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'The reality is in the statistics' for Indigenous people

Time for action, time for change
Hundreds of people gathered at Memorial Park in downtown Sudbury this afternoon as part of an “anti-brutality” demonstration.

The death of George Floyd has galvanized a global movement calling for an end to anti-Black racism and the systemic biases embedded in cultural, social and legal institutions.

And Canada’s Indigenous communities have been watching, participating, and adding their voices to the call for action – because they face the same systemic discrimination.

“There’s a connection there,” said Bond Head resident Paul Burston. “A shared experience. Their world view is centred around the discrimination.”

Burston, formerly with Christian Horizons and a founder of the non-profit organization True North Aboriginal Partnership, notes that it has been hard to persuade Canadians that there is systemic discrimination and racism in Canadian society. 

Recently, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki was asked point-blank about systemic racism in the national police agency. She skirted the issue, and spoke of “unconscious bias” among members of the force.

“That’s an excuse,” said Burston. “The reality is in the statistics.”

Indigenous people make up only five percent of Canada’s population, but 30 percent of all incarcerations – comparable to the figures in the U.S., where Blacks and African Americans make up just over 13 percent of the general population, but 33 percent of incarcerated prisoners.

“Tell me there isn’t something wrong with that,” said Burston: a reflection of poverty, lack of opportunity, racialized policing and enforcement.

“The entire system works against Native people… The over-criminalization of Indigenous people in Canada has been a direct result of racism for generations.” - Pam Palmater, Lawyer of Mi’kmaq descent.

Lucki later backtracked, and issued a statement admitting to systemic racism “in the institutional structures that reflect the inequities that persist in our society.”

She went on to promise to incorporate “diversity and inclusion in our decision-making, in our training, in our recruitment,” adding, “The RCMP will not tolerate those whose actions are not in line with our core values.”

“Basically, it’s all words, and the actions are not there. Actions speak louder than words,” said Burston, and so far, “there’s a beating of the breasts for a couple of weeks, and then nothing…  Things will not get better unless we do something to change the picture.”

On June 4, Police in Edmunston, New Brunswick shot and killed 26-year old Indigenous woman Chantel Moore. They were responding to a ‘Wellness call.’ A coalition of Maliseet First Nations are calling for an independent probe.

Burston knows that change is possible, from personal experience. He was involved in Ontario’s dismantling of institutions for persons with disabilities.

Those institutions were established with the best of intentions – to assist the disabled – but they became warehouses, where the disabled faced loss of dignity, neglect, disenfranchisement and abuse.

“Until you take it out of the political realm and you bring it down to ‘We’re human beings, we’re created equal;’ until we break down those institutional intentions, of what was intended and what’s happening – there can be no change,” Burston said.

“It’s going to take monumental change. We’ve got to break the cycle, of going in circles. We end up in the same place all the time, and nothing changes.”

The first challenge is to overcome denial. “All the time we are denial, it will never change. Somehow, collectively this denial has to stop,” he said.

“I don’t believe that racism is systemic through Canadian policing, I don’t believe it’s systemic through policing in Alberta.” – RCMP Deputy Commissioner for Alberta, Curtis Zablocki.

“The first step in reconciliation is acknowledging the past – that terrible things happened, mistakes were made. We have to change our approach, and part of that is inclusion - this responsibility to a People that says you’re included, you’re important.”

“Part of it has to be a heart change about how we accept people,” agreed Belinda Burston, Paul’s wife and partner. “I think there is an incredible amount of goodwill in people, but I think there has to be a leader to lasso that.”

Indigenous cultures have faced racism in the education system, but also in the health care system, in the judicial system, in employment and in cultural stereotyping.

“I expect to be dismissed and demeaned and ignored because I’m Indigenous.” – Valerie Sawdo, 48-year-old mother of 2, who experienced blurred vision, dizziness, numbness on her left side, and inability to walk. She was turned away by an ER doctor, who told her she was suffering from anxiety. After 6 trips to hospital, a CT scan confirmed that she had had a stroke. Her family wonder if doctors thought she was intoxicated because her speech was slurred.  

There is anger among Indigenous people, but there has also been “forgiveness, despite everything. But with that forgiveness, there’s an expectation, and I don’t think that expectation is always met,” Paul said.  The expectation is for change.

“They want to be respected, more than anything else. People want to be respected. They have the same hopes and dreams for their children as we have for ours but little hope of achieving them,” he said.

“The infrastructure deficits on reserves are truly staggering.” – Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak, 2018 Canada’s Emerging Indigenous Rights Framework.

“You think of Canada as one of the richest countries in the world… If it’s not shared by everyone, whether you’re First Nations or a person of colour, there will be a sense of discontent and a feeling of being left behind.”

He added, “Until other people understand what racism does – in the health system, in the justice system, in the educational system… There’s discrimination against Indigenous people.”

The Liberal government has been taking unprecedented steps to change the ‘Nation to Nation’ relationship between the government of Canada and First Nations peoples – but there are concerns that the efforts to end what has been described as “150 years of anti-Indigenous government” will fall short.

The Cabinet Committee to ‘Decolonize’ Canada’s laws has been criticized for a lack of transparency, and a failure to consult with the very people it is designed to serve.

Yellowhead Institute Directors Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak, in a critical analysis of ‘Canada’s Emerging Indigenous Rights Framework’ have warned that the legislation put forward so far ignores issues of land restitution and treaty obligations, and could simply “maintain a modified version of the status quo.”

There is still no evidence of “restitution and the transformation of Canadian institutions so we might have a future defined by dignity and respect.” – Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak, 2018 Canada’s Emerging Indigenous Rights Framework.

“Our world has changed. First Nations people are beginning to realize they have a voice, and we need to listen,” said Burston; this year of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter protest may be a turning point.

“It feels like God’s given us the moment to rejuvenate and to pay attention to the family, the human family, and make the changes,” said Belinda. “I guess that’s up to us.”

“I for one certainly don’t want to return to normal,” said Paul. “There is hope for the future, if we are willing to change.”

If Canada could support Nelson Mandela and the fight against Apartheid, there is no reason why Canada can’t overcome its own racism, the Burstons say.

“I don’t want my country to be like this. I don’t want my country to discriminate against Blacks, to discriminate against Indigenous people,” Paul said. “This is a giant that must slain.”

Miriam King

About the Author: Miriam King

Miriam King is a journalist and photographer with Bradford Today, covering news and events in Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil.
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