During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Samantha Baran’s Medium bog.
Indigenous peoples of Canada have long been denied the status of a Canadian citizen. When I say status, I do not mean to say that they are illegal aliens on Canadian land, but that provincial and federal government treats Indigeneity like a diseased foreign entity intruding on Canadianism. In Canada, Indian status is granted to Indigenous peoples, excluding the Inuit and Métis, who qualify based on several factors. Indian status conditions are predominantly linked to a person’s lineage and the generational Indian status of family members. If an Indigenous person is granted Indian status, they do not have to pay federal or provincial taxes on personal and real property nor do they have to pay federal or provincial taxes on employment. However, these conditions are only in effect if an Indigenous person lives and works on a reserve. In other words, Canada tempts struggling Indigenous peoples with seemingly advantageous social conditions as a way of quarantining Indigenous populations from Canadian society. In her book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott explains the nature of Indigenous treatment from her own experience: “As a poor, mixed-race kid, I was treated like a parasite, too. I was unnecessary, unwanted, a social bloodsucker. I needed to be eradicated” (Elliott 71). Canada treats Indigenous peoples as parasites to Canadianism and isolates these unwanted individuals like a disease by way of the reserve system.
The overlying technique that enables the reserve system to exist is called settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialismis, generally speaking, the replacement of Indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that develops an identity and sovereignty in order to eliminate Indigenous identity and sovereignty. Canada is settler-colonial; and the reserve system is an enterprise that fuels settler-colonialism. An Indian Reserve is land under the Indian Act and treaty agreements that is for the exclusive use of an Indian band. Despite Indigenous occupation, reserve lands are not owned by Indian bands but are held in trust for bands by the Crown. The Indian Act grants the Minister of Indian Affairs authority over reserves: “No Indian is lawfully in possession of land in a reserve … the Minister may, in his discretion, withhold his approval and may authorize the Indian to occupy the land temporarily and may prescribe the conditions as to use and settlement that are to be fulfilled by the Indian before the Minister approves of the allotment”. Elliott’s book is a testimony to the lack of agency that is legislated into the reserve system and continues to dichotomize Indian status from Canadian citizenship. Elliott explains how Indian status is a tool used against Indigenous peoples: “… Canada has chosen to blame our biology, as though those very genes they’re blaming weren’t marked by genocide, too … it was how we reacted to that genocide. It was our fault, our bodies’ faults” (Elliott 112). Settler-colonialism and the reserve system are a discreet genocide of Indigenous peoples in the 21st-century.
Genocide may sound extreme, but the conditions of Indian reserves is deplorable. The genocidal structure of Indian reserves is first understood by considering that the provincial and federal government funds the impoverished circumstances of Indigenous peoples. Elliott shows how the reserve structure is against Indigenous prosperity:
“… We … moved into a two-bedroom trailer with fake wood panelling and no running water. Our electricity came from an exceedingly complicated network of extension cords … Our heat came from a tiny wood-burning stove in the living room. For the first few months we paid for a port-a-potty to be set up next to the trailer. Eventually that became too expensive, so we used a commode that we dumped in the woods whenever the bucket got too full … even after a year, even after two years, even after five years, we still had no running water” (Elliott 84–86).
Elliott’s personal experience with life on the reserve is a part of larger statistics related to Indian reserves. A study published in 2017 by the Canadian government stated how nearly 20% of Indigenous peoples in 2016 lived in a reserve dwelling in need of major repairs and that about 36% of Indigenous peoples living in a reserve dwelling were living in over-crowded conditions. A report by CTV News in 2019 documented a United Nations report illuminating the “abhorrent” housing conditions on Indian reserves in Canada. The report from the UN notes the lack of clean water and over-crowding, revealing how 75% of reserves in Canada supply Indigenous peoples with contaminated water. Mould creates further housing concerns in reports from places like Cat Lake First Nation. Many residents, especially children and elders, suffer from scabs, respiratory problems, and other illnesses. Indigenous children are often evacuated from housing with these conditions because of the severe medical issues plaguing the reserves. A state of emergency has been declared on multiple Indian reserves due to these unbearable conditions.
Despite the long-lasting conditions on Indian reserves, Indigenous peoples suffer. Stories and images of suffering from Indian reserves are in the media and known, but the Canadian government still allows Indigenous peoples to be imprisoned within these conditions. Elliott explains how: “…the way every type of social service seemed to approach our unsavoury realities: don’t solve the problems of poverty or racism or violence or mental illness. Just hide them away … social services conflates not being able to afford adequate housing, food, clothing and health care with choosing not to have adequate housing, food, clothing and health care.” (Elliott 82–87). Elliott reveals that these undesirable social conditions, along with Indigenous peoples, are segregated from society via Indian reserves. She demonstrates that choice in the lives of Indigenous peoples is not apparent and that Indigenous peoples must succumb to traps like Indian status and Indian reserves. The Canadian government essentially treats Indigenous peoples as parasites: forcing them into reserved, undesirable, antagonistic sectors where they are limited and quarantined. Settler-colonialism positions itself as the solution to settler-colonialism by eliminating Indigenous identity and sovereignty by way of the reserve system.