Prejudices Against Aboriginal Peoples

All too often in popular discourse, the subject of Aboriginals irritates and disturbs. What feeds this irritation is first and foremost ignorance. The ignorance of the Aboriginal question, furthered by the media, prevents the majority of Quebecers from approaching the subject with calm lucidity, leaving plenty of room for growing resentment and negativity.

Even today, Aboriginals have a lower standard of living and life expectancy than the average Canadian. Data compiled by the Government of Canada gives us some idea :

  • Life expectancy: Life expectancy of First Nations peoples is six years shorter than the Canadian average.
  • Suicide: The suicide rate among young Aboriginals is one of the highest in the world in addition to being five to eight times higher than the national average.
  • Infant mortality: The infant mortality rate among Aboriginal people is almost double the Canadian average. The infant mortality rate among First Nations infants is 14% of live births as opposed to 7% among non-Aboriginals (1996).
  • Injuries: Aboriginal children and adolescents have higher rates of injuries and accidental deaths.
  • Poverty: The majority of Aboriginals barely attain the poverty line or live below it. Incomes earned on reserves are among the lowest in Canada.
  • Unemployment: The unemployment rate for Canadian Aboriginals is double that of Canadian non-Aboriginals (19.1% vs. 7.4%). On reserves, the unemployment rate is approaching 29%, almost triple the national average.
  • Schooling and social assistance: The rates for academic failure and dependence on social assistance are higher in First Nations communities.
  • Incarceration Rates: Rate for Aboriginals is five to six times higher than the national average.


Contrary to popular belief, Aboriginal status must not be viewed as a set of privileges that exist at the expense of the general population. One of the most persistent myths concerning the Aboriginals is that they do not pay taxes, unlike other Canadians. In reality, Inuit and Métis must pay income tax. Only Amerindians do not pay taxes, but solely if they work within a company located on the reserve or in an off-reserve business owned by an Aboriginal.

Those who have Aboriginal status do not have to pay GST (federal tax) and PST (provincial sales tax) for goods purchased on-reserve or delivered to the reserve. If in some ways it is true that Aboriginals living on reserves have different rights from other citizens, they are, on the other hand also deprived of certain rights (some tax exemptions, for example).


It is false to believe that Aboriginals want to take over the entire territory of Quebec. All land reserved for Aboriginals covers an area of only 746.4 square kilometres, less than one third the size of the island of Montreal. The few approximate 50,000 Amerindians living on 42 reserves (vs. 19,500 outside the province) just want to protect the territories where they have traditionally engaged in activities related to survival and their culture.

In this way, Aboriginal ancestral rights, as they apply to hunting and fishing with the aim of preserving traditional lifestyle, and as they figure more or less explicitly in most of the treaties, were recognized by Canada following the Sparrow ruling in 1990. However, the Supreme Court has yet to clearly define these rights which are still negotiated on a case by case basis.

The long road towards self-government

Despite this unfavourable situation, there is a genuine renewal taking place in many Aboriginal communities, one that spans culture, politics and economy: Aboriginal language teaching in schools, the creation of community television and radio, development of activities related to tourism, forestry, fishing and the arts, solidarity among Aboriginal peoples of the world... But progress has not been rapid enough to catch up with national averages.

Canada, on a number of occasions has been criticized in international forums for the miserable conditions that affect a lot of First Nations peoples, conditions that are comparable to those of developing countries. Canada’s Aboriginals are now requesting greater decision-making autonomy where their well-being is concerned. They are asking for the legal and socio-economic tools that would provide them with real access to self-determination or at least self-government.

Victims in the past, Aboriginals have finally succeeded in gaining recognition as indigenous peoples, both in Canada and abroad, and as nations in Quebec.

As the historian Olive Patricia Dickason makes clear, all attempts at European conversion or assimilation of Amerindians have failed because they continued to defend their identity several centuries after the colonial encounter. Their ability to adapt has always been key to their survival. Aboriginal spiritual beliefs were never quashed. This is the unique struggle of communities who, for the past five centuries, have simply refused to disappear.

Just as mainstream society has learned from them, Aboriginals have also assimilated many aspects of mainstream society, but never in excess. In other words, they have survived as Aboriginals, preferring to remain as they are even at the expense of social and economic inequality. Today they are better organized, calling for justice, struggling for the autonomy and self determination of their communities; in short, they are demanding full and equal participation in the Canada of today and tomorrow.