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Lisa Linklater plays with her sons Keilyn and Drisdyn in a temporary shelter in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Lisa Linklater plays with her sons Keilyn and Drisdyn in a temporary shelter in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Attawapiskat's woes spark debate about what's wrong on Canada's reserves Add to ...

The wretched state of housing in the Cree community of Attawapiskat has touched off a debate over what should be done to provide the people living in Canada’s remote first nations communities with acceptable living conditions.

The proposed solutions are dramatically different – from giving first nations full control of the natural resources on their lands, to encouraging them to move to more populated and economically viable places.

The problems, of course, are not peculiar to Attawapiskat. “The housing issue is catastrophic right across these communities across Northern Canada,” said Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader who had some experience trying to improve the lives of first nations in Northern Ontario when he was premier of that province in the early 1990s.

Bob Lovelace, a retired Algonquin chief who is a professor of development studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, says the key is to return control over their land to the first nations and to allow them to exploit their own natural resources without interference from the Canadian or Ontario governments.

In Ontario, Prof. Lovelace says, the reserve system was created by the same colonial administrators who established residential schools, and to this day the people of Attawapiskat cannot reap the value of the resources that are on their own traditional lands unless they obtain special permission from the province.

One of the biggest diamond mines in Canada, potentially one of the wealthiest in the world, is located just upstream from Attawapiskat. It is on traditional Cree territory, but the royalties flow to the province, not the first nation.

Some Attawapiskat residents work in the mine, but they are not trained to do the specialized types of jobs that pay good wages, Prof. Lovelace said.

So the only way the community could really reap the benefits is if it had control of its traditional territory, he said. “It’s really looking at allowing this community to exercise self-determination.”

Mark Milke, a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute who has written about aboriginal affairs, sees things differently.

Dr. Milke agrees first nations should be allowed to develop their own resources. But he questions the sense of keeping people in tiny and remote rural communities that have no economic reason for existence.

Reserves like Attawapiskat run against the grain of opportunity, Dr. Milke said.

“If you’re stuck a thousand kilometres off someplace, your kids don’t have access to a variety of schools,” he said. “They don’t have access to part-time work after school. They don’t have access to skills development … ”

The government can’t tell people where to locate, Dr. Milke said. But “the entire country has to do a hard rethink and just ask, ‘Are we incentivizing people to stay on reserves?’ And, if so, why in God’s name are we doing that?” he said. “We don’t tell other Canadians, ‘Maybe it’s an idea that you resist the pull of urban Canada and stay in some remote town or village with your kids and ignore educational and career opportunities.’”

If a reserve is not economically viable, no amount of government money will create long-term jobs except in the band administration, he said.

One of the reasons that the debate gets stuck, Dr. Milke said, is the guilt associated with the historical wrongs that were done to Canada’s first nations. “But guilt shouldn’t prevent us from looking at why so many reserves are failures now.”

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