At True North Aid, we seek to celebrate the rich diversity of Indigenous peoples across Canada. Since 2017 True North Aid has cultivated meaningful relationships between our organization and Indigenous communities across Canada through active learning and by working alongside Indigenous leadership, elders, and community members. These relationships have honed our understanding of the significance and complexity of the socio-economic barriers that Indigenous communities, particularly in the north, face every day and how these barriers limit their ability to reach their full potential.
As a humanitarian organization, True North Aid is uniquely positioned to address these barriers with the mandate to serve and support northern Indigenous communities that continue to live with the aftermath of forced assimilation through residential schools and similar programs that sought to remove and erase Indigenous culture within Canada. . Many of these discriminatory policies, such as the Indian Act, limit the ability of Indigenous people to determine their own future. True North Aid works alongside individuals, groups and organizations to help lift the burdens big or small through the collection and purchasing of school supplies, winter clothing, beds, food and many funding opportunities that are geared
Many communities are located further away from city centres where accessing basic needs at an affordable cost is difficult. Many are situated so far away that they are only accessible by plane or ferry, sometimes by winter road from January to March. The remoteness of these communities makes it difficult to provide food, adequate shelter, education as the costs of these items are much higher than in southern communities. Employment opportunities are limited even more in communities with populations of 1000 people or less.
Historically, segregation of Indigenous peoples living in Canada was enforced by the Indian Act, which in turn advised the creation of the reserve systems, residential schools and Indian hospitals. The Indian Act of 1867 effectively forced segregation of Canada’s first nation and Inuit, assigning them to live in areas undesired by the settlers in Canada. Many of these areas lacked significant resources to live off the land and prosper through traditional hunting and gathering methods and other agricultural methods. Indigenous peoples were not allowed to leave reserves without the permission of an “Indian Agent” through a system known as the “Pass System.” This legislation was removed in 1985.
For many Indigenous youths living in remote communities and on reserves, the barriers to education begin once a child starts school. It is estimated that schools on reserves receive at least 30% less funding than other schools (Creating Equal Opportunities, University of Saskatchewan, Aug 2020). Many schools on reserves don’t have access to amenities such as science labs, equipped playing fields, libraries, and access to technology. (National Collaborating Center for Aboriginal Health, n.d.)
Schools often end in Grade 8, forcing students to relocate to city centres such as Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, and Timmins for high school. While in these cities, students often billet with families or stay in group homes to complete their education. However, according to national and provincial trends, Indigenous youth ages 12-18 often leave school before completing high school (Open Access Government, 2017). Studies estimate that 40% of Indigenous students ages 15 and over may drop out of school compared to 13% of non-Indigenous students. (Open Access Government, 2017). Many will return to their home communities once they drop out, where employment and other opportunities are harder to attain.
Another barrier is accessing higher education such as college or university; Living in poverty may create barriers to education through the financial costs of education, such as transportation fees, school supplies, and school fees. (National Collaborating Center for Aboriginal Health, n.d.) The responsibility of supporting a household may also prevent people from accessing education.(National Collaborating Center for Aboriginal Health, n.d.)
From the late 1800’s through the 1990’s, the Residential School System “scooped” Indigenous children away from their parents. This system tore apart families, destroying the fundamental building block of First nations’ Inuit and Métis societies. The intention of the residential school was to forcibly assimilate and remove a child’s culture, language and traditions, while learning Christianity and Western values.
Many children died in these residential schools, their deaths witnessed by other children who were told to keep quiet and sexual, emotional and physical abuse was a common accurance.
Recently, the recovery of unmarked graves at residential schools has brought upon more pain from residential school survivors and their families but an awakened renewal at confronting the hard truths of Canada’s past.
Today, trauma residential school survivors experienced is often passed on to future generations creating detrimental intergenerational trauma or family violence, and a rise to addictions and mental health issues.
Much has been written about this system, both online and in print. Testimony from lawsuits and the Truth and Reconciliation’s 2015 report details the sudden, traumatic separation of young children from parents and the emotional, physical and sexual abuse endured by children at the hands of priests, nuns and school workers. This testimony can be reviewed on the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website.
You can read fuller accounts of the Residential School System at these links:
“The Residential School System” from indigenousfoundation.arts.ubc.ca
“A History of Residential Schools in Canada” from CBC archives
“An Overview of the IRS System” from anishnabek.ca
Indigenous peoples in Canada experience mental health and addictions at rates that are more than double those among non-Indigenous people in Canada. Many factors can contribute to mental illness and addictions; previous trauma, social status and economic stability, education and family and friends supports and structures, including intergenerational trauma.
Unfortunately, suicide rates of First Nation people in Canada are 5-6 times higher than non-Indigenous people. As a coping mechanism to deal with thes soci-econoimc factors and to treat mental illness, many communities are affected by widespread drug use and harmful behaviours. Addictions often exacerbate mental illnesses such as depression an anxiety.
Today, Indigenous peoples are reconnecting with their traditions to help those living with mental illness and addictions.