Canadas Indigenous Model Is Not Sustainable

Canada’s Indigenous Model is Not Sustainable Canada’s parliamentary budget officer, Yves Giroux has spoken out about the alarming rise in Canada’s contingent liabilities related to indigenous claims. Todays estimated 76 […]
Published on December 21, 2023

Canada’s Indigenous Model is Not Sustainable

Canada’s parliamentary budget officer, Yves Giroux has spoken out about the alarming rise in Canada’s contingent liabilities related to indigenous claims. Todays estimated 76 billion dollars is many times the 15 billion dollars it was when the Liberals took power in 2015.

This is one part only of the massive increase in spending on indigenous matters that has taken place since then.

Federal spending per indigenous person has always been much higher than spending per non-indigenous person. The higher level of spending has been justified because most indigenous people do much worse on virtually every health and social indicator than the mainstream population. Their health is poorer, and their lives are shorter.

This disparity was generally known as Canada’s “Indian problem”. That term is no longer fashionable, and the extra spending is now said to be necessary to achieve “reconciliation”. Regardless of the terms, what is clear is that since Confederation there has always existed a large rural and urban indigenous underclass that does poorly compared to the mainstream. The stated purpose of the extra indigenous spending that has always been there, and the virtual explosion on indigenous spending since 2015 is meant to fix that problem. But these massive expenditures have now reached the point where they risk destabilizing the country.

Perhaps it’s time for Canadians to ask if the “nation to nation” reconciliation plan that spending is based on is working. Is it fixing the problem?

A recent CBC report proves that it is not. Instead, the problems are getting worse.

The CBC investigated an indigenous community at St. Theresa Point where 24 people sometime share one house. Almost all of the houses in the community are crumbling and need to be replaced. Families struggle to achieve basic hygiene. Living conditions resemble what one would expect to find in a third world community, and not in wealthy, modern Canada.

St. Theresa Point is typical of hundreds of other Indian remote reserves. Most are almost totally dependent on the federal government for their survival. There is virtually no real employment. The poorest people in those communities are directly dependent on welfare checks, but even the chief, councillors and other employees receive their paycheques from the transfer payments sent by Ottawa. In reality almost everyone in the community is on welfare of some type.

Unlike in other rural communities, people on poor reserves tend not to move when economic opportunities decline. In small-town Canada, the rules are simple: If the towns or farms can’t supply enough jobs, one moves to the city where the jobs and careers are. But on remote reserves, most people stay put, even if there are no jobs or careers there for them. And most of those who do move to the city do not do well. A lack of education, poor job skills, and lack of motivation usually consign reserve residents who move to the mean parts of town where many end up in gangs, crime and prostitution. The result is that the people who stay in uneconomic remote reserves become more and more dependent. Low education levels sink even further. And succeeding generations become ever less likely to be able to provide for themselves and their families.

To make matters much worse, addiction problems are endemic. At one time, alcohol was the drug of choice. Now, amphetamines, fentanyl, and prescription drugs have been added to the list, with the family violence, sexual abuse, crime, teenage pregnancy and fetal alcohol births that inevitably follow from chronic drug use.

And reserve populations are growing. Although status Indians living on reserves currently comprise only about 1% of the total population, they are the country’s fastest growing demographic. The cost of operating these communities is crippling now, but in a few years, it will be completely unsustainable. Pretending that these desperately poor reserves are sovereign “nations” that will somehow magically become prosperous and self-supporting is a cruel joke on the young people hopelessly trapped on them. The prospect of hundreds of dependent reserves teeming with, unemployed, and largely unemployable young people, with massive social problems, is a frightening dystopia – hundreds of Gaza strips. But it is where we are headed. To make things even worse, the government-promoted false genocide and “missing children” narratives have made many of these people very angry.

Although there is no treaty right, or any other right to free housing on a reserve the reality is that if the government did not provide housing for the reserve residents, they would be unable to provide housing for themselves. The strange result is that Canadian taxpayers – many of whom will never be able to afford to buy a house themselves – pay through their tax dollars for houses for the rapidly growing reserve population. These houses deteriorate quickly, because they are considered “free” by the residents, and have to be fixed and replaced in a wasteful and expensive cycle.

And it is a national disgrace that most reserves are dead ends for most of the young people born into them.

The late Farley Mowat described northern indigenous settlements as “unguarded concentration camps”. That might be a somewhat harsh way to describe reserves, but at best most are human warehouses, plagued with social problems. The young people living there deserve some hope, and Canada’s current plan for them offers them none.

So, Canada’s current indigenous plan is clearly not working. Is there a better plan for success?

Maybe we should ask Wab Kinew, Manitoba’s new premier. He is indigenous and highly successful. How did he get there?

The formula is actually not complicated. It has nothing to do with massive welfare giveaways, “nation to nation” utopias, or incredibly expensive “reconciliation” projects. It definitely has nothing to do with staying in a community that lacks economic opportunities, and waiting for handouts. It involves education, hard work, and going where the jobs are. Kinew’s parents realized that a stable home and education were key. Wab did the rest. He worked his way up the ladder in the usual way, and went where the jobs were. He did that with his indigenous identity intact.

Not every young person has Kinew’s talent, but everyone can follow the formula that made Kinew, and many other indigenous achievers successful.

The alternative – spending ever increasing amounts on a steadily increasing list of demands from a growing dependent reserve population is not an option. We don’t need the parliamentary budget officer to tell us that it is not sustainable.

As for remote, uneconomic reserves, like St. Theresa Point, they should be gradually and humanely closed down. It has been recognized for many years that reserves long ago had served their purpose, and should be phased out. As far back as 1911, it was said:

“Department officials were increasingly coming to the view that reserves had outlived their usefulness. Frank Pedley suggested that they resulted in the isolation and segregation of Indians, and thereby hindered progress…and encouraged the tribal form of government.”

The reserve system was not ended in 1911 because the chiefs and ruling families refused to give up their privileged positions. It isn’t happening today for the same reasons. We still have the same Indian Act and reserve system that has held indigenous people back for almost 150 years. (Senior Ontario lawyer, Peter Best, describes the toxicity of the reserve system in his important book, There Is No Difference)

So, the long-term plan should be to find a way to overcome that resistance, and find a fair way to phase out reserves, and the antiquated Indian Act. The reserves that are economically viable can merge into existing rural municipalities, or become stand-alone municipalities. Opportunities should be made available for young people from uneconomic communities to move to job centres, and receive help to succeed there.

In the meantime, the example of Wab Kinew is proof that there has never been a better time or place than today’s Canada to be an educated and ambitious young indigenous person who is willing to study, work hard, and go where the jobs are.


Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and senior fellow at Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Watch Brian on Return to Reason here.

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