By JAKE FLANAGIN
They call it “Murderpeg.” With 6,222 instances of violent crime reported in 2012, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba consistently ranks among the most violent cities in Canada.
It’s also host to one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal peoples (indigenous North Americans) in the country – 11.7 percent and growing faster than any other area in Canada, according to the Canadian National Household Survey.
Aboriginal Canadians – First Nations, Inuits, and the Métis (descended from mixed marriages between Europeans and indigenous peoples) – are arguably the most underserved segment of Canadian society. “One in five Aboriginal Canadians live in dilapidated and often overcrowded homes,” reports Nilo Tabrizy for Vice News. Those in Winnipeg are no exception.
Ms. Tabrizy traveled to Winnipeg to shoot a documentary for Vice, highlighting the plight of the city’s Aboriginal population, and unpacking the seedy history of Canada’s relationship with its indigenous communities.
“When I spent time in Winnipeg, Manitoba earlier this year,” Ms. Tabrizy writes in an essay accompanying the video, “I saw firsthand the racially motivated poverty that defines the urbanized Aboriginal community. And yet when I emigrated to Canada from Iran in 1995, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I was absorbed in to the ‘Canadian community.’ At that time, I was one of a handful of non-white kids in my school.”
Despite a 2012 poll which found that “Canadian-born and foreign born citizens felt about equally ‘Canadian’ – 78 percent and 75 percent, respectively,” famed Canadian multiculturalist policies have “never included the country’s own native peoples,” Ms. Tabrizy writes. “Canada systematically tried to dismantle the traditions of its Aboriginal people with Indian Residential Schools that were opened as early as 1840,” she explains. “By 1884, attendance was mandatory for all Aboriginal kids under the age of 16. They were taken from their parents and forbidden to acknowledge or identify with their heritage amid numerous reports of physical and emotional abuse at the schools.”
Similar institutions existed in the United States, but some might be surprised to learn of their uncomfortably recent operation in Canada, a country the Aga Khan – a renowned advocate for multiculturalism – once described as “the most successful pluralist society on the face of our globe.”
“Large numbers of Aboriginal peoples’ children were forcibly seized by the government,” says Jim Silver, co-author of “Indians Wear Red,” in an interview for Ms. Tabrizy’s documentary. “We did this deliberately. Canada did this deliberately to try to eliminate Indians, to try to get rid of Indian-ness. ‘To kill the Indian in a child,’ as one Ottawa bureaucrat put it.”
At times, residential schools succeeded in killing both. Nearly 4,000 Aboriginal children died during their stay, the National Post reports. And though the schools are now closed, the psychic residue of the trauma experienced may persist.
“It helps to remember the schools were established under Canada’s first prime minister and were not abolished until the 1990s,” writes David Langtry, Acting Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, for The Ottawa Citizen. “More than 150,000 children passed through them. Psychological trauma is passed from generation to generation.” He points to a recent study conducted by the University of Ottawa and Carleton University (also in Ottawa) which found that when multiple generations were enrolled in residential schools, “the negative effects are cumulative.”
“This helps explain why Aboriginal people in Canada lag behind the rest of us on indicators of wellbeing such as education, employment and health,” Mr. Langtry writes. “Yet many of us cannot see the connection between the challenges facing Aboriginal people today and the impacts of ruthless government policy. Perhaps our indifference stems from what we were taught in school, or more accurately, what we were not taught.”
Mr. Langtry also argues that Ottawa has a history of informational suppression when it comes to its Aboriginal policies. He relays the story of Dr. Peter Bryce, an official of the Ontario Health Department who, in 1907, compiled a report for the federal government on health conditions at residential schools in the western provinces. In Alberta, Dr. Bryce found the mortality rate to be “a staggering 50 percent.”
How did Ottawa respond to his findings? Dr. Bryce was summarily fired, his position abolished and his reports covered up. “Willful blindness to the horrors of the schools was government policy,” Mr. Langtry explains.
Today, Canada is one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere where the indigenous population is actually growing. In 2001, 976,600 Canadians self-identified as Aboriginal, reports Jonathan Kay for the National Post. “By 2011, the figure was 1.4 million.” This follows nearly two centuries of steady population decline due to diseases imported from the Old World, and more direct exterminatory measures in the 19th century such as starvation and colonial warfare.
While roughly 40 percent of registered Aboriginals still reside on rural reservations laid aside by the Canadian government, “many of them will be moving to urban areas in coming years, in search of jobs,” Mr. Kay writes, and this poses the greatest challenge to Canadian integration efforts. “Is Canada ready to help them integrate into urban culture?” he asks.
“Unlike East Asians and South Asians,” which are the two most populous visible-minority groups in Canada according to the 2011 census, “Aboriginals who live in a big city do not have any large, prosperous clusters they can look to for start-up communities,” Mr. Kay explains. “Aboriginal enclaves in cities tend to be poor and geographically disparate.”
Some observers, however, blame the failed integration of indigenous tribes not on Canadian policymakers, but rather Aboriginal leaders. “The rhetoric and political pressuring of Aboriginal leadership has been to disassociate their communities to the greatest extent possible from mainstream Canada,” writes Jeffrey Simpson for The Globe and Mail. “The entire constitutional, political, economic and sociological structures of Aboriginal Canada have been based for many decades now on parallelism within Canada, a hard sell to the rest of the population that is strongly integrationist.”
“Canada places a high symbolic value on multiculturalism,” Mr. Simpson writes, “even placing it in the Constitution and handing out grants to multicultural organizations, while simultaneously being one of the world’s most integrationist countries. Indeed, just as the social condition of Aboriginals is Canada’s biggest failure, its greatest success has arguably been, and remains, the integration of millions of people from the four corners of the Earth with a minimum of social conflict into two linguistic societies.”
Yet others maintain Ottawa still has much to do in order to remedy the historical injustices inflicted upon First Nations groups. And simply recognizing the innate cruelties of residential schooling may prove insufficient.
In a 2009 essay for The Walrus, Mitch Miyagawa lent comment to a well-publicized official apology offered by the Canadian government to residential-school survivors. “Stephen J. Harper’s apology to residential school survivors was a powerful political moment,” he wrote. “You had to be moved by the sight of the oldest and youngest survivors, side by side on the floor of Parliament – one a 104-year-old woman, the other barely in her twenties. The speeches were superb, the optics perfect.”
“Yet personally, I felt tricked,” Mr. Miyagawa wrote. “Tricked because the apology distilled the entire complicated history of assimilation into a single policy, collapsing it like a black hole into a two-word ‘problem’: residential schools.”
Mr. Miyagawa adds: “Here was a forgetful apology at its best. By saying sorry for the schools, we could forget about all the other ways the system had deprived — and continued to deprive — Aboriginal people of their lives and land. The government had created the problem, sure, but had owned up to it, too, and was on its way to getting it under control, starting with the survivors’ prescription for recovery. If they were abused, they merely had to itemize their pain in a thirty-page document, tally their compensation points, stand before an adjudicator to speak of their rape and loneliness, and receive their official payment. All taken care of. And yet. And yet.”
And yet, “Canada mostly succeeded in destroying the traditions and cultural identity of Aboriginal people,” Ms. Tabrizy concludes in her documentary, and “the legacy of colonization has only replaced them with inner-city poverty and violence.”
“Unless the government does something to address the radicalized poverty in urban settings, gang culture in Winnipeg will continue to erode the Aboriginal community from within,” she says. “Murderpeg” will finish the job that residential schools started.