Canada’s First Nations: A Legacy of Institutional Racism

By Claire Hutchings

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. We must recognize the impact of these actions on the once self-sustaining nations that were disaggregated, disrupted, limited or even destroyed by the dispossession of traditional territory, by the relocation of Aboriginal people, and by some provisions of the Indian Act. We must acknowledge that the result of these actions was the erosion of the political, economic and social systems of Aboriginal people and nations.

Statement of Reconciliation, 1998

Canadian Federal Government

Canada is known for, and prides itself on, the great variety of cultures, ethnicities, races and religions which live within its borders. We are taught in primary school that Canada is a ‘salad bowl’ where cultural diversity and ethnic self-identification are promoted and encouraged in contrast to the ‘melting pot’ of our Southern neighbours, where people are Americans first and foremost. Indeed, in the 1996 census approximately one third of Canada’s 31 million plus population did not choose the category of ‘Canadian’ when asked to describe their ethnic origin (multiple answers were allowed), and only 5 million identified themselves as solely Canadian. Canada is praised internationally as a model of cultural diversity and has an admirable reputation for its progressive anti-racist policies. It was the first country in the world to adopt a comprehensive policy on multiculturalism and has always been a vocal critic of racism and staunch defender of human rights in the international arena. However, despite Canada’s unquestionable achievements in cultural pluralism and anti-discriminatory practice, racism remains a significant issue.

The living standard of Aboriginal peoples in Canada falls far short of those of non-Aboriginals, and they, along with other racial minorities, continue to encounter barriers in gaining equality. Aboriginal life expectancy is lower; they have fewer high school graduates, higher unemployment, almost twice as many infant deaths and spend more time in jail. They have lower incomes, enjoy fewer promotions in the workplace and remain, as a group, the poorest in Canada. In Canada, ”suffering clearly continues to be related to the politics of race.”

Why should this be so in a country viewed by many as a paragon in the field of human rights? As Felice notes, ”modern states have been built by powerful groups at the expense of the less powerful, [often] with racial prejudice underlying the … process.” Indeed, the obvious inequity in socio-economic conditions between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Canada can be seen to be the result of history; in particular the processes of conquest, colonialism, state building, migration and economic development, and the institutional racism which accompanied them. In recent times, Canada has taken steps to address issues of discrimination and inequality faced by minorities, not least of all Aboriginal peoples, and has, as we shall see, been successful in a number of areas. However, the priority which has been given to stopping anti-discriminatory practices has arguably served to make racism in Canada a more covert act, it’s most distinguishing characteristic being the vigour with which it is consistently denied. The resulting systemic racism is difficult to address.

I will begin with a brief description of Aboriginal societies pre-contact to give context to the subsequent summary of the history of Canada’s state building process and the institutional racism which accompanied it, including: Treaties and the Reserve Creation Process, Indians Acts, Enfranchisement, and Residential Schools. I will then identify a number of positive steps that are being taken to address some of these issues, and how Aboriginal populations are themselves working to heal their communities. I will conclude, however, with a look at how the legacy of the institutional racism of the past continues to affect Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and has contributed to the systemic racism they face today.

(Note: Aboriginal groups across Canada refer to themselves by a variety of names including First Nations, Aboriginal, Indian, Native or Status. In this paper, I will use these terms interchangeably.)


There is a common misconception, which continues to be taught in many Canadian classrooms, that we can speak of a homogenous group of peoples called North American Indians. Indeed, as countless surveys have evidenced, there are few areas that Canadians are more ignorant about than Aboriginal history, characterising pre-contact Aboriginal societies as living either in an Idyllic Garden of Eden, or alternatively in a fierce and primitive world. In truth they were organized, culturally distinct societies, in vastly different ecological environments, each with individual systems of social organization, leadership, and distinct spiritual foundations.

At the time of the first European contact, in the late 15th century, Aboriginal peoples occupied all of the six major regions of the northern half of the continent. Some, such as the Inuit in the north were egalitarian societies comprised of small loosely constructed groupings in the winter, and larger ones in the summer, as was demanded by their environment, a harsh one requiring the efforts of all to sustain the community. Other Nations, like those of the West Coast, with an abundance of natural resources such as timber, marine life and game at their disposal, were organized into more stable consistent groupings which were hierarchical and often patriarchal in structure. Still others, mainly on the East Coast, practiced agriculture and enjoyed a more sedentary, though by no means settled, lifestyle, such as the Iroquois. Over fifty languages were spoken, some language isolates such as Kutenai, while others were members of the eleven major language families. Some nations developed trading partnerships, and others established political alliances, perhaps the most notable of which was the Iroquois Confederacy, a political system involving 50 sachems, or chiefs, established by the Great Law of Peace in response to years of warfare between the five Iroquoian tribes. In addition, as Steckley and Cummins point out, these societies had systems of social order, and laws which were recorded in the oral tradition and interpreted by the elders.

