Canada’s Indigenous Garden of Eden

There’s a television series called First Contact that’s put out by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and recently broadcast by TV Ontario. The series takes a few people who have […]

There’s a television series called First Contact that’s put out by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and recently broadcast by TV Ontario.

The series takes a few people who have had little or no contact with Indigenous people on a tour of Indigenous communities. Some of them started with the widely-held belief that Indigenous peoples live off handouts, that they need to take responsibility for their own lives, that they should get over the wrongs done to their ancestors, and they should join the real world. 

They heard of real horror stories from the small minority of children attending some residential schools. But not of their success stories. By the end of two legs of the tour, the visitors mostly came to sympathize with the people they met, both in cities and in remote communities. But no one asked what the future holds for Indigenous youth. No one asked about their economic base. They seemed unaware of the fact that starting some three centuries ago, the traditional lifestyle changed forever with European contact and the fur trade, which was always erratic, and which has now been defunct for decades. 

When affirming Treaty Six in 1876, Chief Poundmaker said, “When I commence to settle on the lands to make a living for myself and my children, I beg of you to assist me in every way possible. When I am at a loss how to proceed, I want the advice and assistance of the government. The children yet unborn, I wish you to treat them in like manner as they advance in civilization like the white man.” 

Poundmaker soon became disillusioned by the inadequacy of the support he thought he’d contracted for to enable his people for equality of citizenship. In 1885, First Nations and Métis set off the Northwest Rebellion that led to Poundmaker’s surrender, his conviction for treason, his imprisonment, and his early death—and the hanging of Louis Riel.

There’s an obvious if inconvenient correlation between the marginalization of Indigenous peoples and immigration. From Confederation in 1867 until World War I, immigration surged and Indigenous people were pushed aside. During that war, as in the Second World War, many Frist Nations people joined the armed forces, where they were welcomed. One reason for enlisting was the belief that their contribution to the war effort would enable their recognition as equal Canadian citizens. That didn’t happen. After each war, immigration surged again, employers again preferred to hire new arrivals, and the government never gave Indigenous youth the leg-up they needed. Today, immigration is at near-record levels, while in remote settlements and urban slums the gap has never been wider between the marginalized Indigenous underclass and the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted Middle Class. Exhibit A for this assertion is the record for Indigenous suicide, murder, and incarceration.

Indigenous inquiries fell disgracefully short

With evidently willful intent, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Report and the Murdered and Missing Women’s Inquiry disregarded the obviousness that educated and skilled citizens engaged in rewarding employment seldom commit suicide, seldom disappear, seldom commit crimes, and seldom go to prison.

Contrasting with the inadequacy of past inquiries, and following on from Poundmaker’s aspirations for equal citizenship, in his 1967 Lament for Confederation speech Chief Dan George said this:

Oh God! Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success – his education, his skills – and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society.

The First Contact people visited Kimmirut, on the southern coast of Baffin Island. There, they found four hundred Inuit living a modified traditional lifestyle. They heard of problems with drugs and alcohol even as, at least in that community, children seemed safe and happy. Kimmirut was home to Peter Pitseolak, who wrote his memoirs in the 1960s, in Inuktitut. He expected that his grandchildren could become full-fledged medical doctors. Given what passes for education in Nunavut, described to me by a recent graduate as torture by boredom, such aspirations today would be absurd. The First Contact people found Inuit who never learned to speak English, let alone that they had any chance of doing the paperwork for trades certification.

In 1925, anthropologist Diamond Jenness recommended to the Canadian government that the people of the North should be educated and trained for the jobs in their own lands. That still hasn’t happened, nearly a century later. Outsiders fill almost all jobs requiring professional qualifications or trade certification. In his 1968 Eskimo Administration, Jenness delivered a reality check that remains unheeded: 

It is criminal folly, therefore to suggest, as is often done, even today, that we should encourage [Inuit] to take up again the life of their forefathers, and endeavor to recover their independence by hunting and fishing in regions where game has not ceased to be plentiful. Hunting and fishing may provide them with food and even clothing, but it cannot bring in the income they need to buy rifles and ammunition, boats and outboard motors, and all the other articles of civilization without which they would perish almost as rapidly as we would.

Criminal folly! Jenness stated the obvious, that people need a significant income, available only from well-paid work, to buy the equipment for hunting and fishing. And that’s not even allowing for the cost of providing housing and food for a family. 

This brings me back to the need to enable next generations for a healthy, rewarding, and self-reliant life. Of all the grievances that are legitimate, there is none greater than the failure to deliver on that obligation. But Canada simply ignores any such duty to the Indigenous underclass.

Unfortunately, ostensible but privileged leaders hearken back to a Garden of Eden that never was. By their self-serving agitprop for an obsolete iconography, their efforts work to prevent equality of opportunity for youth in multigenerational welfare families as equal Canadian citizens. They do that even as an Ojibwa grandmother in Ottawa tells me, for example, “I simply don’t care about my land. It doesn’t do a damned thing for us any more.”

The need for an education Marshall Plan

It’s long past time for gullible Canadians—especially privileged politicians—to demand delivery to Indigenous peoples of acceptable housing, considerably enhanced education and skills training, and sports and recreation—and, ideally, where there are opportunities for rewarding employment. Think in terms of the Marshall Plan for financing, with execution based on what good private schools deliver, or the American Success Academy and Knowledge is Power (KIPP) programs, or Waldorf, or Outward Bound schools. The evidence is convincing that education can do the heavy lifting even for children living in the most disadvantaged circumstances. Parents generally buy into what’s happening, and pride in their children’s progress helps to stabilize their own lives.

Neglecting the development of mental capacity in a marginalized underclass, by failing to challenge the mind through sufficiently intensive education, raises an alarming prospect. I start with the premise that the brain resembles a muscle and that its capacity expands similarly when put to work. Studies appear to indicate conclusively that intensive education of Blacks in the United States increased overall cognitive ability and IQ. Research on brainpower, by specialists in this field like Canada’s Norman Doidge, also indicates that intensive exercise can revitalize capability in an impaired brain. 

This leads me to the corresponding proposition that underutilized brainpower in childhood and youth impairs cognitive ability, and that significantly under-challenged brainpower may result in lesser capacity for all aspects of life. For the marginalized Indigenous underclass, it may get worse. Is cognitive impairment hereditary? Evolution theory suggests that it probably is. A major study in Denmark indicated that a propensity for alcoholism in either fathers or mothers is highly likely to extend to next generations even when their children are separated from their parents at birth. What, then, about the risks induced by parents afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome or drug addictions? Can impairment in the womb pass less developed brain capacity on to next generations?

A recently published book considers similar challenges with respect to the early years in the life of women, and how they impact both attitudes and achievement. It’s The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon. Her observations appear to have general application: 

Acquired skills affect the brain. Brains are affected by real events—jobs, education, games—and by the attitudes and expectations of those around us. … As humans crave belonging and dread rejection, bombardment from birth with stereotyping and gender-dependent expectations results in self-limiting behavior. … Stereotypes are brain-changers … and provide extraordinary steer in determining the end-point in both our behavior and our brains.

Inadequate Indigenous education is racist

Isn’t neglect of Indigenous education and skills training, and of corresponding opportunity, by definition, racist? Could it be worse than that? By extension, isn’t it then imperative to set in motion a far-reaching program to relieve the Indigenous underclass of the burden of past grievances, real as they once were, that self-serving leaders keep heaping on next generations and the wider Canadian public? Why can’t next generations take their place in the mainstream alongside the successful Asians? My observations suggest that the minority of privileged Indigenous Canadians with university degrees engaged only in soft studies like sociology and native studies, and some obtained law degrees only by way of standards lower than expected of everyone else—to the detriment of those actually meeting normal standards. The limited available evidence suggests that Indigenous people may have an inherent aptitude for STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Think of the Museum of History in Ottawa-Gatineau, for which the architect was residential school graduate Douglas Cardinal.

Here’s a necessary initial step to remedy the deprivation of both education and opportunity in remote settlements. Given that the majority of First Nations people now live in southern cities, and that Ottawa has Canada’s largest Inuit community, it should not be taboo to consider closing communities having no economic reason to exist, and enabling relocation to the South. Decades ago Newfoundland’s Premier Joey Smallwood faced such a reality when he moved some 30,000 people from outports.

People of many origins function as equal citizens in mainstream society and preserve those aspects of their culture that they still find relevant. Why not Indigenous Canadians? Given that their underclass is doubling every twenty years, multigenerational marginalization and dependency, based on obsolete iconography, is unconscionable. And the cost to taxpayers is unsustainable. 


Colin Alexander was formerly publisher of the Yellowknife News of the North. He was the advisor on education for Ontario’s Royal Commission on the Northern Environment.


See pics below. Note the duplication in the cutlines. More pics available.

Canada’s Third World housing. Alison Nakoolak with two of her children in Iqaluit, capital of Canada’s Nunavut territory, in November 2015. With affordable housing unavailable, she and her husband and four children lived in this tent for three months, with night-time temperatures falling to minus 20C. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says it’s racist to call this housing squalid. (Photo by John Van Dusen, CBC) 

Typical First Nations housing in Canada’s Third World, this in Pikangikum in northern Ontario, a representative remote settlement. An Indian family actually lives here even though the temperature falls to minus 40C in winter. There’s no running water and no electricity. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says it’s racist to call this housing squalid.

On giving thanks for his commitment to Indigenous issues, the Tsuut’ina First Nation near Calgary (formerly Sarcees) bestowed the traditional headdress on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and gave him an aboriginal name Gumistiyi, which translates as the one who keeps trying. Unfortunately, there’s a chasm between trying and results. In fact, the gap that Mr. Trudeau promised to close between the underclass and his much-vaunted Middle Class continues to widen exponentially.

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