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Most Canadians see colonialism as a modern problem: Angus Reid survey

By Megan DeLaire, Writer

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    TORONTO (CTV Network) — Canada has been grappling with the legacy of colonialism here for most of the 21st century, but as many as two out of five Canadians don’t see it as a problem, according to a recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute.

The survey of 3,016 Canadian adults is part of a series of reports on Canada and the “culture wars,” and finds that Canadians hold competing views about the legacy of colonialism; the harms of residential schools; and how to address these issues, including whether Indigenous Peoples should have unique status.

“For most in this country, the legacy of first contact between Indigenous Peoples and early settlers continues to be a real problem for modern society to solve,” reads a report published by the Angus Reid Institute on Oct. 5, “but approach to and resolution of this issue remain a source of strife.”

LEGACY OF COLONIALISM The British proclaimed Canada a dominion in 1867, though the land was home to diverse Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years prior.

In order to dominate the land known today as Canada and take control of valuable resources and trade routes, settlers deceived, abused and subjugated Indigenous Peoples from coast to coast.

According to the survey, a majority of respondents recognize colonialism has left unresolved cracks in the relationship between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

One-in-five respondents, or 19 per cent, said the legacy of colonialism in Canada is a huge problem that needs to be addressed, while 35 per cent said it’s one problem among many. A smaller share of the population, 23 per cent, sees less of an issue, while 17 per cent see no issue at all. Indigenous respondents are more likely to see colonialism as a modern problem, with 61 per cent saying so, but they’re still divided, with 34 per cent disagreeing.

When the final report of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released in December 2015, commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair said he was hopeful Canada had reached the threshold of a new era.

“A period of change is beginning, that if sustained by the will of the people, will forever realign the shared history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” Sinclair said, though he also warned that change would likely take years or even generations.

It has been eight years since the report was released, and 15 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was founded, and 49 per cent of Canadians surveyed by Angus Reid believe the circumstances of Indigenous Peoples in their province have improved. The same share of Indigenous respondents agree, although another 32 per cent said they’ve seen no improvement, and 12 per cent said the situation is worsening.

RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL TRAUMA From the 1700s right up until the 1990s, various churches – and eventually the federal government – forcibly removed Indigenous children across Canada from their homes and placed them in residential schools. This was done as part of a policy of assimilation that caused significant intergenerational harm to First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and their families and communities.

When Duncan Campbell Scott, who oversaw Canada’s residential school system between 1913 and 1932, amended the Indian Act in 1920 to mandate attendance in residential schools, he stated, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department, that is the whole object of this bill.”

Children in residential schools were often subjected to harsh discipline, starvation, poor health care, neglect, and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Thousands died while attending the schools and the burial sites of many of these victims remain unknown.

When asked what they felt led to a higher death rate among Indigenous children in residential schools, a plurality of Angus Reid survey respondents – 39 per cent – said they felt neglect was the main cause, while 19 per cent believe the children were purposefully killed. Thirteen per cent believed they died because of uncontrollable factors and 29 per cent said they weren’t sure.

Almost half of all Canadians, 48 per cent, believe the harm caused by the residential school system will continue to affect many generations of Indigenous Peoples to come, and that those affected will need support from all levels of government. Women, especially those between 18 and 34 years old, were more likely to take this stance. Among the 41 per cent of respondents who believe the harm from residential schools has mostly resolved, most were men over 54 years old.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE In the years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, heads of state, government and church have all issued apologies to Indigenous people for the crimes of colonialism. Many people, however, say not enough has been done to actually repair the damage done by colonialism in Canada.

A December 2022 report by the Yellowhead Institute found that only 13 calls to action had been completed out of 94 calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 in order to address the legacy of residential schools.

Canadians are deeply divided over how to repair the harm done to Indigenous Peoples here.

Just over half, 55 per cent, of Canadians said Indigenous Peoples should benefit from unique status because they were here before colonizers arrived. This group is made up mostly of young women, people with a university education and those who voted for the Liberals and New Democrats in the previous federal election. Of the 45 per cent who said Indigenous Peoples should not have special status, most were older men and 2021 Conservative voters.

Those who identified as Indigenous were more likely than the general population to support the idea of special status, with 62 per cent responding in favour.

On the subject of schools and streets named after historical figures associated with residential schools, white respondents were split between feeling these landmarks should be renamed – with 42 per cent saying none should be renamed and 44 per cent saying some should – while Indigenous respondents were twice as likely to say they should all be renamed.

“Whether it’s removing names of those who helped to build the residential schools from public buildings or giving more attention and resources to addressing the legacy of the schools,” the report summarizes, “Canadians are widely divided.”

METHODOLOGY The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) conducted an online survey from July 26 to 31, 2023, among a representative randomized sample of 3,016 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 1.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Another 322 Canadians who do not identify as male or female and who are also members of the Forum were surveyed as a population booster. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding. The survey was self-commissioned and paid for by ARI.

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