The earliest European contact was with Norse whalers in around 1000 AD. No attempts seemed to have been made at permanent settlement at this time, and the relationship appears to have been one of mutual respect. By the early sixteenth century, vessels from England, France, Portugal and Spain were taking advantage of the plentiful fisheries off the East Coast of North America. By the eighteenth century, European interest in the ”New World” shifted to the fur trade and Britain and France began to establish more permanent settlements.

The effects of European settlement and trade would have disastrous effects on Aboriginal populations throughout Canada. European diseases, particularly smallpox and tuberculosis, devastated Aboriginal populations, killing, by many estimates, upwards of 50%. In addition, the trade in alcohol and guns introduced foreign notions of private property and promoted the individual to the detriment of the community.


During the period of colonization there was pressure to ”improve the lot of Native peoples through programs designed to ‘civilize’ them by teaching them both farming and Christianity,” and, as Steckley and Cummins note, as early as the 1600s, there was a move to educate Native populations. Many in Europe, as reflected in the Imperial Report of the Select Committee on Aborigines, supported this goal of ‘civilizing’ the Native populations. Likely this view gained credibility from popular theories which suggested the path to civilization was a linear one, with European civilization at one end of the spectrum and all others falling somewhere below them on the scale. The result was an emphasis on the acquisition of Aboriginal lands in exchange for the perceived benefits of European society and religion.

Treaties and the Reserve Creation Process

In 1763, after the treaty of Paris, by which France ceded its claims in present day Canada to Britain, King George III issued a Royal Proclamation outlining, among other things, how the Indians in the British colony were to be treated. It remains one of the most significant pieces of legislation respecting the Crown’s relationship with Aboriginal people. The Royal Proclamation recognized Indian ownership of lands in their possession and reserved to them all unceded land for use as their hunting grounds. It further established that the process by which the Crown could purchase their lands, and laid out fundamental principles to guide the Crown in making treaties with the various ”Nations”. The Proclamation made it clear that Indian lands could only be transferred to the Crown, that Aboriginal title is understood to be collective or communal rather than a private right, and that the Crown has a fiduciary responsibility for Indians.

While it stands as an important recognition of the rights of Aboriginal peoples and their status as nations, the Royal Proclamation is also the first instance of legislation passed over First Nations citizens by the British government. It took away the Indians right to freely deal with their land and interposed the Crown in any such dealings. It recognized the Indians tribes not as independent Nations, but as Nations living under Crown protection and thus the seeds of Indians as wards of the State were sowed.

From the time of the Proclamation, the Crown negotiated treaties with the Indian Tribes and Nations across Canada, British Columbia and Quebec being the notable exceptions. By these treaties, the Crown sought to extinguish Indian title and thus Indians ceded their Aboriginal lands in return for reserves, hunting and fishing rights and other economic and health benefits. Where treaties were not entered into the federal and provincial Crowns, through the joint reserve commission, laid out reserves for the various bands and tribes consistent with their populations. Reserves were areas where the Native title was confirmed. The debate continues as to whether the creation of reserves outside the treaty process had the effect of extinguishing their rights to their traditional lands outside the reserves.

Indian Acts

In 1867, the British North America Act made ”Indians and land reserved for Indians” a federal responsibility. In 1876 the first of a series of Indian Acts was passed, though it is more accurately characterised as the consolidation of existing federal and colonial statutes. Reserves were taken out of the commercial mainstream and made the responsibility of the Canadian Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, as were Aboriginal people themselves. Ostensibly used to identify those entitled to reside on reserves and ‘protect’ those lands from exploitation, the Indian Act soon came to have implications other than entitlement to land. The various Indian Acts solidified the position of Natives as wards of the state, and Indian agents were given discretionary power to control almost every aspect of Aboriginal lives. For example, permission from an Indian agent was required if Native people wanted to sell crops they had grown and harvested, or wear traditional dress off reserve. Natives were forbidden to gamble, or drink alcohol and were encouraged to ”snitch” on one another, with the informer receiving half of the fine of the offender. The Indian Act was also used to deny Status Indians the vote until 1960, and their right to sit on juries.

