Sample Essay on Colonialism and Canadian Aboriginal Family Life

Colonialism and Canadian Aboriginal Family Life

Canadian Aboriginals, also known as the First Nations, are indigenous peoples of Canada. The Aboriginals lived and existed in Canada for several years before the discovery of Canada by both the French and British. Before the colonization of Canada by the British, the First Nations had elaborate, well-established, and functional family and community structures and systems that regulated their lives, relations, and livelihood. The Aboriginal structures and systems were however diluted or made obsolete by various colonial policies by the British who sought to not only subjugate and exploit but also dehumanize the natives. Colonization of Canada by both the French and British in the 16th century resulted in the massive watering down of the indigenous family life, structures, and systems of the Canadian Aboriginals.

Aboriginal Kinship Ties

Indigenous Canadian Aboriginal family life was characterized by strong kinship ties that resulted in the natives having expansive family structures. The First Nations did not conceptualize the term family in the contemporary narrow terms of father, mother, and children that constitutes the modern understanding of the concept (MacDonald & Steenbeek, 2015).  Family among the Aboriginals was a wider notion that encompassed not only the nuclear and extended families but also the community as a whole. Therefore, the basis of family structure among the First Nations is not only blood but kinship ties. According to MacDonald and Steenbeek (2015), kinship ties determined family groups a factor that was essential in the ownership of land, access to knowledge, and local systems of production and consumption among the First Nations in pre-colonial Canada. Thus, kinship ties among the First Nations provided an essential framework upon which Aboriginal family life could be based. Kinship ties provided limitations to individuals’ rights and responsibilities. For example, killing a kinsman was deemed taboo among the First Nations. The Aboriginal communities’ emphasis on multigenerational families connected by kinship ties resulted in them having an elaborate and expansive family structure.

The colonization of Canada negatively impacted the Aboriginal kinship ties and resulted in reduced family structures among the First Nations. Through the Indian Act of 1880, the colonial British government diluted the concept of kinship among the Canadian Aboriginals and imposed their Euro-American family notions on them (MacDonald & Steenbeek, 2015). The Indian Act defined and profiled native individuals as Indians so as to limit not only their social and economic activities but also their political engagement during the colonization era in Canada. Implementation of the Indian Act resulted in the severing of the tight kinship ties that constituted Aboriginal family life as individuals could lose their status as Indians and therefore be alienated from their communities (Fast & Collin-Vézina, 2019). Apart from profiling natives, the Indian Act resulted in the forceful separation of Aboriginal children from their families a fact that massively weakened the kinship ties among the First Nations. The residential schools’ program of the 1960s and 70s resulted in the forceful separation of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families into both foster homes and nationally administered residential schools (Fast & Collin-Vézina, 2019). The residential school program resulted in numerous Aboriginal children growing up without knowing their kin or relatives.

Indigenous Parenting Approaches

A common feature of Aboriginal family life is the concept and practice of traditional parenting approaches. The raising of children among Canadian Aboriginals is deemed an essential aspect of community life and is, therefore, revered. Among the Aboriginals emphasis is placed on dependence and skill nurturing and thus parenting is unique to each child’s needs and skills (De Leeuw et al., 2010). In Aboriginal family life, parents are more concerned with identifying their children’s unique rhythms so as to employ specific parenting models aimed at producing the best among each child (De Leeuw et al., 2010). Thus, there is no standardized form or style of parenting as each child is deemed special and in possession of unique sets of skills. For example, among the First Nations children are only fed when they are hungry unlike the contemporary form of parenting where feeding is based on standardized timetables that delineate breakfast, lunch, and supper (De Leeuw et al., 2010). This inculcates the virtue of independence among Aboriginal children at a young age. Moreover, parenting among indigenous First Nations was not only a single-parent affair but a communal affair. Though the overall parenting responsibility lied with the parents of a child, the community was involved in issues such as child discipline, instruction, and disapproval of negative behaviors (De Leeuw et al., 2010). This ensured that in case of the death of a child’s parents the kid would not be stigmatized and would be easily incorporated into another household.

Modern-day Canadian Aboriginal parenting is inundated by several Euro-American influences that can be traced back to the colonization period. Aboriginal parenting was originally characterized by an emphasis on nurturing innate skills and the virtue of independence among children is currently based on standardized parenting skills (Share, 2014). According to MacDonald & Steenbeek (2015), colonization resulted in both the British and French imposing their Euro-American parenting culture on the indigenous communities of the First Nations. Therefore, currently, Aboriginal children are being brought up using a standardized parenting framework that does not take into consideration the uniqueness of children but is rather focused on children’s inherent rights and freedoms (Share, 2014). This has resulted in most Aboriginal children growing up without a proper understanding of their culture and historical roots. According to De Leeuw et al (2010), the over-reliance on Euro-American parenting skills by contemporary Aboriginal families has reduced the interaction and connection between native children and the land. The land is considered an essential part of the Aboriginal culture and traditionally children were connected to their ancestral land through several indigenous rites that have been discarded in the contemporary embrace of modern parenting practices.

