Almost 36 years ago, a hard-driving assistant city editor at this newspaper sent a young reporter north. Go to Attawapiskat on the shore of James Bay, he instructed. Find out why a government-sponsored, native-run program had gone so wrong.
The subsequent story described problems with a non-profit corporation the federal and provincial governments had heavily financed. The band-operated non-profit was supposed to haul freight over the frozen water and roads in winter, serving other communities along the shore. But the expensive hauling sled, purchased at a cost of $93,000, did not work properly and the non-profit corporation lost money.
Eight people were supposed to be employed in Attawapiskat, where the young reporter found, after talking to many aboriginals and non-aboriginals, a “dreary cycle of welfare, unemployment and alcohol.”
That trip flashed back into a columnist’s memory when reading about the recent housing crisis in Attawapiskat. It would appear nothing fundamental has changed there and in similar communities along the shores of James Bay. Nor does a realistic prospect exist that things will change, if we are honest with ourselves, as long as dependency on government, geographic isolation and few jobs define the area.
There is little of a wage economy in and around Attawapiskat, except for those who might gain enough skills to work in its nearby diamond mine, which didn’t exist in 1976. The land is scrub bush and James Bay is unforgiving water, which contributes to the isolation.
Subsistence activities such as hunting, fishing and trapping are vital, but they provide little more than sustenance. There is no wage economy, except at the margin, and there will not be. Anyone who asserts otherwise either has not been there or is making a political speech.
The Attawapiskat script, writ large, defines many isolated Indian reserves and territories across much of Canada. We are engaged in national intellectual escapism if we think these communities will escape from their debilitating cycles of problems without something more than a subsistence economy. Without one, dependence will prevail. With dependence comes lack of self-esteem, social pathologies and family troubles.
When issues like Attawapiskat’s housing or Kashechewan’s water and flooding crises hit the news, political mouths open, accusations are hurled back and forth and governments are blamed.
The opposition parties, whatever their stripe, excoriate the government for inaction. The government tries to defend itself and is in turn accused of “blaming the victim.” Like the living conditions in the afflicted communities, the narratives do not change.
Governments have not spent enough, cared enough, worked hard enough, so the ensuing calamities are their fault. Truth attends this narrative, to a degree. Former Ontario cabinet minister Alan Pope, asked to investigate the Kashechewan crisis, reported in 2006 that Ottawa was funding a community of 1,550 to 1,700 on a budget for 1,100 people.
Mr. Pope offered other recommendations, but he spoke an inconvenient truth: “To remain in isolation with no access to income or employment opportunities is to sentence this community to despair and poverty.” For Kashechewan, read Attawapiskat.
Mr. Pope put several options to the people of Kashechewan: Stay put, move 30 kilometres inland, shift to Fort Albany, move south to Smooth Rock Falls or Timmins. Early in his consultations, it appeared moving south to Smooth Rock Falls was the preferred option; ultimately, the community made the decision to stay put.
It is argued, and this is surely right, that better education might break the cycles of dependency. A policy problem does exist with the lower per-student funding level for native education. But if such a cadre could be developed, why would highly educated (in a formal sense) young people stay in places like Attawapiskat when few jobs beckon, except for the band council or maybe a school or health clinic?
A housing challenge obviously exists in Attawapiskat, despite large sums of federal money having been spent there for that purpose. A much bigger challenge of denial exists across Canada about the much more fundamental challenges of native isolation, economic marginality and dependency.