Canada doesn’t have a race problem – Attawapiskat edition

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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  1. says

    Even though the bulk of my awareness of the problems facing First Nations comes from watching North of 60 reruns, this is something I feel strongly about. Any suggestions for resources and/or NGOs/NPOs that could use my (white guy’s) support without being all colonialist and stomping all over peoples’ heritage?

  2. DaveH says


    It is despicable that in this day and age, in a country as wealthy as ours, live like that.

    The system is obviously broken, and needs to be fixed, though in many ways the status quo is deeply ingrained. For instance, treaties were signed with the federal government or its predecessors. Frankly, First Nations will always be an afterthought when it comes to the feds. They are inking international trade deals, buying overpriced and unsuitable fighter jets, etc. and oh yeah, being responsible for reserves. Compared to the provinces, whose main job is infrastructure, service delivery, etc. (municipalities are legally an extension of the provinces, and obviously have a high degree of intertwining). IIRC, a few years back, Attawapiskat (or possibly another N Ont reserve) ended up getting helped out by the Ontario government, despite the fact that it is the feds job. One of the few times I really could applaud Dalton McGuinty (I did vote for the Grits in the last election, but it was with a sigh as any alternatives were worse).

    The Minister of Indian Affairs is usually a stepping stone position, and I don’t know the last time there was an actual person of First Nations descent in the position (maybe a former band chief would make a nice change? and put a former hospital administrator in as Minister of Health well you were at it). This kind of “oh yeah, and…” system is fundamentally flawed.

    That being said, I have to ask what economic drivers these communities have. Tourism is always tricky (impinging on traditional hunting rights, etc. as it will usually be of the hunting and fishing kind), but potentially workable. Mining is hit and miss and not available to all reserves. Logging is difficult without road access, and would always be uncompetitive unless heavily subsidized. So what else? Build a call centre? Military training station? Extend the train line and build a port? (pointless, other communities already have rail lines) I honestly haven’t heard of any ideas that aren’t fraught with problems, and make-work projects have a dicey history.

    Which leaves us with a community dependent on outside sources of income (handouts, according to some). No matter what the racial make-up of the communities (you see it in any dying mine or mill town for example), this is always a bad spot to be in. High unemployment, bored youngsters who see no future in their home, decrepit infrastructure (outside sources are notoriously difficult to pry money out of for capital projects), etc. etc. etc.

    I don’t pretend to propose any good solution, because I don’t pretend to know of one. But skirting around the issues and failing to address the actual issues (i.e. calling them a bunch of “lazy natives” or being afraid to mention the problems with a lack of economic drivers) doesn’t get us anywhere. The first step to solving a problem, especially one of the greatest embarrassments to this nation, is defining it. Now if someone could just figure out a second step to take.

    (/rant) (It makes angle brackets disappear). Sorry for the length, I have had far too little sleep, for too much caffeine, and don’t have the patience for brevity this morning.

  3. Nick says

    I might be out in left field here, and admittedly, a good deal of this comment will be thinking out loud, but might not a major source of the problem be the reservation system itself? Essentially, the reservations are an attempt to create a parallel, separate society within Canada, with its own infrastructure and governance. If there’s a housing crisis in Attawapiskat, how much more cost-effective woud it be to spend those 12 million dollars on housing in a major urban centre, where people would be able to take advantage of the existing infrastructure that—as you mentioned in your post—you and I take advantage of at very little personal cost.

    I’m torn on the issue. Is it racist to devote significant effort and expense to create a segregated society? Is it hegemonic and culturally imperialist to work toward the genuine integration of first nations people with broader Canadian society? I have to hope there’s a solution between those two poles that I’m just not seeing yet.

  4. Crommunist says

    The argument that I have heard is that the abolition of the reserve system is de facto forced assimilation. It would result in the destruction of the entire cultural history of the First Nations people within a couple of generations. While it is reasonable to expect immigrants to adopt Canadian customs, it is not reasonable (and violates treaties) to demand that the original occupants of this land conform to the customs of the ‘conquering’ occupiers. If Canada had been founded through an actual war between the various First Nations and England, then there would be abundant precedent for the victors to demand capitulation from the vanquished. That is not what happened, though. Agreements were made, and changing them would require consent from both sides, which is not forthcoming.

