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Supporting Indigenous Canadians and Discovering Our Own Indigenous Caribbean Heritage

Indigenous Caribbean Heritage
Climate change march in Montreal with members of the First Nations (Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash)

With Canadian National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrated on June 21st, it’s the ideal time for many of us to learn more about Canada’s first residents, who were here long before Canada was colonized. In particular, Caribbean Canadians relate to the Indigenous experience and Indigenous people of Canada. Why? Keep reading to find out.

Table of Contents:

What Does It Mean to Be Indigenous?

Indigenous people are those who originated in a certain place, inhabiting the land from the earliest times before colonizers (mostly Europeans) landed and ultimately took over. Sometimes, indigenous people are referred to as “native.” However, this is a broader term that can be applied to all those who occupied a large area prior to its occupation. “Indigenous” peoples have a shared national identity and may be broken into smaller groups within a province, nation, or continent.

In Canada, there are three groups of Aboriginal peoples recognized by the Canadian Constitution:

  • Indians (aka First Nations)

  • Métis

  • Inuit

They make up more than 1.6 million people and are both the youngest and fastest-growing populations in the country. The largest First Nations group in Canada is the Cree, who are concentrated in Ontario but spread as far west as Alberta in the 17th and 18th centuries. Métis people are of mixed First Nations and European ancestry. Inuit Canadians live primarily in the far north and do not have any reserves.

What Is the Biggest Problem for Indigenous People in Canada?

Generally speaking, the greatest problem for Indigenous Canadians is similar to what Indigenous Americans (aka Native Americans or American Indians) have experienced. With the arrival of explorers and colonists en masse in the 15th century, Indigenous people were pushed aside, removed from their land, infected with diseases, enslaved, sexually degraded, and mass murdered. Many also had their children removed from the family unit.

Over the centuries, oppression of Indigenous populations and destruction of their land and livelihoods has resulted in what persists today as a constellation of problems for Canadian Indigenous people, also sometimes referred to as Aboriginal peoples:

  • Lower levels of education (and opportunities for education)

  • Lower income levels

  • Higher unemployment statistics

  • Higher rates of incarceration

  • Poor housing conditions

  • Worse health

  • Higher suicide rates

  • Higher pediatric death rates

These issues aren’t discrete problems but rather form a web where one trouble affects or exacerbates others.

System racism and discrimination that led to the atrocities committed against Indigenous Canadians are still present, perpetuating lower quality of life that passes from one generation to the next. Similar issues affect the Black Canadian community as well, hence why it is so crucial we continue to understand each others history and experiences to support each other in achieving the justice and the change both communities deserve.

Biggest Problem for Indigenous
La Cara del Indio in Isabel, Puerto Rico, a monument to Indigenous Taíno people (photo by Eric Ardito on Unsplash)

What Happened to the Indigenous Population of the Caribbean?

It's very rare to hear anything about the Indigenous populations of the Caribbean outside of the Caribbean. Mostly because once the story has been set that they're extinct then why look any further. But that's not the case, many Caribbean countries have small indigenous populations still, and a significant number of Caribbeans have indigenous DNA. But they were a strong mighty people with culture diverse skillsets. The Arawaks (originally Lokonos) were known for there simpler life of agricultural dominance, trading and craftmanship whereas the Caribs (aka Kalinagos) were known as the warrior tribe, seasoned sailers and silver producers.

The science now shows that these indigenous folks are widely spread across the Caribbean region which is divided into three categories comprising many diverse nations, commonwealths, and overseas territories today: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and a collection of various islands. This area includes:

  • Cuba

  • Jamaica

  • The Dominican Republic

  • Haiti

  • Puerto Rico

  • The Virgin Islands

  • Anguilla

  • Saint Kitts and Nevis

  • Antigua and Barbuda

  • Montserrat

  • Guadeloupe

  • Dominica

  • Martinique

  • Saint Lucia

  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

  • Barbados

  • Grenada

  • The Bahamas

  • The Turks and Caicos Islands

  • Trinidad and Tobago

  • Aruba

  • Curaçao

  • Bonaire

Bermuda and Guyana are also sometimes included in the Caribbean region.

Indigenous people of the Caribbean suffered many of the same horrors that Aboriginal Canadians endured. When European colonizers arrived, the people indigenous to the Caribbean were subjected to enslavement, sexual violence, smallpox epidemics, and land repossession.

Some of the most oppressed victims were the Taíno people, who are often classified by language as being part of the Arawak people and were enemies of the Carib people at the time of the Spanish conquest. These groups occupied the islands listed above and had large nations subdivided into tribes until they were practically wiped out by Europeans.

Today, only a small number of Taíno descendants remain, mostly around Puerto Rico and the Dominicans, and Caribs are found mostly in Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

How Did Afro-Caribbean People Come to Canada?

Some Indigenous Caribbean people mixed with Europeans — occasionally voluntarily, but more often under force — and produced children who reflected both genetic pools. Additionally, a third group of people came to live in the Caribbean over about 300 years following the invasion of European colonizers, when chattel slaves taken from their homes in Africa were transported to the Caribbean as part of trade triangles that included Europe, Africa, and the New World.

Starting in the late 18th century, many people from the Caribbean attempted to escape slavery by emigrating to Canada. However, immigration didn’t occur in large numbers until the 1960s and ‘70s, when policies under then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau opened more doors for people of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity to enter Canada.

Jean Augustine, who was the first Black female MP and Cabinet minister, came to Canada via a mid-century immigration scheme. But most people, especially women, who found their way north worked as domestic help or in low-level jobs. The Caribbean continued to supply cheap labour to Canada through the end of the 20th century, enriching the nation with everything from reggae music to Caribbean cuisine.

Maypole Festival in the Virgin Islands, a European tradition brought to the Caribbean by African slaves (Photo by Karl Callwood on Unsplash)

But many Afro-Caribbean people faced — and still face — the same discrimination imposed on Indigenous Canadians. They also suffer lower earnings, higher rates of child poverty, poorer health, and higher rates of incarceration than white Canadians.

When we celebrate Canadian National Indigenous Peoples Day, it’s important to remember both Aboriginal Canadians as well as others, like Indigenous Caribbean people and Afro-Caribbean people, who have suffered the same indignities, oppression, and loss of autonomy. As we often remind our readers, until everyone is free, no one is really free.

Eliminating racism, discrimination, segregation, and oppression starts at the local level. Are you ready to have a conversation in your workplace or organization to put it in high gear? Reach out today to schedule your first meeting.


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