming of 15,000 new Chinese immigrants between 1881 and 1885 to work on the first Canadian transcontinental railway. Associations formed to oppose the immigration and one of the most vocal leaders was elected mayor of the province’s capital, Victoria, and later a federal member of parliament. In 1883, a pitched battle broke out between white and Chinese workers on the rail line and whites returned that night to burn the Chinese camp to the ground and beat nine Chinese men unconscious, killing two more. Mass anti-Chinese protests drew thousands.
In 1885, the federal government yielded to white pressure in British Columbia and imposed a C$50 fee on all Chinese immigrants. The fee was later hiked to C$100, but racist sentiment only increased, further fuelled by an influx of Japanese immigrants at the turn of the century. In 1903, the Chinese entry tax was upped again to C$500 and efforts were made to segregate Asian children. Japan’s imperial ambitions quickly became the new focus for anti-Asian agitation, which culminated in a 1907 riot by 8,000-9,000 white protestors, who rampaged through Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japanese district.
After the riot, Ottawa set up another Royal Commission on immigration, this time headed by W.L. Mackenzie King, then Deputy Labour Minister and later to become Prime Minister. On his recommendation, the government imposed harsh new restrictions that effectively eliminated all Asian immigration. White immigrants were required to pay a C$25 entry fee while the Asian fee was set at C$200. The head tax was taxation without representation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 remained in force until it was repealed in 1947, and it was not until two years later that Chinese Canadians finally got to vote.
Asian immigration was reduced to virtually nothing until the 1950s when the restrictions were slowly lifted. The new policy also cut off immigration from India, a move that proved contentious because 3,000-4,000 ex-Indian Army veterans had immigrated to British Columbia in the early 1900s. On an official visit to explain the new policy to the colonial government of India in 1909, Mackenzie King wrote in his diary that he had come to the conclusion that Canada should be kept racially pure, even if it meant the country would be weakened economically.
Anti-Japanese sentiment reached new heights during the Second World War. In 1942, Japanese Canadians were removed from the west coast where most lived and forcibly relocated to ‘exclusion centres’. This was supposedly done for national security reasons, but the prime minister of the day admitted in the House of Commons in 1944 that ‘no person of Japanese race born in Canada has been charged with any act of sabotage or disloyalty during the years of war’. Japanese Canadian property was impounded and sold at low prices, and the costs of internment were deducted from the proceeds. Japanese people were not allowed to return to the west coast until 1949. Some were deported and exiled after the war. In recent years, after sustained pressure from the Japanese Canadian community, the federal government finally conferred compensation and an apology on the estimated 12,000 survivors of the relocation. The Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) President Art Miki, on 22 September 1988. The Redress Agreement acknowledged the unjust actions of the Canadian government and provided a symbolic redress for those actions. C$12 million was provided to the Japanese Canadian community through the NAJC to undertake educational, social and cultural activities and programs that contribute to the well-being of the community or promote human rights.
Momentum also built around a redress campaign to address the discriminatory treatment of Chinese Canadians under the head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act. The redress campaign started in Vancouver in 1984 when Dak Leon Mark asked Margaret Mitchell, then MP for Vancouver East, to assist him in seeking redress. In 2000, a class-action lawsuit was launched. About 400 survivors and 4,000 of their descendants asked for C$1.2 billion in compensation and a formal apology. An Ontario Superior Court judge struck down the class-action lawsuit saying modern ethics cannot be applied to historical laws. The issue of redress was one of the key topics for discussion at a national post-World Conference Against Racism (2001) conference hosted by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF). Participants in the Conference passed a resolution calling upon the Canadian government to negotiate a settlement with the Chinese Canadian community, including individuals and families directly affected by the racist policies. Chinese Canadians were encouraged by the goodwill extended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he met with head tax payers and families in a roundtable meeting in East Vancouver in May 2006. The Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean, signalled future government policy in the April 2006 Throne Speech, where she indicated that ‘The Government will act in Parliament to offer an apology for the Chinese head tax.’ In June 2006, Harper delivered an official apology to the Chinese Canadian community.
The last restrictions on Asian immigration were removed in 1962, prompting a great expansion of the Asian Canadian population. A large wave of immigration has occurred from Hong Kong.
Asian Canadians today do not face the acute racism of the past, but a level of intolerance continues, including violent attacks by racist skinheads, discrimination in the workplace, stereotyping and police harassment. Although Asians have done well in certain fields, they continue to be under-represented in the media, police departments, political office and the public service.
As in the past, tensions are particularly high on the west coast where many immigrants from Hong Kong have settled. Asian Canadian leaders have criticized the mainstream media for fostering misunderstandings. A further wave of Asian immigration was spurred by the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong in 1997 and by generous immigration rules encouraging immigrants willing to invest money in Canada. The resulting immigration transformed the face of the Pacific coast and is a key reason British Columbia experienced an economic boom in the early 1990s while the rest of the country limped through a recession. Asian Canadians are a significant minority within Canada and typically rank higher in socioeconomic and education outcomes, though this varies considerably between different sub-groups.
The term Black Canadians refers to persons belonging to the black visible minority, numbering 1.2 million (3.5 per cent of the total population) according to the 2016 Census. In the past decade, there has been an ongoing controversy within the Black Canadian community regarding terminologies.
Blacks of Caribbean origin form a much larger proportion of the black community in Canada than in the United States. A sizeable number of Black Canadians descended from freed American slaves can still be found in the province of Nova Scotia and parts of south-western Ontario. The month of February is officially recognized as Black History Month in Canada.
Most Black Canadians immigrated since the 1960s, when immigration rules were eased for non-white individuals. But black people have been in Canada since the days of the earliest European settlement, and black community leaders argue that Canadians have not sufficiently acknowledged the rich contributions of the country’s pioneering black citizens.
Mattieu da Costa, an African translator and navigator fluent in the Mi’kmaq Indigenous language, arrived in Canada in 1606 and served as an interpreter for French explorer Samuel de Champlain. Later, thousands of freed black slaves remained loyal to the British, fighting alongside British forces against the Americans in the War of Independence and again during the war of 1812. In the mid-1800s, a black militia unit, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company, was the only organized defence force in British Columbia’s capital city.
Canada was also a base of operations for the organizers of the ‘underground railway’, a clandestine network that assisted black slaves attempting to flee the USA. In 1853, Mary Ann Shadd, a black teacher, was the first woman in North America to start a newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, which she used to fight slavery. The famous American novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is believed to be a depiction of the life of Josiah Henson, a black man born into slavery in the USA in 1789 who faithfully served his master for years until he escaped to southern Ontario. There, he helped found the Dawn Settlement, a colony where black people could study and live. Approximately 10,000 black people came to Nova Scotia between 1749 and 1816 and there remains today a strong community of African Nova Scotians.
Until Britain abolished slavery in 1834, the colonies in Canada had owned slaves as well. One of the most famous was Marie-Joseph Angélique, who in 1734 set her mistress’s house on fire in an attempt to escape. The fire spread, causing fire damage to half of Montreal, Canada’s largest city at the time. Angélique was caught, tortured and hanged.
Until changes were made in the 1960s, school officials, employers and landlords were legally permitted to discriminate and segregate on the basis of race. Until then, too, the number of people of African and Caribbean descent in Canada did not exceed 25,000 due to popular pressure on the government to restrict immigration of black people and other minorities. When these policies were changed, the black population expanded more than tenfold in the space of two decades.
In recent years, there have been a number of important milestones signalling greater recognition for the Black Canadian population. In 2003, for instance, Nova Scotia became the first province in Canada to set up a separate department and minister dedicated to the needs of people of African descent: the Minister and Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs. Nova Scotia also was the first, and so far only, province in Canada to set aside local school board seats for African Canadians. African Nova Scotians have lower employment and earnings rates than other Nova Scotians and are poorly represented in the public service. In 2002, the federal government declared Africville in Halifax a national historic site, expressing regret over the day the city evicted black residents from their homes. In the 1960s, Halifax took over the land and bulldozed the neighbourhood to build a bridge across the harbour. African Nova Scotian advocates still ask that Halifax settle land claims with the people who used to live in Africville. Africville was a small, close-knit community that had existed for about 150 years. In September 2018, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge blocked the latest attempt to pursue a class action suit on behalf of Africville residents; the judge ruled that the size and location of the communal lands – as well as the value of the loss of use – had been inadequately identified. The plaintiffs vowed that this did not mean the end of the suit.
In 2005, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean became the first black woman to be Governor General of Canada. Michaëlle Jean was born in Port au Prince, Haiti. As a young child, in 1968, she fled her country with her family and sought refuge in Canada.
Black Canadians earn on average less than white Canadians, according to a Statistics Canada study on immigrants and wages. It found that second generation black Canadians face a wage gap of about 10 to 15 per cent compared with non-visible minorities, even when controlling for education and residential location.
While legal discrimination has in most cases been eradicated, more subtle forms of discrimination are still prevalent. Federal and provincial charters of rights that outlawed racial and other forms of discrimination have often proved ineffective. According to the Black Experience Project, conducted in 2017, two thirds of the participants reported that they frequently or occasionally experienced unfair treatment because they were black.
For the most part, Black Canadians have been marginalized in poorly remunerated and insecure sectors of the economy. Unemployment and poverty rates among African and Caribbean Canadians are much higher than the national average. Black Canadians remain under-represented in higher education institutions, professional fields, police departments, the civil service and politics.
