The immensity of Canada’s territory has always made it hard for its population to agree on complex issues. One can simply take a look at the last federal election to see the clear division between provinces and partisan lines. When it comes to the state of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, that same division of opinions applies.
A recent study conducted all across the country has found that in addition to being largely split, public opinion has shifted in a negative direction over the past year. However, it has also shown that Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people have similar views about the state of their relationship.
“What’s important here is that we don’t see a big divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous on this question,” said the report’s author, Keith Neuman. “One might predict that non-Indigenous would have said that things are probably okay, while Indigenous people would have said that they are terrible. But that’s not the case.”
The message is clear on both sides: Canada is not doing enough.
Over the course of this year, the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in collaboration with Canada West Foundation, the Centre d’Analyse Politique, the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, surveyed more than 5,000 people from all provinces and territories. More than 600 participants identified themselves as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. The report, the fourth of a series that explored the attitude of Canadians toward confederation, focused on not only the relationship but also on reconciliation, expanded Indigenous representation in federal institutions and Indigenous control over resource development on traditional lands.
According to the survey, the general population’s opinions have become more negative between January and September of this year. Last January, 41 percent described relations as either very or somewhat positive, yet they were in decline at 32 percent by September. Similarly, a small percentage of participants, 36 percent, said in January that governments are not going far enough in terms of reconciliation. When questioned again later in the fall, more than 40 percent agreed that Canada’s actions towards reconciliation are insufficient.
Neuman believes this negative switch can be explained by the significant rise of awareness on systemic racism and Indigenous issues that happened throughout the year.
“People are more mindful now about the fact that governments should do more,” said Neuman.
He explained that when they started to conduct the survey, Canada was right in the middle of the Wet’suwet’en railroad blockade, an event that brought attention to Indigenous issues all over the country. Back in January, many Indigenous communities stood in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia who were opposing the construction of a pipeline on their unceded lands.
“We weren’t sure if this issue would have changed public opinion,” said Neuman. “It might have made Canadians less supportive, for instance.”
Neuman continued his explanation by bringing forward the importance of media and the role it played in influencing the public, by pushing certain negative narratives that were not a true reflection of the issues. In fact, back in January, the headlines of most mainstream media were emphasizing the disruption of the transportation system, affecting thousands of passengers instead of highlighting the immense support the protests received.
“It’s not to be critical of a particular media, but there’s that generic tendency for bad stories to get more attention and people think that things are worse than they are,” said Neuman.
The survey showed that the support for Indigenous consent over development on their unceded land actually increased over the year, even though the media portrayed the Wet’suwet’en conflict as something negatively disrupting Canadians. While Indigenous issues are gaining support all over the country, the difference of opinion is still something that affects communities directly.
And behind the statistics, there is the confronting reality.
During the Wet’suwet’en conflict, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) chief Gina Deer experienced the Canadian division firsthand.
“We (MCK) have received hate mail during the blockade but we also received support,” said Deer. “That’s something we had talked about - to try and be mindful about the impact we have on the average Canadian life because the people who are utilizing public transportation are just trying to get to work and might not be able to afford a car. So as much as they want to support us, they might end up being angered.”
Deer might have shown empathy back then, but she said she is also well aware that there are unfortunately very few things Indigenous people can do to attract enough attention and meet their needs. She was very straightforward about the fact the federal government is known for its reconciliation statements but, “when it’s about time to put your money where your mouth is, it falls short.”
“We are only looking for awareness,” said the MCK chief, “to force the government’s hands and sit down with us for dialogue. We are so impacted by inconvenience for the convenience of non-Native communities,” said Deer.
Although, she expressed that Canada has come a long way. For instance, she noticed how the death of Joyce Echaquan seemed to bring to light what happens to Indigenous people once they enter the health system. The 37-year-old mother from the Atikamekw community of Manawan live-streamed racist and degrading comments from two hospital workers while being treated for stomach pain at the Centre Hospitalier de Lanaudiere in Joliette. Her video went viral, showing how minutes before she passed away, Echaquan experienced horrific racism.
“People are getting more education about what happened to Indigenous people,” said Deer, adding that the awareness that comes from the younger generation could explain the study’s finding regarding the optimism among communities when it comes to the future of reconciliation.
According to the survey, Indigenous people are more inclined to believe they will witness meaningful reconciliation within their lifetime.
“There’s also a movement for the environment and Indigenous people are stewards of the land who work to protect it,” said Deer. “In that aspect, our ideals are aligning when it comes to the environment. The younger generation is more mindful of the Earth as a mother and provider rather than us taking and utilizing it as a commodity for its resources.”
Certainly, as the country becomes more and more aware of its colonial impact and its systemic racism legacy, the support for greater actions will only grow, in order to address the ongoing issues that Indigenous people face on a daily basis.
Virginie Ann, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door