Kicking off McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative’s (MSSI) first annual Sustainable Development Goals Week, McGill’s International Development Studies Student Association (IDSSA), McGill Sustainable Development Goals Student Hub (SDG), and McGill Students for Amnesty International hosted a panel titled “Basic Needs of Indigenous Communities on Turtle Island” on Feb. 13. Panelists Jessica Quijano, a feminist activist working for the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and Tom Deerhouse, an elder facilitator at the First Peoples Justice Centre in Montreal, discussed housing shortages, COVID-19’s impact on pre-existing inequities, and the realities of advocacy work.
The panel framed the conversation around the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals—a list of 17 goals adopted in 2015. Speakers specifically highlighted four goals that are far from being met in certain Indigenous communities in Canada: Eliminating poverty and hunger, ensuring good health and well-being, and facilitating access to clean water and sanitation.
Quijano felt that the Canadian government has neglected to make Indigenous communities a priority and believes that more must be done more in pursuit of these goals.
“I think that we’re failing, frankly,” Quijano said. “We must always remember that these systems are put into place intentionally because we are not post-colonization. We have seen how our governments could respond. I don’t think that if we had a water boil advisory in Montreal that would have lasted for 25 years [like it did in some Indigenous communities] [….] If kids couldn’t breathe in certain areas that would be fixed right away.”
Quijano described challenges that Indigenous activists face when raising awareness on issues affecting their communities—identifying ingrained colonial practices and bureaucracy as barriers to their advocacy. Specific to Quebec, Quijano cited language barriers as a particular setback to maintaining clear communication between the provincial government and Indigenous communities, with many communities requiring English services.
“There is […] a lot of room for decolonization in the ways [the government] approaches communities,” Quijano said. “I don’t know how many times I have to tell [the Quebec government] that if they send emails to everyone in French, a lot of people won’t be able to understand it. It definitely is a touchy issue here in Quebec with the languages [….] I think it can be very complicated to work with these colonial systems, but you have to, you don’t really have a choice.”
The discussion emphasized the importance of making accessible, affordable housing available for Indigenous people, whom Quijiano noted are overrepresented in Montreal’s unhoused population.
Quijano believes that the housing crisis has persisted not because of a deficit of proven solutions or financial resources, but because of a lack of political will from local governments to address the issue.
Tom Deerhouse stressed the importance of resisting the colonial system by pursuing advocacy through legal avenues.
“It’s a constant fight,” Deerhouse said. “We’re fighting a big system […], but we have to pick our battles and whittle that down to something more manageable for the benefit of Indigenous people everywhere.”
During the question period, an audience member raised the question of vaccine hesitancy within Indigenous communities, citing the Canadian healthcare system’s historic and ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples.
“I’m trusting in the process,” Deerhouse said. “[We’re relying] on a community-wide public relations communication strategy.”
In Deerhouse’s community, support groups and Facebook live streams that feature medical professionals and community leaders are used to provide information on the vaccination process in Canada.
Geneva Yang, the panel’s host and SDG Campus Coordinator at McGill highlighted the importance of student allyship and recognition of Indigenous lands and territories.
“It is important for all of us to keep this constantly in our minds so that we can move forward, actively resisting neo-colonialism in all of its forms and manifestations,” Yang said.