“While Canadians see themselves as world leaders in social welfare, health care, and  economic development, most reserves in Canada are economic backwaters with little prospect of material advancement and [have] more in common with the Third World than the rest of Canada.”[1]


Although the Canadian government expressed the need for an active policy against  tuberculosis (TB) – a disease present in higher degree among indigenous peoples than among the “mainstream” population – a continued gap in living conditions and health is experienced by indigenous peoples under Canadian governance since the 1870s as indicated for 2013 in figure 1.[2] According to the Chief Public Health Officer’s Report of 2013, “despite the overall low incidence of TB in Canada, the burden of TB in the Aboriginal population is much greater than in the overall population.”[1]


Figure 1: Reported new active and re-treatment tuberculosis cases by Aboriginal status, Canada, 2011. Source: Public Health Agency of Canada.


Historically, regardless of the knowledge on tuberculosis infection as a disease triggered by inadequate diet and living conditions, indigenous peoples suffered exponential higher death rates due to the disease than non-indigenous peoples.[3] Despite knowledge about the treatment and prevention of tuberculosis infection, government officials neglect to effectively implement systematic reform to alter indigenous living conditions.[4] Government policy failed to alter the harsh circumstances indigenous peoples were forced to live under due to perceptions on race and the perceived “dying race” metaphor characteristic for the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.


Reason for the absence of government reform is visible in the continuous discrimination of indigenous under Canadian rule, something pointed out by academic research in the fields of history, social and political science, postcolonial and critical theory, and archive sources. Moreover, this health disparity questions Canadian governance ideas on “post”-colonialism, as limited healthcare and death rates do not seem postcolonial at all. Results of archive research show how whiteness functions as a norm in institutional settings and guides the “backwards” position of indigenous peoples in Canadian society.[5] Politics of recognition and reconciliation in 2015 fail to alter the institutionalized racism and are perceived as renewed strategies of colonization by indigenous peoples in academia.


The political attention in Canada in 2015 for government-inidgenous relationships therefore reveals continuous deteriorated living conditions and health disparity since the 1870s.[6] The problem is still often placed with the indigenous person than analyzed as a result and caused by government action and inaction. The central question – to what extent the analysis of diseases such as tuberculosis, consumption, and scrofula among indigenous peoples in treaty since 1870 problematizes our understanding of “post”-colonialism and its relation to race, genocide, and indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in Canada today – has no simple answer. Nevertheless, results problematize Canadian governance structures, past and present, and governmental responsibility for high indigenous death rates can no longer be denied. Important to note is how the postcolonial era never occurred for indigenous peoples and is a fixture of western thinking and history writing. “Colonial” living conditions, malnutrition, and unequal distribution of space are continuously affecting this group in Canadian society. Institutionalized racism or structural genocide critical reflects and critiques the mechanisms of scientific racism in Canada.


First of all, health disparity between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples was created through the system of indigenous reserves and schools. Medical reports and academic research reveal how the Canadian government and Department of Indian Affairs continuously spend as little money as possible on indigenous health. Strong ideas of race heredity, and lingering notions of doomed race theory prevailed: “Indians” were destined to get sick. In addition, indigenous assimilation made disease a logical consequence of “survival of the fittest.”[7] Moreover, diseases were continuously framed as the fault of indigenous communities and their assumed lifestyle, inadequate hygiene, hereditary proneness to the disease, and stages of civilization.[8]


These ideas on the indigenous race are visible in government documentation on the indigenous “wards” since 1870. Excessive documentation on indigenous peoples was part of a rhetoric of scientific racism describing the ideology of assimilation or whitewashing of indigenous people.[9] Political framing and imaginaries presented the “Indian” problem that had to be solved through assimilation and justified harsh past, present, and future policies affecting health and increasing death rates. Indigenous people had to westernize but often died in the process.[10] What is more, the Canadian government as a powerful institution that established this assimilation strategy made its policy sound as the perfect solution and actively tried to impress the public and the political opposition.[11] This created a false, “scattered conceptualization,” and a “fractured paradigm,” that continues in the twenty-first century.[12] These false frames acknowledged as the truth by the general audience made it possible for the Canadian government to literally “get away with murder.”[13]


