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Somehow, in my ten years of drawing and writing on all things Canadian for this site, I’ve never bothered to address the issue of Canada’s aboriginal people. Though I could lamely attempt to argue that there just haven’t been any good native-related stories to comment on until now, in all honesty, I just find the entire aboriginal beat incredibly tiresome, frustrating, and depressing. The issue is basically a black hole for commentary. Everything that can be said has already been said countless times in countless contexts, yet no insight, observation, or critique — no matter how profound or true — will ever actually move government policy in any meaningful direction. Canada’s Indian affairs status quo is about as static and entrenched as you can get, which is really quite disgusting when you consider how the status quo is failing practically everyone involved.

The Attawapiskat Indian reserve in northern Ontario has recently become the flash point de jure in Canada’s long, sad saga of aboriginal pathos. Home to around 1,800 members of the Cree First Nation, Attawapiskat has nevertheless managed to decay into the conditions of an overcrowded, third-world slum. Residents sleep in mouldy, dilapidated shacks and tents separated by mud roads and deep, opaque puddles sprung from broken sewer pipes. Many lack potable water and indoor heating. No one has a job.

In October, after the reserve declared itself to be in a state of emergency, Prime Minister Harper finally placed the entire reservation under a kind of receivership, appointing a third-party auditor to temporarily oversee the community and make recommendations to Ottawa as to how its deplorable conditions could be best addressed. The tribal government, in response, has blasted the move as an infringement on their local sovereignty, and last week, only hours after his arrival, successfully expelled the mediator from the reserve altogether.

What does the band council want instead of audits? You can probably guess.

Since the Attawapiskat story first broke, Canada’s newspapers have been crammed with daily outraged editorials, as the national pundit brigade opine with angry sorrow over How This Sort of Thing Is Allowed to Happen. Attawapiskat is not unusual at all, they all begin by noting. Third world conditions on Canadian aboriginal reserves are exceedingly common, as are a whole depressing host of other social ills and dysfunction, including poverty, illiteracy, crime, violence, suicide, addiction, and poverty. Nor is a lack of government handouts the obvious culprit. In the case of Attawapiskat, few reporters have failed to observe that the small reservation has received 90 million dollars in federal funds since 2006, greatly subsidizing the band’s traditional annual operating budget of $3o million. As Mark Milke in the National Post noted, this makes the Attawapiskat reserve considerably better funded on a per-capita basis than many of its larger, non-aboriginal surrounding municipalities — you know, the ones that can somehow provide running water to all their residents.

Aboriginal policy in Canada is a complicated mess of laws and ministries that date back to the 19th century (or earlier), but if you’re ever interested in reading a succinct summary of the whole consolidated, messy “system,” I highly recommend Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. Among many other points, the authors’ thesis is that no system of government can ever be truly effective so long as it fails to tax its citizens. Yet Canada’s Indian Act, which lays out the contemporary reserve regime, greatly discourages band councils from pursuing this right. Rather than by making deductions to the incomes or purchases of its residents, reserve revenue arrives mostly through federal subsidies, provincial subsidies, municipal subsidies, loophole profits from things like casinos or cigarettes, lawsuits over historic acts of discrimination (such as Harper’s famous residential schools reparations) or royalties from mines, factories, or shopping malls set up within tribal borders (Attawapiskat, for instance, is home to a De Beers diamond mine that pays the band generously for granting access).

When all money flows to a government from the top down, and when all funds for services and entitlements are syphoned from external (and often heavily demonized), off-reserve figures like big corporations and the white-run federal government, corruption and laze inevitably follow. Corruption, because a band council in control of such an ample spigot of cash will inevitably be tempted to feather its own nest without fear of taxpayer revolt, and laze because what remains can be easily used to bribe residents into quiet compliance through exceedingly generous welfare programs, bureaucratic make-work, and other disincentives to actually becoming economically self-sufficient, engaged citizens.

