Do we have a caste system in Canada? Many Canadians would be shocked at the very idea, because this is Canada! We send aid all around the world, and welcome newcomers of all kinds! Our healthcare, welfare and parental benefits are generous. Education is free to all! True …. but, in my opinion, a caste system exists. People can be forgiven for forgetting; in most of Canada, members of the lowest caste are invisible. Most of them are neatly tucked away in the wilderness, many of their communities accessible only by boat or plane. Oh, sure, we hear about them from time to time. Usually bad news. Kids huffing gasoline. Women going missing at an alarming rate. Angry warriors blocking roads and burning vehicles. I am talking, of course, about aboriginals. The people who were here before Europeans arrived. The people who were murdered, infected and starved into submission, then parcelled out to remote tracts of land unwanted by their conquerors. For decades afterwards, the Canadian government’s primary involvement with aboriginals was throwing money at them and stealing their children to populate the infamous residential schools.
Cue the righteous-but-resentful indignition …. But they get free housing! Free glasses and dental care! Tax-free gas and smokes! Free university education! Never mind that nearly half of them don’t graduate from highschool anyway, therefore saving grumbling taxpayers oodles of money. They also are more likely to commit suicide, and even if they live a long, full life, it’s shorter than the average Canadian’s. More savings! Their teen pregnancy rate is higher, but don’t worry – even though residential schools no longer exist, we still get alot of their children. Despite representing only about 4% of the Canadian population, their children make up roughly half of the children currently in foster care. Natives are also over-represented in Canada’s prisons. They are more likely to die violently than other Canadians, and more likely to be abused or abusive before they do. Which brings me to a soapbox I’ve occupied for years …. Reservations don’t help aboriginals, and the reserve system should be abolished.
Conditions on reserves are often little better than third-world. Think about Sheshatshiu. Kashechewan. Attawapiskat. All the money the Canadian government gives them never seems to be enough to buy a better standard of living. Natives on reserve are treated like wards of the government. Sure, their housing is free – but it’s not theirs, nor is the land it sits on. And none of the people footing the bill would ever want to live there. Neither did aboriginals, but that’s where they ended up – because that’s where the brand-new country of Canada put them.
Yesterday, as usual, my beloved Saturday paper arrived at my house. Thick and wordy, solid, filled with enough content to chew on for an entire weekend. In this particular paper, there was a rare thing: a good-news story about Canadian aboriginals, happening right here in Ottawa. The article began with the experience of an Inuit woman, Lynda Brown, who moved to Ottawa as a child. Her mother was informed that she could not send her child to school in “slippers”, so Lynda took off her mukluks and started claiming Chinese heritage to avoid the shame of admitting that she is Inuit. Fast-forward to today, and Lynda Brown is proud of her identity and culture. She wears a t-shirt that says “Lifelong Urban Inuk”. The article goes on to describe how this change came about. Ottawa is home to roughly 3,000 Inuit, the largest population of them south of Nunavut. Ottawa is also home to an Inuit health centre, daycare, kindergarten and after-school program. Not only do Inuit children receive the usual standard of education, and help with their homework, but they also learn about their culture. They are taught in both English and Inuktitut. They learn traditional drumming and dancing, as well as throat-singing, and how to play traditional Inuit games. They play with the classic toys your average Canadian knows and loves, but also with traditional Inuit toys made of stone, bone and skins. Inuit people are living in Canada’s capital city, with all kinds of people – not just other Inuit. They can buy properly priced groceries instead of $28 jugs of orange juice – and they can buy traditional Inuit foods like char, seal and whale. They can travel wherever they want without the expense and hassle of leaving a remote area. They can train and apply for a wide array of jobs – not just what’s available in Iqualuit and surrounding areas. Their children are able to play soccer and learn ballet, to visit libraries and museums and parks. In short, they are learning how to be both proud Inuit people and fully engaged Canadian citizens.
Are there problems in Ottawa’s Inuit community? Of course. Their levels of addiction, prostitution and family problems are higher than the general population – but significantly lower than that of their fellow natives who live on reserves. And, as they continue to take advantage of what’s always been available to the rest of us, I predict that the gap will narrow. Perhaps we can even hope for its closure. I wish our Inuit neighbours great success, and I hope that, someday, all aboriginals will be able to do what they are doing. Only when aboriginals leave their reserves and join Canadian society, fully recognized and enfranchised, will we be able to proudly say that Canada doesn’t have a caste system.