Despite small victories, Indigenous communities around the world face an uphill battle

A massive settlement agreement in Canada marks a win for indigenous peoples, but setbacks in the United States and elsewhere persist.

Roxanne White, right, a member of the Yakama Nation, sings with other Native Americans during a protest inside a Chase bank branch Monday, May 8, 2017, in Seattle. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Roxanne White, right, a member of the Yakama Nation, sings with other Native Americans during a protest inside a Chase bank branch Monday, May 8, 2017, in Seattle. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Indigenous communities across Canada were handed a rare victory on Friday, when the government agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation over forced separation and adoption practices.

Beginning in the 1960s, government social workers separated indigenous children from their families and put them up for adoption, part of a massive campaign lasting through the 1980s. Intended to hinder indigenous identity, language, and cultural practice, the “Sixties Scoop” (nicknamed because of the government’s practice of “scooping” children away from their homes) was ultimately ended after a government report in the province of Manitoba harshly criticized the program.

But it would be another 30 years before the government took action to make amends — Friday’s announcement is the result of a class-action lawsuit filed eight years ago. If approved, as many as 30,000 people will be paid CAD$750 million in compensation for the government’s actions as part of the settlements.

“I don’t know what people were thinking,” said Carolyn Bennett, who serves as minister of crown-indigenous relations. In announcing the settlement, Bennett apologized for the Scoop, during which thousands of children were placed in countries across the globe, some as far away as New Zealand.


“I don’t know why anybody, why settlers or government thought they could do a better job than the village, than the chiefs’ responsibility to make sure everybody in the community was well,” she said.

The settlement is the latest in a series of steps taken by the government to rectify its long, sordid history with indigenous communities. In addition to taking children from their homes, Canadian officials also oversaw a residential school system, one that similarly separated children from their families in an effort to block access to culture and language. These and other campaigns further cemented a legacy of mistrust — one officials are only just beginning to address.

Since taking office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made repairing ties with indigenous Canadians a top priority. In a landmark speech before the United Nations last month, Trudeau apologized for the “humiliation, neglect, and abuse” indigenous peoples have faced at the hands of the country’s government. He also pointed to contemporary living conditions for indigenous communities, calling them “the legacy of colonialism in Canada.”

“We know that the world expects Canada to strictly adhere to international human rights standards,” said Trudeau. “That is what we expect of ourselves, too.”

But Trudeau is under fire from indigenous leaders who say the prime minister has not done enough for their communities, whose members comprise about 4 percent of the Canadian population— approximately 1.4 million people. Around 1,000 indigenous women have been murdered or have disappeared over the course of decades, something Trudeau’s administration has promised to address, but the effort has moved slowly. Also controversial is his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which indigenous communities have aggressively opposed. Many have criticized the prime minister’s lofty rhetoric, something they say has not translated to much change.


“Some of his words were exceptionally powerful (and) would give a lot of hope to a lot of people in Canada, but he falls down every time when it comes to substantive action,” Pamela Palmater, a Mi‘kmaq lawyer and professor, told Reuters.

Across the border, indigenous communities are also struggling. Under former President Barack Obama, Native Americans faced an uphill battle on a number of issues, including the same environmentally disastrous Keystone XL pipeline championed by Trudeau. (Obama supported the southern portion of the pipeline before eventually rejecting the northern plan.)

That isn’t the only pipeline project Obama supported. Last fall, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began a months-long protest against the Dakota Access pipeline, arguing its path endangered their water source. The Obama administration relented only after wide-scale media coverage and support from the public for the “water protectors” made the project politically unpopular.

But that victory was short-lived. President Donald Trump’s conservative administration has allowed both Keystone XL and Dakota Access to move forward, in direct defiance of both environmental and indigenous activists.

Trump’s treatment of indigenous communities more broadly has left little to be desired. On Monday, a federal holiday marking Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, the president praised the explorer, rather than acknowledge the growing movement to re-name the day in honor of indigenous communities.


“[O]n Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity,” stated a proclamation from Trump.

The statement notably made no acknowledgement of Columbus’ complicity in the mass-murder of Native Americans, and made no mention of indigenous communities at all.

That omission speaks to the larger reality facing indigenous communities around the world, many of whom suffer from neglect and minimal government interest. According to a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center, one in four Native Americans and Native Alaskans live in poverty. Those numbers aren’t much better elsewhere — around 56 percent of aboriginal Australians live below the country’s wealth marker compared to some 38 percent of non-indigenous Australians. According to a 2016 report card, aboriginal Australians also have a significantly lower life expectancy than their peers.

In neighboring New Zealand, the native Māori community also suffers from high wealth disparity. That story is the same across Central America, where indigenous communities face neglect and violence. In Guatemala, native populations are often too poor to stay — forcing them to make dangerous journeys to countries like the United States, where they face an aggressive and brutal immigration system. Approximately 60 percent of Guatemalans are indigenous.

Despite a grim global outlook, indigenous activists have succeeded in making gains. On Saturday, Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez announced she will run as a presidential candidate in Mexico’s election next year. Martinez is spokeswoman for the National Indigenous Congress, which is affiliated with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). She is the country’s first indigenous presidential candidate.

Back in Canada, indigenous communities still celebrating Friday’s victory also marked a more somber occasion on Monday, which is Canadian Thanksgiving. Like in the United States, the holiday is meant to celebrate family and giving thanks. But Native Americans and indigenous Canadians see the event differently.

“It was a coming together of Indigenous Peoples really feeding the colonizers, or the colonists,” Brian Rice, an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Mohawk nation, told CBC.

It’s a holiday indigenous Canadians generally feel little enthusiasm for, he explained.

“Because for a lot of people, it isn’t a celebration, and certainly the original people who had that first Thanksgiving — the Wampanoags and all of those other groups, the Powhatans — obviously not,” Rice continued. “Many of them don’t even exist any longer.”