Last month, Kaydance and Santana Pauchay, ages three and one, froze to death on the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan. Inquests are pending, but so far it is known that their extremely intoxicated father took them outside in a windchill of -50 wearing nothing but diapers and t-shirts. While he managed to get to safety himself, it was not for several hours that their father alerted hospital staff that his children were missing outside.
This case is a particularly horrifying example of neglect on reserves. Commentary in the ensuing weeks, however, touched on everything except the staggering negligence that led to the deaths of these toddlers. More self-esteem and less poverty would solve the problem, some suggested, while others wondered if making Yellow Quill a “dry” reserve might prevent something similar from happening in the future. It therefore needs to be pointed out that there are many impoverished parents in Canada, and many with low self-esteem. Almost all of them have easy access to alcohol. The vast majority of them don’t let their children freeze to death while they are intoxicated.
Some have privately suggested that the blame lies with aboriginals themselves. Such thoughts are bigotry and do nothing to address the problem, and also totally miss the real cause of this tragedy, which is a system of governance that has gradually and completely stripped First Nations communities of autonomy and responsibility.
There is no government entitlement that can teach people not to let their children die of exposure. No restructuring of INAC can change a culture in which a man like Christopher Pauchay can be described by his neighbours, after the girls’ deaths, as a “good father.” While it is surely only a matter of time before a well-meaning bureaucrat proposes a public service announcement to instruct us on appropriate clothing for children in arctic weather, it is insulting to the competent parents of Yellow Quill and elsewhere to imply that these tragic deaths were caused by ignorance or low self-esteem. Kaydance and Santana died because their father, while caring for them, drank himself into a state of inebriation such that he didn’t dress them, or himself, before going outside on one of the coldest days of the year. Correcting such reckless neglect is not within the scope of government.
The main function of much of the massive INAC infrastructure, as well as preferential university admissions, affirmative action, and other race-based programmes, is to serve as a fig leaf for massive dysfunction in aboriginal society, of which Christopher Pauchay is only the latest and most horrifying example. We read about obscenely high levels of child-abuse on reserves, teen suicide epidemics, and the proliferation of aboriginal street gangs, and instead of demanding change, we nod approvingly at apologies for residential schools and consider the government to be doing its part. By doing so, we neglect the way in which decades of paternalistic management by the state have cultivated a learned helplessness among aboriginals, stripping them of any empowerment to the point where one of the most basic bonds, a parent’s duty to his protect his children, is broken.
There comes a point at which the rest of us, those Canadians lucky enough not to have been born into the pathologies of the reserve, have an obligation to speak up. Acceptance of failed government policy eventually becomes complicity, and if the deaths of Kaydance and Santana don’t prompt real change, it is hard to imagine what will. It is time to enfranchise aboriginal Canadians. Only the radical and lasting change that would stem from treating natives as the equals of all other Canadians can break these chains of dysfunction that extend from one generation to the next.
Aboriginals on reserve are trapped by poverty because they cannot own a home the way the rest of us can. Instead, the Indian Act creates a situation in which home ownership, as well as access to other higher education and other services, is at the mercy of undemocratic band councils.
Aboriginals are told again and again, by the federal government that administers to them, that they are not the same as other Canadians, that they cannot handle the same responsibilities, that they need special privileges simply to achieve the same goals as non-natives. Gross neglect is horrifying, but when the people in question have been told, all their lives, that they are dependent, unequal, and without real hope of improvement, we cannot be truly surprised.
It is time to give aboriginals a shot at real equality, so they can share in the tremendous good fortune enjoyed by the rest of Canada. They are capable of handling the responsibilities borne by all other Canadians. When reserve residents are granted the same rights, offered the same opportunities, and treated with the respect due to autonomous adults, perhaps their weakest members, defenseless children, will be treated with care and protection, instead of being the heirs to generations of dysfunction.