The aboriginal population of Canada have been oppressed and discouraged from the moment the West came to their land. From the beginning, Aboriginals have been manipulated and taken advantage of for the benefit of the colonist’s imperialistic agenda. The Aboriginal population was forced out of their land and made to live on reserves where there was no infrastructure or economic planning. When they were finally allowed to leave their reserves, employment was difficult to attain due to racist attitudes of the day. Also, European settlers brought diseases with them that were foreign to the Aboriginals, leading to high levels of death among their population. A century later, residential schools were used as a method of assimilation; it failed miserably, and the effects of the schools are still seen. It is in the interest of the aboriginal population to integrate into Canadian culture, not necessarily assimilate; the “Indian problem” should be considered a “Canadian problem” that requires immediate and well thought out plans of action. Poverty, poor health and substance abuse need to be addressed on reserves. Canada needs to encourage the independence of various cultural groups, without the American “melting pot” methodology which denies the heritage of those groups. The Federal Government has attempted to make up for wrongdoings committed by throwing money at the situation. “The government has been paternal, and has supported the Aboriginals, rather than encouraging independence” (Iva, 2001).
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Clearly, this has been a failure. A more practical approach should be taken: More than money and land, tools of success need to be shared so that independence, while maintaining their heritage can occur. This may be on its way already. In 1998, Labrador gave Aboriginals 5% of its land in addition to $250 million. The government has tried to pay away the problems, but this has never worked as well as intended. The saying, “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” applies to the Aboriginal situation in that the population does not know how to thrive in Canadian culture. The Canadian government can make up for its discriminatory treatment by aiding the integration of Aboriginals into Canadian society and the tactful spending of Aboriginal funds; investing in on-reserve educational infrastructure and Aboriginal employment would help greatly.
Understanding the history behind the Aboriginal plight is important because understanding how they were treated and how their society evolved is essential to understanding their present situation, and even, what status they could hold years from now. When Europeans made it to North America, they were suffering from disease and malnutrition. The Aboriginals came to the aid of these people and fed them with nutritional meals. In return, the Europeans harassed the Aboriginals looking for ways to exploit them for their own purposes. Indirectly and possibly unknown at the time, English settlers had spread a wave of sickness and disease. Bringing foreign illnesses with them was detrimental to the Aboriginal population. Without the knowledge of how to cure these illnesses, thousand’s of Aboriginals died. A century later, residential schools were implemented. These schools were created as a result of the racist attitudes in Canadian culture, the very racist attitudes that discriminated against them from the beginning. What impact residential schools have on Aboriginal culture, and how that impact is felt presently needs to be understood in a historical context. The founding of residential schools, the causes of low employment, the reasons behind bad health and the effects of forced relocation will all be explored in depth.
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Residential schools were started as a way to assimilate Aboriginal children, an attempt to separate the children “from the influence of their homes, families, and traditions and cultures” (Sauk, 2007).
In reality, residential schools caused great harm to the Aboriginal peoples. In 1892, residential schools were opened through partnership between the Federal Government and the Church, and 28 years later, it became “. . . mandatory for Indian children between the ages of 7-15 to attend [residential] school[s]” (Kuran, 2000).
At these schools, Aboriginal children were not fed, housed or clothed to an adequate degree. Sexual abuse was another tragedy many Aboriginal children were forced to face. Unfortunately, some children never made it out of these institutions, while countless more did not return to their families. These schools lasted until 1983, when the last residential school was closed. The government achieved its goal, “to kill the Indian in the child and . . . to transform Aboriginal children from ‘savages’ into civilized members of the Canadian society” (Kuran, 2000).
The embedded curriculum was just as bad. In other schools, learning time was five hours per day; in residential schools, learning time was only one hour. In addition to the curriculum, there was “civilization” training which included farming, cooking, gardening, cleaning and sewing. This was an attempt to break the children’s bond with their heritage and values that were core to their beliefs. When these children reached adulthood and started families, they passed on their history of abuse to their children, thus starting a cycle of repeated abuse. Residential schools were created as a result of racism, but racism created a lot more problems than just the schools, as employment opportunities of the Aboriginal’s were drastically reduced. The change from residential schools to public schools is certainly a step forward, because in public schools, assimilation and abuse are less prevalent.
Employers were hesitant to hire Aboriginals because of the negative stereotypes associated with them. These stereotypes included the belief that Aboriginals are lazy, alcoholic, and cannot hold down a job. This had a major effect on the Aboriginal population as they were thrust into poverty, with little chance of becoming employed. Statistically, 55.6% of Aboriginals living on reserves were poor in 1995 (CSJ, 2009).
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The situation of not being able to find work only furthered the stereotype that they are lazy. This is another cycle of abuse and attitudinal discrimination associated with the Aboriginal population. A higher level of Aboriginal employment needs to be encouraged by the government; this can be accomplished by targeting the allocation of financial and human resources. Furthermore, and critical to success is the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the planning and spending process.
