The Smallwood Solution

$875,000 for every indigenous man, woman and child living in a rural First Nations community. That is approximately what Canadian taxpayers will have to pay if a report commissioned by […]

$875,000 for every indigenous man, woman and child living in a rural First Nations community. That is approximately what Canadian taxpayers will have to pay if a report commissioned by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is accepted. According to the report 349 billion dollars is needed to provide the housing and infrastructure required for the approximately 400,000 status Indians still living in Canada’s 635 or so First Nations communities. ($349,000,000,000 divided by 400,000 = ~$875,000).

St Theresa Point First Nation is typical of many of such communities. It is a remote First Nation community in northern Manitoba. CBC recently did a story about it. One person interviewed was Christina Wood, who lives in a deteriorating house with 23 family members. Most other people in the community live in similar squalor. Nobody in the community has purchased their own house, and all rely on the federal government to provide housing for them. Few people in the community have paid employment. Those that do have salaries that come in one way or another from the taxpayer.

But St. Theresa Point is a growing community in the sense that birth rates are high, and few people have the skills or motivation needed to be successfully employed in Winnipeg, or other job centres. Social pathologies, such as alcohol and other drug addictions are rampant in the community. Suicide rates are high.

St. Theresa Point is one of hundreds of such indigenous communities in Canada. This is not to say that all such First Nations communities are poor. In fact, some are  wealthy. Those lucky enough to be located in or near Vancouver, for example, located next to oil and gas, or on a diamond mine do very well. Some, like Chief Clarence Louis’ Osoyoos community have successfully taken advantage of geography and opportunity and created successful places where employed residents live rich lives.

Unfortunately, most are not like that. They look a lot more like St. Theresa Point. And the AFN now says that 350 billion dollars are needed to keep those communities going.

Meanwhile, all of Canada is in the grip of a serious housing crisis. There are many causes for this, including the massive increase in new immigrants, foreign students and asylum seekers, all of whom have to live somewhere. There are various proposals being considered to respond to this problem. None of those plans come anywhere near to suggesting that $875,000 of public funds should be spent on every Canadian man, woman or child who needs housing. The public treasury would not sustain such an assault.

All Canadians deserve decent housing, and indigenous people have exactly the same legal right to house ownership, or home rental, as any other Canadian. That legal right is zero. Our constitution does not give Canadians – indigenous or non-indigenous- any legal right to publicly funded home ownership, or any right to publicly funded rental property. And no treaty even mentions housing. In all cases it is assumed that Canadians – indigenous and non-indigenous – will provide for themselves. This is the brutal reality. We are on our own when it comes to housing. There are government programs that assist low income people to buy or rent homes, but they are quite limited, and depend on a person qualifying in various ways.

But indigenous people do not have any preferred right to housing. The chiefs and treaty commissioners who signed the treaties expected indigenous people to provide for their own housing in exactly the same way that all other Canadians were expected to provide for their own housing. In fact, the treaty makers, chiefs and treaty commissioners – assumed that indigenous people would support themselves just like every other Canadian. There was no such thing as welfare then.

Our leaders today face difficult decisions about how to spend limited public funds to try and help struggling Canadians find adequate housing in which to raise their families, and get to and from their places of employment. Indigenous Canadians deserve exactly as much help in this regard as everyone else. Finding sensible, affordable ways to do this is vitally important if Canada is to thrive.

And one of hundreds of these difficult and expensive housing decisions our leaders must deal with now is how to respond to this new demand for 350 billion dollars – a demand that would result in indigenous Canadians receiving hundreds of times more housing help than other Canadians.

Our leaders know that authorising massive spending like that in uneconomic communities is completely unfair to other Canadians – for one thing doing so means that there would be no money left for urban housing assistance. They also know that pouring massive amounts of money into uneconomic, dysfunctional communities like St. Theresa’s Point – the “unguarded concentration camps” Farley Mowat described long ago- only keeps generations of young indigenous people locked in hopeless dependency.

In short, they know that the 350 billion dollar demand makes no sense.

Our leaders know that, but they won’t say that. In fact it is not hard to predict how politicians will respond to the 350 billion dollar demand. None of their responses will look even remotely like what I have written above. Instead, they will say soothing things, while pushing the enormous problem down the road. Eventually, when forced by circumstances to actually make spending decisions they will provide stopgap “bandage” funding. And perhaps come up with pretend “loan guarantee” schemes – loans they know will never be repaid. Massive loan defaults in the future will be an enormous problem for our children and grandchildren. But today’s leaders will be gone by then.

So, in a decade or so communities, like St. Theresa Point, will still be there. Any new housing that has been built will already be deteriorating and inadequate. The communities will remain dependent. The young people will be trapped in hopeless dependency.

And the chiefs will be making new money demands.

At some point this country will have to confront the reality that most of Canada’s First Nations reserves, particularly the remote ones, are not sustainable. Better plans to educate and provide job skills to the younger generations in those communities, and assist them to move to job centres, will have to be found. Continuing to pretend that this massive problem will sort itself out by passing UNDRIP legislation, or pretending that those depressed communities are “nations” is only delaying the inevitable.

When Joey Smallwood told the Newfoundland fishermen, who had lived in their outports for generations, that they must move for their own good, there was much pain. But the communities could no longer support themselves, and it had to be done. Entire communities moved. It worked out.

 The northern First Nations communities are no different. The ancestors of the residents of those communities supported themselves by fishing and hunting. It was an honourable life. But it is gone. The young people there now will have to move, build new lives, and become self-supporting like their ancestors.

 

Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

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