Students raise awareness on Aboriginal issues

Imagine your forefathers displaced from their land. Imagine youre told that your culture is worthless, and that many consider you and your kind a drunk and a welfare cheat. This is the reality for many Aboriginals across Canada, as UTM students Joanna Wardawa, Britanni Balanowski, and Laura Sheridan have discovered through their research.

On February 13, Joanna, Brittani, and Laura started walking around the UTM campus, distributing brochures about the Mississaugas of the New Credit, a group of Aboriginals who have an unresolved land claim on what has been UTM since 1805. They also set up a Bristol board presentation, which featured illustrations from R. Gary Miller, an Aboriginal artist who expressed the plight of Aboriginals through his work.

The Mississaugas of the New Credit, who were originally known as the River Credit Mississaugas, were forced from the area surrounding the Credit River by the Canadian government in 1847 and into the First Nations of the New Credit Mississaugas Reserve in Hagersville, Ontario. It was after this relocation that the Mississaugas renamed themselves.

The Mississaugas dispute the Toronto Purchases Land Claim, which includes 250,880 acres of land currently known as the City of Toronto and Mississauga, and launched a claim against the government due to their displacement in 1787 and 1805. It was not until July 2002 that the federal government finally acknowledged its legal obligation to the Mississaugas. Negotiations over the land claim began in 2003.

The Mississaugas are frustrated with what they perceive is Canadas unwillingness to compromise. They claim Canada has also been unresponsive to the Mississaugas perspective regarding the proper market value of the land claim, and that it removed its chief federal negotiator.

One of the many issues affecting the Mississaugas of the New Credit is the poor condition of their reserve. When Joanna, Laura, and Britanni visited the First Nations of the New Credit Mississaugas Reserve in Hagersville, they noticed it resembled a trailer park. Other problems, according to a band member and research officer, are the reserves isolation, lack of proper infrastructure and community programs, and the inability of reserve leaders to provide basic necessities to their own community members, which all relates to a lack of proper government funding.

The list doesnt stop there. A lack of proper housing, high unemployment rates, low education rates, and suicide epidemics are all issues plaguing the community Joanna notes that reserves comprise of some of Canadas poorest areas and that this extreme poverty also leads to problems such as violence and substance abuse. To prove just how dire living conditions on reserves are for Aboriginals, Joanna quotes a 2003 statistic from Statistics Canada: the life expectancy for males is 8.1 years shorter and 5.5 years shorter for females in comparison to the rest of Canada.

Many people may wonder why Aboriginals choose to stay on the reserves. Joanna responds to this question by pointing to the fact that reserves were put in place to allow Aboriginals to practice their traditions and culture. The Canadian government however, has not responded effectively to these needs. For example, Aboriginal culture emphasizes hunting and fishing, but many reserves do not have lakes to fish in, or even enough land to sustain agriculture. Nor do they own the land, which leaves them unable to sell it. This means that many Aboriginals have no choice but to stay on the reserves. (On top of this, reserves are set aside for Status Indians only, or Aboriginals who are registered under the Indian Act.)

Motivation for Joanna, Brittani, and Laura came after they watched a documentary titled Stolen Sisters by Amnesty International which deals with the story of 500 Aboriginal women across Canada who have gone missing. Many claim local police forces, as well as various levels of government, neglect these incidents, with the media also failing to report substantially on the issue.

In addition, the students discuss the purpose of the women and gender studies program and its importance in motivating them to set up the event. They emphasize that the program can help teach valuable skills such as making the connection between theory and practice, critical thinking, exploring different perspectives and ideas, and analyzing marginalized but current political issues that may not be covered by mainstream political science.