Important cultural practices such as the Potlach of the West Coast and the Sun Dance of the Prairies were banned in 1884 along with other Native customs deemed barbarous, or as impediments to the spread of European values. The potlatch in particular, likely due to the ‘giveaways’ involved with it, was seen as particularly threatening to the principles of private property that the government was trying to instil, and was oftentimes viewed as ”communist” .

In 1885 General Middleton introduced the Pass System in western Canada, under which Natives could not leave their reserves without first obtaining a pass from their farming instructors permitting them to do so. While neither the Indian Act nor any other legislation allowed the Department of Indian Affairs to institute such a system, and it was known by government lawyers to be illegal as early as 1892, the Pass System continued to be enforced until the early 1930’s. As Natives were not permitted at that time to become lawyers, they could not fight it in the courts.

And finally, the measures which had initially been designed to protect reserve lands were abused in many areas to allow for farming, settlement or other non-Aboriginal uses of the land such as mining or forestry. When Aboriginals began to press for recognition of their rights and to complain of corruption and abuses of power within the Indian department, the Act was amended to make it an offence for an Aboriginal person to retain a lawyer for the purpose of advancing a claim.


Until 1951 the Act defined a ‘person’ as ”an individual other than an Indian”, and Aboriginal peoples were considered wards of the state. However, a system of enfranchisement was designed whereby an Aboriginal person could become a ”person” in Canadian law. Aboriginal people would gain the right to vote and become Canadian citizens, ”persons” under the law, by assimilation into Canadian society. It was a process that dated back to United Canada’s 1857 Act of the Gradual Citizenship of the Indian Tribes in the Canadas, and Canada’s 1869 Act for the Gradual Enfranchisement of Indians. This enfranchisement process would be absorbed into the 1876 Indian Act and has been included in all its subsequent reincarnations. It was hoped that enfranchisement would be a voluntary act, that Aboriginal peoples would renounce their heritage and culture and embrace the ‘benefits’ of civilized society. Indeed, from the 1920s to the 1940s some Natives did give up their status in order to receive the right to go to school, vote or to drink. However, voluntary enfranchisement proved a failure. In 1920 a law was passed to authorize enfranchisement without consent, and many Aboriginal peoples were involuntarily enfranchised. Natives automatically lost their Indian status if they became professionals such as doctors or ministers, or even if they obtained university degrees, and with it, their right to reside on reserves, further tearing at the social fabric of Aboriginal communities. Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, neatly expressed the sentiment of the day in 1920:

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

Almost 50 years later, this view would be echoed in a government policy paper, now known as the 1969 White Paper, which laid out a plan for the instant and forced enfranchisement of all status Indians. However, the paper caused massive and vocal outrage from the Aboriginal population and was never adopted.

The enfranchisement criteria particularly discriminated against Native women, specifying in Section 12 (1)(b) of the Indian Act that an Indian status woman marrying a non Indian man would loose her status as an Indian, as would her children. In contrast non Indian women marrying Indian men would gain Indian status. This discrimination ran counter not just to modern notions of equality of the sexes, but also the notions of matrilineality held by many First Nations. Beginning in 1970, Native women who had lost their status brought legal challenges to these provisions. The Lovelace case went before the International Court of Human Rights, and in 1981 the United Nation condemned Canada for this discriminatory practice. The Canadian government reacted and, with the passage of Bill C-31 in 1985, the discriminatory clause of the Indian Act was removed, and Canada officially gave up the goal of enfranchising Natives.

Residential Schools

With the goal of civilizing and christianizing Aboriginal populations, a system of ‘industrial schools’ was developed in the 19th century which combined academic studies with ”more practical matters” and schools for Natives began to appear in the 1840s. From 1879 on these schools were modelled after the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, whose motto was ”Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”. It was felt that the most effective weapon for ”killing the Indian” in them, was to remove children from their Native supports and so Native children were taken away from their homes, their parent, their families, friends and communities.

