A bold new study calls on Ottawa and Canada’s native leaders to negotiate the relocation of remote Indian reserves to areas close to Canadian cities.
Joseph Quesnel, author of the 28-page report just released by the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, says indigenous leaders should work voluntarily with the Harper government on the project.
Under the plan, a reserve’s population would continue to hold title and full rights to their vacated land.
Quesnel, himself of Metis ancestry, points out that reserves weren’t the creation of aboriginal people, but of 19th-century colonial governments.
"Indian reserves were deliberately placed on marginal lands. They were intended to warehouse first nations while … settlers built the country."
A lousy deal, to be sure.
"The best solution for most first nations now," says Quesnel, "is to find a way to make the best of this situation and integrate into the mainstream economy as much as possible."
Quesnel’s recommendations would appear to reflect common sense.
Many reserves are isolated and high transportation costs make it difficult to do business.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, in 1996, reported more than 600 bands are dispersed on small parcels of land, "most of which are isolated from wider economic and social processes."
The end result: aboriginals often live in poverty and many of the settlements, beleaguered by isolation, are beset by teen suicide, alcoholism, sexual abuse and child neglect.
Welfare rates on reserves are about 57 per cent in 2010, reports Quesnel.
Canadians have borne witness to hair-curling horror stories on isolated reserves.
In 2008 two toddlers were found frozen to death in a snowbank, left there by their inebriated father, Christopher Pauchay, on the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Wild dog packs have been killing children on reserves. Six such cases have been documented since 1998.
And who can forget news reports back in 1993 about gas-sniffing teens in Davis Inlet, Labrador?
In 2002, the Davis Inlet Innu were relocated by Ottawa to Natuashish, Labrador, or as Quesnel puts it: "merely shifted from one hopeless area to another."
In 2005, news broke about 1,900 Cree, living on the northern Ontario reserve of Kashechewan, who were drinking water contaminated with E. coli.
They had to be evacuated. Situated on a flood plain, Kashechewan’s has a jobless of 80 to 90 per cent.
The following year, a special federal representative recommended moving the reserve to Timmins, a proposal that ultimately was rejected by the community.
Instead, Ottawa in 2007 came up with a plan to redevelop the reserve’s infrastructure — in Quesnel‘s view, pouring good tax dollars after bad.
In coordination with the relocation of far-flung reserves, Quesnel is urging Ottawa to create an agency within Indian and Northern Affairs that would provide special financial support — say, for five to seven years — to aboriginals who, as individuals, opt to quit their reserves to move to cities. (About half of aboriginal people now live in cities.)
As it is, Quesnel notes, Indian Affairs sends reserves some $80,000 a year to support a typical family.
So, what would stand in the way of such a common-sense proposal?
Native leaders — who tend to be well off compared to their peoples, and who now get to administer the largesse flowing to reserves from Ottawa — might well prefer the system as it is.
Assimilation would surely be another concern.
The Assembly of First Nations, representing the aboriginal leadership, reacted this week to the Quesnel report, calling its approach and methodology "inappropriate."
Assembly communications officer Jenna Young cited successful Indian reserves such Pic River near Marathon, Ont., where the Ojibwes are successfully mapping out a green-energy economic future for themselves.
Young also pointed to Harvard University research from the Kennedy School of Government, suggesting location is not a key determinant of a community’s economic success.
Rather, the Harvard research says what’s important is self-determination, institutions, leadership, cultural appropriateness and strategic thinking. Young also cited education and a can-do attitude.
Many Canadians, however, would ask how many of these determinants are present in remote first nations communities.