It’s also true, of course, that the entire reserve idea itself is fundamentally flawed at its core, since it presumes that one’s place of residence should be determined primarily by tradition, rather than economic opportunity. Reservations are thus something of a grotesque abomination from an economist’s point of view, since they so heavily incentivize something which has no potential for generating long-term gain. Elsewhere in Canada and around the word, lebensraum-type schemes to push settlers to inhabit pointless stretches of land solely on the basis of patriotic duty have predictably failed once the settlers burn through their initial subsidies, and realize that there’s no other way to make money. It’s only because Canada’s aboriginal bureaucracies and tribal politicians are so enamored with the romantic idea of Natives “getting back to the land” and returning to “traditional lifestyles” amid 21st century modernity that such obviously unsustainable living conditions are still earnestly promoted as sensible and safe.

The last Canadian prime minister to honestly suggest revising the flawed aboriginal status quo was Pierre Trudeau, who, despite his leftist tendencies, was still quite hostile to the idea of special rights for certain races. In 1969 he suggested that Canada turf the Indian Act and the reserve system, and that Indians begin to integrate as ordinary Canadians, bound by the same constitutional rights and obligations as everyone else. Predictably, the aboriginal industry came down hard. There were simply too many powerful chiefs, lawyers, advisors, and bureaucrats who benefited from the present elaborate arrangement of special rights and special governments and all the rest of it, and Trudeau was forced to back down. Since then, the Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly ruled that native self-government and native title to the lands they wish to occupy are inherent rights, effectively slamming the door on future opportunities for reform.

Trudeau’s views were based on a sort of common-sense analysis that I think most Canadians share, and probably share in greater numbers than ever, in this post-Attawapiskat era. It’s too bad Canadian aboriginal policy is the place common sense goes to die.

37 Comments; - Discuss on Facebook - Discuss on the Forums (7)



^ 37 Comments...

  1. Cal Engime

    “The Attawapiskat Indian reserve in northern Ontario has recently become the flash point de jure in Canada’s long, sad saga of aboriginal pathos.”

    du jour = French, “of the day”

    de jure = Latin, “by law,” as opposed to “de facto”

  2. Mike W

    Actually resettlement in Newfoundland was an attempt to relocate remote communities into denser population centers on the island.

  3. Aidinthel

    The U.S. tried forcibly integrating the Native reservations into the greater society and it only made things worse. The residents simply didn't know how to deal with Western society so they tended to lose their land very quickly and end up with nothing. Taking people who are already struggling to get by and completely upending their world generally isn't the best idea.

  4. @ThePsudo

    Would education about western economics be a better approach?

  5. truteal

    You mean like what the U.S did in what is now Oklahoma?

  6. J.J. McCullough

    You're right, it was a weak analogy. I removed that bit.

  7. CKASlacker

    It's a sad state of affairs — as much as "white man" government officials and Indian Affair supporters eulogize about Natives "getting back to the land", it doesn't really seem practical in the 21st century. You just can't erase 600 years or so European influence in Canada based on an act, sums of money or land. Maybe old Pierre had it right.

    A less dramatic solution was suggested in a link JJ provided: http://www.nationalpost.com/news/Another+facet+tr
    In short, instead of lumping what may be primarily nomadic peoples together, forcing them to elect a "chief" and then distributing government and private money to that chief or council, give it directly to the individuals, and enact a system of taxation to the local council. This would have the merit of some sort of council responsibility, based on the fact that taxpayers in their "jurisdiction" would want their money spend wisely.

  8. guest

    Sadly we have a very similar situation here in Australia.
    The state of our indigenous population is a national shame – but it is also a bottomless pit of wasted time, money and logic (I almost said 'black-hole' but thought better of it).
    The rampant welfare dependency, alcoholism, child abuse and terrible living conditions has caused what is called the Northern Territory Intervention. While this is an attempt to deal with the aforementioned problems it is itself decried as racism and a return to the patronising approach of previous failures.
    Sadly it seems that no matter what is done or how much is spent – nothing changes here either.

  9. @ThePsudo

    Traditional lifestyles can't be utterly impossible. Mennonite and Amish communities are still around.

  10. PTBO

    One clarification: native communities MAY get more per captia funding then some non-native communities but they have to provide more services i.e. health care and education are the other ones. Overall natives get far less money allocated to them for government services then non-native people. Also all their budgets already need some level of approval from the Indian Branch so they are from less autonomous then non-native communities.

