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Jul 26 2011

First Nations push for political action

Once again my apologies for not posting on time this morning. I am still working through a backlog of stuff at home and at work that has piled up as I’ve been on the road. I will endeavour to have these posts up on time for the rest of the week, but my ‘free time’ is not yet my own. I really do appreciate your patience.

Despite lack of evidence to the contrary, I am acutely aware of the fact that this blog only really ever discusses racial issues along black and white lines. I don’t mean that I look at these issues as clear right and wrong, but that I tend to focus on issues that are centred on black and white people. This isn’t an accident – this particular divide is the one I am the most familiar. Growing up the way I did, the black/white dichotomy is the one that has been the most apparent to me my whole life. My bias towards this issue is not simply borne of familiarity, but from recognition of the fact that I can comment on these communities as an insider. It is not so for other racial/ethnic communities in Canada, and in the interest of letting people tell their own stories I often watch pitches go by when I think I could do more harm than good if I swung at them (N.B. – the last time I played baseball I was in high school).

I have, for a few years now, theorized that there is much that unites the black and First Nations communities in North America. Despite our disparate histories, First Nations face many of the obstacles that black people faced in the mid-20th century. Public perception of First Nations people is often negative, and their problems are blamed on their own lack of “personal responsibility” rather than a product of the evident systemic abuses that stretch back through history. To be sure, the problems facing First Nations communities are unique, and so are their solutions, but there is enough commonality in my eyes to justify feeling a sense of kinship.

None of this is to say that I feel qualified to express an opinion on issues facing First Nations communities, only to say that I react viscerally when I read things like this:

Nearly three-quarters of first nations in Canada rely on water systems that are classified at a medium or high risk of not meeting safety standards, a national study finds. The independent report examined the drinking water and wastewater systems on nearly 600 first nations. Just over one-third were classified in the high risk category.

You wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth, maybe you take a shower. You cook some breakfast, you head to your job or your school. No big deal, happens every day, for millions of Canadians. Except for those Canadians that don’t have access to clean water. It’s chilling to think about how fundamental access to clean water is. For the vast majority of Canadians, we live in circumstances that allow us to take clean water for granted. So much so, in some cases, that we actually think it’s reasonable to look with disdain on the water we do have and pay billions of dollars a year for a bottled version of the same product.  Not so if you’re a member of a First Nations band.

Does everyone remember the major crisis over water safety in Walkerton, Ontario a few years back? We were all dumbfounded, myself included, to learn that regulation had slipped to such an extent that in one of the very few countries in the world that can really describe itself as “first world”, people were dying of contaminated water. There can be no safety, no development, no security, and certainly no trust in the government, when there is no access to clean water. It’s fundamental to how we live. And apparently, we’ve been dragging our heels on providing it to a particular group of Canadians. Encouragingly, the problem seems to be one of capacity – lack of training in how to use a water system – than one of contamination. I call this encouraging because it is a clear problem with a clear and simple solution, something that is usually quite rare.

The larger issue, however, is the level of inattention with which we (as non-Aboriginal Canadians) treat our First Nations sisters and brothers. I am cynical, yet hopeful when I see signs that the story might be changing for the better:

Canada’s aboriginal leaders are calling for co-operation between the premiers and the federal government on social and economic issues. Aboriginal communities need help coping with emergencies such as flooding and forest fires, the leaders said at talks in Vancouver, where provincial and territorial premiers are holding their annual Council of the Federation meetings. In prepared remarks to the premiers, Shawn Atleo, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, called the issue of crisis and emergency management “urgent,” given the flooding and fires in 2011 alone.

I don’t know much about Shawn Atleo as a person, but his and my politics when it comes to these issues are very much in line. He is not afraid to point out failures in the system, but his proposed solutions are not simply “more funding”:

The communities need resources and training in emergency management along with long-term security plans so they can better respond to a crisis, Atleo said. This would include “major work,” like permanent dikes in areas prone to flooding, road upgrades, and evacuation centres. Temporary housing would also be required for those forced out of their homes.

What he is talking about is a level of response that is commensurate with the level of crisis, which sounds completely fair to me. Above that, though, he’s pointing out the need for training and capacity building – help us help ourselves. That has to be the approach with any marginalized community – not because it’s politically expedient but because it is the only long-term solution to the problems that face those communities. Where I step off the conservative talking points is that I think that the government should be more engaged in this process – not less.

To bring it back to my original point, I am uneasy about making pronouncements about what is best for First Nations communities in Canada. God knows they’ve experienced enough cases of outsiders coming in and trying to dictate their best interests. I will, however, never hesitate to stand up and shout my disapproval when my government fails to protect my fellow Canadians, or my approval when someone articulates something that I think is a good idea. Issues facing the minority only start to get fixed when they are seen as problems by members of the majority.

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