Module 2: Anti-Indigenous Racism

Key Concepts in Anti-Indigenous Racism

What is Anti-Indigenous Racism?

Anti-Indigenous racism (AIR) is defined as the ongoing race-based discrimination, negative stereotyping, and injustice experienced by Indigenous peoples within Canada.

It includes ideologies and practices that contribute to the establishment, maintenance, and perpetuation of power imbalances, structural obstacles, and inequitable results in Canada as a result of colonial policies and practices.

Discriminatory government laws like the Indian Act and the residential school system demonstrate systemic anti-Indigenous racism. It also manifests itself in Indigenous peoples’ overrepresentation in provincial criminal justice and child welfare systems, as well as inequitable education, well-being, employment opportunities, and healthcare.

Settler Colonialism

The term “First Contact” signals a shift in relations between Indigenous and settlers from a period of pre-contact, where Indigenous people exercised sovereignty over the land, and post-contact, when settlers cohabited with Indigenous people, peaceably and in conflict. But the term itself “first” is problematic. It suggests that everything that preceded contact was insignificant because history, or at least history that is notable and worthy of recording, begins at some date. Whether intentional or not, it negates what preceded contact, and therefore marginalizes these accounts or vets them altogether from our knowledge systems and consciousness. Some Indigenous peoples call the land Turtle Island, Inuit know it as Nunangat or Denendeh. These pre-existed the “first discoveries” of the “New World” but apart from the imagery, this knowledge remains inaccessible to most non-Indigenous persons. Think of other ideas we attach to the term “first” as a signifier – first child, first words, first place. Each marks both a break from the past and a positional advantage – most people would agree that first place is always preferable to second place. Being first also has material effects – a first-place finish in a sporting competition issues endorsements, fame, and influence.

Similarly, first contact issued settler colonialism – a system of unequal relations between White, European settlers and Indigenous peoples in colonies like Canada, the US, Australia, and elsewhere. Settler colonialism differs from other forms of colonialism, like imperialist colonialism, as practiced. For example, Belgium’s colonial administration in the Congo Free State used forced Congolese labour to extract natural resources (i.e., rubber) for use in the metropole. Settler colonialism involves the settlement on the territory and the attempt to eliminate the original inhabitants. Rowe and Tuck describe settler colonialism as “the pursuit of land, not just labor or resources. Settler colonialism is a persistent societal structure, not just a historical event or origin story for a nation-state” (4). Settler colonialism has resulted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the conversion of Indigenous territory to settler property (Rowe & Tuck 4).

“First Contact” also had material, socio-cultural and psychological effects in settler-colonial nations like Canada, based on what Patrick Wolfe calls a logic of elimination (387). This logic refers to the removal or killing of Indigenous peoples necessary for the expropriation of their territories and European settlement. But it also refers to the elimination of cultural identity through processes of assimilation. Elimination requires tools for clearing, emptying, erasing as well as replanting, replacing and reshaping narratives. To fully understand the logic of elimination, it is important to make visible settler-colonial structures, their tools and how they continue to evolve and maintain state control over territories, as well as produce intentional acts of resistance. While settler colonialism offers an array of entry points for this discussion, this section will focus selectively on Canadian public policies in three spheres: the centrality of land, governance structures, and making up peoples.

The Centrality of Land

“THIS IS INDIAN LAND” stretches across the CP Rail Bridge at Garden River, Ontario. The declarative statement reminds us that decolonization is not about the symbolism of a National Day of Reconciliation or other performative acts. Fundamentally, it is about the repatriation of Indigenous territory (Tuck & Yang 1). Land is at the centre of historical and contemporary Crown-Indigenous relations. Treaty rights and claims to unceded Indigenous territories, sovereignty, and self-determination backed by the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Persons differentiate anti-Indigenous racism from racism experienced by other equity-seeking groups. By virtue of their claims to territories, Indigenous peoples constituted the so-called “Indian problem” for successive governments pre- and post-Confederation. Although the label is now taboo, the core questions framing the problem remain salient – whose interests and what principles and values should guide Crown-Indigenous relations.

The Doctrine of Discovery

Settler-Indigenous relations are structured around treaties and partnership agreements which are premised on the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery establishes the government’s foundational claims to territorial sovereignty, but it is contested by land defenders. The doctrine was adopted by colonial powers to establish “dominion” over territories previously unoccupied by settlers (Reid 336). In effect, these powers operated as if the land was terra nullius – nobody’s land – ignoring the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples. The Proclamation of 1763 by the British Crown following the defeat of French forces with the support of First Nations applied the doctrine of discovery to claim British territorial sovereignty (Venne 15).

