You do not have to search for a long time to find a recent news story examining the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens in Canada. You also do not need to spend too long on social media before coming across an opinionated rant regarding similar issues. It is clear in both professional journalism and the less critical networks of social media that the canyon between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada is growing.
Before I begin, consider these questions: While the separation is growing, is the fact that there was a separation to begin with the real root of these increasingly popular conflicts? Is the differentiation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal to blame? Why is it that a country which actively studies the integration of Aboriginal peoples into its society is littered with discrimination and negative stereotypes? What conditions must be met before the problem of racism towards Aboriginals in Canada can be adequately dealt with?
Below, I will attempt to explain why, despite our growing cultural diversity, Canada is becoming an increasingly racist nation.
Disclaimer: I am aware that many groups involved in any protests or conflicts cannot be reduced to “Aboriginal or not”, however the topic of this post is the integration of Aboriginal peoples into Canadian society. Also, to maintain clarity, I am using the Oxford definition of racism.
Premise One – The In-Group, Out-Group Theory
The question “Are you Aboriginal or not?” makes this point seem pretty obvious and yet it is often underestimated. There is a clear separation in Canadian society between those that are Aboriginal and those that are not. What makes this separation serious, however, is that it is not purely social. The issue is that the distinction can be found very obviously on a political level as well. The question is asked in many different political forms and questionnaires (tax forms, grant applications, school applications, etc.). It is also easily identified by things like status cards, government funds, land reserves and other similar organizations or facilities. These things all have their historical roots and I’m not saying that all of these are awful things, but what they do make a distinction between those that are aboriginal and those that are not. I mentioned that the issue is not that these chasms are social, but that they are political. The importance of this can be seen by examining the relationship between other characteristics that we would expect to create similar in-group/out-group scenarios. Many of the social categorizations in Canada such as our religion or heritage, and even racial factors didn’t find their way into our political system, have all been trumped by national identity. What I mean can be summed by a sentence similar to this: “I’m Christian and you’re Muslim, but we’re both treated the same as Canadians.” Two groups are brought together by mutual characteristics to create one group. What’s prevented this from happening between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens that, while it can be said that both are Canadians, it cannot be said that both are treated the same way as Canadians. Without even entertaining the question of whether or not any ”special treatment” is justified, it is undeniable that having rights exclusive to Aboriginal citizens desecrates the effectiveness of a collective national identity. It leaves the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ intact in Canada.
Premise Two – The Judgement Theory
In sociological and psychological studies it is understood that human beings prefer to identify with those with which they relate. Human beings are also quick to shy away from interaction with members of groups that they do not identify with. The evolutionary explanation is that those we relate with are perceived as trustworthy and beneficial to survival, while anything that is different may be a threat. Many historical conflicts are rooted in the interaction between two groups that perceive the other as different and threatening to their in-group. A heartbreaking example of this that we are all familiar with is the holocaust carried out in Germany in which German citizens were separated based on whether or not they were Jewish. What makes this analogy so bone chilling is the fact that we can see clearly the dangers that arise when social distinctions work their way into politics. The clear evidence that this is happening in Canada, though in a much less violent context than the holocaust, can be seen by studying the nature of racism in Canada. The majority of negative opinions towards Aboriginal citizens are based on the very grounds on which the government treats Aboriginals differently. For example, many of the negative comments made towards Aboriginal communities aired during the news coverage of Attawapiskat were related to the publicised financial troubles of Aboriginal peoples. There is an availability heuristic in the forming of these opinions, but it does not change the fact that these opinions are generalized and applied to all.
To recap the two premises discussed: Firstly the Canadian population can has been divided into two groups: Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. This division is not just social but has become political. Secondly, political divisions lead to conflict between people that perceive themselves as pitted against an ‘out-group’. Logically, we can conclude that as long as there is a distinction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, there will continue to be a group of people on either side of this division that choose to judge people on the other. We see in readily available examples that the grounds on which racism is flourishing in Canada are the very properties on which Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals are treated differently. Whether or not these distinctions are justified, it is clear that as long as they exist on a political level there will always be a canyon separating Canadians from the unity that it strives for.