According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015, which conducted research on the treatment of indigenous children in the residential school system connected to indigenous reserves, the Canadian government is guilty of human rights abuses and failed to distribute adequate health aid.[14] Most importantly,  the TRC concluded Canadian governance to be “a conscious policy of cultural genocide,” which was not acknowledged fully.[15] The Canadian government and law did not adopt the term “cultural genocide” due to a lack of judicial resonance, while the health disparities indicate even a “stronger” version of structural genocide.[16]


Cultural genocide, or cultural destruction of a group and prevention of cultural values and identity transfer does not cover the extend of harm experienced by indigenous peoples past and present.[17] The institutional system that emerged in the 1870’s categorized the inhabitants of the Canadian interior according to race and did more than cultural destruction. The political body coerced the signing of treaties, resulting in reserve life, deteriorated living conditions, disease, and death.[18] Even though extraordinary measures to remove indigenous peoples did not include open warfare, such as in the U.S. genocide against Native Americans, Canadian indigenous peoples died due to government neglect.[19] Moreover, the administrative coercion and governmental implementations which on purpose maneuvered around warfare were designed to be just as effective in obtaining territory and killed indigenous peoples.[20]


Structural genocide more accurately describes the continued settler-colonial eliminatory policies toward indigenous peoples, of which the morbidity and mortality rates due to tuberculosis is only one example.[21] Cultural genocide, besides being legally void, in itself indicates a form of “almost” genocide to describe an event rather than a continuous process.[22] Structural genocide is defined through the “logic of elimination.” This logic points out how the disposition of indigenous peoples is not set in the past as a historic event, but rather continuously dispossesses indigenous peoples causing continuous health disparities through a lack of access to medication or the means to establish medical infrastructures.[23]


Structural genocide as a more adequate description shows how imbalances experienced by indigenous peoples in Canada today are a result of historical displacement on reserves and the residential school system, causing socio-economic poverty.[24] Historically, “most Indian communities were so impoverished – their traditional economies largely destroyed – that little hope existed of setting them on a path to equality without intensive welfare intervention.”[25] This intensive welfare intervention up to 2016 has not achieved equality, however.[26] Five generations of indigenous peoples in and out of reserves were determined by government welfare intervention, without actual investment in the communities, only producing long-term deteriorated conditions. Subsequently, these conditions are presented as evidence of indigenous “backwardness” as a people behind other Canadians, failing to recognize structural genocide embedded in government intervention.[27]


Government framing or political imaginaries in the past and present specifically uphold ideas in which indigenous people are unable to escape their evident “lack of health.”[28] These political imaginaries create a circle of indigenous discrimination causing a constant tension between indigenous people and Canadian governance.[29] This historical political imaginary still directly affects indigenous peoples as this “othering” by the Canadian state continuously influences ideas about indigenous peoples being unable to care for themselves. The government created wrongful perceptions with life-threatening material conditions as a result.[30]

“The gap between the health, living conditions, and other social determinants of health of First Nations people and mainstream Canadians continues as it has since the end of the nineteenth century. […] Even basics such as clean drinking water remain elusive for some communities. Identification of the forces that have held indigenous communities back might provide insights into what is required to bridge the gap between First Nations communities and the rest of Canada today.”[31]


Supposedly “postcolonial” policies of the Canadian government continuously ignore the state’s own role in institutionalized marginalization and ignore indigenous sovereignty and self-determination to be able to battle these health disparities. Framing by the Canadian government actor is part of the bigger societal master narrative on race, class, and health, and “post”-colonialism wrongfully assumes this has ended. The question that remains in relation to this inherent racial bias is how long the continued blindness of the predominantly white Canadian governance structure to institutionalized racism and the consequences for indigenous communities past and present can go on. Canada beliefs in a “mythology of racelessness.”[32] Most likely, Canada is not the only one. Structural genocide or institutionalized racism against indigenous subjects created a cycle of history, making indigenous marginalization not a thing of history but an enduring reality.


Redactie: Eva Nivard


[1] http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/cphorsphc-respcacsp/2013/tuber-eng.php.

[1] James W. Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013), 186.

[2] Maureen K. Lux, Medicine That Walks: Disease, Medicine, and the Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001); Jane E. Buikstra, Prehistoric Tuberculosis in the Americas (Evanston: Northwestern University Archeological Program, 1981).