    But yes, obviously the Indian Act/ reserve system has to go, it's racist and paternalistic to the point where Apartheid South Africa based their 'homeland' system on. Obviously, it will have to be replaced by something via negotiations- it's not like the Crown's treaty obligations will somehow disappear with the Indian Act. Eliminating the Indian Act has come up during the NDP leadership debate (mostly via Nathan Cullen who represents a BC riding that is one third native). I'm sure Indian Act debate will come up again considering Romeo Saganash is a Cree chief/lawyer/negotiator from a riding that is one third native and Nikki Ashton is from a riding that is 70% native.

  11. jdalton

    I can't accept that the only options are full integration or the status quo. And I don't think you'll find very much support for either in First Nations communities. What both of these have in common is that they are decided upon and enacted without the consent of First Nations people. What is needed, what seems to be asked for more than anything else, is greater autonomy for people living on reserve. The alternative to the failing Indian Act is not to eliminate First Nations governments altogether, but to start treating them like legitimate governments. I completely agree that reserves should be able to (and should be encouraged to) move to a tax-based rather than a handout-based economy.

    When Canada signed treaties with First Nations to take their land away they were left with a pittance. But, in most of Canada at least, they were also recognized as GOVERNMENTS that treaties could be signed with. If Ottawa dealt with First Nations as treaty partners rather than as children, you could only get better results. Reserve communities who are willing to move should be able to negotiate that. Reserves that want to develop a particular industry or resource should be able to, just like a provincial or municipal government. They should be able to write laws (within the purview of the laws of Canada, of course), raise taxes, make deals with other governing bodies (not just Ottawa), and define their own terms for membership. But nothing should be forced on them. Montreal gets help from the army when its infrastructure collapses in an ice storm, but nobody puts it into receivorship when its book are out of balance. Greater autonomy wouldn't solve every problem, but it would be the foundation of a solution.

  12. Matthew Steele

    Indeed they are. However, Mennonite and Amish communities follow the same laws and regulations as the people not in those communities, rather than them having entirely different governments altogether.

  13. Jonny

    Simple solution, ditch the crown. Or the easier path I suppose would be to use many people's short-sighted greed for the long term benefit of the nation, and offer handsome one-time settlements to withdraw from the treaties. Failing that, we could actually just honor the treaties the way they are actually written and not invent all sorts of other benefits into them.

  14. Yannick

    I suggest this wonderful read about how things are handled in a reserve. It's something not many of us have a good handle on.
    http://apihtawikosisan.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/d

  15. Yannick

    Excellently put!

    Full integration just seems like a terrible idea when you stop and wonder at the logistics of it, or when you read/hear what actual natives have to say about it.

  16. âpihtawikosisân

    This is another great breakdown of the numbers to counter Mark Mike's problematic piece in the National Post: http://www.oktlaw.com/blog/taking-a-second-look-a

  17. Adam

    Comparing Attawapiskat to Toronto seems spurious. Obviously the situations are very very different, as evidenced by the fact that, while Toronto might be running a deficit, its inhabitants are not living in third-world conditions. Maybe there are financial problems in Toronto, but those problems are not directly and severely endangering all of Toronto's citizens.

    Furthermore, while apples might cost more in Attawapiskat, than the Canadian average, that's hardly a complete picture of the cost of living. What does housing cost, compared to the Canadian average? I don't know where Attawapiskat gets its apples and bread from but generally food is expensive in isolated locations that don't produce enough food on their own (does Attawapiskat produce its own food?)

    Finally, the article doesn't actually break down the numbers in the Post piece. Instead they just describe financial trends related to the Aboriginal Affairs office on a national scale, with no direct reference to the case in question. It would be like somebody complaining about Toronto's finances, and me responding with, "Just look at federal spending on fighter jets and prisons."

    It may well be that Attawapiskat's $90 million is being allocated appropriately and wisely but is simply insufficient. This piece does nothing at all to demonstrate that. So we're still left with the question of: where is all that money going?