With time, and as the context shifted, the government altered its policies and alliances to ensure British (and later Canadian) territorial sovereignty. The Crown encouraged westward expansion by offering land grants to White settlers as a bulwark against American encroachment or other powers who might claim territorial sovereignty based on the Doctrine of Discovery. It also regulated extractive activities by licensing logging, hunting, fishing, drilling, and mining to support economic development and the redistribution of national wealth through infrastructure projects (i.e., CP Railway) and transfer payments to the regions under its authority.

Therefore, the Crown conceives public lands as an asset that is owned, licensed, sold, or gifted at its discretion. Land is conceived as an investment. For example, the Indian Act (1876) established reserves – tracts of land governed by treaty arrangements or other means for the use of a particular group. The Crown retains legal title, including “the trees, wood, timber, soil, stone, minerals, metals or other valuables” (1876, c. 18, s. 6), allowing it to grant licenses for development of reserve lands.

Conflicts over Resources

In 2020, conflicts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia spilled over, with White fishermen confiscating or destroying and burning two Indigenous fishing boats while police stood by and refused to protect Indigenous fishermen and their property. The right to fish, hunt and secure a “moderate livelihood” is recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada and entrenched in the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1760 between the Mi’kmaq and the British government, which was designed to improve relations between the Mi’kmaq and contain cooperation between Aboriginal peoples and the French. Yet, White commercial fishermen do not recognize these treaty rights, and the police have failed to protect and enforce these rights under the law (Meloney). Here, race and historical rights to fishing and hunting are intimately connected.


This conception of land as property under the law contrasts with a relational view of land that motivates grassroots Indigenous land defenders, including Wet’suwet’en (2020-2021), and “1492 Land Back Lane” in Caledonia (2021). Land defenders are not a self-anointed title. According to Anne Spice, Acting Assistant Professor of Indigenous Environmental Knowledges in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at X University, “It is an action….’[It’s] the practice of actually being on the land and reclaiming ancestral territories and territories that are under attack and insisting on a narrative that recognizes that these territories do not legitimately belong to the state, they don’t belong to Canada.” Indigenous values conceive of land as intimately bound with all life forces rather than an investment that is privately or publicly held. Dr. Anne Spice puts it this way: “It’s about protecting our relationships with the land and the water and the animals and upholding our responsibilities, which is part of what it means to be Indigenous Peoples…. And part of our work is to be able to deepen those responsibilities and those relationships in the face of this really violent industrial push onto Indigenous lands” (“Indigenous Land Defenders”).

Governance Structures

The Indian Act recognized bands, which it defined as “any tribe, band or body of Indians who own or are interested in a reserve or in Indian lands in common, of which the legal title is vested in the Crown, or who share alike in the distribution of any annuities or interest moneys for which the Government of Canada is responsible.” A band might have designated multiple reserves, but may also have no reserve land. Band chiefs (as opposed to hereditary chiefs) are elected every three years by band members in band councils and assigned reserves for bands.

By establishing band chiefs and councils elected through democratic processes, the government created a parallel governance structure to the hereditary chief system. Not only did elections challenge customary practices regarding leadership, they also created relationships between elected chiefs and band council members with government representatives from Indian Affairs (now split into two departments – Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and Indigenous Services Canada), thereby shifting the constellation of stakeholders that shape decision-making within Indigenous communities. These new governance structures at the local level effectively brought the interests of elected chiefs/band council members more closely into the orbit of the government, since accessing public funding and services was conditional on compliance with government rules and policies.

Several solutions have been presented to address land claims and improve the economic development levels of Indigenous communities. In 1951, an amendment to the Indian Act provided for the conversion of reserves to local municipalities and modern treaties (treaties signed after 1975). Some activists have criticized this option as a means for the government to terminate the Indian problem through land claim settlements and self-government agreements that convert First Nations into municipalities and extinguish the Treaty Rights of Indigenous peoples (Diabo). Another solution is to open on-reserve businesses in partnership with industry-provided band councils to opt into the First Nations Land Management regime. This regime is based on a Framework Agreement negotiated in 1996. Under this regime, sections of the Indian Act are voided. Individual First Nations can access funding for economic development projects and manage land and resources without the interference of the Canadian government. However, the legal title to reserve land remains with the Crown. According to the Yellowhead Institute, by removing and alienating Indigenous peoples from their full territories, the First Nations Land Regime Act produces results similar to the Indian Act. By clearing the land and making way for economic development, land management agreements integrate reserves into the global capitalist system (Jobin & Riddle 8). While the long-term consequences of such integration remain unclear, capitalism tends to reproduce inequalities in the absence of compensatory measures.

