Canada’s Great Shame
It was a wake-up call for many Canadians in the past week or so when news of the multiple attempted suicides in the indigenous community of Attawapiskat on James Bay finally went viral. It is indeed an epidemic in many Native communities deeply rooted in generational poverty, depression and addiction. There may well be reasons for it but there are no excuses for it, and it is our country’s great shame.
Most Canadians choose to ignore the abject conditions under which many indigenous people live, third world inhabitants in one of the most prosperous countries on earth. It is no longer a well-kept secret and it is quickly becoming a stain on our international reputation.
There are those who believe that the solution to this long-standing problem is to throw more money at it, promote the individualism of the First Nations Community and avoid assimilation into our Canadian culture at all costs. Sadly, it is much more complicated than that.
The reality is that there is plenty of blame to be spread around amongst governments, charitable organizations and First Nations leaders. For one thing, the so called Indian Act, more than 100 years old, is archaic, encourages Native dependency and in many ways treats them like children. It needs to be scrapped. We need to recognize the equality of First Nations people with other Canadians. To do that, we do not need to rob them of their distinctiveness, but equality means opportunity, resources, a hand up and not a hand out, responsibility and yes, accountability.
We need to take a serious look at why Canada’s approach to serving her indigenous people has failed. Is it a lack of funds? Taking Attawapiskat as a small example, a reported one billion dollars of government assistance has been poured into that community over the past decade. Has it made a difference? On the face of it, one would hardly think so.
In my view, we need to take a fresh and innovative approach to integrating indigenous people into a prosperous Canada, while maintaining their cultural identity. We need to treat First Nations people less as a responsibility and more as an opportunity to enrich our Canadian heritage.
First and foremost, we need to work to restore their sense of pride and self-worth. It is very difficult to think well of yourself when you rely heavily on others for survival and have no sense of personal accomplishment. Therefore, we need to ensure that resources intended to help indigenous people to become self-reliant, productive citizens, actually get into their hands. And to accomplish that, First Nations Leaders, who administer public funds, need to be held accountable for how they are spent.
During the last years of the Harper administration, legislation was put in place to require indigenous leaders receiving public funds to file annual financial statements showing how their money was spent. The Trudeau Government, although they have put a high priority on transparency, have indicated that they will expunge this requirement, which in my view is a mistake. Prosperity without accountability is too often confined to the very few and this applies to the indigenous community as well as our own. There are too many instances of Chiefs, Native Administrators and bureaucrats living in very expensive houses and enjoying a lavish lifestyle that the people they have a responsibility to serve can only dream of.
Public funds to indigenous communities should be directed toward developing industry and private sector opportunities that achieve self-reliance. The clear mandate should be the creation of jobs and opportunity and not the maintenance of welfare and poverty.
Accountability by those in charge is an important element in ensuring this will happen. While the autonomy of indigenous people must be respected it cannot override our responsibility to ensure that all Canadians, including our First Nations citizens, have equal access to the many opportunities that are available in our country, including education, jobs and mental health care.
I believe we can all agree that the disparity between non-native Canadians and many indigenous people is far too wide and must be finally and effectively resolved. Without doubt, however, there will be much disagreement about how this can be accomplished. There will be arguments about distinctiveness versus assimilation. There will be debates about who owes what to whom. At the end of the day, however, native and non-native people need to work together to find a path to ensure equal opportunity to every Canadian, regardless of their origin. Until we do, there will be more suicides and attempted suicides, more poverty, more addiction and more depression in our indigenous communities. And if we let that continue, shame on us!
Photo credit – huffingtonpost.ca
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