Indigenous residential schools

According to the 2006 census, indigenous people represent about 4 per cent of Canada's 33 million population and constitute sizeable minorities in northern areas such as Yukon (25 per cent), Northwest Territories (50 per cent) and Nunavut (85 per cent).

Although Canada was one of the four nations that voted against adoption of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, over several decades it has acquired the reputation of being in the forefront of demonstrating a strong and practical commitment towards state recognition of indigenous rights in the Americas. During 2008 this commitment was extended also to officially addressing induced 'wrongs' in the area of indigenous education.

In June 2008 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a public apology to 80,000 First Nation residential school survivors. On behalf of all Canadians, he expressed strong regret for the psychological trauma and social damage the schools had done to individuals and to indigenous culture and heritage for over a century until 1996.

The prime minister admitted that the original objectives of the residential schools were based on an incorrect assumption that aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Moreover the institutions were inadequately controlled and had given rise to significant physical and sexual abuse and neglect.

Besides separating children from their cultures and traditions the process had disrupted community life and undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children. Furthermore, its effects had continued to negatively affect subsequent generations.

Indigenous leaders, including Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Canadian Assembly of First Nations, and Clem Chartier, Metis National Council – themselves residential school survivors – as well as Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatam, were among those who responded from the floor of the parliament.

While stating that the memories of the years of racism and abuse were hard to forget, the leaders, along with the country's indigenous elders, said they respected what they considered to be a sincere apology and the commitment to reconciliation and building of a new relationship with Canada's indigenous Inuit, Metis (mixed indigenous-European) and First Nations.

The public apology followed an approximately US $1.8 billion settlement (2006) between the federal government and former students. A Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission began holding hearings across the country in 2009.

Indigenous conditions

Despite the gesture, tensions between the government and indigenous groups continued in 2008 over other key issues such as land claims, autonomy, treaty rights, revenue and taxation, and fishing and hunting limitations. Indigenous people remained under-represented in the workforce, over-represented in prison populations, and more vulnerable to suicide, poverty and police harassment compared to other groups.

Indigenous women are particularly affected. In a 2008 report Amnesty International highlighted the continuing high levels of discrimination and violence against indigenous women, including internal trafficking, and criticized officials for failing to put forward a functional national strategy.

In 2008 IP accounted for 18.5 per cent of the total Canadian federal prison population, with indigenous women especially accounting for 32 per cent of the inmates in female federal penitentiaries. A disproportionate number of IP prisoners were in maximum-security prisons and in isolation, and indigenous inmates spent longer periods in jail than non-indigenous prisoners.

Land claims

In 2008 the government continued the process of claim settlements and self-government negotiations with more than 350 First Nations communities. In February 2008 parliament voted into law the Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement Act, which provides for the establishment of an Inuit-controlled regional government (accountable to Quebec's National Assembly) to administer the large region of Quebec north of the 55th parallel.

In June 2008 the federal government passed legislation implementing the Tsawwassen First Nation Final Agreement, which grants control over approximately 1,790 acres of coastal British Columbia to the Tsawwassen First Nation. This includes control over governance, tax policy, land management, fisheries, wildlife as well as culture and heritage.

Indigenous communications technologies and education

As a result of its immense geographical area, Canada is one of the pioneers in developing satellite communications technology. Canadian indigenous populations are now among the leaders in the use of information technologies (IT) for long-distance telehealth and tele-education service delivery.

In 2008 Canada's indigenous Kuhkenah Network (K-Net) enhanced its efforts to obtain transnational partners in the rest of the Americas who are interested in connecting underserved indigenous and African descendant populations through greater use of IT. K-Net is a programme of the Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO), Tribal Council, and is directed by the chiefs of six indigenous communities. It began in 1994 as a simple electronic bulletin board (BBS) to fill the education gap created by the high student drop-out rate from the now officially discredited indigenous residential boarding schools. It has since grown into the world's largest indigenous broadband network and a global model for indigenous telecommunications and IT-based teleeducation. Consisting of a terrestrial network with satellite links, K-Net connects about 70 Canadian indigenous communities and a number of nonindigenous locations to each other and to the world.

The indigenous communities – some reachable only by aircraft – coordinate with service agencies and universities to deliver Internet high school programmes, tele-health, tele-justice, and webcasts of education and training events to residents via K-Net.

The network provides Internet broadband services to homes and public sites (community centres and libraries). The online high school programme consists of general content for middle grades (9-10) as well as compulsory courses for grades 11 and 12. It also shares teachers among communities, allowing students to remain at home longer and maintain their cultural support system.

Other services include video conferencing, which allows health care providers at distant locations to listen to a patient's heart and breathing. This serves a crucial need as First Nations and Inuit tuberculosis rates nationwide were 29 and 90 times higher respectively than among the Canadian-born nonindigenous population.

Canadian indigenous communities that developed K-Net are strong supporters of the Indigenous Commission for Communications Technologies in the Americas (ICCTA), which was created by indigenous peoples of North, Central and South America following the 2003 Geneva World Summit on the Information Society. They have therefore been active in sharing their experiences with others.

At the 2008 World Indigenous People's Conference on Education (WIPC:E), Canadian indigenous rights activist Dr Marie Battiste criticized the idea of residential schools particularly for violating the cultural rights of members of the affected language communities. Indigenous peoples in Canada have seen nearly 10 languages become extinct.

Ottawa-based ICCTA President Tony Belcourt has noted that simple indigenous communications technologies – educational information on digital discs or electronic indigenous language dictionaries – can greatly help in the preservation of indigenous language.

In October 2008 interested Brazilian delegates at a tele-health conference in Ottawa met with indigenous representatives via K-Net video conferencing and ICCTA has received a $100,000 grant from the Canadian International Aid Agency (CIDA) to support its development.

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