Stolen Land, Children, and Sisters: How Canada has failed Indigenous People

Mary Marston Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy how canada has failed indigenous people

Justin Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister, recently spoke at the United Nations (UN) about Canada's failure to adequately address structural violence against First Nations, Metis Nations, and Inuit people (Panetta 2017). Though he promised to do so when he was elected in 2015, his government has failed to pass or examine any significant policy measures that would improve the socioeconomic conditions of this marginalized group (Mas 2015). Additionally, many Aboriginal leaders, such as Pam Palmater, have stated that Trudeau’s attempt to historicize the Canadian government’s abuses inflicted upon Indigenous people is a way of ignoring of what Amnesty International has termed a human rights crisis that has been created by settler colonial violence through occupation of native land, residential schools, and the ‘60s Scoop (CTVNews.CA 2017), and has persisted into the twenty-first century via targeted violence against Indigenous women and girls. This has resulted in the creation of the Stolen Sisters campaign ( Amnesty International 2017).

In addition to European colonists committing ethnic cleansing as a means to establish what is now known as Canada, residential schools (CBC News 2008) were one of the first ways through which the Canadian government committed cultural genocide against First Nations people (Davidson 2012, p.1-20). In likeness to those in the United States, these schools promoted a policy of “aggressive assimilation”, in which Aboriginal children were taken away from their communities, forced to convert to Christianity, and punished for speaking their native languages or participating in cultural rituals. This violence continued for almost 150 years from the 19th century, with the last school closing in 1996 (2008).

Another egregious crime committed by the Canadian government occurred simultaneously with the growth of residential schools: the ‘60s Scoop (Russell 2016). For twenty years, thousands of First Nations children were taken from their homes by child-welfare and were placed primarily with non-Aboriginal families. Some were even adopted out to families in the United States, Europe, and New Zealand without parental consent. Although the Canadian government began to pay 750 million Canadian dollars in legal settlements - beginning in October 2017- survivors face the trauma of having their parents, culture, and birth names permanently stripped from them (Austen 2017).

The Canadian government’s establishment of Indigenous culture and people as inferior and subhuman, via residential schools and the ‘60s scoop, has paved the way for gendered violence against Aboriginal women in Canada. According to the Amnesty International report ‘A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada’, the primary factors that have contributed to violence against Indigenous women are: social and economic marginalization caused by government policies; failure of the police to provide an adequate standard of protection, leading to the vulnerability extreme acts of brutality; and racially-motivated violence as perpetrators expect to escape justice due to societal indifference to the welfare and safety of Indigenous women (Canada Stolen Sisters 2004).

In 2015, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, traveled to Canada to renew a national inquiry into the problem. She found that the government funding of 30 organizations to reduce violence against Aboriginal women is a shallow response, considering that 1,017 First Nations women suffered from targeted and gendered violence between 1980 and 2012, and another 164 remain missing (McCarthy 2015).  Her comments followed the Report of an inquiry by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women released by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in March 2015 that states:

The committee notes that its factual findings have highlighted that the measures taken to prevent and protect Aboriginal women from disappearances and murders have been insufficient and inadequate, that the weaknesses in the justice and enforcement system have resulted in impunity and that there has been a lack of any efforts to bring about any significant compensation and reparation.
— Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 2015, 53

The CEDAW report concludes with a list of recommendations that include investigating all cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women with the means to ensure that law enforcement takes the reports seriously, and to improve the socioeconomic conditions of Aboriginal women as well as their access to justice (2015). Many Indigenous activists and groups, such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada, agree with these recommendations and have issued report cards on the progress of the Canadian government in acting upon them (Native Women’s Association of Canada 2017).

Addressing the issue of Stolen Sisters is daunting as it requires deconstructing and decolonizing Canadian national law and legal institutions, which are embedded racist colonial heritages. A first step in addressing atrocities faced by Aboriginal people at the hands of white settlers is holding leaders and institutions accountable for their inaction through an organization like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would give another platform for survivors and other members of the Aboriginal community to discuss their demands from the Canadian government, such as public apologies, payment of reparations, etc (Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada 2017).  

A second step may be for white Canadians to understand their current complicity in the crises impacting Indigenous populations, rather than center blame on their settler ancestors. Recent attempts by Aboriginal activists to demand justice from the Canadian government have resulted in white journalists condescendingly asking activists if they can actually place blame on Justin Trudeau for the current human rights abuses (Minksy 2017).

Regardless of the precise forms of seeking justice for members of these communities may take, the single most important factor remains that it is centered on Indigenous people. Given the fragility of Canadian whiteness and the racist colonial history of its central government, any hope of developing policy solutions that adequately address 524 years of stolen land, children, and sisters seems like it must be led by Indigenous people.


Mary Marston is a woman of color who wants to decolonize U.S. Foreign Policy and various legal systems. Follow her on Twitter: @mary_marston


List of References:

Amnesty International Canada, 2016. No More Stolen Sisters. Amnesty International
Canada. Accessed October 23, 2016.

Austen, I., 2017. Canada to Pay Millions in Indigenous Lawsuit Over Forced Adoptions. The New York Times. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Canada Stolen Sisters, 2004. A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and
Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada
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CBC News, 2016. A history of residential schools in Canada. CBCnews. Accessed October 24, 2017.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 2015. Report of the inquiry concerning Canada of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, New York, NY: United Nations.

CTVNews.ca Staff, 2017. Trudeau's UN speech failed to admit ongoing role
in Indigenous problems: Palmater.
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Davidson, L., 2012. Theoretical Foundations. In Cultural Genocide. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 1–20.

Mas, S., 2015. Trudeau presents 5-point plan at special meeting of AFN chiefs. CBCnews. Accessed October 22, 2017.

McCarthy, T., 2015. Canada has failed to protect indigenous women from violence, says UN official. The Guardian. Accessed October 27, 2017.

Minsky, A., 2017. Indigenous women call reporter ‘white lady,’ demand she leave press conference. Global News. Accessed October 20, 2017.

Native Women's Association of Canada, 2017. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered
Indigenous Women and Girls: NWAC Report Card January 2017- April 2017, Native Women's Association of Canada
. Accessed October 29, 2017.

Pannetta, A., 2017. PM's UN Speech Outlines Canada's 'Humiliation' Of Indigenous Peoples. HuffPost Canada. Accessed October 22, 2017.

Russell, A., 2016. What was the '60s Scoop'? Aboriginal children taken from homes a dark chapter in Canada’s history. Global News. Accessed October 24, 2017.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2017. About Us. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Accessed October 30, 2017.

United Nations, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz: United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People. UNSR Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. Accessed October 27, 2017.