[3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chapter 19: Food and diet at residential schools: 1867–1939 (TRC Canada), 487; TRC reports 2015. “(often as a result of social and economic conditions such as limited access to medical practices, inadequate housing and other underlying illnesses).”

[4] According to academic scholars on the subject, such as James Daschuk, Maureen Lux, and Mary-Ellen Kelm.

[5] http://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/338952

[6] Publications from Australia, Canada, U.S., and New Zealand on similar and related topics come up roughly after 1965 in “white” academic research from universities.

[7] Lux, Medicine That Walks, 30; Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, xix-xx.

[8] Paradoxically enough, it were the imposed living conditions of the Canadian government that increased death rates for indigenous peoples due to diseases and not their original ways of living.

[9] Ibid., 33.

[10] Romy Froehlich and Burkhard Rüdiger, “Framing Political Public Relations: Measuring Success of Political Communication Strategies in Germany,” Elsevier, October 15, 2005.

[11] Smith, Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance, 1-28.

[12] Robert M. Entman, “Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm,” Journal of Communication 43, no. 4 (1993): 51–59.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Resources,” accessed June 30, 2016, www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.

[15] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “They Came for the Children,” accessed March 30, 2016, www.myrobust.com/websites/trcinstitution.pdf.

[16] “The commission has had a troubled relationship with the federal government since its inception, causing its original commissioners to resign and leading to accusations of obstruction throughout its seven-year research,” accessed June 30, 2016, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/02/canada-indigenous-schools-cultural-genocide-report.

[17] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “They Came for the Children.”

[18] John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government And the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986, Manitoba Studies in Native History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999); Chris Andersen, “Underdeveloped Identities: The Misrecognition of Aboriginality in the Canadian Census,” Economy and Society 42, no. 4 (2013): 626–50.

[19] http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/native-americans/.

[20] According to Smith, the DIA did its best to hush conflicts and Ottawa was busy in maintaining an image of friendly relations and the public image of religious equality. Moreover, critical voices were hushed as well to uphold this image by church and state alike. The best situation for the DIA and its objective of assimilation and development of the west was meek and quiet peace. Smith discerns the diagnostic framing of the DIA grounded in the idea of stimulating migration and pacifying the “Indian” not to have a situation signified by military conflict and high economic costs, as in the U.S.; Smith, Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance, 1-28.

[21] Ibid., 390.

[22] Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” 387-409.

[23] Ibid., 388.

[24] Andersen, “Underdeveloped Identities: The Misrecognition of Aboriginality in the Canadian Census,” 626; Andersen, “Chapter 1: Mixed: The History and Evolution of an Administrative Concept,” in Métis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015).

[25] Milloy, A National Crime 1879 to 1986, cover.

[26] Cartoon on the cover of this paper indicates renewed government policies of aid in a Liberal five year plan.

[27] Andersen, “Underdeveloped Identities: The Misrecognition of Aboriginality,” 634.

[28]  Ibid.

[29] Ibid.; Alfred, Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom; Coulthard, Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition; Simpson, “Chapter 1: Indigenous Interruptions: Mohawk Nationhood, Citizenship and the State”; Turner, “Liberalism’s Last Stand: Aboriginal Sovereigtny and Minority Rights”; Turner, “From Valladolid to Ottawa: The Illusion of Listening to Aboriginal People.”

[30] Ibid., 7-17.

[31] Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, 186.

[32] Smith, Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance, 23.


Laura Mudde

Laura Mudde

Most people are unaware of their position of privilege in this world. As a person and recent graduate from Utrecht University, Laura Mudde constantly seeks to problematize how what one might take for granted is not given to everyone. That is why for the remainder of the things and goals in life that are not given for free Laura seeks to work hard and tirelessly toward. The next big step on the agenda for Laura is to find the place and institutions to continue her research in the combined interdisciplinary fields of political and social science, history, critical indigenous studies, and postcolonialism. She still has what renowned academics would call the naivete to want to change the world or at least a small piece of it. Especially that piece where people are 1-0 behind because of their place, face, or name at birth. Laura’s passion is researching and combining new theories in academic research to further problematize what is taken for granted. Whiteness, spacial justice, and institutionalized racism and marginalizations need to be uncovered or at least un-veiled for what they are; mere constructs, however with real material consequences.