  18. CKASlacker

    Mennonite and Amish lifestyles are also predominantly agriculture based, as opposed to the hunter/gatherer type of lifestyle Natives enjoyed before European settlement. It seems unlikely that wildlife migration patterns could have been immune to the vast developments which have occurred in the last 600 years, and especially in the last 50. It just doesn't seem practical that First Nations people could go back to their traditional lifestyle, even assuming that they would want to or possessed the knowledge to do so.

  19. PTBO

    What other benefits are you referring to? A lot of white people are annoyed that natives (sometimes depending on band affliation) get free post secondary but education as far as I know is a treaty obligation- hence residental schools.

    I'm not sure if Canada could abdicate it's treaty obligations by becoming a republic- I can see massive headaches associated with that in many areas.

    I don't think cash settlements would go very far because they couldn't be used to build up an meaningful economic base in many cases. Any attempt to off land would be very difficult because the federal crown land of reserves is generally surrounded by provinical crown land so there would be very tedious multi- government talks that issue. Obviously BC is quite difficult because by and large this province is unceded Native land since the province specifically broke federal Canadian settlement law in the 1870s so we are dealing with their mess now.

  20. âpihtawikosisân

    Comparing Attawapiskat to Atikogan was also spurious. One is an isolated northern community with a Chief who has a portfolio completely unlike that held by the mayor of the small not-isolated southern community. Some of the most obvious cost of living differences were pointed out in the blog post I referred to.

    I don't know about you, but I would consider Toronto's large homeless population to be living in third-world conditions.

    The breakdown provided is a per person funding amount, one which is significantly higher than what people in Attawapiskat are provided with. Obviously, this is not straight cash going into anyone's pockets, but the 'talk about Attawapiskat' has included a lot of claims about just how over-the-top the funding they receive is. Except when you actually look at the numbers, this claim is not true at all.

    The blog post linked to was not a direct response to the Post piece. If you wish to ignore the issues raised in the post I linked to, feel free…but continuing to ask 'where is all that money going to' does two things:

    1) It ignores the real numbers involved
    2) It ignores the fact that this answer has at least in part already been answered.

    If you are waiting for a specific cent by cent breakdown with receipts before you stop asking that question, then I suggest you are being dishonest.

  21. robota rozum

    $90m over 1800 people over 5 years is only $10,000 per person per year. That's well below the poverty line in places where infrastructure is provided, shouldn't we expect it to result in horrific living conditions here?

    From an American perspective, sovereignty is an all or nothing proposition. Either the First Nations are independent or they are under Canadian rule. I recognize the irony that Canada has a more interesting and gradual history when it comes to sovereignty, but I think the American-style definition is more appropriate in this circumstance. If they aren't really independent, if they aren't allowed to make laws and behave in ways Canadians can't, the respect for their sovereignty is only a charade. It's freedom only insofar as the powerful approve of its exercise, which is no freedom at all. A rude truth is in this case better than a polite lie.

    Certainly neither option is good, but why would we expect there to be a good solution to hundreds of years of racism, exploitation, slaughter, bigotry? Not actively engaging in those activities anymore isn't enough, counter-balancing action is required. Malcolm X famously supported secession to give American blacks a country of their own. Instead of that we enacted some extremely patronizing and divisive legislation, integrated at the point of the bayonet, and now we have a black President. There are a lot of differences between the two situations, but in my opinion there's a lot that's the same, too.

  22. @ThePsudo

    I thought many First Nations' traditional lifestyles were based on agriculture. Are the more agriculture-based ones still practicable in the modern world, at least in theory?

  23. PTBO

    Please refer to Attawapiskat audited finaicial statements and program schedule found here: http://www.attawapiskat.org/wp-content/uploads/

    That has all their finance information since 2005. You can see quite a bit of their money goes to administration, paying off debt on capital assets, and various big ticket expenditures such as health and education. Like previously mentioned, reciepts would probably hard to come by for members of the public but the audits and government agents approving spending probably had access to the,.

  24. Matthew Steele

    In theory, but again, they should be subject to the same laws, and have the same rights, as other Canadians. The real problem isn't that they're agricultural, or hunter-gatherer, or anything else. The problem is that they rely on hand-outs. The funding for the community comes from outside, rather than from within.

  25. @ThePsudo

    I think they would agree that being dependent on handouts is not part of their cultural tradition. That is not what stands in the way of reform.