The health of Aboriginals, before European invasion, was stellar; however, the arrival of the Europeans brought disease that led to much death. Columbus discovered North America’s indigenous inhabitants and soon realized how friendly they were. He manipulated this friendliness into a weakness and decided it would be a good idea to enslave them. According to the Ontario Aboriginal Health Advocacy Initiative, the “Aboriginal people of pre-Columbian dates . . . enjoyed high levels of mental and physical health” and it was common for the elders to live longer than a century (1999).
However, this changed drastically post-Columbian. Sickness came with the white man, and sickness killed many aboriginals. While health care is now “aboriginal friendly” it does not make up for past devastation.
When European settlers first arrived in the America’s, they found that the land was already occupied. To live here, they needed to take over land, and in doing so, they gave the Aboriginal community two niggardly pieces of land, called reserves. Reserves were created during the 1860’s and ‘70’s. These reserves dwindled as more settlers came to inhabit the land, pushing the boundaries of the reserves more and more. When the settlers came in, they did what was best for them, regardless of the well-being of the Aboriginals. In fact, “many . . . died due to lack of shelter, food, health care and money” (CSJ, 2009).
In 1863, there were islands set off as reserves in the Hul’qumi’num territory. A short four years later and these lands were confiscated and given to a “. . . white settler named Mainguy” (NatveArts, 2005).
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This was not an uncommon occurrence; as time progressed, Aboriginal lands regressed. On these reserves were “high rates of infant mortality, substandard housing, few social services and low life expectancy” (Cranny, 2001).
The Europeans did what was best for them, thrusting the Aboriginal community into bad circumstances including poor health, inadequate housing and overall poverty.
Recently, there has been much advancement in Aboriginal relations. While still not up to an acceptable standard, Aboriginals are much better off. Employment for example, has come a long way, and while there are high levels of unemployment on reserves, many of those who have left the reserve have found work and are not part of the impoverished statistic. In most ways, Aboriginal’s who elect to live off-reserve are better off than their counterparts who stay on-reserve. Healthcare has greatly improved for the Aboriginal population as they are able to use public healthcare services as well as having access to healthcare resources that are dedicated to their specific needs. Substance abuse is still an issue on the reserves. Now that residential schools have been closed down, the education level of Aboriginals is improving as they are fully integrated into the public school system. Compared to the past, Aboriginals are doing better, however, not as well as the average citizen.
Education among Aboriginal children has improved since residential schools, but that is not saying much. Unfortunately, Aboriginal children perform below average in schools. This could be due to any combination of low morale, inadequate teaching in schools on reserves and the cycle of abuse that began when residential schools were the norm. Residential schools set a certain pretence about schools that has undermined the Aboriginal’s ability to thrive in an educational environment. It has set up a barrier of low morale among the Aboriginal population. Spanning six decades, from the 1920s to the ‘1980s, residential schools took aim at destroying their culture. Taking this into account and all the other tragedies that occurred in residential schools, it is understandable why most would be sceptical of any government-run educational program. On reserves, 31% of Aboriginals have a high school education which is well below the national average (CSJ, 2009).
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In some ways, it can be said that assimilation is indirectly accomplished from public schools to this day. The curriculum is still “. . . very much based upon European westernized thought and culture” (CSJ, 2009).
According to the Acceptable Resource Centre of British Columbia, education is less formal on reserves than off reserves. Anything less than formal is unacceptable when it comes to educating future generations. The Aboriginals lack of desire to learn is deeply rooted in their history with government-run educational systems and even the present education system.
Employment among the Aboriginal population is low, even lower is the employment rate among those who live on reserves. This statistic supports the notion that presently, integration benefits Aboriginals. While those who elect to find employment off reserves are still not as well off as the average citizen, they are better off than those who stay on the reserve. The 1996 consensus data suggests that Aboriginal unemployment is double than the national average (CSJ, 2009).
This may be one of the negative effects of the stereotypes that were associated with them. Employers are hesitant to hire Aboriginals because of all the negative connotations associated with them, specifically, “. . . communication, culture, skills and training. . . [are] . . . cited barriers . . .” (SCJ, 2009).
To worsen their economical situation further, they also have a high risk of gambling addiction, as can be understood through pamphlets such as Gambling & the Aboriginal Community (2005).
Aboriginal employment has gone up steadily, and while not equal to the average Canadian citizen yet, prospects are looking good.
The health of Aboriginals is low. In many different ways of measuring health, Aboriginals measure up short to the average non-Aboriginal. Life expectancy is 7-8 years less for the average Aboriginal; the infant mortality rate among Aboriginal people is two times higher than that of the national average; again, suicide is 2-4 times higher among Aboriginals than the national average. Thankfully, there is a steady improvement on all these issues. Health is improving from their post-Columbian past, but it is still not up to an acceptable standard. Aboriginals living off reserves are facing chronic health issues, in fact, “60.1% of off-reserve Aboriginal Canadians reported having at least one chronic condition, compared with 49.6% of their non-Aboriginal counterparts” (Sibbald, 2002).