The 1876 Indian Act gave the federal government responsibility for Native education and by 1910 residential schools dominated the Native education policy. The government provided funding to religious groups such as the Catholic, Anglican, United Church and Presbyterian churches to undertake Native education. By 1920, attendance was made compulsory and there were 74 residential schools operating nation wide. Following the ideas of Sifton and others like him, the academic goals of these schools were ‘dumbed down’. As Campbell Scott stated at the time, they didn’t want students that were ”made too smart for the Indian villages”:

To this end the curriculum in residential schools has been simplified and the practical instruction given is such as may be immediately of use to the pupil when he returns to the reserve after leaving school.

The funding the government provided was generally insufficient and often the schools ran themselves as ”self-sufficient businesses”, where ‘student workers’ were removed from class to do the laundry, heat the building or perform farm work. Dormitories were often poorly heated and overcrowded, and the food was less than adequately nutritious. A 1907 report, commissioned by Indian Affairs, found that in 15 prairie schools there was a death rate of 24%. Indeed a deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs at the time commented:

It is quite within the mark to say that fifty percent of the children who passed through these schools did not benefit from the education which they had received therein.

While the death rate did decline in later years, death would remain a part of the residential school tradition.

The worst aspect of Canada’s residential schools, and that which Steckley and Cummins say ”might readily qualify as the single-worst thing that Europeans did to Natives in Canada” was the endemic abuses; emotional, physical and sexual, for which they are now known. Punishments were often brutal and cruel, sometimes even life threatening or life ending. Pins were sometimes stuck in children’s tongues for speaking their Native languages, sick children were made to eat their vomit, and semi-formal inspections of children’s genitalia were carried out to name but a few crimes.

Most residential schools closed in the 1970s. Criminal and civil suits against the government and the churches began in the late 1980’s and shortly thereafter the last residential school closed. In the 1990s, beginning with the United Church, the churches that ran the residential schools began to issue formal apologies. And in 1998 the Canadian government issued the Statement of Reconciliation, and committed $350 million in support of a community-based healing strategy to address the healing needs of individuals, families and communities arising from the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools. The money was used to launch the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Recent improvements

Positive steps have been taken in recent years to address the injustices of the past, and the inequalities of opportunity they have created. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the Employment Equity Act, 1986, and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, 1988. This process arguably began in the 1970s as reaction to the 1969 White Paper mobilised Aboriginal populations, and the constitutional debate which preceded the Constitution Act, 1982 helped to bring the rightful place of Aboriginal people in Canadian society into focus. Most recently, it has been supported by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, an in-depth investigation into the position of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society, as they saw it, which was published in the mid 1990s. The Royal Commission documented the injustices suffered by Aboriginal populations in Canada and made recommendations that Canada recognize their title to traditional lands and resources and their inherent right to self-government.

There has over the last few decades been a resurgence of pride within Aboriginal populations in their heritage and culture, and they have been lobbying, with varying degrees of success for greater control over their communities. Perhaps the most tangible result was the creation in 1999 of Canada’s third territory, Nunavut, which changed the relationship between the Inuit of the Eastern subarctic and the Canadian government permanently, giving them a high degree of autonomous self-government. There have been many other advancements made, too numerous to list in full, but I will mention a few. In 1991, the First Nations Policing Policy was initiated, ”to provide First Nations across Canada with access to police services that are professional, effective, culturally appropriate, and accountable to the communities they serve. In addition to this participation of First Nations in the European model of policing, other forms of policing have emerged including the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society and the Native Youth Movement. Based in part on Aboriginal tradition and in part on innovation, they can most accurately be described as diplomatic policing. In 1992 the Aboriginal Justice Initiative was established and has been working with Native communities to improve justice institutions for Aboriginals and help them move towards greater self-sufficiency in the area of justice. One of the most promising developments has been the creation and adoption of sentencing circles in Northwestern Canada, which provide alternatives to incarceration with a focus on restorative rather than punitive justice. In addition, initiatives in Native education have lead to the funding of First Nations’ language programs, particularly in elementary schools.

The Constitution Act, 1982 was the first constitutional document since the Royal Proclamation of 1763 to acknowledge the distinct place of Aboriginal peoples within Canada, and section 35 recognizes and affirms existing Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal people have since successfully enforced a number of their rights through the Canadian legal system. Most notably in Delgamuukw where the Supreme Court of Canada held that Aboriginal title to their traditional lands survived British Sovereignty and unless clearly extinguished by federal legislation prior to 1982, still existed. Moreover, Delgamuukw importantly held that Native oral history was admissible as evidence on par with the European tradition of written history, thereby lifting an impossible burden of proof which had been placed on Aboriginal claimants. In a series of other cases, rights integral to the distinctive culture of Aboriginals such as fishing and hunting have been upheld. Indians have been compensated for the wrongful taking of lands, timber, oil and gas and other resources.

