Tag Archives: Attawapiskat

“Idle No More”

Andrew Coyne writes on the rhetoric of the Idle No More movement

Ostensibly the movement’s ire is directed at the Harper government, though for reasons that are not widely understood. The four Saskatchewan women whose protests first ignited the movement may have been focused on Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill — notably its provisions relaxing federal oversight of navigable waterways and lowering the threshold of democratic approval needed for bands to authorize development on reserve land.

But as more and more putative leaders have jumped in front of the parade, from Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to the Mi’kmaw activist and Ryerson University Chair in Indigenous Governance Pam Palmater, the checklist has expanded to include the whole of the Harper government’s approach to aboriginal issues. Contrary to early media reports, it is not Harper’s neglect that inspires their wrath, but rather his activism.

In Palmater’s writings, the Harper agenda is nothing less than the deliberate “genocide” of aboriginal peoples, in the most literal sense of the word: not merely their “assimilation” or “termination,” in the ambiguous terminology preferred by other native leaders, but their complete elimination, “socially, culturally, legally and physically.” Though her most oft-cited specific evidence of this is the reduction in funding to aboriginal activist groups, she is in no doubt that the Harper agenda is about “getting rid of Indians once and for all.”

Nor is she alone in this belief. Here’s Daniel Wilson, former senior director with the Assembly of First Nations: “Indigenous death and despair serve the government’s purpose … through underfunding and interference with local governance, the current government is starving people off reserves [to] make it easier for the government’s friends in the oil, gas and mining industries to go about their business unhindered.”

How is this murderous agenda being pursued? Among the dozen or so bills activists cite are the following: Bill S-8: The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act; Bill S-2: The Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Right Act; Bill S-6: The First Nations Elections Act; and Bill C-27: The First Nations Financial Transparency Act. Oh, and: Bill S-212: The First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill. Those monsters.

If you are puzzled how providing safe drinking water or recognizing self-government add up to genocide, well, you need to take responsibility for your own racism. But here’s the thing. If you interpret Harper’s motives and actions in such a fantastic light, then it is not just his government you must denounce: it is anyone who collaborates with it.

And indeed, the longer Idle No More has gone on, the more it has become clear it is not so much a dispute between aboriginal Canadians and the Harper government, but between rival factions in the aboriginal community: between modernizers such as former chief Manny Jules, chairman of the First Nations Tax Commission, or Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo, who are prepared to work with the Harper government, and what one might call the fundamentalists, such as Palmater.

The fundamentalists represent the traditional agenda of aboriginal activists, focused heavily on the legal and political arena. In this model, the advancement of aboriginal peoples is at heart a collective matter, based on treaty rights, land claims and reserves under communal property ownership.

The modernizers would not, I think, deny the importance of much of this. But their focus is less on abstract constitutional principles and more on giving individual natives and bands the tools they need to participate in a modern, market-based economy: education, for example, and property rights, a particular concern of Jules (he is co-author of Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights).

While on one hand I respect the fundamentalist’s desire for the traditional way of aboriginal activists, I can’t see it working in a global economy.  The lack of capital which comes from individual property ownership, will limit aboriginal economies indefinitely yet if they give it up, you would see a system where successful and powerful families will one day own the reserves at the expense of other families.  Also if you take individual property ownership to the full extent of the law, some will allow outside investment and eventually lose control.  Maybe a good thing economically but a bad thing culturally.  It’s already happening in some ways with the formation of urban reserves.

Lot’s of questions and it’s going to be a long time before the struggle between the modernizers and fundamentalists plays itself out.

Column: Reserves Need a New Strategy

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

In case you missed it, public health in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat has deteriorated as families are living in shantytown conditions and are without running water, electricity, sewage or heat. A month ago its chief declared a state of emergency, which was ignored until she held a news conference in Toronto. Finally, the media – and then the politicians – started to pay attention.

It isn’t just Attawapiskat that has serious problems.

More than 150 First Nations across Canada are under boil-water advisories.

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser has repeatedly brought up aboriginal water safety over the last decade and has found her recommendations were either ignored or little progress has been made.

Fraser has called for radical action in fixing funding formulas and rethinking how services are delivered.

She sees it as a big problem, but until two weeks ago, few seemed to pay attention.

Fraser is correct to highlight the safety and governance issues on many of the reserves, but the bigger problem is their isolation.

The Indian Act was implemented and regional treaties were signed starting in 1876. When the treaties were signed, there was no way to imagine the kind of world that the reserves would find themselves in today, yet those 125yearold documents still provide much of the governance and rules for how bands and reserves are run.