In certain fields, such as law enforcement, the representation of black people is so low it has contributed to social unrest. A lack of black officers in all major police departments across Canada has contributed to a problem of police racism against black people, particularly against black youth, who often are targeted for stops and searches, surveillance, questioning, and harassment. Fatal police shootings of young black men appear to be occurring more frequently in large urban centres like Montreal and Toronto, often in questionable circumstances and amid evidence of police negligence, cover-ups, and racism. Effective independent monitoring of police procedures has not been instituted. Racist incidents affecting black people and other minorities, and support for a clamp-down on immigration, persist.
However, a new generation of young Black Canadians is responding to these obstacles. These individuals are renewing pride in their community’s accomplishments, taking leadership roles inside and outside their communities, renewing black cultural forms and media, and moving into fields where people of African descent have been under-represented. In February 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the continued existence of racism within Canada towards its black population and the need to ensure greater representation at all levels of society, including government. The previous month, Trudeau announced that Canada would recognize the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent, including commitments to improve research and data collection on the Black Canadian minority.
Attempts have also been made to resolve ongoing social disparities for Black Canadians in education. The first Africentric programme at a public Canadian high school was inaugurated during the 2013/14 academic year, with a class of 19 first-year high school students at east Toronto’s Winston Churchill Collegiate. The programme was initiated amid controversy, with the initially proposed pilot school, Oakwood Collegiate, rejecting it due to an outcry from teachers, students and parents voicing concerns about segregation and creating divisions among pupils. Despite this, by early 2014 the Africentric programme at Winston Churchill Collegiate was proving successful. The programme seeks to lower the 40 per cent high school drop-out rate among Toronto’s black youth by providing core subjects that draw on African and Caribbean culture and history, and is strongly attuned to the skill levels of individual students.
Eastern European Canadians
Eastern Europeans made up the first large wave of immigration into Canada that was not of English or French origin. Tens of thousands of peasants arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lured by promises of cheap land in the western prairies. Ukrainians form the largest and most prominent Eastern European community in Canada, but smaller numbers from other countries also arrived. The 2016 Census puts the number of Ukrainian Canadians at 1.4 million, the majority of whom live in the three prairie provinces – Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
According to the 2016 Census, Poles form the next largest group (1.1 million), followed by Russians (622,400), Hungarians (348,100), Romanians (238,100), Croatians (134,000), Czechs (104,600), Serbians (96,500), Slovaks (72,300), Bulgarians (34,500) and Bosnians (26,700). The numbers of all these groups have risen since the 2001 Census due to the opening up of the Iron Curtain, the easing of Cold War era emigration restrictions and the wars in former Yugoslavia.
The largest numbers of early Eastern European arrivals came from the western Ukrainian region of Halychyna in the late 1800s, then occupied by the Austr-Hungarian Empire. Conditions for the new arrivals in Canada were miserable, the climate was harsher than expected and the reception was far from welcoming. Anti-Ukrainian sentiment was widespread. An 1897 editorial in Winnipeg’s Daily Nor-Wester stated:
‘The dumping down of these filthy, penniless, and ignorant foreigners into progressive and intelligent communities is a serious hardship to such a community. These people bring with them disease in almost every consignment … and their dirty habits render the stamping out of infection among them a very difficult matter.’
It was only with the passage of time, as Ukrainians proved to be expert farmers and hard workers, that public hostility eased.
As the First World War engulfed Canada, anti-Ukrainian sentiment reached unprecedented and explosive proportions. Since most had arrived on passports from Austria, a country with which Canada was at war, they were indiscriminately declared enemy aliens and thousands of Canadian citizens of Ukrainian descent were stripped of all their rights as citizens, including their right to vote. The irony is that Ukrainians despised the Austrian occupation, a reason many had fled their homeland in the first place. The Canadian government, facing ferocious anti-Ukrainian sentiment, refused to heed an official assurance from the British government that Ukrainian immigrants could be trusted. The Canadian authorities were motivated partly by political considerations: Ukrainians, many of them radicalized by the difficult conditions of peasant life under Austria, had developed strong community organizations and were taking a lead in forming trade unions and other organizations dedicated to improving their living conditions, including political parties. Thousands of Ukrainians who were politically active or simply unemployed were arrested, stripped of their belongings and interned in isolated forced labour camps for the duration of the war. In the camps, they were paid little or nothing for their work, kept under heavy guard and lived in abominable conditions. They had little to eat or wear and were often interned in worse facilities than German prisoners of war held in the same camp. Beatings and torture were commonly reported, and several Ukrainian internees committed suicide or were killed trying to escape. After the war, the government refused to return their belongings.
In 2001, Inky Mark, MP for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette tabled Bill C-331, the Ukrainian Canadian Recognition and Restitution Act. The Bill aimed to support efforts by the Ukrainian Canadian community to seek redress, apologies for the internments and the building of commemorative monuments at the site of each internment camp. The Bill was passed on 25 November 2005.
In August 2005, the Canadian government announced an agreement-in-principle that provides an initial payment of C$2.5 million to Canada’s Ukrainian community for the purpose of commemoration and education on the internment period.
In 2008, the Canadian government created a C$10 million fund to commemorate the experience of thousands of Ukrainians interned between 1914 and 1920. In 2014, 100 plaques were unveiled in English and French, marking the 100th anniversary of Canada and remembering those who were interned during that time.
Canada has recognised the Holodomor as genocide for Ukraine, carried out by the Soviet government at the time.
In Canada, Indigenous peoples can be categorized under three main groups: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Previous terminology describing these communities as ‘Indian’ or ‘Aboriginal’ have now been superseded by the accepted terms of Native, Indigenous and/or the name of a specific tribe. According to the 2016 Canadian Census, First Nations, Métis and Inuit together comprise 1.67 million people, amounting to 4.9 per cent of the national population, including 977,200 people belonging to First Nations, 587,500 Métis, and 65,000 Inuit. There are over 600 distinctive bands (or unit of local government) under the category of First Nations, of which the League of the Six Nations is the largest.
While many indigenous languages are threatened with extinction, in some areas Canada is also undergoing an indigenous language revival. There are currently 60 indigenous languages in Canada which are related to 10 language families. The three largest language families are Algonquian, Inuktitut and Athapaskan, which together represent 93 per cent of the indigenous mother-tongue population; Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut are the largest and most widespread languages. The Cree language is the most common Indigenous language spoken at home with 84,000 speakers; Ojibwe is spoken by 21,800. There are currently over 39,000 Inuktitut speakers in Northern Canada. There is a revival among many Indigenous communities to bring back their languages. In December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to develop new legislation to preserve indigenous languages in Canada.
The Algonquian language group contains nine indigenous languages: Abenaki, Blackfoot, Delaware, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Montagnais-Naskapi, Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Cree. The Crees are spread across Canada in various groupings, each with their own dialects: Plains, Swampy, Northern, Woods, Moose and East. Two of Canada’s territories give official status to indigenous languages. In Nunavut, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages alongside English and French, and Inuktitut is a common vehicular language in government. In the Northwest Territories, the Official Languages Act specifies 11 official languages: Dene Suline, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tåîchô.
Spirituality, religion and strong values of community play a major role in the lives of many indigenous people, and a revival of traditional beliefs is under way, especially among indigenous youth. While some indigenous languages are now spoken only by a few hundred individuals, others remain very strong and continue to be used in daily life.
When the Europeans first arrived, they formulated new names for First Nations. Eeyou and Eenou were renamed Crees; Kanienekaha were called Kanienkehakas; and Innu were called Montagnais. In their own languages, all these terms mean ‘the people’.
In general, First Nations’ social and political structures across the country were and continue to be heavily influenced by the way of life that can be sustained in the local environment. Their traditional ways of life follow a seasonal cycle. For example, among the Eeyou of James Bay, hunters gather in settlements during the summer to trade and socialize, then depart in groups of four or five families for winter hunting grounds as the water freezes in the fall, returning to their settlements as the ice thaws in spring-time. Today, only about a quarter of all indigenous people in Canada still live on their ancestral lands. In 2011, it was found that of the 637,660 people belonging to First Nations who reported being registered with the federal government under the Indian Act, nearly half (49.3 per cent) lived on a reserve. Reserves are specified by the Indian Act as a ‘tract of land, the legal title to which is vested in Her Majesty that has been set apart by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of a band’. There are more reserves in Canada – over 3,000 – than there are First Nation bands, because many First Nations were granted more than one reserve, either by treaty or other means.
Many indigenous people have migrated to urban centres as life in their own communities became difficult due to poor living standards, development of their traditional territories and government suppression of traditional ways. Nevertheless, the traditional hunting, fishing and trapping way of life continues to be at the core of life in many indigenous communities, especially those living further north.
When European explorers first arrived in the territory that is now Canada, they encountered indigenous peoples which had established numerous distinct societies thousands of years before. European traders marvelled at the prosperity, good health, tall stature and lack of disease among the indigenous people they met. By some estimates, two times more First Nations people lived in Canada when the Europeans arrived than do today.
