Stereotypes often prevent Canadians from helping First Nations, advocate says

Kate Bueckert
Governor General David Johnston, Sharon Johnston, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau listen to a aboriginal drumme rDavid Charette as they stand in the rotunda before the speech from the throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday December 4, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Many Canadians are willing to help refugees because they did not cause the conflict in their home countries, but those same people do not apply that mentality to First Nations communities here at home, one advocate says.

News stories about First Nations communities — lack of access to drinking water, unsafe homes and an education system that is failing children — do not lead most Canadians to ask what they can do to help, Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada said in an interview Monday.

“The first reaction is often judgment,” she said.

People tend to base their opinions about First Nations on “deeply embedded stereotypes,” Blackstock said from the society’s Ottawa office.

“It’s because these people are savages, they don’t deserve it,” she said of some common opinions. If people see a problem as a racial trait, “that let’s us off the hook.”

Canadians need to become educated about First Nations history and start asking why some news items are making headlines, she said.

“I want for non-Aboriginal people to be curious about the circumstances,” Blackstock said.

International vs. domestic help

When the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey in September, many Canadians responded by calling on the government to do more to help Syrian refugees and they opened their wallets to donate.

It became a top issue in the federal election and the former Conservative government was criticized harshly after reports a sponsorship application for members of the Kurdi family was denied by the Canadian government.

But after years of reports about the problems faced by First Nations communities, the response by Canadians is much more subdued and that could be because too many headlines have made us numb to the issues, said indigenous studies professor Mike Hankard at the University of Sudbury.

“People become desensitized to it … because they’re exposed to it constantly,” said Hankard, who is the chair of the indigenous studies department at the northern Ontario school and lives on a reserve near Sudbury, Ont.

He said issues surrounding First Nations only seem to make the news when something terrible has happened — such as the call for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, or the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, Ont., or when advocates are marching in a rally to bring attention to their causes.

For the most part, “First Nations are out of sight, out of mind,” Hankard said.

Blackstock said it is also easier for the average citizen to hand out coats or donate money than to take a stand and speak out.

“Canadians are good at charity but not necessary good at social justice,” she said.

The “boy on the beach” photo was arguably the tipping point to get people to take notice of the plight of Syrian refugees — a crisis that has been going on since the spring of 2011.

Blackstock, who goes into classrooms to talk to students as part of her work, said she once asked the children what is discrimination.

“Discrimination is when the government doesn’t think you’re worth the money,” a nine-year-old girl responded.

‘So-called First Nations’

In an analysis piece, CBC national affairs editor Chris Hall asked the question of whether Canadians will be as generous with First Nations as they are with the Syrian refugees.

“Canadians are quick to donate to flood relief overseas, to victims of earthquakes and hurricanes. But are they ready to reimagine how this country can respond to First Nations communities, many of them home to the most marginalized and vulnerable people inside Canada?” Hall asked in his piece.

The analysis was retweeted and shared online, and many suggested Canadians could step up their aid to indigenous groups.

“Very proud to be Canadian as we welcome refugees, but let’s not continue to neglect our own,” Ottawa resident Sean Bennett tweeted.

“Are there procedures for sponsorship of First Nations families in need, like those we have for sponsoring foreign” refugees, Ramona Carmelly of Toronto asked on Twitter.

But others were quick to question why indigenous people need any support.

“Um they get billions from taxpayers already,” user Enrique Hernandez tweeted. In a later tweet about Friday’s throne speech in Parliament, in which the Liberals mentioned working with First Nations communities, he wrote, “How much money is enough? For So called ‘First Nations.’ Jeez. #ThroneSpeech #cdnpoli Reserves should be eliminated.”

New government, new outlook?

Blackstock said for the past decade First Nations issues have not been a priority for the federal government.

In a statement after the throne speech, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government will “renew Canada’s nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples.” This includes an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, as well as working to ensure First Nations children get “a quality education.”

The speech itself was brief, and the mention of First Nations just a line, but Blackstock said she was “encouraged to see we were actually in (it).”

The next step, she said, is that Trudeau needs to be honest with Canadians about the problems facing First Nation reserves — that children get less education funding, that when a community says it doesn’t have water it’s because they haven’t been given money so they can access water.

And he needs to act on what he says he will do.

Hankard said there will be many watching to see if Trudeau makes good on his promises.

“For the long term, everything begins with a first step,” he said.

Bringing change

For Canadians to help First Nations communities, the first step isn’t to open their wallets — it’s to open their hearts, Hankard said.

“The way to become educated is through relationships,” he said.

To start, people could go to their local friendship centre, attend an event there or even just pop in to introduce yourself. Friendship centres offer culturally enhanced programs and services. Doing so might help people dispel some assumptions they have, Hankard said, and a bonus is you could make a new friend.

Blackstock said the caring society has a list of seven free things Canadians can do right now to make a difference, including learning more so people can engage with young indigenous people, joining Facebook groups and, in general, educating themselves about the issues.

Any debate should not be about comparing refugees to indigenous people and it is not an “either/or” situation, she said. Canadians can do something to help both refugees from other countries and create a better life for First Nations communities here.

“It’s not about not helping other people,” Blackstock added. “Absolutely we can do both. I think that is in the Canadian tradition.”