Indigenous Equality and Rights
For our purposes, “Indigenous” includes First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Aboriginal peoples.
Indigenous peoples were on the land now called Canada for centuries before European settlers arrived, and they have long proud histories that include rich cultural and spiritual traditions. But a cycle of social, physical, and cultural destruction was begun when European culture and values were forced upon them, Aboriginal lands were dispossessed, populations were wiped out, and foreign modes of governance were imposed. The effects of all this trauma continue to harm Indigenous people today.
Underlying most of the problems faced by many Indigenous communities are a profound loss of identity and generations of demoralization caused by cultural genocide (the systematic destruction of a culture).
In the face of widespread oppression, poverty, and violence, First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Aboriginal peoples across Canada continue to fight for their rights. They are challenging the systems and attitudes that have perpetuated their oppression in order to realize their full rights and achieve equality.
- Unemployment among Indigenous people in Canada exceeds 80% in some communities.*
- More than half of Inuit people in the North cannot afford decent food for their families.*
- One in four Aboriginal children lives in poverty.*
- More than 100 First Nations communities have little or no access to clean water.*
- Aboriginal youth graduate from high school at half the rate of all Canadians.*
- First Nations youth commit suicide at five to eight times the general rate; for Inuit youth, the rate is six times as high.*
- More than half of First Nations and Inuit people are under 25 years of age. This is the fastest growing population in Canada. If poverty is not addressed today, it will continue to negatively impact First Nations and Inuit families for generations to come.*
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is an international agreement covering both the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples around the world. The declaration addresses issues such as culture, identity, language, health, and education. Based on the principles of equality, partnership, and mutual respect, UNDRIP’s purpose is to guide the countries of the world, the UN, and other international groups toward building fair and cooperative relationships with Indigenous peoples.
UNDRIP is not the only document of its kind. There’s also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and others. But what makes UNDRIP special is that it was drafted with the direct participation of the very people it’s about.
Centuries of colonization have left Indigenous peoples without the opportunity to enjoy basic human rights. Indigenous peoples across Canada are among the most marginalized, impoverished, and frequently victimized members of society, as they are everywhere else on the planet, too.
When the United Nations adopted an international Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, Canada initially voted against. But in 2010, the Government of Canada revisited the matter, leading to a Statement of Support endorsing the UNDRIP on November 12, 2010.
There is a long way to go before Indigenous people are truly free from imposed cycles of oppression. But Indigenous communities are making strides along their healing path. Countless Indigenous scholars, artists, activists, and leaders are challenging systems and attitudes. Meanwhile, more and more non-Aboriginals are becoming allies in that effort. Together, we can build a new society in which First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and Aboriginal people are fully equal, enjoying their rights, and a thriving part of a fairer society.
Frustrated by the shoddy state of many First Nations schools and concerned that the truth about Aboriginal history was missing from curricula, Shannen Koostachin decided to take action. This young teenager from Attawapiskat First Nation launched a campaign to get safe and comfortable schools and culturally-based education in Aboriginal communities. Shannen advocated tirelessly on behalf of First Nations education before dying tragically in 2010 at the age of 15. The initiative now known as Shannen’s Dream continues today — thousands of people have taken up Shannen’s call for better educational opportunities for First Nations children and youth. In fact, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion in February 2012 inspired by Shannen’s Dream, committing the federal government to boost financial support to bring First Nations schools on par with provincial standards elsewhere in Ontario. The motion also affirms that First Nations students on reserves have an equal right to a quality education as other students.
If you are an Indigenous youth, what personal experiences have you and your family had with the issues facing so many Aboriginal communities? And if you’re not, what contact have you had with the story and struggle of Indigenous peoples, either personally or through those you know?
What are your thoughts about how Canada came to be upon Indigenous land, or about the healing journey of Indigenous communities towards equality? Contemplating our own experiences on these issues is an important step to becoming more engaged with Indigenous issues — both as youth within Aboriginal communities and as allies in the fight for their rights and equality.
Soak it up. If you are a part of an Indigenous community, talk to elders in your community and family about the histories, traditions, challenges, and future of Indigenous peoples. This unique aspect of Canada’s past has the potential to be a positive part of our shared future — if we are able to respectfully work toward and achieve equality between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous people in Canada.
Dig deeper. One of the most important things we can do to be powerful allies to Indigenous peoples in their struggle is explore our own identity. Remember the “privilege” we talked about earlier? We need to recognize it in ourselves — however that takes shape — and really think about what it means in terms of oppression. There are so many meaningful ways we can reflect on the issues in order to feel empowered to speak out about them. Learn more about power structures, how they function, and how they have influenced and continue to influence the experiences of Indigenous people. Ask questions. Listen hard. Be open.
Keep up the pressure. 2012 marked the ninth year of Sisters in Spirit vigils taking place in honour of the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Over the years, tens of thousands of people in at least 84 communities have attended vigils as part of the pan-Canadian movement to end violence against Indigenous women and girls. Led by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the vigils are just one means of keeping public and political attention on this urgent issue. If something like this isn’t already happening in your community, consider collaborating with Indigenous groups in your area to organize one, or another event around this issue. Learn about the vigils.