After being immersed in the euphoric coverage surrounding the Idle No More movement, it is refreshing to see that a rational assessment of it is beginning to emerge. Jeffrey Simpson’s recent column, which alerted readers to the “dream palace” mentality of the movement, was insightful.
The column correctly points out that aboriginal groups are too small, isolated and unproductive to ever achieve what the movement is demanding – sovereignty. It points out that a return to aboriginal traditions can only result in a life of poverty in the modern context. Finally, it recognizes the mythology of assertions about an indigenous environmental consciousness. The lack of environmental degradation before contact was obviously due to the primitive technology and subsistence economies of hunter gatherers and horticulturalists, not some kind of “sacred link” to the land.
There are two problems with his analysis, however. The first is that he does not ask why such a “dream palace” exists, or reveal the political forces behind the construction of aboriginal tribal leaders’ unrealizable demands. Secondly, Mr. Simpson himself constructs a “dream palace” – the notion that aboriginal peoples’ salvation lies in “participating directly in the exploitation of natural resources near their communities.”
The increasing fantastical character of the aboriginal rights movement, epitomized by Idle No More, is the result of the influence of the ‘Aboriginal Industry’ – the group of lawyers and consultants who benefit financially from keeping aboriginal peoples in a state of segregated dependency. This industry has encouraged unrealistic hopes in the aboriginal population by fuelling resentment towards the “white man” and promising “compensation” for past wrongs.
Meanwhile, unrealizable demands for sovereignty, robust “aboriginal rights” and the quest for a “nation-to nation relationship” keeps aboriginal policy in a perpetual state of suspension, where never ending negotiations always result in more demands for legal clarification and “consultation”. The continuation of aboriginal deprivation that results from such obfuscation then justifies the need for the distribution of more government transfers.
While Mr. Simpson correctly argues that aboriginal marginalization cannot be addressed by greater autonomy or revitalizing “traditional ways,” more aboriginal participation in the exploitation of natural resources also will not be the panacea for aboriginal ills. The real target of aboriginal policy, after all, should be native youth, many of whom are victims of abuse, educational malpractice and fetal alcohol syndrome. How will the lives of this substantial segment of the population be improved by promoting participation in resource exploitation?
There are two opportunities that resource exploitation brings – employment and rentierism. Rentierism is the major preoccupation of aboriginal groups, because it results in infusions of cash into the pockets of the native elite and the Aboriginal Industry. Receiving resource rents also reinforces the aboriginal perception that they are the aristocratic “owners” of the land, not workers, and should be paid for its use. But cash transfers do not result in social development; they create a circulation economy where powerful community members and their associates compete to gain access to the rent circuit. This will provide trucks, drugs and gambling opportunities for native elites, and fees for hucksters of all kinds, but it will not improve education, health or housing on reserves.
Employment in resource industries will be beneficial for some aboriginal people, but it should be recognized that most Canadians do not earn their living in this sector. They are employed in the service industries, which require extensive education and social skills. These cultural prerequisites for modern employment are not being facilitated by the current circumstances in isolated aboriginal communities. Aboriginal peoples even have difficulties taking advantage of preferential hiring practices in the resource industries because native traditions do not prepare youth to work by the clock, to plan for the future, or to take instruction from others (especially from those who are not related to themselves).
Mr. Simpson’s liberal proposals, as well as conservative arguments for using aboriginal lands as “collateral” to start businesses, are almost as much of a “dream palace” as aboriginal sovereignty. Liberal and conservative commentators on aboriginal affairs assume that the market will solve aboriginal problems, when actual economic activity in most communities is impossible. Privatization also does not benefit people who are economically dependent and socially dysfunctional.
What liberals and conservatives do not want to face is the amount of government intervention that is necessary to actually address aboriginal deprivation. Providing the intensive services needed to bring education, health and housing levels up to the Canadian average will require a well thought out strategy and more resources being provided to aboriginal communities. The expense that this will entail is alarming to right-wing governments, which are intent on cutting taxes, shrinking government, and running their affairs like a business.
Recognizing that additional resources are required to solve aboriginal problems does not mean writing larger cheques to aboriginal leaders. Most of these leaders have little interest in improving the lives of the marginalized; their concern is gaining control over government funds, which results in unqualified friends and relatives “delivering” low quality services. Untold millions are also provided to lawyers and consultants in the Aboriginal Industry to perpetuate grievances and justify a return to a romanticized past.
The resources that are required in aboriginal communities consist of the human assistance that will aid the transition from pre-literate tribal subsistence to actual participation in Canadian society. This should come not in the form of transfers, but in high quality services provided by the Canadian government. Increased numbers of specially trained teachers are desperately needed, as well as medical personnel and housing construction initiatives.
Aboriginal deprivation is one of the most serious problems in Canada today. Unfortunately, a realistic assessment of the causes of this problem has been stalled by the aggressive tone and feigned righteousness of aboriginal leaders and their Aboriginal Industry “helpers”. Mr. Simpson has done a great service by exposing the wishful thinking behind these initiatives. It would be a pity to allow his own “dream palace” to obscure the real challenges that remain in addressing aboriginal deprivation.
Frances Widdowson is an associate professor in the Department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University, Calgary. She is the co-author, with Albert Howard, of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation.