On-Reserve Folks Need Change

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Indigenous people deserve better than the choices they are given in life.

On one hand, prospects are so bleak on-reserve that they leave their ancestral homelands, or they must stay and fight the entrenched forces denying them their full potential. Faced with such odds, it is understandable many choose to leave. For some reserves, life is not this way, but for the majority, this is the reality.

This trend was identified in a new study by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which found that First Nations living on-reserve are doing worse than their off-reserve counterparts. This study is valuable but it is not the end of the picture and is only the start of the conversation. Despite the bleak, but real, picture it paints, the question inevitably rises if there is anything that can be done to improve life on-reserve so that these people don’t feel they must leave. The answer is an enthusiastic yes. First Nations are still connected to their ancestral homes. While many indigenous people leave for cities at one point in their lives, many return or at least maintain connections to family back on the reserve.

The good news it that structures can be improved on reserves so that young people will have less incentive to leave for greener pastures, but let’s not kid ourselves, it will be a tough battle.

The Indian Act acts against economic development on-reserve, so job creation is nil. Governance on many reserves lacks transparency and accountability, so youth feel that only those with political and familial ties to leadership get the plum band office jobs.

Too many young First Nations throw up their hands in frustration, announcing their desire to move off-reserve. They are so tired of the factionalism, nepotism and lack of opportunity they see at home.

Most First Nations are in rural areas so it is inevitable some will leave the rez as young people in non-Aboriginal small towns move to cities seeking opportunity. When it comes to youth leaving the reservation, there exists an “aboriginal problem” and a “non-aboriginal problem.”

The first problem is caused by band chief and councils, as well as regional and national aboriginal organizations. These bodies have a vested interest in perpetuating the system.

The Indian Act provides them with power and privilege. The other problem is indigenous leaders who use rhetoric about inherent rights of self-government to cloak this protection of power. Too many people on-reserve are fooled by this.

There is an inherent right to self-government, but it does not exist within this power dynamic or within the corrupt structures of the Indian Act. It is exercised by all indigenous people acting together to bring true accountability to First Nations.

The “non-aboriginal problem” involves laws and structures created by the federal government that keep indigenous people from realizing their potential. The Indian Act impedes economic development on-reserve and does not even give First Nations ownership of their land, so that it can be put to productive use. The First Nation Land Management Act gives willing indigenous communities control over their land use, but only a minority of reserves fall under it.

The power to change the lives of on-reserve residents depends on both sides getting their acts together.