Following initial contact, they entered strategic alliances with various European powers, supplying trade goods and permitting access to abundant natural resources. At crucial points in history, various First Nations agreed to lend their armed might to the protection of French and British interests. Historians note that the first European expeditions to Canada would have been lost to starvation were it not for the assistance provided by indigenous people. An abundance of fur in the vast Hudson’s Bay watershed made First Nations hunters and trappers willing to give up valuable pelts at highly profitable rates to the Hudson’s Bay Company, then a British Crown charter. In the areas first settled by the French in the 1600s and 1700s, the Kanienkehaka were one of the most militarily formidable nations and acted as regional powerbrokers well into the 1800s. They are the northernmost member of the Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance of six First Nations whose territory spans from what today is southern Quebec into the US Midwest. Traditionally, the Kanienkehaka led an agricultural life, living in large, well-organized communities which still exist today. To the north and north-east of the Kanienkehaka live the Algonquian, Innu, Naskapi and Eeyou (Crees) – nations of hunters and trappers with whom the Europeans traded for fur.
Before Canada was a country, Britain began a colonization process that displaced indigenous peoples from their lands. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 declared that only the British Crown could acquire land from First Nations, and that was typically done through treaties. In most parts of Canada, the British Crown established treaties with First Nations before Confederation. The new Dominion of Canada continued this policy of making treaties before the West was opened for settlement. More than 70 historic treaties were negotiated between 1701 and 1923, including 11 ‘numbered’ treaties. For example, Treaty 7 is a contract concluded in 1887 between several mainly Blackfoot First Nations tribes, and Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. The treaty established a delimited area of land for the tribes (Indian reserves) and awarded annual payments and/or provisions from the Queen to the tribes. In exchange, the tribes ceded their rights to far larger areas of land, of which they had earlier been recognized as the owners.
Development and colonization
As European settlement progressed in the 1800s, intensive development spread into the interior in the form of railways, roads, mines, urban growth, farmland, logging and later hydroelectric development. Private business interests and public officials viewed development as incompatible with a strong indigenous attachment to vast tracts of resource-rich land. The removal of indigenous peoples from their lands became government doctrine. The removals were achieved through a variety of policy instruments, including assimilation, compulsory schooling by religious orders, forced relocations to Native ‘reserves’ and the destruction of equipment and animals used by indigenous hunters.
Although, in some remote areas, thousands of indigenous people continued living their way of life unchanged and some did not see a white person until the twentieth century, the combination of the colonizing efforts succeeded in virtually wiping out entire communities and even some nations by the early 1900s.
Extinguishment historically was another central aspect of the federal government’s indigenous policy. As indigenous nations were relocated to reserves, they were obliged to sign treaties or land agreements in which they agreed to ‘extinguish’ or surrender all future claims to their ancestral lands in exchange for reserve lands and certain benefits – for example, the payment to the band of C$5 per member once a year. Treaties were usually signed under duress or impending development of indigenous lands. The Canadian government continues to insist that modern-day treaties will only be signed if they include an extinguishment of all claims to indigenous rights and title. While Canada no longer demands the use of the traditional ‘cede, release, and surrender’ terminology, it requires language that some claim is identical in effect.
Assimilation of indigenous people was a key method of freeing up land for development. A key element of the assimilation policy was compulsory residential schooling in church-run institutions first established by missionaries during the mid-1800s, beginning in the area of modern-day Ontario. The stated goal was to ‘civilize’ the Natives and mould them into Christian Canadian citizens, preferably nowhere near their ancestral lands. These schools also intended to fulfil the government’s obligation under the Indian Act to provide education for indigenous children. The government operated most schools in partnership with various religious institutions until 1969, when the government assumed full responsibility for the school system. In these ‘residential schools’, many of which remained open until the 1970s (the last federally run residential school closed in 1996), an estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities, forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditional customs. There were widespread reports of sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse, as well as extreme isolation, deprivation and loneliness. It was estimated than in total between 3,000 and 6,000 children died in these schools.
The quality of the schools these children had been forcibly brought to, often from hundreds of kilometres away, was notoriously poor. Many never saw their families again and were taught to be ashamed of their indigenous languages, traditions and cultures. Parents who refused to hand over their children lost government benefits and food rations, a necessity on the many reserves that were devoid of game, and some were fined and jailed. After spending their childhoods in such schools, many indigenous people either could not or would no longer speak their own languages and had lost touch with their communities and did not have the skills needed to survive on the land. Many left for the growing cities, often deeply troubled by their experiences. The abuse caused great social problems for indigenous communities, including continuing cycles of suicide, sexual and physical abuse, addiction, and loss of language and traditional skills.
The history of the Indian Act has long been controversial and undergone numerous amendments since its inception. In 1920, when the Indian Act of 1880 was amended to make education compulsory for indigenous children, a top Indian Affairs policy-maker summarized the intent: ‘Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department, and that is the whole object of this Bill’, said Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs.
In the same amendment of the Indian Act of 1880 came another change: Ottawa was given the power to force indigenous people to give up their legal status as ‘Indians’, which meant they lost federal benefits and exemption from taxes. Those who wanted to attend university faced enormous pressure to give up their status. In 1930, the Indian Act was amended again to permit the government to jail or fine indigenous parents if their children did not attend school. The federal government had greater power over Native children than the provinces had over non-Native students.
The Indian Act also gave the federal government near absolute control over life on reserves. Reserves are legally controlled by Ottawa, which merely allows indigenous people to ‘use’ the land but retains the authority to transfer this land to a provincial or municipal government or to a private corporation, without obtaining the consent of the local inhabitants. Most of Canada’s 3,000 reserves were set up in the mid-1800s, often carved out of the worst land available and out of the path of any foreseeable development. All are a fraction of the size of the ancestral land traditionally used to sustain the community. Today, the total area of reserves is one-fifth as large as the amount of land set aside for national parks – less than 0.2 per cent of Canada’s total area. In the USA, the proportion set aside for indigenous communities is 20 times larger.
Until 1960, the Indian Act prevented indigenous people from voting in federal elections unless they agreed to give up their official status in a formal, irrevocable process known as enfranchisement. Some provinces took even longer, with Quebec granting indigenous people the vote only in 1969. Only after the 1985 amendment did the federal government began the process of granting more power to Band Councils to self-govern.
The Indian Act still effectively prevents reserve residents from mortgaging their land, thus removing an important instrument for entrepreneurs to raise funds for economic ventures. The Minister of indigenous and Northern Affairs is also given extraordinary powers to overrule any decision made by elected indigenous officials. Historically, Band Councils were given authority to pass by-laws over only minor matters, such as ‘the destruction and control of noxious weeds’ and ‘the regulation of bee-keeping and poultry-raising.‘ As recently as 1979, Indian Affairs disallowed one Band Council’s by-law to enforce speed limits on its reserve, stating that the by-law exceeded ‘the scope of the powers enumerated in Section 81 of the Indian Act’. Over time, however, many indigenous nations have assumed much greater law-making authority – controlling property taxes, zoning and land use (albeit within the very limited reserve land base).
The pre-1985 version of the Indian Act, in effect and arguably by design, severed women’s connections with their communities. Indigenous women were not permitted to remain in their on-reserve communities if they married non-indigenous men, yet the Act allowed indigenous men the right to bring non-indigenous women to live in the community. This provision was later removed in 1985 for its discrimination against women, but its disruption of women’s role as language transmitters, primarily through removing many indigenous women’s participation in their communities, continues to reverberate to this day. Though the clause was finally removed, thanks in part to the case brought by Sandra Lovelace to the UN Human Rights Committee, since then many First Nations communities have refused to accept back women, arguing that the federal government did not provide them with any additional resources to meet the needs of the new members. Thousands of First Nations women are still waiting to be welcomed home and have had to go to court to force acceptance. Alberta reportedly has the lowest rate of acceptance.
Until the 1960s, the provisions of the Indian Act were enforced by so-called ‘Indian agents’, government-appointed officials who wielded near-absolute powers over the indigenous people in their charge. In the Prairies, indigenous peoples needed a special permit from the agents to sell their crops or cattle. They could prosecute indigenous people for offences, preside over Band Council meetings and prohibit indigenous people from leaving reserves without a pass. Traditional ceremonies, such as the potlatch and sun dance, were suppressed. Many indigenous communities remain ruled by a foreign system of governance that was forcibly imposed by the federal government and replaced traditional systems more suited to local people’s needs.
The Indian Act and other aspects of the government’s indigenous policy have had substantial and devastating impacts on indigenous societies. They created difficult living conditions in First Nations communities, succeeded in controlling indigenous resistance to the government, turned around the matriarchal order of indigenous traditions, and put overwhelming pressure on indigenous people to migrate to cities.
Empowerment and Reconciliation
Since the 1990s, indigenous peoples across the country have experienced a resurgence of community spirit and pride, organizing activity, and political will. One of the earlier dramatic triumphs came in 1994, when the Eeyou (Cree) of northern Quebec declared victory in a six-year international campaign against the Quebec provincial government’s proposed C$13.3 billion Great Whale hydroelectric project, which would have flooded an area the size of Connecticut. Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau indefinitely postponed the project, citing a lack of energy demand and the desire to make peace with the indigenous peoples.
This period also saw indigenous peoples retake control over their schools, health care, social services and policing, as well as initiate healing programmes for survivors of abuse and addiction. This was accompanied by a renewed pride in their languages and cultures, prompting a renewal of indigenous traditions like pow-wows, a rapid increase in indigenous-language courses, new indigenous periodicals, television and radio stations (e.g. the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network – APTN). This trend has continued in recent years, with a notable increase in indigenous content on all government–run media outlets in radio, television and internet. Universities across Canada have further developed their indigenous studies centres and increased their quota for indigenous staff. The National Centre for Reconciliation was established in Winnipeg in 2015 as an archive and research hub for the history of the residential schools.
