Canadians have a reputation as being polite and rather passive. I am not sure what in our history has given us this docile stereotype, or if it is even actually true that Canadians are more well-mannered than our American cousins. What I do know is that there is no faster way to completely invalidate the myth of Canadian civility or progressiveness more quickly than bringing up the fraught relationship between the government of Canada and our First Nations people.
Immediately upon bringing up reserves, or federal cash transfers, or treaty rights, or ceded lands, even the most self-effacing and convivial Canuck is likely to start frothing at the mouth and denouncing the “culture of poverty” or the “laziness” and “corruption” that apparently runs rampant through every single First Nations community in the country. It’s amazing how quick my fellow countrymen are to lay all blame for the problems affecting our indigenous peoples at the feet of the victims.
A commenter last week remarked how much better the relationship seemed between Canadians and our First Nations, compared to Americans and their aboriginal populations. I decided not to step on the point too hard, because I knew that this week I’d be talking about this story:
Amid the political clamour over a housing shortage on a Northern Ontario reserve, the chief of Attawapiskat says her community’s voice has been silenced. Chief Theresa Spence is questioning the way the federal government has handled the situation.
A severe housing shortage in the community has forced families to live in tents and unheated trailers, some without access to running water and electricity. Meanwhile, the reserve’s children go to school in portable classrooms, having waited years for a school to be built to replace the one that needed to be torn down.
There is, and has been for years, a major crisis in First Nations communities across the country, and the nom du jour is Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. I’ve spoken recently about the conditions on reserve, and how surprised I was that something useful was actually getting done in Manitoba. The reason I was surprised is because, more often than not, the stories I read look far more like the one above than the one from a few weeks ago. While many people gaped at the devastation and neglect that was the hallmark of post-Katrina New Orleans, those who had been paying attention to conditions on reserves across the country simply saw more of the same.
Of course, whenever anyone points out these conditions, everyone suddenly becomes an expert in community financial management, and points out that the only explanation needed for the conditions is the corrupt nature of every band chief simply sitting around so that she/he can absorb more government handouts, extorted at implied gunpoint from long-suffering
white Canadian taxpayers. Of course, like with any of these complaints, they fall apart under even casual scrutiny:
Prime Minister Harper is apparently scratching his head about where $90 million in federal funding to Attawapiskat has gone. There is much talk about lack of accountability, and no one knowing what happened to the money. Let’s start with some simple math. First, $90 million is a deceptive number. It refers to federal funding received since Harper’s government came into power in 2006. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Attawapiskat received $17.6 million in federal funds (PDF). The document linked to shows the breakdown of federal funds in case you wanted to know how much is allocated to things like medical transportation, education, maternal health care and so on.
If I could smack every person who simply divides the total pot of money by the number of people living in the community and then complains “that’s more than enough to live on” I would. I fear that I might injure my hand doing so, but that’s okay because my health care (including the construction and maintenance of health care facilities) is heavily subsidized by the provincial and federal governments, so I won’t have to pay out of pocket. You know who does? People who live on reserve. Weird how that works, and yet doesn’t manage to make it into the calculation. Nor does the fact that my food is much cheaper and more plentiful, my education was also heavily subsidized, as are the various bits of municipal infrastructure that allow me to have clean running water and transportation at my beck and call.
No, none of that stuff makes it into that calculation, because it happens behind the scenes, freeing up our time to complain about how government needs to get off of people’s backs. The problem with that particular complaint in this particular situation is that the problem is likely caused by the exact opposite problem:
Political wrangling over a housing crisis in the remote First Nations community of Attawapiskat continued Thursday, with Opposition MPs demanding to know why federal officials never sounded the alarm. “People are living in tents, in shacks, in trailers,” NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said during question period. “Federal official[s] travelled to Attawapiskat at least 10 times this year. No red flags were raised. Why? We need an answer.”
The government’s prior relationship with the community is also raising questions. Ottawa had been co-managing the band for nearly 12 years, and its officials failed to see the growing emergency. [Aboriginal Affairs Minister John] Duncan has admitted that officials in his department were unaware of Attawapiskat’s housing problems until Oct. 28, despite having visited the community many times this year.
“The rationale is mere political deflection,” the chief of Attawapiskat, Theresa Spence, said in a statement. “And this rationale has been used by the department to silence us when we brought these conditions to the attention of Canadian society.” The local MP, New Democrat Charlie Angus, accused the government of attacking the community leadership rather than helping it.
“This community has been crying out for help. The Red Cross are on the ground. People have been basically dying in slow motion,” he said. “When the question was asked, ‘Where is the federal government?’ they turned around, decided to attack the community leadership and throwing the blame entirely on the community. It’s really a disturbing pattern.”
What we have here is an example of a government that was present but not engaged. This was not a crisis of over-involvement, in which the community was so snowed in by government interference that they could not thrive on their own. Quite the opposite in fact – this is an emergency borne of egregious neglect and lack of political involvement. It was only after the community began making headlines that the various parties (myself included, obviously) started sounding the alarm.
I don’t imagine that there is any confusion among my readership as to why I spend so much time talking about racism. What there might be is some misapprehension about my primary motivation. In my own personal life, racism is a minor irritation – I am treated fairly in 99% of my interactions with people, and have managed to succeed repeatedly with no real race-based obstacles thrown in my way (indeed, I am a beneficiary of a handful of race-based programs that have given me a boost over the years).
Racism isn’t my problem, or your problem. It’s our problem. Right now the prevailing attitude of demonizing First Nations people as lazy and passive recipients of the largesse of people actually willing to work for a living is becoming a ballooning problem for the federal government, who are finding it increasingly difficult to hide behind the comfortable lies and deflections that usually vouchsafe them from any political fallout. Racism is the government’s problem. Racism is also Attawapiskat’s problem, and it’s killing them.
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