On August 9th, 1982, the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) held their first meeting in Geneva. To commemorate this crucial step forward in the protection of Indigenous rights, every year August 9th is recognised as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
To honour this day, it is important to acknowledge the parts of Canada’s history that inspired the creation of the UNWGIP and other such bodies.
It is equally important, however, that August 9th not solely be a day to focus on Indigenous peoples’ sufferings. Indigenous peoples are not passive strawmen of victimisation whose role is to merely serve as a reminder of colonial brutality. Rather, they are the complex and dynamic agents of significant economic, political, social, and cultural influence. We would be remiss, especially on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, to exclude this aspect of Indigenous life.
This article therefore has two aims: The first is to give a brief overview of the harrowing side of Indigenous life in Canada, as it remains a crucial element of our history. The second is to emphasise instances of Indigenous agency and to recognise the space that Indigenous peoples occupy in human culture.
Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Canada – A Brief Critique
The rights of Indigenous peoples in North America have been repeatedly violated since the colonial era. This began with the Great Dying of 1492, when Christopher Columbus conquered the Americas. Genocide and disease killed nearly 55 million Indigenous people, erasing 90% of the population. Since then, a combination of wars, enslavement, declining birth rates, residential schools, and forced sterilisations have contributed to what many scholars call the Indigenous Holocaust.
Today, Amnesty International reports Canada’s repeated failures in respecting the rights of its Indigenous peoples and their lands, despite having made a commitment to uphold the principles of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). For example, Indigenous peoples in Canada still face discrimination and lack access to education and healthcare. Long-term drinking water advisories remain in effect for 29 Indigenous communities. And the Canadian federal government continues to support the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project on Indigenous land, despite the denial of consent by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
Indigenous Agency in Canada and the World
Small Numbers, Big Statistics. Although they make up only 5% of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples protect 80% of its biodiversity and speak more than half of the 7,000 languages around the world.
Linguistic Influence. Canada got its name from a Huron-Iroquois word. In 1535, Jacques Cartier crossed paths with two Indigenous youths, who told him of the route to their village, or their kanata. Adapted from its original form, “Canada” went on to become the official name of the nation on July 1, 1867.
Early Societies with Advanced Knowledge. Contrary to what is frequently taught in Canadian school curricula, Indigenous peoples in North America had knowledge of science, health, math, and land systems well before the arrival of European immigrants. This knowledge was not “introduced” to them; it had been used successfully to maintain their livelihood for thousands of years prior.
Brave Soldiers of the Land. Approximately 7,000 people of Indigenous status volunteered to fight in the Canadian military during both World Wars, many receiving medals for their heroism and bravery. The reason cited for joining by many of these volunteers was to protect the land.
Progressive Politics. The concept of a central government with a separation of powers – like the government we presently have in Canada – was highly influenced by the early political institutions of the Iroquois and Algonquin Nations.
Forward-Thinking Views on Identity. Indigenous communities have recognised the fluidity and spectrum of gender for hundreds of years. Although many Indigenous communities have their own terms for this phenomenon, the modern term “two-spirit” is frequently used by Indigenous people to describe individuals who identify as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit. Two-spirit may describe a gender, sexual, and/or spiritual identity.
Historically, such individuals could be men who dressed like women, or vice-versa. They could also be men who performed what are now considered feminine roles like basket-weaving, or women who performed what are now considered masculine roles like hunting. Sometimes, two-spirit was used strictly to describe sexuality. However, those who identified as two-spirit did not necessarily see themselves as either homosexual or heterosexual – this was mainly a European concept introduced through colonisation.
Although this account of Indigenous agency is short, it is by no means exhaustive. We hope that this article can serve as inspiration to learn more about the fascinating nuances of Indigenous identity, agency, and strength.
Happy International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples!
By: Serena Celeste Romanelli