In the past two years, the chiefs of several Ontario First Nations have declared states of emergency. A housing crisis in Attawapiskat stemming from dilapidated, overcrowded and unheated homes spurred many Canadians to voice strong opinions about shocking living conditions and fiscal management.
The debate over dependency, productivity and accountability continues. More recently, the community of Neskantaga, shattered by a heart-breaking number of youth suicides, called for emergency social assistance to address mental-health issues.
Can fiscal management explain the despair that leads young aboriginal people to take their own lives? Can accusations of misappropriation of funds explain suicide rates that are three times those of non-aboriginal Canadians? First Nations are disproportionately affected by economic, social and health issues that extend far beyond the simple answers of responsible fiscal management and federal transfer payments.
The effects of isolation on access, transportation and human resource capacity influence every aspect of First Nations life. Living conditions are abysmal, with more than half of all houses in need of repair and/or contaminated with mould and one-third of homes without potable water.
Educational achievement and employment rates perpetuate the cycle of poverty: Fewer than half of adults on Ontario First Nations have completed high school and unemployment rates are more than double those for non-aboriginals. The average personal income of those living on reserves is less than half that of non-aboriginals.
Health indicators mirror these conditions, with chronic and infectious disease rates well above non-aboriginal averages. Mental-health issues and substance abuse are identified by aboriginal adults as the most important issues plaguing their communities and result in loss of lives, productivity and community well-being.
Maintaining the status quo for First Nations is ethically and fiscally unacceptable. The costs of lost productivity and remedial funding for Canadian aboriginal communities are estimated to reach $11-billion a year by 2016. Canadians are looking for an alternative to massive federal transfer payments that often fail to alleviate Third World living conditions, dependency and unfathomable social problems.
For solutions, we look to aboriginal communities that are thriving. In such communities, autonomous, aboriginal-led economic development is leading to promising results. With the cultural foundation to prioritize investments, operations and profits, aboriginal-led economic development has contributed to improved health outcomes, social programs and financial independence in other jurisdictions. Aboriginal communities are best positioned to know how to proceed with economic development that’s in keeping with traditional values, culture and the environment, and to know where to allocate spending and services.
It is this very process, the direct involvement in these decisions, that contributes to that ineffable shift in individuals and communities toward the pride of self-determination, the charge of accountability and the freedom of independence.
Healthier and more self-reliant communities benefit us all. Aboriginal communities benefiting from self-directed economic development see reduced mortality, infectious and chronic disease, fewer mental health issues and less substance abuse. They require lower levels of tax-funded support. These savings have been realized rapidly in some communities, but we can expect even greater savings in the future. The benefits of a First Nations youth’s graduation from high school are not merely realized in his or her diploma or first job, but for life – and in future generations.
Aboriginal people already value the fellowship and co-operation required to build strong, sustainable and vibrant communities. Building on these qualities with a focus on economic development is absolutely essential for First Nations-driven independence and prosperity. While the benefits to health and well-being are an ethical imperative, they are also inarguably in the best interests of every Canadian taxpayer.
Dr. Michael Dan is a former neurosurgeon who, as president and CEO of Gemini Power Corp., works to help First Nations develop sustainable industries on traditional territories. Sandra Romain is a PhD candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Toronto. She has also taught a course on infectious disease and guest lectured on aboriginal health issues.