February 9, 2010
By Joseph Quesnel
Frontier Centre for Public Policy
LETHBRIDGE, AB, Feb. 9, 2010/ — If our political leaders were to suggest that a certain demographic group of Canadians be placed “out of the way,” hundreds of kilometers from the educational and career opportunities that the rest of us take for granted, chances are that most of us would be scandalized. Yet many Canadian aboriginals have been victimized by just such a government policy.
Which is why it’s time that indigenous leaders and Ottawa had an honest debate about the future of some native reserves.
The Canadian public was scandalized recently by events at Shamattawa First Nation in Manitoba. An 11-year-old boy with no supervision died in a house fire while under the ostensible “care” of the aboriginal-run Awasis Child and Family Services agency. It was 80 hours before this agency discovered the boy was dead. Meanwhile, the band’s own fire department could not be reached during the emergency.
Tip of the iceberg
But Shamattawa is only the tip of the iceberg. Dysfunction such as this is common on First Nations. This author has visited more than a dozen reserves, and these stories are too common to dismiss.
Consider the high proportion of First Nation children under foster care. About 52% of B.C. children removed from their homes and placed in foster care have aboriginal status, according to the Federation of Aboriginal Foster Parents. The statistics from agencies in other provinces are very similar.
Such social problems are exacerbated by the remote location of many reserves. Consider the Kasheshewan First Nation in northern Ontario, located within a flood plain on the Albany River. During a recent period of 15 months, the community was evacuated three times due to flooding and pollution.
In November 2006, a special federal representative presented then-Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice with some unprecedented recommendations for Kashechewan. Instead of calling for more funding and infrastructure renewal (the usual prescription), the report’s author, Alan Pope, recommended the creation of an entirely new reserve hours away, near Timmins, Ont.
The current location, Pope argued, was detrimental to the community. The youth of Kashashewan would be better served intellectually and occupationally by living much closer to an urban centre.
Initially, members seemed prepared to move. But in the end, they stayed put. Nevertheless, Pope’s willingness to engage honestly about present conditions, and place the interests of community members over political correctness, was significant.
But Pope is the exception.
Many aboriginal activists assume that indigenous communities merely need a land base, and economic development will eventually follow. But merely possessing property is no guarantee of economic development: It is critical that such land be put to productive use. Moreover, the community must be capable of producing a good or service the public demands in a cost-effective way.
Location is key. The problem with many reserves is that they are on marginal land, isolated far from highways and commercial markets. Some are fly-in communities where goods have to be shipped in at prohibitively high cost.
That reality makes it impossible to create a viable economy. These communities will forever be dependent on federal transfers, and unemployment will remain unconscionably high. As Quabacois singer Felix Leclerc once put it, “the best way to kill a man is to pay him to do nothing.”
Several options to consider
For the sake of future generations, indigenous leaders and the government must discuss which communities are viable Ã¢â‚¬¦ and which are not.
First Nations possess a constitutional and statutory claim to their traditional territories, so this is not about “shutting down the reserve.” First Nations would keep title to these lands and would maintain their use for social and ceremonial functions, including hunting, fishing and trapping.
Through the treaty-based land-entitlement process, bands are entitled to obtain additional land. In this way, some of the most isolated bands could group together and consider moving their populations to a collectively selected location closer to major centres.
Another option involves Ottawa temporarily subsidizing individual band members who opt to move to cities where they can obtain jobs, housing and life-skills training. This would involve using monies already earmarked for supporting on-reserve band members, but in a more productive manner
Sometimes, human decency necessitates new thinking. This is one of those times.
Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, where he writes about Aboriginal and property rights issues, among other matters. He is a co-author of the Third Annual Aboriginal Governance Index. www.fcpp.org