Land rights also became an increasingly visible issue, at times erupting into violence. From 1990, protests over land disputes saw clashes between police and indigenous peoples. In the summer of 1990, tensions escalated between Mohawks and the town of Oka, Quebec, over the planned expansion of a golf course onto land Mohawks hold sacred. The 78-day stand-off led to the death of 31-year-old Quebec police officer Corporal Marcel Lemay. In September 1995, two unarmed Chippewa protesters were shot by Ontario police at Ipperwash Park. One of the men, Dudley George, died of his wounds.
From the late 1990s, however, a series of victories in the struggle for indigenous land rights were achieved. On land use, the Halfway First Nation of Northeastern British Columbia won a landmark victory in 1999 when British Columbia ruled that the Crown must consult and accommodate when contemplating resource development that could negatively affect treaty rights. In 2004, the Haida Nation took the case law a step further: Canada’s Supreme Court (Haida Nation v. British Columbia) held that the Crown’s obligation extended beyond treaty rights and applied to asserted, but unproven, indigenous rights and title as well. The decision is expected to have a sweeping impact on similar indigenous claims across Canada (see, for example, Taku River v. British Columbia). These cases have confirmed that, while the special constitutional duty of the Crown to indigenous peoples cannot be fulfilled by developers, it is important for developers to understand that free, prior and consent (FPIC) of potentially affected indigenous peoples is a mandatory practice. In the Northwest Territories, the 4,000-member Dogrib band in 2003 won the right to control fishing, hunting, and industrial development over 15,000 square miles of territory. The nearby Deh Cho band managed to stall a C$6 billion gas pipeline project planned by ExxonMobil and several other companies through its traditional lands until Ottawa makes major financial and environmental concessions.
In 2000, the Nisga’a Final Agreement, negotiated outside the British Columbia Treaty Commission process, was passed. It is considered a possible model for other treaty negotiations in British Columbia. The Agreement provided for a financial transfer of C$190 million and the establishment of a Nisga’a Central Government with ownership of, and jurisdiction over, approximately 2,000 sq km of land in the Nass River Valley. It also outlined Nisga’a ownership of surface and subsurface resources on Nisga’a lands, and spelled out entitlements to Nass River salmon stocks and Nass area wildlife harvests. In May 2004, the Westbank First Nation Self-Government Act was given Royal Assent. In January 2005, the Labrador Inuit Association Final Agreement was signed. In February 2005, the Tlicho Land Claim and Self-Government Act was given Royal Assent and the Kwanlin Dun First Nation Final and Self-Government Agreements were ratified. The Quatsimo Framework Agreement (FWA) was signed on 20 April 2004, and the Miawpukek Framework Agreement was initialled on 9 December 2004. The Tulita Framework Agreement was signed in March 2005.
Conflict over land titles nevertheless continued. In Caledonia, Ontario, Six Nations people staged a protest and blockade in early 2006 over a housing development on their ancestral lands. For its loyalty to the British Crown during the American Revolution, the Six Nations were allowed to ‘take possession of and settle’ a strip of land nearly 20 km wide along the Grand River, from its source to Lake Erie, totalling about 385,000 hectares. The developer, Henco Industries, felt that the so-called ‘Haldimand Grant’ (named after the commander of the British forces) was merely a licence to occupy the lands, with legal title remaining with the Crown. Six Nations disputed that claim and staged a protest that escalated with some incidents of violence over several months in the spring of 2006. In June 2006, the Ontario government bought out the land from the developers to hold in trust while talks aimed at ending the occupation continue between representatives of the Six Nations and the provincial and federal governments. Ongoing disputes and negotiations continue to this day.
Alongside this growing challenge to land rights violations, this period saw a series of landmark challenges to the legacy of the residential school system as a series of lawsuits were brought forward, beginning in the late 1980s, with former indigenous residential school students suing the government for abuses incurred during their time there. In 1988, a group of former students from St. George’s Indian School in Lytton, British Columbia were the first to bring charges against a priest, the federal government and the Anglican Church of Canada. They won the case ten years later in 1998, known as Mowatt v. Clarke. The students received both acknowledgement of the abuses and financial compensation. In 1990, another group of former students from St. Joseph’s residential school in Williams Lake, successfully filed suit for damages for sexual assault against the Catholic church and the federal government. In 1995, 30 former students from the Alberni Indian Residential schools filed charges of sexual and physical abuse against Arthur Plint in Blackwater v. Plint, finally obtaining a settlement in 2005, while Plint is currently serving a prison sentence for his offences at the school. In 1993 and 1994 respectively, the Anglican and Presbyterian Church publicly acknowledged and apologised for their participation in the abuse of residential school children. The Catholic Church, however, which ran the majority of residential schools in Canada, has yet to issue a formal apology.
In November 1996 the five-year Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) issued its final 5,000-page report, which called for a profound rebalancing of the Canadian federation to remedy and end the centuries of government neglect, abuse and oppression of the indigenous peoples. The Commission said that Canada’s record was not in keeping with domestic and international standards and constituted its single most serious and pressing human rights issue. ‘There cannot be harmony unless there is justice,’ the Commission stated. ‘Our central conclusion can be summarized simply: The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong.’ In the end, the Commission cost close to C$60 million, Canada’s costliest Royal Commission at the time. The report contained 400 recommendations. A section of the report titled ‘Looking Forward, Looking Back,’ begins: ‘After some 500 years of a relationship that has swung from partnership to domination, from mutual respect and co-operation to paternalism and attempted assimilation, Canada must now work out fair and lasting terms for coexistence with Aboriginal people.’ At the start of 1998, the Canadian government formally apologized to indigenous peoples in Canada for the way they had been mistreated. The Statement of Reconciliation says, ‘Sadly, our history with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal people is not something in which we can take pride. Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of Aboriginal culture and values. As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of Aboriginal Peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices.’ The Canadian government has been criticized for largely ignoring the RCAP report and continuing with its traditional policies.
In May 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was reached between representatives of former students of Indian Residential Schools, legal representatives of the Churches involved in running those schools, the Canadian government, the Assembly of First Nations, and other indigenous organizations. The settlement agreement proposed a Common Experience Payment for all eligible former students of Indian Residential Schools, an Independent Assessment Process for claims of sexual or serious physical abuse, as well as measures to support healing, commemorative activities, and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The settlement was intended for the 80,000 people alive who had attended the residential schools. The settlement agreement stipulated that C$1.9 billion was to be set aside for the direct benefit of former residential school students. Subject to verification, each eligible former student who applies would receive C$10,000 as well as an additional C$3,000 for each year of residence beyond the first year. However, this settlement required the applicant to go through an intensive process before a panel, describing exactly where and what abuse happened to them, and were subject to intrusive challenges from the panel.
The national settlement itself was criticized as being arbitrary, unfair and inherently racist. While the Canadian government had promised the Assembly of First Nations that all those who attended residential schools would receive a ‘Common Experience Payment’, the government broke its promise and arbitrarily excluded former day students from compensation. The government insisted on a points system for calculating compensation for residential school survivors who had been sexually and physically abused. Points are to be awarded for different sexual acts perpetrated on the victims (depending upon their frequency and severity). This proved to be a very traumatic event for many residential school survivors and prevented them from being able to seek any further redress or compensation. Canada’s common law of tort does not draw such mechanistic distinctions but rather awards damages based upon the harm suffered by the victim. The national settlement was approved by the Canadian courts despite significant opposition from individual residential school survivors.
In 2005, indigenous leaders were optimistic that the trend of reform and reconciliation between the Canadian government and First Nations would continue under the Liberal government. In November 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin, the provincial premiers and indigenous leaders met in Kelowna, British Columbia, for the First Ministers Conference on indigenous Affairs. It was the first time since the constitutional talks of the mid-1980s that indigenous leaders had been invited to take part in a meeting with the prime minister and the premiers. The meeting resulted in a five-year, C$5 billion plan to improve the lives of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Paul Martin’s Liberal government was replaced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in the January 2006 elections. The Harper government stated that it was committed to meeting the targets agreed upon at the Kelowna summit by working with ‘aboriginal leaders and provinces and territories to develop a new approach with workable solutions … to deal with the root causes and structural issues causing these socio-economic gaps’.
Following a live televised national apology by the then Conservative party Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission emerged out of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The Commission was designed to investigate the reports of widespread abuse of children occurring across Canada while in attendance of residential schools, hold national commemorative events honouring survivors (as well as gather and archive over 7,000 statements from survivors), produce a report of their findings and establish a national centre for research on the subject. During this time, a nation-wide grassroots protest movement called Idle No More was launched by a group of indigenous women and one non-indigenous ally, triggered by the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and coordinated through social media. It was a reaction against what the communities considered was then Prime Minister Harper’s ignorance of indigenous treaty rights and federal government obligations, despite his 2008 national apology towards indigenous peoples.
The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded at the end of 2015, publishing their 4,000-page final report as well as a landmark document called the 94 Calls to Action. These steps (alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appointment of an indigenous woman as Minister of Justice), marked the beginning of a chapter of improved relations between indigenous and non-indigenous communities in Canada. This remains particularly the case in contrast to the former Harper government, which saw a deterioration in relations between indigenous communities and the federal government (specifically when Harper ignored the protests of the nationwide Idle No More movement and notoriously downplayed the urgency of the Missing and Murdered indigenous Women crisis).
