Why is it the terrible images seem never to change through the slideshow of Indian history? Click. Attawapiskat, 1,800 souls in misery in a place without roads, without work, without any meaning except substance abuse and welfare and rotten housing and little education and no hope. Click. Kashechewan, same thing. Click. The still unresolved uprising at Caledonia.
Click. Davis Inlet – the above plus gas-sniffing children and hundreds of millions wasted on a futile move from nowhere to nowhere. Click. The riot and killing of Dudley George at Ipperwash. Click. The Burnt Church crisis.
Click on a moment of hope – the Supreme Court of Canada and the Delgamuukw ruling, an Indian Magna Carta still ignored by governments. Click. The armed rebellion at Gustafsen Lake. Click. The uprising at Oka. And so it goes, back through increasingly dusty files, modern misery fading to earlier overt racism and passive despair.
This is about “Indians.” I use the hard word found in our Constitution because that is the law. The warm and fuzzy, vaguely deferential “aboriginal” I leave to those who are content to feel good. “Indian” forces us to confront the fact that we continue to impose and finance a system wherein, to their great loss and the rest of our shame, about 2 per cent of Canadians are born with a big red “I” on their foreheads and a new number in the big book of status in Ottawa.
Our governments celebrate and finance the reserve system, that incubator of apartheid, and virtually ignore the 50 per cent of status Indians who have escaped and “gone to town,” to a statistically much better life. Even that is tough – an immigrant off the boat from Bangladesh receives incomparably better settlement services than does an Indian migrant from northern Saskatchewan to Regina.
The statistics hardly bear repeating – the suicide rates, the unemployment and poverty, the lack of good education, the health and addiction problems and earlier deaths. We close our eyes.
Who is at fault? It is us, dear reader. It is every voter who fails to forcefully say to our politicians, “Fix this!”
Our politicians are not fools. They recognize a hornet’s nest when they see one. There is no upside to entering this battle, with a certain downside of being called a racist and practising “cultural genocide” if one asks hard questions and tackles root causes.
Why so? Because there is an “Indian system” – a dense and impenetrable thicket of well-paid chiefs and councils and bureaucrats and lawyers and consultants and politically correct academics. The system works fine for them. There is a lot of money there, $13-billion a year. A shallow media talk only to this elite class. The ordinary Indians are without voice.
On hundreds of reserves in Canada, the system works like this: You have a small government with large powers, often dominated by a couple of extended families. The money comes from Ottawa, and Parliament is not allowed to know the details of expenditure. If you cause trouble to the local elite, you may not get decent housing, your kids might not get educational help, welfare might be difficult and employment impossible. Small governments with large powers and other people’s money? This is an invitation to waste and corruption for any human being. No surprise if it sometimes happens.
Do not blame the Indians. This is our system, Canada’s system. We invented it, we prop it up with our laws and we provide the money. Then we close our eyes and pretend that local “self-government” of a wretched system absolves us of blame.
There is a solution, but it is damned tough, for it means confronting the system and privileging individuals rather than the reserve collective. This invariably brings screams of outrage.
We must assist the individual into the mainstream, into the broader world, if that is where they want to be. That involves a lot more education, including a voucher system for mobility, settlement services and income support in towns, provincial administration of all health, child care and education, and sending band funds to individuals rather than chiefs and councils.
Promote the individual, but respect the collective, too. We can’t shut down the reserves. They can provide some reservoir of culture, and termination would be to violate a 100-year contract where some people find safety, even if the contract is an odious one.
No, change must be based on individual choice. Forty years ago, Pierre Trudeau tried to end the system. The chiefs rose up against him. His mistake was not to have offered a choice.
Stephen Harper has a chance to rerun that movie the right way. This is the greatest moral challenge in Canadian politics. It needs to be met.
Gordon Gibson is the author of A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective, Promote the Individual.