A Bleak Future For Northern Reserves

Graham Lane

Recently we have had worrisome news from Northern Manitoba. From the troubles of the Port of Churchill and its rail line, a scare from the Pas’ major employer and thoughts of moving the aboriginal-run casino, to continued plans to shut down parts of the Vale and HudBay’s operations in Thompson and Flin Flon. All affect the employment of aboriginals.

In the heady 1960s, Churchill reached a population of nearly 6,000 people. After the US Airforce moved out and the rocket range closed down, Churchill’s population steadily declined to about 700 people. Tolko’s forestry operations in the Pas tried to make a go of it after crown corporation Manfor couldn’t – trees are too small, markets too far away.

Many other communities in the north, such as Lynn Lake, Bisset, Pine Falls, and Flin Flon, have had operations closed down or reduced, and have seen their working populations decline substantially. Gone are the days of never-ending price increases for all raw commodities –
welcome to the days of cutthroat competition, flattening demand and low economic growth – spelling disaster for many northern resource-based communities.

People naturally migrate out of declining communities to areas of economic opportunity, better health care, and greater educational opportunities. Until we see an explosion in the demand for our natural resources, the Manitoba North will produce less economic output and continue to lose population.

So, where does this leave our First Nations people living on northern reserves? The hope was economic opportunities would spill over into their communities. But with mine closures, forestry at risk, hunting and fishing offering limited opportunities and local industries relocating, what is the long-term economic outlook for our northern citizens?

This situation is important for all Manitobans. The Aboriginal communities are part of Manitoba and Canada and we are all responsible for our aboriginal citizens. Aboriginals living in the north, and especially those on reserves, face a bleak future, economic and social. Frankly, there is little possibility for the majority to become economically self-sufficient. Right now, 90% of the people on northern reserves are unemployed, with no hope of ever finding meaningful and longterm work outside of internal band administration.

For families wherever located and whether or not aboriginal, to have a purpose to their lives and believe their children will be better off than they have been, they need economic empowerment. The brutal truth is that no one can turn history back and support their families by hunting and fishing. And, it is increasingly unlikely mining and forestry will rescue them. While there will always be some traditional trapping and small-scale commercial fishing, it will never be enough to support our northern aboriginal population.

These people are trapped, dependent on a welfare state controlled by Chiefs, band councils, and the federal government. To some degree, we can blame corruption and a lack of skills, but there are fewer employment opportunities in the North. There is no hope of these Manitobans becoming economically well off – PERIOD.

It is time that we looked for real alternatives to help our Northern aboriginal people find meaningful and productive lives, rather than hiding them away on crime-infested reserves and other withering northern communities.

Next week, what we can do.

Originally posted in the Winnipeg Sun, December 2, 2016