Poverty and Homelessness

Aboriginal family life is also characterized by high poverty and homelessness levels. According to MacDonald and Steenbeek (2015), indigenous Aboriginal families are the poorest and most homeless in Canada when compared with families from other communities. According to data from the 2016 Canadian census, Aboriginal families are over-represented in the homeless populations of every major city in Canada (Fast & Collin-Vézina, 2019). More than 33 percent of individuals hailing from First Nations live in inadequate, unsuitable, and unaffordable housing (Fast & Collin-Vézina, 2019). An additional 28 percent of Aboriginal children live in overcrowded and substandard housing (Fast & Collin-Vézina, 2019). Currently in Canada Aboriginals are four times more likely to be living in substandard housing or be homeless together compared to non-Aboriginals (Fast & Collin-Vézina, 2019). The homeless crisis plaguing Aboriginal family life is directly related to the high poverty levels of the First Nations. One in every four First Nations children live in poverty while an estimated 44 percent of the Aboriginal population in Canada is living below the United Nations poverty line (Riggs et al., 2012). Summing up the issue of Canadian Aboriginals, the United Nations through the Department of Economic and Social Affairs for Indigenous People held that the indigenous people of Canada are subjected to Third World living conditions despite living in a developed nation (Share, 2014). The living standards of the Canadian Aboriginals are wanting and in immediate need of wholesome changes.

The abject living standards of Canadian Aboriginals can be directly attributed to the ills of colonialism. The British and French appropriated all the ancestral land belonging to the First Nations and forced them into reserves. Moreover, the colonial powers enacted policies whose main objective was to exploit and subjugate the natives for the economic emancipation of both the French and British. Backed by the Indian Act, which was only repealed in 1985 after more than 400 years of economic subjugation, members of the indigenous Aboriginal communities were relegated to the economic and political periphery of Canada (Woolsey, 2013). Therefore, members of the First Nations have limited access to beneficial economic opportunities that they can utilize to improve their economic and social livelihoods. Moreover, the economic exploitation of the Aboriginals has not been fully eliminated in present-day Canada mainly due to the limited involvement of members of the First Nations in national politics. This has resulted in the enactment of economic laws that economically discriminate against the Aboriginals. For example, the average income of Canadian Aboriginal households is roughly $20,000 while that of other households is $87, 000 (Riggs et al., 2012). The huge discrepancies in the average household incomes in Canada clearly point out the economic discrimination of Aboriginals.

Health Disparities

Aboriginal family life in Canada is also characterized by massive health disparities that have resulted in several health consequences to First Nation peoples. According to Riggs et al (2012), the prevalence of diabetes among Aboriginal individuals is at least three times the national Average in Canada with high rates across all age groups. Moreover, even though Aboriginal folk makes up a mere 5% of the total population in Canada they represent a massive 16% of new HIV infections in the nation (Riggs et al, 2012). Tuberculosis which is relatively non-existent in some parts of Canada is six times higher among the Aboriginals than in the rest of the nation (Riggs et al., 2012). The massive health disparities that plague Aboriginals in Canada have resulted in high mortality rates among people hailing from the First Nations. Mortality among Aboriginal infants is 1.5 times higher than the national rate of infant mortality in Canada (Riggs et al., 2012). Moreover, the average life span of Canadian Aboriginals is massively reduced compared to that of other individuals in Canada. A First Nations man and woman will die average of 7 and 5 years earlier than their non-Aboriginal counterparts (Riggs et al., 2012). There are also alarmingly high suicide rates among the Aboriginals as they are six times more likely to kill themselves than non-Aboriginals.

The health disparity that currently contributes to the poor health and high mortality levels of Canadian Aboriginals is directly attributed to colonialism. Prejudicial policies enacted by the British colonialists such as the Indian Act resulted in the profiling of natives and this impacted their access to healthcare. According to Woolsey (2013), in the colonial era individuals profiled as Indians could not access top-notch quality health services as it was a preserve for only the French and British. Thus the establishment of the Canadian health services was based on prejudice and the undermining of native’s health interests. This explains the massive health disparities that plague members hailing from the First Nations. Even after the attainment of independence by Canada, no substantial changes have been done concerning the policies regulating the dispensation of quality health care in the nation and particularly to the indigenous people (Woolsey, 2013). The lack of changes in the system can be attributed to the lack of active involvement of natives in Canada’s national politics. The minimal representation of natives in mainstream Canadian politics has resulted in the lack of a concerted effort aimed at tackling the health disparities affecting the Aboriginals.

Patriarchy and Gender-Based Violence

Aboriginal family life is also characterized by high rates of gender-based violence that can be traced to the impact of colonialism. Among the indigenous First Nations people, both the female and male gender were deemed equal to the survival of not only the family but also the community (MacDonald & Steenbeek, 2015). Therefore, both women and men were equally involved in the decision-making and labor activities of the Aboriginal activities. This however changed during the colonization period as the British and French imposed their patriarchy dominated Euro-American cultures on the Aboriginals. For example, the Indian Act expressly favored native men over women and granted them proprietary rights which women were not allowed to possess (MacDonald & Steenbeek, 2015). Patriarchy resulted in the massive lowering of the woman’s position and role in the Aboriginal family structure and therefore creating gender conflict. Gender violence is a widespread notion among the Aboriginals with mostly women and children bearing the brunt.


Colonialism in Canada disrupted the systems, structures, and processes that regulated indigenous Aboriginal family life. The Indian Act single-handedly wrecked the strong kinship ties that held the Aboriginal family structure together. Moreover, the discriminatory policies enacted by the colonial government formed the basis for the current health disparities and numerous social issues that plague contemporary Aboriginal life. Comprehensive changes in the Aboriginal way of life require a straightforward political process aimed at acknowledging and resolving the ills colonialism meted on the Aboriginals’ culture and family life.


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Fast, E., & Collin-Vézina, D. (2010). Historical trauma, race-based trauma and resilience of indigenous peoples: A literature review. First Peoples Child & Family Review: An Interdisciplinary Journal Honouring the Voices, Perspectives, and Knowledges of First Peoples through Research, Critical Analyses, Stories, Standpoints and Media Reviews5(1), 126-136.

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