While we speak of First Nations, Inuit and Métis as sharing a common Indigenous identity, inter- and intra-group differences based on their territories, histories, leadership, treaties, experience with assimilative policies, and other factors preclude generalizations. Communities within these groups may share divergent opinions and interests regarding the way forward in their relations with the government and industry. Moreover, schisms due to divergent positions between the elected chiefs/band councils and the hereditary chiefs make clear how, like any other group, there is a polyphony of voices.

Making Up Peoples

The Indian Act (1876) and its successive amendments were to manage and eliminate this alleged “Indian problem” by “making up people” (Hacking). The Act defined an “Indian” as “any male person of Indian blood reputed to belong to a particular band; any child of such person; and any woman who is or was lawfully married to such person.” It defined a “person” as “an individual other than an Indian” (Section 12). The Act further classified Indians (but not Métis or Inuit) into Status and non-Status Indians. Such classification schemes effectively racialized Indigenous peoples, and justified laws and normative practices regulating their mobility, education, social relations, economic activities, and customary practices. Duncan Scott (1862-1947), Deputy Superintendent General at the Department of Indian Affairs summed up the government’s underlying motives: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed in the body politic” (qtd. in Weis 32). In pursuit of a Eurocentric notion of progress, the government enacted a series of laws to civilize, educate, and Christianize Indigenous peoples through enfranchisement, the Indian residential school system, and child welfare policies.


The Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 and the Indian Act provided the legal basis for enfranchisement (citizenship) of Indian males over the age of 21 who could speak, read, and write English or French “readily and well”, and be “sufficiently advanced in elementary education”, of good moral character, and free from debt. A test evaluated whether the applicant was “civilized.” Enfranchised men were granted their proportionate share of reserve land as private property (with some restrictions). Once an applicant was granted his share of land, he was excluded from the band’s reserve land, and his treaty rights were converted into a one-time cash payment instead of future annuities. It is important to note that the Indian Act discriminated against Indigenous women; women who married non-Indigenous men lost their status. At the same time, non-Indigenous women who married Indigenous men obtained Status. Amendments to the Act in 1985 partly eliminated sex-based discrimination to allow for the enfranchisement of women.

While enfranchisement was voluntary, some persons were automatically enfranchised and their formal relations with their First Nations communities were severed. For example, “Indians” who resided outside of Canada for five consecutive years ceased to be considered “Indian” under the law except under special circumstances. Therefore, persons who joined the Canadian military and served in a foreign country for 5 years lost their Indian status (Indian Act, 1876 24-25).

Residential Schools

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which convened between 2008-2015 to document the testimonies of survivors as an exercise in truth-seeking, identifies 94 calls to action as a pathway for reconciliation. From 1831 to 1997, about 150,000 students attended 139 schools run by government, missionaries and church organizations. Official records indicate more than 6,000 died in their care. However, the discovery of potential gravesites at former residential schools since 2020 suggests that current statistics underestimate the number of deaths. The TRC reported on the physical, sexual, and socio-emotional abuse of children, and concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide. Cultural genocide may involve language and ceremonial bans, the prohibition of cultural practices, educational reforms that promote assimilation, and the physical destruction of cultural institutions such as libraries, monuments or the land (Yellowhead Institute). The TRC’s judgement contrasts with the conclusion of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The Inquiry’s final report states that violence against Indigenous peoples constitutes genocide (“Reclaiming Power and Place” 50).

Collectively, these reports, and similar inquiries that preceded them, create a body of evidence that shapes public memory about residential schools and, more broadly, Crown-Indigenous relations. By documenting archival records, and creating space for victims to bear witness to the abuse of power, neglect of a duty of care, violence, and systemic discrimination, these reports invalidate the claims of denialists who present an alternative, sympathetic interpretation of residential schools. Several key dimensions of residential schools documented by the TRC are worth repeating.