  5. DaveH says

    This is what I meant by a deeply (and legally) ingrained status quo. Given the legal structure, we can’t change the reserve system, and morally, there is a VERY good argument that we shouldn’t. We cannot demand the destruction of a culture that is such an integral part of our history. But at the same time, the reserve system is obviously seriously broken, perhaps to the point of being unfixable.

    We seem to have painted ourselves into a corner as a nation. We can either huddle in said corner and accept the status quo (which is NOT acceptable). Or try and escape. But there we will get paint all over ourselves somehow, and likely destroy some of our painting job in the process.

  6. Crommunist says

    I don’t think I agree that the reserve system is ‘unfixable’. I think we just haven’t put any effort into fixing it, and then have proclaimed it irreversibly broken. It’s like with Ned Flanders’ beatnik parents: “we’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas!”

  7. Nick says

    Yes, that’s precisely what I was concerned about when I stated my fear that integration would be hegemonic. I should clarify that I wasn’t advocating the abolition of the reservations; I honestly don’t know near enough about the subject to hold a position that absolute.

    Perhaps there ought to be some sort of systemic provision in place for people who wish to leave the reservation system on an individual basis, but I wonder if that might not result in the same cultural diminution over a longer scale of time. Under such a system we might see a similar trajectory that many small towns experience, as the majority of the youth bleed away to urban centres. I really need to learn more about this issue, because at the moment, any course of action I can conceive of seems to pit the wellbeing of First Nations culture against the humanitarian wellbeing of First Nations people themselves.

    Of course, it’s all academic until we have a federal government that’s actually willing to listen to Canadians, rather than steaming ahead with its own agenda, regardless of public opinion.

  8. DaveH says

    Which is why I said “perhaps”.

    I sincerely hope there is a good idea out there, I just haven’t heard it yet. Being pessimistic, I’m not holding my breath.

  9. Crommunist says

    Well my idea is roughly parallel to any poverty eradication plan – actually invest in long-term sustainable industry in the communities on reserve. Increase the comprehensiveness of scholarships, rather than just making them a pot of money that someone can apply for if they make it to the university application system. Encourage/fund job training and mentorship programs, particularly in skilled trades, such that communities can develop and support themselves. Use that job training to accomplish infrastructure improvements (rather than sending in construction crews, give the community the wherewithal to build the stuff themselves). Roads would be particularly useful. So would hydroponics. Make the communities self-sustaining rather than dependent on an ‘aid’ model.

    That’s my idea, but I’d imagine that there are a lot of ideas coming from the reserves themselves that are simply not being heeded. Any path forward has to involve the input and consent of the people living in those communities.

  10. Blair T says

    “Racism is also Attawapiskat’s problem, and it’s killing them.”

    I think you can site ample evidence of racism against Indians in Canada, but I don’t think you can make the case that the problems of Attawapiskat are primarily a problem of racism. For that you would have to identify the government policies or practices that are adverse due to racist attitudes. It you could do that, then you could suggest non-racist policies to correct the situation. I think the problem is that even those with the most generous attitude would be hard pressed to locate the solution.

    You allude to one aspect of the problem in your comment above regarding the reserve system. It was established to protect First Nations communities from being taken over by European immigrants. But in order to protect those communities rules were established which restricted how Indians could use the land. Primarily – individuals could not buy and sell the land and it could only be occupied by band members. This restricts many of the potential economic benefits that individual Indians can enjoy compared to other Canadians. This is a trade off between individual freedom and group protection.

    The reserve system is only one small point in a very complicated system of administration which has a number of rules and regulations some policy and practice, some treaty, some constitutional. There are some adverse affects to these rules designed to protect Indians as cultural groups. Most notably, women have had their rights to band membership and on-reserve property curtailed.

    Successive governments and Indian Affairs administrators have recognized that the system of Indian Affairs in Canada needs to be changed in order to benefit First Nation Bands and individuals, but making those changes are very difficult. The government’s fiduciary duty requires that it act in the best interests of Indians and in accord with the treaties and constitution, but the very act of doing so is paternalistic. First Nations in Canada are not part of one monolithic group. They have different interests, opinions and needs and it is not easy to get a consensus to change legislation and policy.

