A timely gift this season could be Canada taking a stand against racism

Hill Times December 14, 2020

The original intent of First Nations reserves was noted by Lt.-Gen. Sir Francis Bond Head in a report to Upper Canada in 1836: places for Indians to go die in peace away from the horrified eyes of the settlers, because obviously Indians “should still continue to wither, droop, and vanish before us like grass in the progress of the forest in flames.” 

For the next 120 years through to the 1950s, the approach in Canada was to use the Indian reserve to keep diseases out of the settler population. When smallpox was rampant, governments were known to forcefully keep First Nations infected with smallpox on the reserve and unable to access health care. But it protected the settler. When tuberculosis was rampant, the sentiment was that the less civilized were less worthy and more likely to get TB anyhow, so what’s a settler government to do but let it burn through the Indigenous population?

And one might think that is just a horrible thing to say.

Except Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister just said that again. When he heard that the federal government allocated COVID-19 vaccines for First Nations in his province, his words were “this hurts Manitobans, to put it mildly … this is unfair.” How dare anybody put First Nations first, as they aren’t real Manitobans? How dare anybody put First Nations at the head of the line, even as First Nations in Manitoba passed a 20 per cent COVID-19 positivity rate in testing?

Indigenous peoples face a much higher risk of most diseases, and much higher risks for COVID-19. One of the largest factors contributing to this inequity today, is the historic racism which denied health care outright or denied health-care funded equitably to non-Indigenous Canadians.

There are four takeaways at this moment in Canada’s supposed era of reconciliation. Racism is alive and kicking and it continues to blatantly get in the way of doing health care well. Two, First Nations in Manitoba were angry, but seemed to react as if this type of hatred isn’t new to them. Three, there was very little negative response from Canadian leaders to Pallister. Four, now we understand why Indigenous health never gets the funding it needs—there are people in this country who truly don’t support it.

The silence from public health experts, politicians, and Canadian leaders has been deafening. Systemic racism is buttressed by the repetitive incidents of racism against Indigenous peoples, plus the lack of response by others with influence. This was the time to speak up when Pallister made a comment that put First Nations at risk yet again. This was the time to speak up. Because silence is support.

Pallister needs to make a public apology.

But this goes beyond one man. Manitoba’s chief public health officer needs to rebuild trust and relationships with First Nations. We need to ensure that a political leader in this country never feels the freedom to speak such racist words against Indigenous peoples again.

The Public Health Agency and Indigenous Services Canada together need to take a stand against this racist comment, or will not be able to build trust and refute the fake news that Canada is testing vaccines on Indigenous peoples. That trust from Indigenous peoples is fragile, and you have to earn it. This is how you earn it—by challenging racism against Indigenous peoples.

We are a country of haves and have-nots. The newest measure is the degree to which settler governments provide for and protect Indigenous citizens, and Manitoba and Quebec are competing for the have-not prize.

Indigenous peoples are resolute against this racism. It would be nice if Canada was, too.