First, the state deployed the threat of force to ensure compliance. RCMP officers accompanied school administrators when children were removed from their homes and were dispatched to retrieve truants. Second, the state allied with Christian denominations like the Roman Catholic church to render services and convert children to Christianity. Third, many of the schools failed to provide children with basic numeracy and literacy skills that would support employability. For example, from 1940 to 1959, records show that more than half of those in Grade 2 would reach Grade 6 (TRC 80). Fourth, children were removed from classes to labour in the surrounding fields to generate revenue for the schools to maintain operations. Fifth, evidence suggests that the government willfully withheld resources from schools. For example, in Manitoba, Indian Affairs paid $180 per year for students in residential schools in 1938. By contrast, the government paid other boarding schools like the Manitoba School for the Deaf and the Manitoba Home for the Boys $642 and $550 per year, respectively. By 1947, one estimate indicates that the per capita grant provided for food in most schools was often half of what would be required for a balanced diet (Mosby 159). This chronic underfunding contributed directly to children’s poor nutritional status, and increased susceptibility to illness and disease as a result of a lowered immune response, and high death rates.

Collectively, government policies have contributed to the scale of deaths at residential schools. While some argue that tuberculosis was also circulating in White settler communities, crowded dormitories and the failure to separate children with infectious diseases from the general student population at residential schools contributed to child deaths. The government repeatedly failed to address concerns over children’s health raised, and tried to silence advocates like whistleblower Dr. Peter Bryce, the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Indian Affairs. Bryce argued that the government’s “absolute inattention to the bare necessities of health” was responsible for the spread of tuberculosis and “startling death rolls” at residential schools” (Hay et al.).

From Residential Schools to Foster Care and Correctional Facilities

Although residential schools closed by the 1990s, the logic of elimination found expression in foster care and correctional systems. According to 2016 census data, over half of children (52.2%) in foster care under the age of 14 are Indigenous, although they make up only 7.7% of the population of children aged 0-14 years old in Canada. Like the foster care system, Indigenous persons are overrepresented in the correctional system. Although Indigenous youth between the ages of 12-17 comprise only 7% of all adolescents in the general population, about 35% of youth admitted to correctional services were Indigenous (2014-2015) (Statistics Canada). The gap is even wider for girls. Indigenous girls accounted for 44% of female youth admitted, and Indigenous boys accounted for 29% of male adolescents admitted. Behind each of these detached, objective statistics are subjective truths – stories of pain, trauma, despair, loss, but also joy, community, and resistance.

Implications for EDI in the Workplace

This module attempts to uncover the drivers of anti-Indigenous racism spanning legal, economic, political, and social structures. At its core is the intersection of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. Settler colonialism and its logic of elimination require clearing of Indigenous peoples from land for settlement and resource extraction. This is achieved partly by othering Indigenous peoples to justify land cessions through negotiated agreements and displacement of Indigenous peoples to reserves. The logic of elimination is also evident in wide-ranging policies like enfranchisement and mandatory schooling of Indigenous children in residential schools, where systemic abuse and neglect constitute cultural genocide. Since settler colonialism is a structure and not an individual event (Wolfe 388), it does not end with the closure of residential schools, or consultations with communities on economic development projects. Settler colonialism is ongoing through foster care and correctional systems, land management regimes, and economic development projects that degrade Indigenous landscapes and livelihoods.

This module is an attempt to describe settler-colonial structures that contributed to Indigenous dispossession, dependency and oppression (Manuel 19). It suggests that to believe equity, diversity and inclusion policies and practices will advance, reconciliation may be an overstretch. Depending on how these policies are conceived and enacted, they may simply be another tactic of assimilation, even if they promote improved levels of economic development for some Indigenous peoples. At the core of anti-Indigenous racism is settler colonialism and its logic of elimination. Therefore, for equity, diversity and inclusion policies to support transformative change, they must address this reality head-on, and the inherent tensions that arise from these uncomfortable truths. Canada as “two solitudes” is a common trope in historical texts that foreground British and French settlements and cultural sensibilities. It conveniently makes invisible a third solitude – Indigenous peoples. If equity, diversity and inclusion practices are to engage with Indigenous knowledge and lifeways, take seriously the lived experience of Indigenous peoples, and recognize Indigenous sovereignty and the return of Indigenous land, then they may contribute to reimagining settler-Indigenous relationships. It is not enough to tear up upon listening to testimonials from residential school survivors. Sympathy is neither empathy nor justice. Carter writes, “I learned that where sympathetic feeling bubbles up and dissipates in a cathartic rush into the gaping maw between “us” and “them,” empathy offers no such relief until action is performed to relieve the shared suffering experienced by “us” (414). In the spirit of the TRC and MMIWG reports, this module is a call to action in defence of “us.”


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Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Practice by Experiential Learning Hub, Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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