Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
George Floyd’s death made us all feel a deep sense of shame, guilt, upset, frustration or anger as many of us, especially white people, had to grapple with the reality of systemic racism for the first time. The question asked a lot is ‘why now?’; after decades of police brutality and murders of unarmed black people, why has this issue only just begun to gain traction, and receive global calls for action? Why is it only now that enough was called enough?
During the current Black Lives Matter protests, racism and police brutality towards Canada’s Indigenous population has reared its ugly head. In both situations, oppressed groups are fighting against long standing issues of racism that are deeply ingrained in institutions and the fabric of society.
Allan Adam, the Chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, was attacked by police on the 10th March. In recently released police footage, Adam was stopped over an expired license plate and then tackled to the floor. He was repeatedly punched by the officer whilst he screamed ‘I’m not resisting’ and then put into a chokehold. Adam was detained and charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest. The Alberta Police reviewed the incidence as ‘reasonable’ and life moved on.
Except finally it didn’t. The release of the footage and a photograph of Adam’s badly bruised and bloody face sparked a new wave of protests against police brutality towards Indigenous people in Canada. Trudeau responded saying ‘it’s unacceptable’ and ‘shocking’, and headlines read that the incident ‘shocked Canada’. But I ask why? The fact that this incident ‘shocked’ Canada, and its Prime Minister, is very much the issue in itself.
This is not an isolated incident. It’s one of many in a long history of racism and injustice towards Indigenous people.Indigenous people make up 5% of Canadian population, yet 30% of its prison inmates. They also make up 1/3 of police deaths in custody. Yet, it doesn’t stop with the police system. The reality is that Indigenous people face the highest rates of poverty, preventable disease and suicide, whilst also the lowest rates of employment and education. Their life expectancy is 15 years shorter than other Canadians and infant mortality rates are 20% higher . Indigenous women and girls are 16x more likely to be murdered and go missing than their white counterparts.
These figures are not new. So, why does this continue to shock Canadians? Perhaps the reality is that these statistics undermine the very flawed ideals and national pride that Canada has of itself as a ‘friendly’, ‘accepting’ and ‘multicultural’ nation. In this way, a strange and persistent kind of collective amnesia endures that then potently mixes with a culture of indifference towards Indigenous issues. A glossing over of a very shameful history, that remains shameful in the way that Indigenous people’s lives are affected by this oppression every day.
Indigenous people suffer from the legacies of brutal government policies including the residential schools, that are now defined as ‘cultural genocide’, and the intergeneration trauma this has caused. Economically and socially marginalised; any form of social mobility is rare. It is an ongoing and tireless plight for justice and a very long road to reconciliation and starting to redress the structural harms.Whilst studying abroad in Canada this year, I was wholly embarrassed to discover how little I had known about Canada’s appalling treatment of Indigenous people, yet Canadians around me also knew very little. This speaks the need for educational reform, but also the need for a strong cultural unsettling.
Why does it take the renewed momentum of black protests spilling over from America and one horrific video to show Canada’s dark truths? It is unsettling, upsetting and discomforting, and yet Canada must acknowledge its past and present before it can begin to address the harm that has been done. This isn’t just a matter of police reform – it’s a matter of total reform; on all levels. The conscience of Canada, and the world, needs to be more than shocked, but finally awoken.
Allan Adam, in court still bruised and battered and facing his alleged charges, argued ‘enough is enough’. Now is the time to make these words count.