However, while Trudeau has been notable in his commitment to honour indigenous communities in Canada, there has been backlash and critique towards him for federal policies failing to address the discrepancies between indigenous and non-indigenous funding for children (the former being considerably lower) and the controversial development of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which if built would encroach on indigenous territories and pose a serious threat to the environment.
Land Claims and Self-Government
Lands claims and self-government have featured heavily in the cooperation efforts between the Canadian government and indigenous peoples. Rights pertaining to land and self-government are recognized under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. So-called ‘Treaty Indians’ have land rights recognized in existing historical treaties. For those indigenous peoples without historic treaties, the ‘comprehensive land claims’ process has been viewed as crucial to securing recognition of their ancestral land rights. Comprehensive land claims negotiations aim to address concerns raised by indigenous people, governments, and third parties about who has the legal right to own or use the lands and resources in areas under claim. The process of negotiating the settlement of comprehensive claims, which is known as modern-day treaty making, is intended to clarify access and ownership to land and resources and to spur economic development on indigenous lands and in surrounding communities.
Comprehensive land claims settlements may also include self-government arrangements. The Constitution Act recognizes that indigenous people have an inherent, constitutionally protected right to self-government, a right to manage their own affairs. The Cree-Naskapi Act of Quebec, 1984, became Canada’s first legislation for indigenous self-government. In 1995, the Canadian government adopted an approach to negotiating practical and workable arrangements with Inuit and First Nation people to implement their inherent right to self-government. These arrangements recognize the rights of Inuit and First Nation people to make decisions about matters internal to their communities, integral to their unique cultures, traditions, languages, and connected with their relationship to the land and resources.
Under the federal policy, Inuit and First Nation communities may negotiate self-government arrangements for different issues such as government structure, land management, health care, child welfare, education housing, and economic development. Negotiations are held between Inuit and First Nation communities, the federal government and, in areas affecting its jurisdiction and interests, the relevant provincial or territorial government. Self-government arrangements may take many forms, based on the diverse historical, cultural, political and economic circumstances of Inuit and First Nation groups, regions and communities involved. The recognition of the autonomous territory of Nunavut in 1999 is perhaps the most prominent example of indigenous self-government in Canada.
While some indigenous leaders would advocate that self-government agreements should be negotiated with chiefs from coast to coast working together on a national scale, many of the chiefs are not in accord; they prefer a regional approach, such as that taken by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which already has a preliminary self-government agreement for that province. Many indigenous nations prefer to negotiate and speak for themselves rather than through national or regional organizations.
Over the past 30 years, indigenous rights are also slowly being defined through the Canadian courts. For example, in 1990 the Supreme Court of Canada concluded in the Sparrow decision that the Musqueam Band had an existing indigenous right to fish. More recently, the Supreme Court also recognized the Métis domestic hunting and fishing rights. For commercial purposes, it has proven more difficult for First Nations people to establish an indigenous right to hunt or fish because courts have generally held that commercial trading of fish and game generally emerged after, not before, European contact. The 1999 Mi’kmaq fisheries dispute in Nova Scotia showed that fishing rights issues remained a flashpoint for conflict.
A number of court decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada have made references to indigenous land title. These court decisions have made important distinctions between indigenous title and other forms of individual property ownership. The most important decision on Aboriginal title is the 1997 Delgamuukw decision from the Supreme Court of Canada. In that case, the Court said that:
- indigenous title is a communal right,
- indigenous title, like other types of indigenous rights, is protected under s.35 of the Constitution Act, 1982,
- indigenous title lands can only be surrendered to the federal Crown,
- indigenous title lands must not be put to a use which is irreconcilable with the nature of the group’s attachment to the land, and
- In order for the Crown to justify an infringement of indigenous title, it must demonstrate a compelling and substantive legislative objective, it must have consulted with and accommodated the indigenous group prior to acting. Normally, compensation may be required for significant infringement.
At the provincial level, reform and reconciliation is also in evidence. Progress was made on completing comprehensive land claims and self-government agreements. The creation of the British Columbia Treaty Commission (BCTC) in 1991 opened an opportunity for First Nations in that province to advance and negotiate settlements in respect of their indigenous title claims. Sixty-five First Nations have submitted their claims and the process is proceeding slowly but substantive progress has been made towards final agreements at many tables. By the end of 2018, there were eight agreements in principle, with the parties going on to final agreement negotiations. There were three final agreements that had taken effect by then, namely with the Tla’amin, Maa-Nulth and Tsawwassen Nations. The new Lheidli T’enneh Treaty was initialled in mid-2018, after the membership of the Nation had voted against the provisions of an earlier version – the new text includes provisions allowing for it to be updated as federal and provincial government policies concerning indigenous peoples are developed. The Yale First Nation Final Agreement has been initialled by all parties, but the date of its implementation has been postponed.
Given the vastly different circumstances of indigenous peoples throughout Canada, a one-size-fits-all approach is not practical for addressing indigenous and treaty rights of different indigenous communities in different parts of the country. Each indigenous people has its own culture, customs and traditions. In addition, provinces and territories have their own views and positions on resolving claims and accommodating self-government. Developments in constitutional law since 1982 are helping to define the nature and scope of indigenous and treaty rights, challenging government and indigenous groups to consider new approaches, such as specific recognition of indigenous rights, mechanisms for consulting with indigenous peoples and accommodating their rights while negotiations are proceeding.
Some indigenous communities have seen profits from reserve-based casinos. Profits are shared among indigenous communities under a formula that considers population and remoteness. Cash is to be used in five approved areas: community development, health, education, economic or cultural development. The lack of transparency in allocation of the profits has been the subject of some controversy.
The murder and disappearance of indigenous girls and women
Indigenous Canadians are generally at significantly greater risk of being killed than other Canadians – despite being less than 5 per cent of the population, they account for around a quarter of homicides every year – indigenous girls and women have long faced particular challenges due to the threat of sexual and gender-based violence. For more than 30 years, indigenous women and girls have faced disproportionate levels of murder and disappearance, with data suggesting that they are almost six times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous Canadians.
In March 2014, prior to the release of the RCMP report, the Special Committee on Violence Against indigenous Women presented their own report, Invisible Women: A Call to Action, during the 41st Parliament, Second Session. The report uncovered several significant yet varied factors contributing to the epidemic of disappearances and murders of indigenous women and girls, with one of the most defining being the deprivation, poor living conditions and discrimination experienced by many indigenous people on a routine basis.
Nevertheless, although local-level initiatives assisted in initiating dialogues and plans of action to address the root causes of the violence in Winnipeg and throughout Canada, the national-level response from the Harper government was dismissive of the social factors at play. Instead, the then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, negated the findings of several federal, provincial and community studies by stating that this issue was not a ‘sociological phenomenon’ and needed to be addressed through crime-prevention tactics. In early 2015, however, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women released a report, supported by a statement from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), that found Canada’s lack of action constituted a ‘grave rights violation’ against indigenous women and girls.
Gender and migration
In Canada, the Indian Act of 1876 had dramatic consequences that resulted in indigenous women’s migration to the city. Women have comprised the majority of First Nations urban migrants since the 1950s. There are several reasons for this. First, in an amendment of 1951, women lost their native status if they married non-status men, meaning they could not pass status on to their children nor remain on reservations. This provision did not, however, apply to men. This clause was brought to the attention of the UN Human Rights Committee in the case known as Sandra Lovelace v. Canada (1979–81), whereby the committee concluded that Canada was in breach of Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In 1985, the Canadian parliament revoked this section of the Act. Implementation, in the form of acceptance of affected indigenous women by their communities, has been slow, however,
Second, in regard to real and matrimonial property, reservations are governed by the Indian Act. But the Indian Act does not cover division of property on reserves upon separation or divorce. The then UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, in his report on his 2007 visit to Canada, notes how this ‘legislative void [has had] dramatic results’. He continues: ‘In some cases, women – and their children – are forced to choose between staying in a bad and/or violent situation or leaving the matrimonial home. Often, the choice to leave results in the woman and her children being forced to leave their community and/or become homeless.’ In an attempt to address this legal vacuum, the Family Homes on-reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act of 2013 provides for provisional federal rules as well as a process whereby First Nations can adopt their own laws. By March 2018, 13 First Nations had established their own legislation governing matrimonial property, while another 37 have created their own rules as part of their own Land Codes.
The progressive recognition of Canada’s indigenous population continues, with a number of milestones in recent years highlighting their growing status in the country after decades of discrimination and exclusion. These include the signing in May 2016 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples – something Canada had previously considered to only be an aspirational document.
Nevertheless, compared to the Canadian population in general, indigenous people continue to experience the lowest rates of literacy and education, and the highest rates of infant mortality, unemployment, incarceration and suicide. The housing problem, according to indigenous leaders, has reached crisis proportions. Health care and social services are poorly funded and hampered by inadequate training and a lack of indigenous personnel. They have struggled to deal with the difficult health and social conditions in these communities. Indigenous communities also face a suicide epidemic, particularly among their youth, with young indigenous women 21 times more likely to commit suicide and young indigenous men 10 times more likely to commit suicide than their respective non-indigenous peers. For indigenous people under the age of 44, suicide and self-harm are the leading cause of death. Numerous indigenous communities have declared a state of emergency; for instance, in 2016, Attawapiskat First Nation reserve south of Hudson Bay in northern Ontario did so after 11 young people tried to commit suicide on the same night. In June 2017, three 12-year old girls killed themselves in a suicide pact; they belonged to another First Nation reserve in northern Ontario. It should be recalled that these are small communities – the Attawapiskat First Nation reserve comprises only 2,000 people – so all members are affected in some way. In the past two decades, the population growth of indigenous peoples has outstripped that of non-indigenous Canadians. However, the purchasing power of indigenous people has fallen, and the government has only increased health and social service spending for the communities on par with inflation, not with the actual increase of people requiring services.