The economic landscape has changed the country many times over. Booms come and go, but for decades, reserves in the south have found themselves with more valuable land and surrounded by more economic activity, two things that contribute to a higher standard of living for their residents. Locally, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and the City of Saskatoon set up the first commercial urban reserve in 1988. In 2004, the city published a paper showing there were 37 businesses on the land. The model worked well enough that there are 28 urban reserves in Saskatchewan.

The reserves work because of most of the bands’ proximity to an urban environment. The same is true with the economic activity on Whitecap Dakota First Nation with Dakota Dunes and the casino. Proximity matters.

Many northern reserves, including Attawapiskat, have little economic activity and job prospects outside of the band office. High transportation and infrastructure costs make the problem worse and, without natural resources to exploit, most are at the whim of what the government will give them. The biggest problem they face is their isolation, which keeps them from ever being economically viable.

The government of Canada needs to do a better job of helping these northern communities.

The opposition is right to be clamouring for more spending on safe water, education and shelter, but the need goes beyond that. The Conservatives need to start the dialogue with Native leaders and those communities and figure out if they have a future in their current state.

There are communities that are going to be economically viable. With global warming, an openedup Arctic, and the growing demand for resources, some bands will be lucky and benefit from the investment it will bring. Others, because of limited natural resources and unlucky location, have no more future than what they have presently. Their future will be one of high unemployment, poor education, substance abuse and all of the problems that define many of those communities now.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and aboriginal leaders must take this opportunity to tackle the big problems, not just offer Band-Aid solutions. The Assembly of First Nations estimates there is a shortage of 80,000 homes on reserves. With infrastructure costs, you could be looking at a $7to $10-billion price tag and that is just housing. Unemployment in some communities approaches almost 90 per cent with no chance of growth. These problems call for a rethinking of what the treaties were intended to do and how they can be applied in today’s Canada.

Twenty-three years ago, no one had thought of a commercial urban reserve until the Chief Whitecap Reserve and Saskatoon partnered together to create one. The same kind of outside-the-box thinking is needed today. Let’s hope both aboriginal leaders and the Harper government have the courage to take the path. Too many generations have been left behind already.


© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Warren Kinsella on Attawapiskat

Warren Kinsella has a great column on Attawapiskat.

Over the years, I have advised many native bands. I have worked in communities almost as bad as Attawapiskat found in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I have advised successive governments — Jean Chretien’s, Paul Martin’s and Stephen Harper’s — about dealing with problems which are quite similar to Attawapiskat.

As the father to an aboriginal daughter, I was so proud to do that work, but I cannot tell you that I ever succeeded in what I tried to do.

I was a failure.

Now, in respect of our ongoing struggle to assist our aboriginal peoples, every federal government has had moments of which they can be proud. Chretien was, by all accounts, the finest Indian Affairs minister this country has ever seen.

Martin devoted himself to the Kelowna Accord, which would have assisted many native Canadians. Harper’s finest moment — the act which I believe history will always regard as his greatest success — was his apology to, and reparations for, those native children whose lives were destroyed in hellish residential schools.

But all of those governments, too, have ultimately been failures, as they have grappled with the issue that is Canada’s enduring shame — our relationship with those who were here first, the First Nations.

All those prime ministers have tried to prevent future Attawapiskats, and all have been unable to do so.

The blame — because that is what these sad situations typically become, exercises in blame-shifting — does not rest with governments alone. Aboriginal leaders, too, bear much of the responsibility for the ongoing crises faced by some (but by no means all) native communities.

Too often, I have been in reserves where black mould covered every surface, and the house had been condemned, but scores of children could be found living in it, peeking out at me through cracked windows and filthy curtains. While rumours circulated within the reserve about a band member who recently bought a big boat, or a big car.

Reading the paper, trying to understand the Attawapiskat situation, we shake our heads. The federal government only this week put the band in “third party management” — akin to trusteeship in a bankruptcy. But what took them so long?

Why did they pour millions into Attawapiskat for years, and only now decide that there was a problem? It defies sense.

Reading about Attawapiskat, we are reminded that such stories seem to come up all the time.

Two, three, four times a year, someone at a reserve calls up a reporter, and the terrible tales get told.

There is sameness to the stories — and there is sameness to the response.

Fingers get pointed across the aisle, the media write columns like this one, money gets spent, reports get written, and then everyone moves on.

Everyone forgets, until the next Attawapiskat happens.

There’s a understandable temptation, in the midst of stories like this one, to simply throw up our hands and call the problem one without a solution. To give up.

We cannot, cannot, do that. Right now, somewhere not far from where you live, there is a native child who is living in conditions to which you would not subject your dog.

Until we change that, all of us, this is not a country.