  26. Matthew Steele

    That seemed to me to be the gist of what the original post was. That they need to not rely on hand-outs, because that's not working. That's what I would say, anyway. They should have at least some degree of autonomy, of course. They shouldn't have to interact with people they don't want to, just like the amish and what have you.

    This is an issue I am not an expert on, however. The US's relationship with the natives is very different, I think.

  27. HFCS

    This has been one of the best comments I've ever read on the issue. Absolutely goddamn right, man.

    HFCS

  28. JonasB

    What do you mean by "primarily nomadic"? My understanding is that the reserve system makes aboriginals /less/ mobile than other Canadians.

  29. @ThePsudo

    Is the US relationship different? I admit, I know very little about either nation's modern relationship with natives.

  30. Green34

    Why not just cut them loose as actual nations with complete autonomy and then leave them to figure out things for themselves? Stop making them Canada's responsibility. If, years later, they decide that they want to become part of Canada on their own? Sure, let them, at which point they'll also be agreeing to function pretty much as any other Canadian citizens.

    That'll leave it all up to them.

  31. CKASlacker

    Yes, you're right. In some sort of ideal world though, I think most would like the Natives to somehow return to their traditional lifestyle of hunting, potentially nomadic existence which was in evidence before European settlement. Of course this is wildly impractical today, even assuming the Natives Americans would wish to return to this in some form. So the reserve system seems to me something of a weird compromise — they get to keep and use their own land and govern themselves, all under the patriarchal noses of Ottawa. It's a solution that's failed horribly — a country within another country isn't going to work, and the poverty and hopelessness that exists for many on the reservations is frankly a little shocking in a 1st world country like Canada.

  32. taylor

    Why not? Because each way to approach it kills it.

    1. Current boundaries were unilaterally drawn by whatever form the Crown was. To release them would just be seen as a perpetuation of the problems that have existed since (see: South Africa), and would just beget more arguing over land claims.

    2. If this was done with agreeable borders, it wouldn't need to be done.

  33. dmmobius

    I don't think I could have put it better myself. The hilarious thing is that while Canada still recognized American Indians as independent governments way after the US stopped doing so, the US has actually been more progressive with restoring the rights of these groups. We still have a long way to go though. Many of our own native groups still live in squalor (especially those that we didn't make treaties with). Probably more because of the ambivalence and ignorance that prevades this issue. Many people are willing to pass judgement on the American Indians and their actions, but few are actually willing to do any research into the 'whats' and the 'whys' of the situation.

  34. dmmobius

    Actually, we (the US) still have reserves that are recognized as sovergn nations that receive state and federal aid AND who's policies are being determined more by the US government than the tribal councils (something forced on them by the US). We have (by all rights) a very similar system, a tad bit more progressive, but still. For instance, you'll find that tribal membership is determined by blood count to satisfy the US federal government, which is not a traditional standard by any means (many American Indian tribes adopted foreigners: whether from another tribe or a white guy, didn't much matter to them).

    It is something that needs to be worked on, but we have some ambivalence towards these people that making any head way would be a headache for the brilliant individuals we have in congress (the 'not nerds' people). Many of the groups that are on reserves in the US in similar conditions are there more because the US never signed a treaty with them and they have no legal leverage!

  35. OkaEverywhere

    Personally I would like to see what happened in Oka happen everywhere.

  36. cassandra67

    Depressing? Yes indeed. We've spent a long time institutionalizing a sense of entitlement, and they've spent an equally long time taking advantage of it. I would love to see Trudeau's suggestion implemented. I've seen first hand that Indians/First Nations/Natives/Aboriginals (call them what you will, I admit I often succumb to using more colorful appelations when discussing this topic) -as individuals- CAN integrate into Canadian society and economy while retaining ther personal brand of cultural identity, just as the rest of us are expected to do. It's time to let them sink or swim with the rest of us poor 'lil fishies.

  37. Relojes Imitacion

    The response of western governments to the Danish cartoon scandal has been rather lackluster. Few world leaders have expressed outright support for the cartoonists’ right to free speech, with most instead throwing in a lot of qualifiers about how we must be “sensitive”

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