The plight of the Innu people of Labrador has garnered particular attention. Innu (formerly known as the Naskapi-Montagnais Indians – an application of foreign labels) speak an Algonquian language and represent the easternmost Cree people. Innu were historically forced by the government to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and found themselves slipping out of touch with their traditional way of life. A large-scale hydroelectric project, the Upper Churchill Falls, commenced operations in 1971 after flooding a large area of central Labrador which Innu had used for hunting, campsites and burial grounds. Low-level air force pilot training persisted over their traditional lands, leading to repeated community protests during the 1980’s and 1990’s. To make matters worse, the traditionally caribou-hunting Innu were relocated twice, first in 1948 to Old Davis Inlet and then in 1967 to Davis Inlet, and encouraged to take up fishing instead. Rates of alcoholism and suicide increased, with Davis Inlet recording one of the highest suicide rates in the world by the 1990’s; insufficient resources were allocated to support the community which lived in sub-standard conditions. After persistent advocacy, the Innu nation succeeded in being registered as status Indians under the Indian Act in 2002, giving them access to federal funding and programmes. Natuashish and Sheshatshiu were recognised as reserve lands in 2003 and 2006, although negotiations over other land claims and compensation are ongoing. In order to address the isolation and social issues of Davis Inlet, the Innu population living there was relocated to the mainland in 2002. Community programmes have since led to a sharp drop in the suicide rate; according to a 2015 report, there had only been one suicide in the preceding six years, whereas there had been four or five each year before their move.
Despite some evidence of progress, indigenous leaders are still very concerned about issues of water quality, poor housing and poverty. There are clear interconnections between these issues and mental health. The state of emergency declared by Attawapiskat First Nation reserve in 2016 was against a stark backdrop of housing shortages and failing infrastructure. Its challenges, which persist to this day, illustrate the broader disparities facing many indigenous Canadians and the continued legacy of colonial policies of expropriation and assimilation today.
Hate crime and targeted attacks also remain a reality for many indigenous Canadians. One of the most high-profile cases of targeted violence was the death of Barbara Kentner, a young indigenous mother who was hit in the stomach by a trailer hitch thrown by a non-Native male passenger in a speeding car in Thunder bay. She sustained lethal internal Injuries. Witnesses reported hearing the passenger yell ‘I got one of them’ when they drove past after hitting Kentner. Kentner spent the next five months hospitalized as her major organs shut down. Her death sparked outrage in the indigenous community in Canada, while the local indigenous people in Thunder Bay – where close to a third of all anti-indigenous hate crime in the country reported in 2015 – complained about the systematic racism they face. Many youths testified that they were the targets of racial taunts and had garbage thrown at them from passing cars. The man who threw the trailer hitch at Kentner, Brayden Bushby, was charged with second-degree murder following her death.
A particularly acute issue is the extraordinarily high numbers of indigenous girls and women who have been murdered or disappeared, in most cases without the perpetrator ever being identified. The scale of this problem has long been invisible and only recently has it attracted significant attention through the efforts of indigenous activists. Even today, data collection on indigenous deaths and disappearances remains fragmented, obscuring the extent of the problem, though a 2014 investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police estimated that some 1,017 indigenous women and girls had been killed between 1980 and 2012, while another 164 were still missing. Startlingly, the homicide rate between 2001 and 2015 for indigenous females was almost six times higher than for non-indigenous women, with indigenous girls and women making up a quarter of all female homicide victims in 2015. The case of Tina Fontaine, for example, a 15-year-old indigenous girl who went missing in August 2014 and was later found weighed down with rocks in the Red River, has yet to result in justice. Though a non-indigenous man, Raymond Joseph Cormier, was charged with her death in 2015, he was later found not guilty in February 2018 – a verdict that provoked anger and sadness among indigenous Canadians who called for a change in the system that failed her. Her death served as a catalyst for several indigenous grassroots movements such as Drag the Red, a volunteer initiative that searches Winnipeg’s Red River for missing and murdered indigenous women, and drove further protests against the federal government’s failure to adequately address the unsolved cases of Missing and Murdered indigenous Women (MMIW).
Despite this, indigenous Canadians are also significantly over-represented in Canada’s prisons: despite making up around 5 per cent of the Canadian population, their share of the country’s penal population is 26.4 per cent, more than five times higher. The imbalance is especially pronounced among indigenous women, who make up 37.6 per cent of the female prison population. The numbers reach critical levels in the Prairie region, where indigenous people make up the majority of the inmate population in some penitentiaries. In some jurisdictions, the recommendations of Elders’ Circles are now accepted by the courts. Many communities have developed their own healing lodges, and some have taken on the responsibility of monitoring offenders at the time of release.
There has also been increased scrutiny on the failure of the justice system to punish those responsible for crimes against indigenous Canadians. Among the most widely publicized issues was the case of Colton Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree Red Pheasant First Nation who was killed by Gerald Stanley after trespassing on his property. Stanley was arrested and charged with second-degree murder but then later acquitted by an all-white jury, a decision that attracted widespread criticism including from Trudeau and other senior government officials, while First Nation activists saw it as a reflection of the continued discrimination that indigenous Canadians experience on a daily basis.
Following revelations about the scale of abuse in Canada’s residential schools and a series of successful legal actions against the government, the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008 and the release of its findings in December 2015, accompanied by ’94 calls to action’, has spurred significant reforms, with Trudeau promising to fulfil the 94 calls to action and to address the myriad social and economic issues facing indigenous communities in Canada. There has been a growing response from schools and education departments across Canada, committing to include the TRC’s findings in their curriculum. The National Research Center for Truth and Reconciliation has been established in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to preserve the memory and legacy of the TRC, ensuring that former students, educators, and the public have access to its archives. These events represent an important paradigm shift for Canada.
Despite this increasing recognition, indigenous territories continue to be threatened with encroachment by developers and extractive industries, such as mining and oil, typically with the support of the Canadian government. The most high-profile, though by no means only, case in recent years is the contested extension of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. The original Trans Mountain Pipeline was built in the early 1950s and in 2004 Kinder Morgan initiated the process for a second pipeline running parallel to the first, completed in 2008. The Trans Mountain Pipeline has failed repeatedly, with some 82 reported spills since 1961. In 2013, Kinder Morgan moved forward with the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project, sparking protests from indigenous and environmental activists. However, in November 2016 the Canadian government approved the construction, though with 157 provisions that it claimed would address indigenous and environmental concerns. Indigenous representatives argued that the government had not properly consulted the communities which would be most affected by the pipeline, in direct violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which the government had announced that it would adopt just a few months earlier, in May 2016. Amidst ongoing demonstrations, the Canadian government announced in May 2018 that it would acquire the pipeline and then seek outside investors to complete the work. Despite the Federal Court of Appeal reversing in August 2018 the government’s approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion project on the basis that indigenous communities were not meaningfully consulted, nor the threats posed to fragile marine life adequately resolved, the government nevertheless purchased the pipeline for C$4.5 billion the day after the ruling.
Many other communities are also living with the impacts of land rights violations. Lubicon Cree, for example, have seen the land on which they depend transformed by logging and large-scale oil and gas extraction. The Lubicon, an indigenous nation of approximately 500 people living in northern Alberta, have never surrendered their rights to their traditional lands. The Lubicon were simply overlooked when a treaty (‘Treaty 8’) was negotiated with other indigenous peoples in the region in 1899. A reserve promised to them 40 years later was never established. Since the mid-1980s, negotiations with the federal and provincial governments around land rights have repeatedly broken down. Meanwhile, the community say that their health, their way of life and their culture itself are being steadily destroyed by resource extraction to which they have never consented. In the last few decades, thousands of oil and gas wells have been licensed on Lubicon territory, and in 2011 a pipeline leaked some 28,000 barrels of oil on Lubicon land. Despite the vast wealth extracted from Lubicon land – more than 70 per cent of their land is now leased to extractive industries – the community itself remains impoverished, with many lacking basic services such as running water. Some positive news finally came for the Lubicon towards the end of 2018; on 13 November, Lubicon Lake First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Laboucan signed the long-delayed treaty with Canada on behalf of his community. The treaty should bring recognition of their rights to 246 sq. kilometres of land and over a hundred million Canadian dollars in federal and provincial funding.
More indigenous women than men live in Canadian urban areas, although activists point to a variety of causes – including, for instance, that indigenous women may also be moving to cities to escape abusive relationships. Women play an important role in the transmission of language. Although mother tongue language transmission is higher for families that live on reserve, surrounded by their communities, more indigenous women live off reserve, so they are disadvantaged from receiving this additional support. Furthermore, families that remain on reserve are generally those with two parents, as many single mothers end up leaving the reserve. For these families, maintaining their indigenous language is a huge challenge.