  11. Crommunist says

    Absolutely. My beef is not with overtly racist policies, it is with the racism inherent in how the government (and non-aboriginal Canadians) think of First Nations people. The immediate response to the crisis was not “holy shit we need to do something” it was “how did you redskins fuck it up this time?”, albeit couched in very different language.

    I cannot claim to be an expert on these issues. What I can claim some knowledge in is the way the majority group tends to behave toward the minority group, and I see many parallels between the entrenched poverty of First Nations communities at the hands of successive federal governments, and the plight of African-Americans in the United States. A combination of victim-blaming, half-measures and cultivating resentment are the vein that run through both situations, to the detriment of both countries. The solutions for one might be helpful in solving the other. That’s my general point.

  12. DaveH says

    I like the idea of gardens, etc., but the fundamental fact remains that if you have things from outside the community coming in (vehicles is an easy example), you also need an outside source of money; you can’t trade nothing for something. That money can be from some sort of industry, or from government funding (including indirect sources such as housing funding or subsidies to ship those crops south).

    The problem is FINDING that sort of industry that doesn’t ruin the culture you are trying to preserve by ripping up the ground, tearing down the trees, trampling on hunting and fishing, etc.

    If you have communities in, for example, Southern Ontario, that need some jobs, it’s easy to encourage investment or small business to spring up in community B rather than community A 100 km up the highway. Six of one, half dozen of the other, the differences are minor anyway. Doing the same for a community like Attawapiskat is much much more difficult. Build roads? At a couple million a kilometre (building over muskeg), not really feasible, and wouldn’t change the issue of being way too far away from large markets or main transportation routes. Frankly, there is a whole list of things I would prioritize over roads.

    I think your basic plan is what many agree needs to be done, but the stumbling block is always finding some industry that would be self-sustaining and profitable but non-destructive. I have had this discussion many times before, and for hours on end, and the best idea I can remember is a call centre.

  13. Blue Duck says

    Much of what you say is also applicable to Natives in the US, as well. I am an enrolled member of a Pacific NW Tribe (these days living to the south of my homeland, where I was raised, in the wild lands of California).

    Here in the states, many tribes can build casinos on their rez lands, and for many tribes this has been an economic boon. but not all – it necessitates that a tribe have rez lands within fairly easy driving reach of a population center, and that is NOT true of many reservations.

    And, having to deal with (1) the vast amount of ignorance that most Americans have about Natives, our governments, and the gov’t-to-gov’t relationship we have to the Feds, and (2) racist stereotypes. Added in to the mix is a lot of resentment about casinos. A lot of nonIndians assume all tribes have big money casinos (we don’t), and really resent this ‘success’. It has an impact on our tribal governments’ ability to get things resolved when dealing with the US Congress, various fed depts, and the courts.

    Racism: Just today I made the mistake of reading comments about articles relating to Native issues. One was about a casino issue with one of the California rancherias (what most of the reservations are called here), and another about the Klamath Tribes in southern OR winning a court case for senior water rights to several bodies of water in and around their former reserve (most of which was taken away in the 1950s after the tribe was Terminated). After the 1st article, some jerk made a bizarre comment about cannibalism. To the effect that Natives were/are cannibals (not aware of a history of that here in CA or OR. Not in my tribe’s lore anyway, and I know our mythology and history pretty well, as well as that of some of our neighboring tribes). On the 2nd, there was a boohoo comment of hey, didn’t we win the war? I have GOT to stop reading comments to articles about Natives in the News. Every damn time there are tons of ugly, ugly, ugly comments. Not good for my blood pressure.

  14. P Smith says

    Hypothetical: Two farmers in different locations suffer weather extremes and lose their crops. Farmer A loses this year’s crops, while Farmer B’s land is permanently ruined and will never again be arable.

    Should Farmer A be given aid, be given the means to recover and even prepare for similar events in the future? Certainly. It’s good for him, his family and for those around who benefit and buy food from his farm.

    Should Farmer B be given aid allowing him to continue living on land that can no longer support him and his family? No, and it may be necessary to convince (and help) him to relocate than to waste money. Note that I didn’t say _force_ him.

