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Deficit Discourse- Rooted in Colonial Policies

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

To understand deficit discourse as it relates to Indigenous peoples in Canada, we must look to the history of colonization. Since first contact, the idea of Euro-settler superiority, and attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples, have been codified into legislation.

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In the 1800s, official government policies were established to address what was then called “the Indian problem”. The “Indian problem” referred to “the prevailing belief that Indigenous peoples needed to be assimilated into Euro-Canadian culture, because their traditional ways were considered “uncivilized” and “immoral.” [1]

In 1876, the first iteration of the Indian Act introduced colonial laws that attempted to assimilate First Nations people into Euro-Canadian society. [2] While subsequent amendments to the Act have removed the overtly discriminatory sections, the lasting impact of early policies cannot be ignored.

The residential school system is another example of a government policy that contributed to a deficit discourse. The attempts to assimilate First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children into settler society furthered the narrative that there was something inherently negative about Indigenous culture, and that Indigenous peoples were inferior to settler Canadians.

It is apparent through this quick canvas of colonial history, that this country was built upon a deficit discourse towards Indigenous peoples.

What can we do to move beyond deficit discourse?

Writing in an Australian context, Luke Pearson, founder of the website IndigenousX, suggests that “to counter deficit discourse is to acknowledge that Indigenous disadvantage, where and how it exists, exists as a direct result of the punitive and inhumane policies and practices justified by an innate belief in white superiority and Indigenous inferiority.” [3]

Within the legal system, deficit discourse has been challenged by Gladue reports. When an individual with First Nation, Métis, or Inuit heritage is charged with a criminal offence, a judge, defense counsel, or Crown Prosecutor may request a Gladue report. This report is prepared prior to bail hearings or sentencing to suggest what an appropriate sentence may be.

Gladue reports include information about the individual’s background, including racism, loss of language, removal from land, Indian residential schools, and foster care, which are collectively referred to as “Gladue factors”. [4]

Indigenous people are drastically overrepresented in the Canadian criminal justice system. Through a deficit discourse lens, this may be incorrectly attributed to a propensity for criminal behaviours based on heritage. Gladue reports acknowledge the challenges that colonialism creates for many Indigenous people, and encourage sentencers to look at how damaging colonial policies and practices have contributed to the conditions that may impact criminal behaviour. [5]

However, it is important that the impact of colonization is centered in the preparation of a Gladue report. Doing so acknowledges that there is nothing inherently negative or deficit about the individuals who have committed crimes. Instead, the failure is on behalf of the state, due to colonial policies and actions.

I was not aware of the concept of deficit discourse until my first year of law school, and I am still working on truly understanding it. What I know for sure is that moving beyond deficit discourse in law, and in other areas such as healthcare, media, and politics, is a critical step for reconciliation.

I hope that more work and research is done across all fields of study in Canada, so that society can move beyond the deficit discourse that has been prevalent throughout the history of this country.

Reconciliation requires action from all citizens. I hope that you will read the rest of our posts this week as we continue to explore deficit discourse.

On Wednesday, February 8, 2023 from 12-1 pm, the Women’s Law Forum and Indigenous Law Students’ Association at the University of Alberta are holding a Deficit Discourse Presentation and Workshop. This event is open to University of Alberta Law Students. Sign up here:

Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG

[1] Jennifer Brant, “Racial Segregation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada” (01 May 2020), The Canadian Encyclopedia, online: <>.

[2] Zach Parrott, “Indian Act” (last updated 23 Sept 2022), The Canadian Encyclopedia, online: </>.

[3] Luke Pearson, “Addressing deficit reporting is more than just telling positive stories” (27 Oct 2021), IndigenousX, online: <>.

[4] Aboriginal Legal Aid in BC, “Gladue Principes” (last visited 29 Jan 2023), Legal Aid BC, online: <>.

[5] Ibid.

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