If you can cut through the racism, ignorance, and half-baked opinions of pundits, politicians and sound-bite media, most folks will realize that Attawapiskat and many other First Nations have been labouring under the repression of colonialism far too long.
The antidote for poverty is self-determination and no one can give you that. You have to stand up and take action yourself to make it happen. Colonialism does not give way on its own; it must be defeated through vigorous and enlightened opposition.
It is difficult in the face of human suffering to turn attention to the systemic and structural reasons that have led to this catastrophe, but this is the very time when thoughtful analysis is needed. The homes are small and cold. The tedium of poverty bears down day by day and those who have stolen your children’s future call the daily bread on your table a “handout”. It is difficult to feel anything but shame through the numbing that is required to get by every day.
But there are reasons behind this suffering. There is a history. There is a structure to oppression, denial and indifference that houses this suffering and there is a system that perpetuates it.
In the “South” we have witnessed as voyeurs the misery of Attawapiskat, a misery that is shared by many Indian Reserves in Canada. The pictures are disturbing and cause Canadians to be thankful for the affluence that is smugly enjoyed in the “South”. When people tire of the pictures, they will accept that it is the Indian’s fault. As the prime minister of Canada has said, they mismanaged the money we sent to them and they have failed to govern themselves as civilized people do. Canadians have drawn this conclusion many times in the last 140 years to help themselves and Aboriginal people all “understand”.
It is in the national interest to believe this well-worn explanation; no one could bear the responsibility and guilt that somehow the wealth and thriving economy of Canada is purchased each and every day because Aboriginal people in their own homelands suffer. What Canadians cannot suffer is that while the misery is in the “North”, the source of the problem is in the “South”.
It is interesting to know that the Confederation Debates (1864-1866) never really considered the Indigenous people of Canada. Aboriginal nations were not consulted and there was no discussion of how they might share in the democratic development of Canada even though they represented the majority of the population at the time. Only at the insistence of the British Crown was section 91-24, making Indians and lands reserved for Indians a Federal responsibility, inserted into the Constitution Act of 1867.
The debates were a struggle for settler power involving partisanship, corruption, self-interest and even a fistfight. While the new Canadian Government was saddled with an undefined responsibility, Britain continued to negotiate Treaties in areas beyond Canada’s geographic limits. Canada assumed the Treaty responsibilities as a condition of Confederation. Eventually, Canadian Indian policy and subsequent legislation came to rest on four pillars: residential schools, reserves, reductionist identification and unconscionable treaties. The sole purpose was ethnic cleansing. The same mentality that created an archipelago of residential schools was the same thinking that established the other three pillars of Indian policy.
The four pillars of Canadian Indian policy have all but stopped the natural development of Aboriginal nations. Over the last century and a half, once dynamic cultures that possessed the knowledge and language of the land of Canada have been forced into becoming cultures of dependency. Through wilful, ever present, strategies of assimilation, Canada and its provinces have undermined Indigenous economies, isolated productive people from their resources and robbed them of their right to profit from the bounty of their homelands.
To understand the present plight of communities like Attawapiskat it is essential to understand the “reserve system”. Reserves were established as concentration camps where Indian people could be settled until such a time, through education or attrition, they assimilated into the growing underclass of Canada. In the early days some communities were seen as an experimental population in which liberal minds could tryout social modification. For the most part though, as long as Indians did not interfere or compete with commerce, agriculture, or extractive industries, they were left to fend for themselves. The Indian agent’s job was primarily to round-up children for the growing Residential schools industry, keep adult Indians on reserve and report infractions of the law which controlled forbidden expressions of Indigenous culture.
Indian peoples do not own the reserves on which they live. The Reserve is Federally “owned”; it is land hived off from Provincial lands for Federal purposes much like military bases or Federal prisons. Aboriginal people have no more claim to the “reserve” than do prisoners have to the prisons in which they are incarcerated.
Over the years, over generations, the reserve has become home. For some it is a place where language and culture has been kept alive. It is a place of memory, of relations, of unity. The flimsy walls of houses are the fortress against assimilation. It is a place that you know and where you are known. It is a place of the people.
The reserve is also a halfway place. It is the way-stop between the homelands of our ancestors and nowhere. It is a dangerous place for both Indians and those who would see our people disappear altogether. For Aboriginal people it is the end of our indigeneity, the slow strangulation of our culture, our knowledge and our sustainable livelihoods. Reserves have come to symbolize for us the agonizing descent into dependency and superficiality. For the Canadians who would have our homelands for themselves it is the edge of the wilderness, it is a reminder of our power as a people to hold together, it is the place from which we will renew our claim to original jurisdiction and sovereignty. Because of these fears the Canadian government continues to manage the humanitarian disaster that has become so familiar in our lives.
There are some things that the federal government cannot explain about Attawapiskat. Indian reserves are an extension of the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND), governed by the Indian Act and regulated by the AAND bureaucracy. So why did it come as a surprise that Attawapiskat is on the verge of bankruptcy. The truth is that it was no surprise. The tragedy at Attawapiskat was not only predictable it was planned. The current government has promoted an ideological solution to the “Indian problem” ever since the Conservative’s incubation as the Reform Party. Their strategy needs a tipping point to convince the Canadian public that it is the only, and more importantly the final, solution. If it not Kashechewan or Attawapiskat, it will be some other community taken to the depth of despair. The plan is to dissolve Reserve communities through offering them up as private property to individual band members and turning Bands into municipalities. One more step away from the legal titles and rights protected under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and one more step toward complete economic and social chaos in Indian country.
The current government cannot take all of the credit; Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments for the last 30 years have been losing sleep because Aboriginal Nations continue to dream about repatriation of homeland titles with control of their own resources. After all, this has been the pattern of decolonization globally by indigenous peoples for the past 60 years. The shell games of land claims and limited self-government are becoming transparently futile for First Nations. Ottawa has given up mediating the voracious appetites of provincial governments and extractive industries. Canada no longer believes in defending the “honour of the Crown” in keeping with Confederation commitments. The only “honourable” thing that they can imagine is to close down reserves by privatizing them. The reserves may be financially bankrupt but Canada is proving to be morally bankrupt in maintaining the goals of Indian policy masterminded in the 19th century.
The examples of colonial domination are inexhaustible and the power differentials are staggering. The deck is stacked against vulnerable communities like Attawapiskat and also against Aboriginal communities and Reserves that have made some progress toward self-sufficiency. As Aboriginal people we understand what would change our destiny but only through a convergence of our own self-determination and a willingness of Canada to decolonize can real change take place. This is not a partisan or ideological issue. Canadians must be prepared to return original jurisdiction to the Indigenous nations whose homelands the state of Canada rests within. Canadians and Indigenous nations need to negotiate real partnerships of mutual respect and benefit or face a certain future of mutual misery and conflict.
Personally, I refuse to live in a welfare state. I also refuse to assimilate into a nation state that is dependent on the suffering of my people in support of its own unsustainable affluence. It is really time to see the forest and the trees, move forward and take for our children and their children what is rightfully theirs. What are you going to do?
Robert Lovelace is an adjunct lecturer at Queen’s University in the Department of Global Development Studies. His academic interests include Indigenous Studies, Sustainable Development and Aboriginal education. Robert is also an activist in anti-colonial struggles. In 2008, Robert spent 3 ½ months as a political prisoner for his part in defending the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation homeland from uranium exploration and mining. Robert is a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He lives in the Algonquin highlands at Eel Lake in the traditional Ardoch territory.
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