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Aboriginal health has improved, but it needs to improve much further in the near future.
The Canadian government has done terrible things to the Aboriginal population, and one way Labrador tried to make up for that is by giving them land and money. A lot of land the size of 5% of Labrador was given to the Aboriginal population there. In addition to that, $250 million was given to them, as was the right to govern themselves. This is a huge investment, one that will hopefully see a huge return. If done properly, this is exactly what will happen. The Aboriginal population of Labrador will draw a path for the rest of the Canadian Aboriginals.
Integration to Canadian society would benefit the aboriginal population. Assimilation is not the goal here, just participation. This group of people can and should keep their cultural and social identities, while participating more in Canada’s economic and political sectors. The fear of assimilation is holding aboriginal population back. Instead of asking, “how can the government help me?” and expecting land or money, they should be looking for a way to improve their lives. If land and money is all it takes, then they would be happy by now. Employment opportunities should be advantageously placed so that the population who lives on aboriginal reserves can get jobs and start lives off their reserves, where they can become independent of the government. This type of independence is mutually rewarding: the government no longer has to pay, and the Aboriginals no longer require government assistance to function. One method of creating jobs is investing in infrastructure. With money given to Aboriginals, resources and training could be pursued, allowing them to take better advantage of their circumstance and thrive.
Aboriginal education has come a long way since residential schools, and even today, education is advancing. What needs to be done to further the education of Aboriginal students is to get them more involved in the school system, to have them fully integrated. Low morale is a serious issue facing Aboriginal students; the solution to this is integration. Students who see others like them thriving give hope, and it is this hope that needs to be part of the public school. When a generation of integrated students come out of a school system, it will be easier for them to integrate into employment, a vital step for future generations of Aboriginals.
Gaining meaningful employment is another issue that could be resolved for the Aboriginal’s if they become integrated into Canadian society. Currently, too many Aboriginals are unemployed or poor, this needs to change, and throwing money at them is not going to work. What needs to be thrown at them are tools of success, tools such as skills training. Money can be relied on for a while, but when the money runs out, they will not know how to take care of themselves. Instead of money being directly given to them, it should be spent for them, spent on things that will enable them to succeed in their long-term future. Infrastructure investment, for example, would create jobs in the short-term and would leave the reserves with the basic setup it needs to succeed. Another way to bringing up employment rates would be to build and staff schools; this would create jobs and set up future Aboriginal generations. Even creating infrastructure near Aboriginal communities might be a way of investing in them and lead to their integration.
Aboriginal health is in need of improvement, as was mentioned earlier; they have a high risk factor for many diseases. Healthcare centres in and around Aboriginal communities need to be greater in number and better in service. Universal healthcare is a standard in Canada, but this is not always the case, as Aboriginal health is clearly lower than average, so the level of Aboriginal healthcare needs to be brought up. If the Aboriginal community was more integrated in Canada’s political system, they would have more leverage to change their situation. The proper allocation of Aboriginal funds to healthcare needs to be taken. Health starts at the home, so it is possible that an improvement in living conditions would indirectly improve Aboriginal’s health status.
The Aboriginal population of Labrador has been given the most important chance of their time. They are faced with a daunting but rewarding task. What they have to do is decide for themselves what the best set of actions is so that they may remain self-governing. The proper uses of the $250 million and 5% of Labrador are critical to their success. If they make wise decisions and succeed, that will be a huge step forward for all of Canada’s Aboriginal population. Right now, they are in good standing, but that good standing needs to exceed its former limits and soar into freedom and equality. Taking that 5% of Labrador and turning it into an asset for Labrador will encourage other provincial governments to do the same. Integrating into Canadian culture this way will benefit Labrador; all the while, they will keep their distinct identity.
The Aboriginal people of Canada have been through much distress. Right from the beginning, Columbus wanted to enslave them. Later, their children were forced into residential schools, schools where their children were abused, manipulated and assimilated. Jobs were difficult to find and health was extremely bad. Once they were allowed off their reserves and residential schools were closed, they were still undereducated and underemployed, and they are to this day. Recently, the Labrador government gave them a large lot of land and $250 million, a huge step forward for the Aboriginals. By integrating into Canadian culture, they will see benefits and a higher standard of living. In the foreseeable future, it is possible that Aboriginals will see better health, better education and a higher level of employment. For this to become reality they will need to integrate into various aspects of Canadian culture, in this way, they will thrive. To be in an environment such as Canada and not be a part of that social, political, economic, etc. environment cannot work for anyone; the saying, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” explains the Aboriginal position well.
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