The impacts of the rapid urbanization of Canada’s indigenous population has also been profound. Urban First Nations communities in Canada live in much worse conditions than other urban groups. A recent study explored worrying evidence that indigenous women are over-represented among new HIV infections and street-based sex workers. Comparing indigenous and non-indigenous sex workers, they found that indigenous women were three times more likely to have HIV than other sex workers and had a high prevalence of inter-generational sex work. This finding illustrates the long-term effects of destructive attitudes and policies towards indigenous peoples – with impacts that continue despite recent changes.
As of the 2016 census, there were 65,025 Inuit living in Canada, living in different regions across Canada: Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Quebec and Labrador (with other smaller Inuit populations in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia). Inuit peoples also live in Arctic regions in Russia, the United States and Greenland.
There are currently over 39,000 Inuktitut speakers in Canada.
Two of Canada’s northern territories give official status to Inuit and other indigenous languages. In Nunavut, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun are official languages alongside English and French, and Inuktitut is a common vehicular language in government. In the Northwest Territories, there are 11 official languages: Dene Suline, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey and Tåîchô.
Alarmed by the changes in their environment and the social problems in their communities, Inuit people formed movements to regain power over their lives. After years of sustained pressure, the Inuit have successfully concluded landmark comprehensive land claim agreements: to date, Inuit representatives have signed four land claim settlements: Nunavik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut and Nunatsiavut (Labrador). Other indigenous communities see autonomous regions such as Nunavut as a model for their own strivings towards self-government. The government of Nunavut is committed to Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) as a guiding principle of public government. IQ embodies Inuit traditional knowledge and values, and guides the government in framing decisions, policies and laws that reflect the key philosophies, attitudes and practices of Nunavut’s Inuit majority. Representatives are chosen on an individual rather than a party basis.
The largest employer in Nunavut is the government – including federal, territorial and municipal authorities. New jobs are rapidly emerging in the mining and resource development sectors. Growth is also occurring in the tourism sector, in fisheries, and in Inuit art such as carvings and prints. Inuit across the Arctic region in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Chukotka have long been concerned about the trade barriers that have resulted from the national borders crossing through their circumpolar homeland. In 1994, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) took initial steps to remedy this situation, successfully lobbying to have the United States government amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow cultural trade and exchanges between indigenous communities.
Britain granted the vast Canadian Arctic to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, but the first recorded contact between European explorers and Inuit did not occur until the nineteenth century. Some explorers paid dearly when they were shipwrecked and refused to entertain the idea that the Inuit could help them.
At the time of the first contacts, the Inuit people had developed a sophisticated technology for surviving in a harsh environment that provided them with a rich and secure economy. Inhabiting the entire north from the coast of Alaska to Labrador, they lived in groups of families in temporary camps, moving according to the seasons and the availability of game. Travel was by skin boat, dog team or on foot. They were mostly a maritime people, depending for food and clothing on marine mammals – bowhead whale, beluga, narwhal, walrus and seal – although caribou and fish were also important. A small group of people known as Caribou Inuit lived in the Keewatin region in the central Canadian Arctic, dependent for food, clothing and summer shelter on caribou and taking no sea animals.
Inuit were hard-hit by initial contact with Europeans, particularly the American and Scottish whalers who decimated this vital element of Inuit survival in a few short decades starting in the 1850s. Ironically, the Europeans made extensive use of Inuit knowledge of the water and of the whales in order to catch their prey, pressing local Inuit into service on their ships. The whaling industry also brought with it diseases and alcohol, which had disastrous impacts on Inuit. By 1910, the number of Inuit in the Mackenzie River Delta in the western Canadian Arctic had fallen from 2,000 to about 130.
In 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold the Inuit land to the Canadian government, which renamed it the Northwest Territories and parcelled it out to existing provinces. All this was done without any consultation with the Inuit people, much less their consent. In 1912, again without consulting local Inuit, the federal government extended the boundary of the province of Quebec northward to include the ‘Ungava’ district (known by the Inuit as Nunavik). At this time, the Arctic held no intrinsic value for the Canadian government. But as other countries, especially the United States, became interested in the area in the late 1800s, Canada sought to establish its sovereignty.
Between 1953 and 1955, Canada forcibly relocated 92 Inuit from the northern Quebec village of Inukjuak to the High Arctic in a bid to assert its sovereignty over the area. They endured hunger and cold, and were not warned about the long months of darkness that awaited them. They were also not provided with warm clothing. In 1994, the federally appointed Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples called the move ‘paternalistic’ and ‘illegal’ because it was financed with money intended for Inuit economic development. The Commission also said that Canada never gave the Inuit a choice in whether to move or stay, echoing calls for compensation and an apology already made by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (the political body representing Canada’s Inuit), the Canadian Human Rights Commission and a House of Commons committee. The federal government expressed regret about the relocations but did not issue a formal apology or compensation.
The Inuit people of northern Quebec have experienced some of the worst effects of European contact. In the mid-1970s, they entered a period of falling life expectancy that still continues. This new trend coincided with the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was considered the first modern land claims settlement in Canada. In exchange for providing certainty of title to the territory to Quebec, Nunavik Inuit (and Crees and Naskapis) received financial compensation, land and governmental powers. Some land was granted in ownership and some was set aside for exclusive native hunting, fishing, and trapping.
While the rest of Canada was declared a nation of its own by the British North American Act of 1867, Canada’s indigenous peoples were protected by the British crown: however, Inuit communities of the Arctic were exempt from this. To ensure that the lands of the Crown would not fall into the hands of the United States, England transferred all Arctic land to Canada in 1880. Most of the Inuit population was largely left alone by the Canadian government at the time. When in 1894, when new provisions of the Indian Act came into force, Inuit were not forced to attend residential schools unlike other indigenous peoples. The Arctic indigenous population remained exempt from this law until 1939, which was still not fully implemented by the government by 1947. In the 1950s, however, numerous residential schools in the western Arctic were officially opened. Due to the remoteness of some villages, lack of infrastructure and low budgets, it was difficult for the Canadian government to establish a uniform school system and so there were a variety of different types: missionary schools, church-led schools, public schools and schools run by mining companies. As happened to indigenous children in southern Canada, Inuit children were taken from their families and placed in these schools. However, unlike the southern residential schools, most Inuit schools were not built until after 1948, when the deep failings of the residential system were becoming apparent. While the government wished to avoid replicating the southern residential school system in the north, in many ways the impact on the Inuit population was equally devastating. A network of hostels was built alongside federal day schools. Inuit students endured a highly regimented life, enforced by harsh discipline, while following culturally inappropriate and irrelevant curricula. Physical and sexual abuse was widespread. Inuit parents were frequently coerced into sending their children with the threat of losing their family allowances if they failed to do so.
Therefore, the experiences of many Inuit students in the Arctic are comparable to those of indigenous students in the residential schools elsewhere in Canada: being separating from their homes and families, a ban on speaking one’s mother tongue, poor living conditions and frequent incidents of physical and sexual abuse were the norm. In 1952, the Federal Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources assumed responsibility for Inuit populations. Since the end of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015, there has been increasing discussion and awareness among the Canadian population about the disturbing history and harsh legacy of residential schools.
One positive development for Inuit communities from the 1980s onwards was the establishment of a number of Inuit autonomous regions in Canada, beginning with the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR), established in 1984 with the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, followed by Nunavut, Nunavik and finally Nunatsiavut in 2005. The agreement provides the Inuit population in these areas with significant self-governance powers. However, while self-government has offered the possibility of strengthening the identity and confidence of Canada’s Inuit population, serious problems have nevertheless persisted. During Nunavut’s first year as a territory, for instance, 20 people committed suicide and dozens of other attempts were reported. In Quebec, Inuit life expectancy in the 1990s was 60 years, according to a survey by the Quebec health department, while average Canadian life expectancy was 77 years. A major reason for the lower life expectancy rate was the fact that Inuit aged 15-19 had a suicide rate of 480 per 100,000 people, nearly 25 times the Quebec average. Among other indicators, Inuit infant mortality was four times the Canadian average and Inuit were six times more likely to die of respiratory diseases than Quebecers, and almost 50 per cent more likely to die of cancer.
A new Partnership Accord was agreed between the Canadian government and the representative body of the Inuit, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, in May 2005. The Partnership Accord foresaw the negotiation of a ‘Canadian government-Inuit Action Plan’ drafted in 2006. Implementation of this Action Plan was monitored and evaluated by a joint steering committee comprised of two senior officials from the Department of indigenous and Northern Affairs, and from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The Partnership Accord is political in nature, and began by acknowledging the constitutional recognition of Inuit as indigenous people of Canada, living in Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik, Nunavut, the Inuvialuit Settlement Region and many centres in southern Canada.
On 1 December 2005, the Nunatsiavut government came into being, marking the last of the Inuit land claims agreements to be negotiated in Canada. The Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) signed a land claims agreement with officials of the federal and provincial government on behalf of Labrador’s 5,000 Inuit people in January 2005. The former Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams, also formally apologized for the forced resettlement of some Inuit during the 1950s.
At the end of 2005, the ICC submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that the US failure to control emissions of greenhouse gases is damaging Inuit livelihoods in the Arctic. The petition was filed on behalf of the ICC by its Inuit Chair, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, representing herself and 62 other named petitioners. The petition asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the harm caused to Inuit by global warming, and to declare the United States ‘in violation of rights affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other instruments of international law’. The United States is not party to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission did not proceed with the petition but held a thematic hearing on the interconnections between climate change and human rights in 2006. The ICC initiative was clearly instrumental in establishing those interlinkages at the international level.