Canada Today

Without question, a number of positive initiatives have been taken, both by the government and by First Nations themselves, to address the inequality of opportunity that faces Canada’s aboriginal populations. However, these improvements must be viewed in light of the continuing and systemic racism faced by Canadian Aboriginal populations, perhaps most easily evidenced by the continuing inequality of socio-economic outcome in Canada.





















The overt institutional racism of the past has clearly had a profoundly devastating and lasting effect on Aboriginal communities throughout Canada. European cultural norms have imposed themselves on Native populations in Canada, and Aboriginal communities continue to struggle with foreign systems of governance, of justice, of education, and of livelihood.

Perhaps most palpable is the devastation caused by residential schools. Many of those who attended residential schools have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffering from such symptoms as panic attacks, insomnia, and uncontrollable or unexplainable anger. Not surprisingly, many also suffer from alcohol or drug abuse, sexual inadequacy or addiction, the inability to form intimate relationships, and eating disorders. Three generations of Native parents lost out on learning important parenting skills usually passed on from parent to child in caring and nurturing home environments, and the abuse suffered by students of residential schools has begun a distressing cycle of abuse within many Native communities. However, the legacy of residential schools is only one facet of the problem.

Aboriginal children continue to struggle with mainstream education in Canada. For some Indian students, English remains a second language, and many lack parents with sufficient education themselves to support them. Moreover, education in Canada is premised on a written tradition, quite different from the oral tradition of Native communities. For others, it is simply that they are ostracised for their ‘otherness’; their manners, their attitudes, their speech or a hundred other things which mark them out as different.

Aboriginal populations continue to suffer from poor health. They have seven years less life expectancy than the overall Canadian population and almost twice as many infant deaths. While Canada as a nation routinely ranks in the top three on the United Nations Human Development Index, it’s on-reserve Aboriginal population, if scored as a nation, would rank a distant and shocking sixty-third.

As Phil Fontaine National Chief, Assembly of First Nations, points out, racism in Canada today is for the most part, a covert operation. Its central and most distinguishing characteristic is the vigour with which it is consistently denied. Ironically, many thus argue that Canada’s endeavours in the field of human rights and its strong stance against racism have only resulted in a more politically correct population who have learnt to better conceal their prejudices. In effect, the argument is that racism in Canada is not being eliminated, but rather is becoming more covert, more rational and perhaps more deeply imbedded in our institutions.

Along with common descriptors of ‘underprivileged’ and ‘disadvantaged’, a stereotype of a peoples who ‘have’ or ‘cause’ problems has thus emerged to explain racisms or prejudices. Aboriginal peoples are commonly thought of as lazy, less bright, prone to substance abuse and crime. They are thought of as less civilized, and in many ways less human. These stereotypes are eschewed by many in their promotion of seemingly rational arguments to explain the relative position of Aboriginal peoples in Canada today. The use of negative stereotypes combined with the denial of racism suggests that the inferiority of Aboriginal peoples is systemic, but their discrimination is not. Aboriginal peoples are thus often seen as the problem, or the cause, rather than the victims. In addition, attempts which have been made to correct the current situation are viewed by many in the population as discriminatory and creating ‘special rights’ for a minority group, which serves to further contribute to feelings of resentment towards Aboriginal populations.

That racism is alive is evidenced by the recent referendum in British Columbia by which the provincial government is asking the white majority to decide on a mandate for negotiating treaties with the Indian minority. The results of the referendum will be binding, the government having legislatively committed itself to act on these principles if more than 50% of those voting reply in the same way. Moreover, although it has been revised many times, the Indian Act remains legislation which singles out a segment of society based on race. Under it, the civil rights of Indians are dealt with in a different manner than the civil rights of the rest of Canadian citizens.

As far as Aboriginal people are concerned, racism in Canadian society continues to share our lives institutionally, systematically and individually. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba, the Donald Marshall Inquiry in Nova Scotia, the Cawsey Report in Alberta and the Royal Commission of Aboriginal People all agree.

Phil Fontaine, National Chief, Assembly of First Nations