‘Sfunny, no sooner do I say that I’m reluctant to spend too much time commenting on sensitive issues outside my community than I find myself diving headfirst into those issues with gusto. I don’t know if I have any First Nations or Indian readers, but if I do and you feel I am misrepresenting this stuff I hope you will let me know. While you’re doing that, could you help me with something else? While I was hanging out in Tofino, a man (who I assume is a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation) approached me with his palm raised and said “How”. I’m pretty sure he was goofing with me – people don’t actually say that, right?
However, sometimes events conspire to, in a sense, force my hand. There has been a lot of news relevant to First Nations communities that has popped up on my radar, and I feel that I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on it. After all, for a guy who says we need to be talking more about racial issues, it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to fail to speak up out of fear.
One of my least favourite statements when talking about disparities of any kind is that the disadvantaged group should just “get over it”. This kind of statement reveals two separate kinds of ignorance. First, it makes the insulting presumption that the reason oppressed people are struggling is because they’ve got a bad attitude – that once they stop playing victim and get off their lazy asses, they will start being as successful as the majority group. The second type of ignorance, related to the first, is that all oppression is historical – that we have solved all the major issues of racism/prejudice, and can now begin holding hands under the rainbow.
Wow is that ever not the case.
An evaluation of the federal government’s involvement in housing on First Nations reserves over 13 years confirms what critics have long contended: Ottawa is not keeping up with housing support, and conditions are actually getting worse. The federal government is meeting its own targets for constructing social housing on reserves, but the aboriginal population is growing more quickly than the government plan, says the audit of on-reserve housing support. “Despite ongoing construction of new housing on-reserve, the shortfall still exists and appears to be growing rather than diminishing,” says the evaluation commissioned by the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs. At the same time, housing is often sub-standard and quickly falls apart. The audit says there is not enough funding to pay for maintenance and upkeep.
This is my major problem with the successive federal governments of Canada (and I will point out again that I do not lay the blame for this all at the feet of Stephen Harper – it has been an ongoing shame on both sides of the aisle) and how they approach addressing crises affecting First Nations people. It is clear from their various responses that they are interested in throwing tax dollars at a problem without bothering to invest themselves into making sure the problems get real, lasting solutions. The government repeatedly demonstrates that it doesn’t actually care to see improvements in the quality of life of First Nations people – only to appease the bleeding hearts enough to get them to stop complaining.
It’s also worthwhile noting that the report specifically points out a lack of capacity to do repairs on your own house as a major source of conflict. As I’ve tried to say all along – part of the funding must be to promote self-sufficiency. Those that complain about tax dollars being “wasted” on First Nations issues should be aware that constant band-aids are far more expensive than a long-term solution. Then again, we have to ask ourselves whether those who think spending money supporting Canadians is a “waste” actually care about seeing solutions.
After decades of wrestling with the impact of the residential school system – and then with the “Sixties Scoop” that placed so many aboriginal children in non-aboriginal homes – First Nations are now facing another tragedy of lost children in the new millennium. There are more First Nations children in care right now than at the height of the residential school system. That system was a national disgrace that prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to apologize for its catastrophic impact on natives. Instead of being at home with their parents, brothers and sisters, tens of thousands of First Nations children are in foster homes, staying with distant relatives or living in institutions.
Conservatives often talk about the importance of “family”, and in one sense I tend to agree with them. It is definitely preferable for a child to be raised in a supportive environment, and oftentimes families provide just such an opportunity. Not all families are supportive, not all people are good parents, and the kind of blanket “every child must have a mother and a father” statements that ‘family values’ types like to try and apply to everyone suffer from a fundamental lack of nuance. All that being said, when a group suffers from a systemic lack of any family structure, it has long-term consequences. This is particularly true when there are issues of cultural preservation at stake.
It should be noted that this is not merely due to a lack of government intervention, but is wrapped up in the systemic problems (including poverty, which I have been meaning to talk about for a while now) that plague the First Nations. It’s a thorny problem to unravel, assuredly, but until we take it on seriously, these kinds of gaps will continue to get worse.
There is a special place in rhetorical hell for the “get over it” argument, and stories like this only serve to strengthen my resolve that this is the case. Discrimination and oppression are not things that used to take place and are better now – they are ongoing and require remediation. Failure to understand that this is so will lead us only to resent victims for their victimhood, rather than recognizing the problem and proposing real solutions. We, as a society, have this idea that systemic racism doesn’t exist, or doesn’t have any power. Maybe we should get over it.
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