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opinion

Gordon Gibson is the author of A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy.

Pundits have spilled barrels of ink and politicians have spewed torrents of words on murdered and missing aboriginal women. None have addressed the root cause, which is too uncomfortable. The simple, horrible truth is that the rest of us, the 98 per cent of other Canadians and our predecessors here, have shaped the reality that leads to this result.

Through our laws and money, we have created a parallel society for "Indians" – our constitutional label, first called in geographical error – that is sick in so many ways. Educational outcomes, substance abuse, unemployment, welfare, family violence – all these problems are too well known and too little mourned.

These are tiny societies. Just 2 per cent of Canadians are Registered Indians, and just half of those live on reserves, the epicentre of the sickness. It is allowed to be because government is the enabler.

How did this happen? A little history.

When Europeans arrived in the Americas with their guns, their germs and their religion, they found that the land was already populated. The Spaniards killed and enslaved the locals; the English made alliances with them.

The British Empire always had a small army, so local allies were important – first against the French, later against the Americans. Relatively quickly, these arrangements were undermined by unscrupulous Englishmen cheating and stealing. So the Crown issued the famous Royal Proclamation of 1763, stating that Indians were to be treated with only by the Crown, nation to nation.

This imperial policy established the notion that Indians were members of collectives, not individuals. This "communist" policy continues to this day, and indeed is celebrated by the Supreme Court, which insists that Indian rights and title belong to the collective, not the individual. This has had social consequences.

After the War of 1812, the military usefulness of the new British allies ended and a second policy ensued. It was not assimilation, as is commonly supposed, but isolation. Indians were in the way of exploiting the new land. They needed to be gotten out of the way.

This policy was enshrined in law, first in our founding Constitution Act, 1867, which contained seven racist words giving Ottawa responsibility for "Indians, and land reserved for the Indians." In 1867, lots of people were thought inferior to male white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, including women, Jews, Catholics, blacks and Indians. But only the latter ended up in the Constitution. They are still suffering for it.

Because of the Constitution, the 1876 Indian Act allowed the confinement of Indians in reserves under the tutelage of the Indian agent, not allowed to leave without his permission. At a stroke, a proud people were denied the fundamental right of mobility, their leaders and family heads humiliated. Think of what that has done.

Laws were passed forbidding cultural ceremonies, preventing the hiring of lawyers to pursue claims, establishing residential schools. This was thought to be good for the Indians. In the 1950s came reserve welfare, with its own set of consequences.

In the 1970s and 80s, the Indians began to protest and politicians and bureaucrats fled the scene, leaving the essence of Indian government to the courts and local family compacts. While some bands have done well, it is a sad truth that everywhere in the world, small governments with large powers and little accountability tend to become corrupt – not always, but often.

The reserve system is the centre of this. Statistically, Indians who have "gone to town" do much better. But those remaining on the reserve are essential to the power of the chiefs. An educated Indian just might leave for the larger society, so education can be a threat. The chiefs have just defeated this year's attempt at education reform.

This entire sick system is propped up by Canadian laws and tax money. Governments continue to focus on the reserve system and the collective, rather than the individual.

Despite this, some individuals have done fabulously well – after all, Indians are human beings just like the rest of us. But most are burdened by our system.

Canada's reserve system is both a fortress and a prison. You can't dismantle a fortress overnight – too many people rely on it.

The subtitle of my book suggests a better approach: "Respect the collective – promote the individual." This is how we can make it easier to escape this prison. Ideas exist – such as giving money to individuals, rather than chiefs – but are ignored by governments. And so the situation continues.