If political leaders suggested a certain group of Canadians be placed “out of the way”, far from educational and career opportunities and nowhere near basic services, chances are most people would wonder what the politician had against that people group. Something akin to this is exactly the predicament many Canadian Aboriginals are in—and by government policy.
Which is why it’s time indigenous leaders and Ottawa had an honest debate about the future of some Native reserves.
The Canadian public was scandalized recently by events in Shamattawa First Nation in Manitoba. An 11-year-old boy with no supervision died in a house fire while under the ostensible “care” of Awasis Child and Family Services agency, the largest Aboriginal child welfare agency. It was 80 hours before this agency discovered the boy was dead and the band’s own fire department could not be reached during the emergency.
But Shamattawa is only the tip of the iceberg. Dysfunction like this is common on First Nations. (This author has visited more than a dozen reserves and these stories are too common to dismiss. ) For the empirically- minded, consider the high proportion of First Nation children under foster care. For example, in the case of British Columbia, about 52 per cent of children removed from their homes and placed in foster care have Aboriginal status, according to the Federation of Aboriginal Foster Parents.
Such social problems are exacerbated by the remote location of the reserve. Consider the Kasheshewan First Nation in northern Ontario, located on a flood plain on the Albany River. Within a period of 15 months, the community was evacuated three times due to flooding and pollution within its water supply.
In November 2006, a special federal representative presented then-Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice with some unprecedented recommendations. Instead of calling for more funding and infrastructure renewal, the report’s author, Alan Pope, recommended the creation of a new reserve near Timmins. In his report, Pope uttered the normally unspeakable by asserting the location was detrimental to the community. The youth of Kashashewan, he added, 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 remained. Pope’s willingness to engage honestly about present conditions and place community members over political correctness was significant. But Pope was the exception to the usual silence; too many Aboriginal activists assume all indigenous communities need is a land base and that economic development will occur as a result.
But merely possessing property is no guarantee of economic development. Instead, it is critical that 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.
This leads to a second necessary factor beyond productive uses of land: location. The problem with many reserves is that they are on marginal land and isolated far from highways or commercial markets. Many 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. This situation contributes to dysfunction, or as Quebecois singer Felix Leclerc once put it, “the best way to kill a man is to pay him to do nothing.”
For the sake of future generations, indigenous leaders and the government must discuss which communities are viable and which are not.
First Nations possess constitutional and statutory claim to their traditional territories so this is not about “shutting down the reserve.” First Nations would always maintain title to these lands and would maintain their use for social and ceremonial functions, including hunting, fishing and trapping.
But Aboriginal leaders should consider several options. The first is for First Nation leaders to consider moving to another site (or for the Indian Affairs Minister to create a new reserve close to an urban centre). Through the treaty land entitlement process, bands are entitled to more land. Perhaps some of the most isolated bands could group together and consider a move closer to major centres, this to take advantage of economic and educational opportunities.
A second option involves Ottawa temporarily subsidizing band members who opt to move to cities with 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
Regardless, it is wrong to subject future generations of Native youth to conditions that will not change—isolation far from educational and career opportunities. Human decency necessitates different thinking. It’s a tragedy some isolated communities do not have a future but indigenous leaders should consider convincing their members to abandon present sites in favour of better ones.