    My point? Some First Nations communities should have money put into them, to help fix or build infrastructure and help make them self sufficient. But some are untenable situations, unable to support themselves without constant financial input. Some would already cease to exist if it weren’t for regular injections of taxpayer money keeping the towns alive.

    People might say this is an attempt to have government dictate people’s lives, but ask yourself this: if there were no government to do this, if this were 300 years ago and my hypothetical farmers suffered disaster, the Little Ice Age destroying farms, what would happen? Would we be expecting someone to come and solve our problems for us? No. People would be forced to relocate on their own simply to survive, there was no government aroudn to save them.

    Government should help solve problems, that’s part of what it’s there for, and people should be able to decide for themselves where to live. But we can’t ignore realities and just throw money at problems, keep beating a dead horse or filling a money pit. Sometimes the best thing to do is face facts, give up, pack up and move on.


  15. Crommunist says

    Here’s the problem with your scenario. I made a series of promises to Farmer B in order to get him onto that land. I told him that should the shit hit the fan, I’d be there to back him up. In exchange, Farmer B allowed Farmer A to move onto that space. If Farmer B is willing to relocate, then yes absolutely he should be helped. But it’s unbelievably unethical of me to say “well I know I said I’d help you out, but that land you’re on is shitty, so maybe you should move. Look how successful Farmer A is!” It’s especially unethical if I’ve been ignoring Farmer B’s issues for years, and making decisions that affect him to which he has no input.

    The federal government made extraordinary investments to make the unsettled lands across the prairies workable and livable. They were in TERRIBLE shape, far worse than most reserves are now. For us to say “well, that’s all well and good for European immigrants who were given free parcels of land, but now that we have better technology we’re just too cash-strapped to make a similar investment in our First Nations people” smells more than a little like racism to me. If those communities whose situation is untenable want to move, then that’s an entirely different story. Nobody’s really asking them though, just making decisions on their behalf.

  16. P Smith says

    I wasn’t suggesting that people or government make cruel and heartless decisions. But sometimes difficult decisions have to be made that people don’t like and rail against in the face of all reality.

    There was a case in the 1980s where half of the public were up in arms about “the government violating a woman’s freedom”, because she was forcing her into a hospital against her will. The other half of the public were up in arms because she was sniffing gasoline to get high while she was pregnant. Where do we draw the line on involvement? How much does the isolation and lack of opportunities in the First Nation communities play a role in depression and substance abuse? Should people be relocated or continue to live on “traditional” lands where isolation might create or exacerbate problems?

    And I was not advocating decisions be made without the input of those affected by them; quite the opposite. When people are involved and have major input on things that affect them, they’re more likely to accept, abide by and participate in them.


  17. Crommunist says

    Indeed, and my point (and Atleo’s as well) is that there must be increased involvement in the decision-making process by First Nations people. In the meantime, and for those who do not want to leave, providing only the bare necessities (or not even, as the case may be), is not a tenable solution. I also question the idea that the isolation is a major explanatory/modifying factor for substance abuse. There is a well-established connection between poverty/helplessness and addiction – isolation I am not so sure about.

  18. says

    Blue Duck’s not kidding. Many of the tribes in Washington state seem to be doing okay, but ultimately, their primary sources of income consist of catering to the vices of non-tribals–alcohol, tobacco, gambling–by circumventing state-imposed sin taxes. The inherent problem is that, when they become too successful at exploiting a source of revenue, the state gets crotchety about its loss of revenue and demand to “renegotiate” arrangements with the tribes. Thus, for example, the tribes had to agree not to undercut state excise and sales taxes on tobacco products, lest the state simply block the delivery of cigarettes et al. to the reservations. (The Squaxin very ingeniously discovered a loophole: the arrangement applied only to tobacco products manufactured out-of-state and subsequently “imported.” So they built a cigarette factory on the rez, and the cigarettes made there are exempt from the deal with the state.)

    So because the tribes’ income and the state’s income is something of a zero-sum game, there’s only so much income the tribes can generate. I wonder what the legal issues would be if the tribes tried to open brothels on their territory. Since prostitution is illegal in Washington state, the state could hardly complain it was cutting into its income…

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