Inuit leaders announced their opposition and sought clarification of the decision announced on 2 May 2006 by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) to upgrade the status of the polar bear to ‘vulnerable’ on the Red List. Inuit leaders, members of the IUCN, reported that they were not consulted or warned ahead of time of this change of status. Hunting and conservation of the polar bear is an important feature of Inuit culture and livelihood. Meanwhile, animal rights activists renewed their calls for an end to the seal hunt in Canada, citing animal cruelty. Inuit groups applauded the Canadian government’s request for formal consultations with Belgium at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The government alleged that the European country’s April 2007 ban on the import of Canadian seal products violated international trade rules, however that debate was superseded by wider EU action. In 2009, the EU banned the import of seal products, but allowed products certified to have been the result of indigenous hunting. The Canadian government unsuccessfully challenged the ban at the WTO; it lost the challenge in 2014. The European Court of Justice rejected an appeal brought by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and upheld the ban in 2015. More recently, many animal rights and environmental groups which continue to campaign against commercial sealing have made efforts to distinguish between large-scale, industrial sealing and the sustainable hunting practices of Inuit. However, the success of these decades-old campaigns in highlighting the waste and cruelty sometimes associated with commercial sealing has meant that nevertheless the demand for seal meat and products, even when certified from Inuit sources, has plummeted.
Suicide remains a deep problem in Inuit communities. In Nunavut, Inuit communities have a suicide rate which is nearly six times the national average, similar to First Nations and Métis.
Great changes have transformed the Canadian Arctic, often to the disadvantage of the Inuit people. After decades of seeing changes forced on them, today the Inuit have embarked on a cultural and political renaissance and are working to take back power over their lands, communities, institutions, and future.
Canada’s Inuit leaders have been instrumental in setting up the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), with representatives from all countries where there are Inuit people. Inuit people have renewed pride in their culture, and are strengthening it through innovative locally designed television programmes and a network of radio stations, as well as a myriad of social media platforms. Well-organized and outspoken youth councils have been forming in Inuit communities across the Canadian Arctic. They have raised questions not only about government paternalism and environmental destruction but lack of accountability among the Inuit leadership. A new generation of Inuit have also broken down barriers to higher education, enrolling in record numbers in post-secondary institutions.
Inuit in all regions of the circumpolar world are reporting changes to the natural environment as a result of climate change, which may be the ultimate, long-term threat to Inuit culture. The range of these changes is well known: melting permafrost, thinning and ablation of sea ice, receding glaciers, ‘invasion’ of species of animals not previously seen in the Arctic, increased coastal erosion, longer and warmer summers and shorter winters. Climate change continues to have a serious negative affect on the health, food security, and livelihoods of the Inuit. Researchers fear the North’s changing environment will affect the health of Inuit by decreasing access to traditional foods from the land. Early break-up of ice in the spring is especially a concern since it reduces access to seals.
The housing crisis remains a critical issue for the Inuit, and leaders are requesting that the Canadian government act immediately to address the housing crisis in an Inuit-specific way. They seek clear, concrete commitments to ensure new houses can be built. A 2017 Senate report highlighted the acute housing shortfalls facing Inuit communities and the profound implications this had on the health and safety of the population, particularly children. The absence of adequate and affordable homes placed many families at risk of homelessness and subjected many others to overcrowding, with up to 15 people residing in three–bedroom houses. The report noted that such intense overcrowding risks contributing to domestic violence, other forms of abuse and the spread of contagious diseases: tuberculosis, for instance, occurs among Inuit Canadians at around 250 times the rate of that among non-indigenous Canadians.
Métis have official recognition as an indigenous people in Canada from the Constitution Act of 1982, alongside First Nations and Inuit peoples. According to the 2016 Canadian census, Métis number 587,545. Métis communities can also be found in the United States; however, the greatest representation is in Canada.
Métis have historically been known as descendants of indigenous communities and colonial era settlers (often French). However, over time a unique identity emerged. Métis can trace their maternal line to Wabanaki, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Cree, Ojibwe or Menominee peoples. Distinctions emerged between Métis of French and English descent after Canadian territory was ceded to Great Britain, though eventually Anglo-Métis and Franco-Métis’ identities merged into one Métis tradition, although there are variations between different locations in Canada. Métis individuals and communities can be found across Canada; however, the traditional Métis homeland is considered to be the Canadian prairies, due to the history of indigenous and European intermarriage during the 19th century fur trade.
Combining French and indigenous influences, Métis developed their own language, Michif, and distinct forms of dress, food and other cultural practices.
During the North American fur trade beginning in the 1600s, French and British colonial men married First Nations and Inuit women (often Cree, Ojibwe or Saulteaux in the Great Lakes area). Indigenous societies are primarily matriarchal societies; therefore, these unions saw the children growing up in indigenous communities and raised in traditional belief systems and cultures, while also being exposed to Western religions and practices.
Métis have been historically seen as a cultural bridge between indigenous peoples and European settlers, playing a crucial role in the success of the fur trade. When Métis emerged as a distinct people, they lived on territory that had also been used by other indigenous communities: much of what is now regarded as Métis land was occupied by Ojibwe people. Métis groups continued to grow near fur trade routes and into the Northwest. This area includes part of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, as well as parts of Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and the northern United States.
While historical Métis communities continue to live in this area, many have migrated to more urban centres. Métis communities continue their distinctive culture, traditions and language, while promoting and protecting their economic and social development.
In recent years, there have been a series of positive court decisions and other government initiatives supporting Métis’ rights. In 2013, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that Métis had the same legal footing as status Indians. Also in 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government had violated Métis’ rights when it had failed to uphold a promise to distribute 5,565 square kilometres’ land, including the area covered by modern-day Winnipeg. The promise was part of the 1870 Manitoba Act which sought to end the Red River Rebellion and pave the way for Manitoba to become a province of Canada. The Manitoba Act should in principle have led to land being set aside for 7,000 Métis children. In 2016, a framework agreement was signed with a view towards resolving the issue. In 2018, the Manitoba Métis Federation and the federal authorities announced a joint action plan to resolve the land issue, including millions of Canadian dollars in funding. More generally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Clément Chartier, President of the Métis National Council, signed an accord in 2017 between the Canadian government and the Métis Nation. It called for a permanent bilateral mechanism, annual joint policy priorities and federal funding.
Métis have also made political gains. In Winnipeg, which is home to the largest number of urban indigenous people in Canada, the first Métis mayor, Brian Bowman, was elected in November 2014. His election was seen as an important advance in bridging the enduring sense of separation between the indigenous and non-indigenous populations.
As Canada’s Métis population has historically navigated between the country’s indigenous and non-indigenous cultures with their own distinct culture, they have at times experienced tensions in the expression of their identity. In 2018, for instance, a map outlining the Métis homeland sparked controversy: the delineated area covered three provinces, parts of two more and part of the Northwest Territories. Métis representatives emphasised that their intention was not to lay claim to the whole region – also home to First Nations. Rather, they hoped it would help them recognise people with origins in the area who identify as Métis. In 2016, a project called 100 Métis was initiated where Métis youth were asked what they thought their cultural identity meant. The project went nationwide and was intended to be a positive outlet for Métis youth to express and define themselves. The project concluded with a website featuring video submissions from people across the country telling personal stories about their Métis identity.
Another issue for Métis in Canada has been hunting rights. A notable case for this has been R v. Powley from 2003, where Steve Powley, a Métis, and his son were out hunting in Sault Ste. Marie, and shot and killed a moose. Neither had a valid hunting licence to hunt the moose, but Powley tagged the moose and wrote his Ontario Métis and Aboriginal Association membership on it. He was later approached by officers who charged him and his son with unlawfully hunting moose and knowingly possessing game hunted in contravention of the 1990 Game and Fish Act. They both entered pleas of not guilty.
This case would develop into one of the most important legal cases for Métis in Canada. The core of the case ultimately extended beyond whether Powley and his son had committed an illegal act to the broader question of whether Métis in Canada had an indigenous right to hunt. The case was drawn out for many years before ending in the Supreme Court of Canada, where it was decided that Powley and his son had a legal indigenous right to hunt in their local area. Before this decision, Métis, unlike indigenous First Nations and Inuit, did not enjoy a right to hunt.
Updated June 2019
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African Canadian Legal Clinic
Congress of Black Women of Canada
Jamaican Canadian Association
Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA)
National Association of Japanese Canadians
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Ukrainian Canadian Congress
Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
Native Women’s Association of Canada
Assembly of First Nations
British Columbia Treaty Commission
Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations
Congress of Aboriginal Peoples
First Nations University of Canada
Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec)
National Centre for First Nations Governance
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs
Métis National Council
Women of the Métis Nation
Inuit Circumpolar Conference Canada
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami
Labrador Inuit Association Head Office
Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association
St John’s Native Friendship Centre Association
Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne (AFFC)
Fédération culturelle canadienne-française
Fédération des Communautés Francophones et Acadiens du Canada
Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ)
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Canadian Council for Refugees
Canadian Council of Muslim Women
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Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association
Canadian Race Relations Foundation
Centre de recherche-action sur les relations raciales
Council on American-Islamic Relations CANADA (CAIR-CAN)
National Anti-Racism Council of Canada
National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
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- Eastern European Canadians
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