The waves of immigration that washed up on Canada’s shores over the last century typically brought us people with very few resources, often just the clothes on their backs. Yet each migrant group, no matter what its ethnic origin, prospered in this country. That’s not the case for the first immigrants, who arrived 10,000 years or so ago. Aboriginal Canadians have not participated in this general upward mobility, and it’s time we found out why.
The dimensions of the problem are staggering. The average income level for all Canadian families sits around $57,000, but Statscan’s figure for native families is $12,000. That’s why so many people have left the reserves, 42% of them, to find jobs and escape the grinding poverty.
The same despair partly explains the high aboriginal proportions in jail. Half of all women and more than half of all men incarcerated in Manitoba are native. Birth rates for this segment of the population are also much higher than for others. When these two facts combine, they create a demographic time-bomb that allows us no room for a leisurely examination of social policy. If the indicators remain the same, we’ll have to hire a lot more policemen and build a lot more jails. Soon.
A lot of native leaders and a sympathetic media respond to all this with a dead-end explanation, “We’re poor because you stole our land.” But the conventional victim explanation for all this doesn’t wash. Canada has received tens of thousands of victim groups as refugees, even recently. Their land had been stolen and their homes destroyed, but most of them have done well in this country. Those of us who know a lot of native people have found out that they are as hard-working, intelligent and resourceful as anyone else. What made them, as an ethnic group, miss the same opportunities for economic success?
A lot, and by any measure of ethnic strength, natives have triumphed over incredible adversity, mainly from European diseases and a radical change in the status of their lands. They didn’t own them any more, some argue that they never really did in the way we mean ownership. But even smashed cultures recover their footing quite quickly if left alone. Instead, we bedevilled them with foolish laws and too much misdirected money.
The laws that govern Indian reserves are about as foolish as they come. In most places you can’t own your own home or the land that it sits on. You can’t borrow money from a bank because reserve assets can’t be used as collateral, so natives can’t capitalize their enterprises in the regular way. We have effectively excluded them from the commercial mainstream. The same thing happened to Jews in Russia, and they stayed poor.
On top of that, we sent them lots of free money, in exchange for treaty settlements. A culture of dependency arose on most reserves, and it accelerated with the general increase in social welfare spending that started in the 1960s. High levels of various social pathologies were the inevitable result.
If only it were true that the devolution to self-government represented the answer. In his new book, First Nations? Second Thoughts, the University of Calgary’s Tom Flanagan describes the unbelievable task we are imposing on small reserve communities. One band council is now supposed to look after housing, welfare, water, roads, economic development, health, you name it, a level of expertise hard to find in much larger populations. It’s a recipe for failure.
The governing structure on most reserves concentrates power in the hands of a very few, with very weak or non-existent lines of accountability. Many chiefs lay a specious claim to a hereditary right to their titles and hold no elections at all, while many that do allow their people a vote use the power of the purse to skew the result.
Government transfers to native communities amount to at least $10,000 per capita, yet little of that money seeps through to the people who really need it. It’s easy to spend other people’s money foolishly, especially when power is entrenched and unchecked. It doesn’t matter if you have a dictator in Ottawa or one who lives down the road. You’re still left with few individual rights.
Flanagan talks about a model that has more potential. Let bands tax residents for municipal services and have band councils go to the polls to face the music if they screw it up. Other public policy changes might also ensure a better future for native families on reserves. Remove the provisions of the Indian Act that strangle commerce and forbid individual ownership of resources. Instead of sending treaty and land claims money to political elites, give it to the people at the bottom and let them decide where the money should be invested. These reforms would create reserve economies that more closely resemble the rest of the country, a decentralized, atomistic approach with many minds deciding economic policy instead of a privileged few.
To guarantee opportunity for both reserve residents and urban aboriginals, force the public schools to offer a crackerjack product instead of the thin gruel that now passes for elementary education. In too many cases, native children encounter curricula that stresses culture and language training with no economic value. Several native leaders in Winnipeg took their own children out of such dedicated schools because they weren’t learning how to read or count. A strong grounding in literacy and numeracy has been the salvation of most poor people in Canada, and natives are no exception.
If we intend to help natives climb out of the income cellar, we have to clear the clutter off the stairs.