Former prime minister Jean Chrétien is being criticized for his comments on Attawapiskat, and he deserves to be. In the wake of the latest crisis at the isolated native community, involving an apparent suicide pact among 13 young people, Mr. Chrétien was asked for his thoughts. He managed to put several feet in his mouth, saying that natives remain in places like Attawapiskat in part because "they are nostalgic about the past when they were going hunting and fishing," and adding, repeatedly, that "some people have to move."
But buried under all of that, Mr. Chrétien did make one point relevant to the situation in Attawapiskat. "The problem is isolation," he said, speaking of many northern native communities. "It's difficult to have economic activities in these areas."
It's true that the immediate issue for Attawapiskat is not geography. Some reserves have been under boil-water advisories for years, many have decaying and overcrowded housing, and education is often not available locally beyond a basic level. The fallout from the residential schools disaster remains. The Trudeau government has promised considerable sums of money to address all of this. And in the case of Attawapiskat, the sending in of five mental-health workers to the village, by Jane Philpott, the federal Health Minister, is welcome and badly needed.
Many of the problems facing native Canada are failures of long-standing government policy. Those policies can be changed. But the relatively small number of native Canadians living on isolated reserves have an additional challenge: geography, and an attendant lack of economic activity and jobs. That will be true whether Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau is the prime minister, or whether the Indian Act is renamed, reformed or completely scrapped.
Most native Canadians don't live in a remote community. For those who do, one goal of government policy should be to make life there as economically viable as possible. Even so, many reserve residents will likely continue to migrate to the cities – as residents of small towns across Canada have for a century. The key is to make places like Attawapiskat into communities where, if someone leaves, they're seeking opportunity, not escaping despair.