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Aboriginal Leadership: Getting Out From Under Big Brother’s Thumb

December 4, 2011

Updated December 10, 2011

Before I get into this post I’d like you to watch this short video.

No, you’re not looking at a video of Calcutta or Haiti.

This is Canada.

At the time of writing this post at the end of November, the disgraceful living standards of First Nations reserves hit the national news – again. NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus had just returned from the Attawapiskat reserve, located in northern Ontario near James Bay.

The video you just watched was shot during Angus’ trip. He was outraged by what he witnessed: an acute shortage of housing that has produced people living in tents at the onset of winter, using buckets for toilets, children with skin and respiratory infections, serious mold problems in their houses, and the list of problems goes on.

When we speak of Aboriginal peoples in Canada we’re referring to First Nations, Inuit and Metis. Using the most recent census (2006), Aboriginal peoples made up just over 1.1 million, out of a national population of 34.6 million. Despite their relatively low absolute numbers, it’s important to note that they have the highest birthrate in Canada. Between 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population grew six times faster than Canada’s total population.

This is important.

Why?

Because Canada, like other Western countries, is facing a growing lopsided population that is steadily ageing. Aboriginal young people will provide an increasingly important source of labor force entrants in the years ahead.

But Canadians and their elected government representatives continue to treat Aboriginals with distain and at times contempt.

Consider these statistics:

• First Nations peoples living on a reserve were not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1960. Only 31 of Canada’s 4,201 Members of Parliament, in total over time, have been Aboriginal.

• First Nations, Metis and Inuit live in housing that is substandard to the rest of the Canadian population: 23% of their housing is in need of repair. Mold contaminates half of their homes.

• 150 First Nations reserves are under boil water advisories.

• Healthcare is dismal, with tuberculosis being 28 times higher and infant mortality three times greater. Diabetes is three times higher.

• Aboriginals’ rate of incarceration is seven times the national rate.

• One in four Aboriginal children lives in poverty (40% of off-reserve children reside in poverty); one in eight is disabled.

Is this how a supposedly civilized country should treat its founding peoples? No human being in any civilized society should incur such indignities and contempt. Yet Canadians and their elected representatives pretend there’s no problem. Our collective head remains stuck in the sand.

Charlie Angus’ video lays out the evidence in exceedingly stark terms. However, it’s not the first time the plight of Aboriginal peoples has been raised in the media. Many of Canada’s Inuit live in squalid conditions, with their youth suffering from serious drug problems. It’s a longstanding problem in Canada.

Within days of the video going viral, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated he would address the problem. On November 30, the federal government did its crisis-control by initiating what’s called third party control of the Attawapiskat Reserve. As Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan stated: “The Government of Canada has informed the chief that we are placing the community in third-party management to ensure community needs are addressed. Part of the manager’s role will be to administer my department’s funding which is normally managed by the First Nation directly.” As well, a forensic audit will be done of the band’s financial management.

Note: On December 8, the federal government stated that the reserve will have to pay the $1,200/day third party management fee. The following day, it was reported that the government is sending 15 modular homes to the reserve. However, it was not clear who will pay for them. As Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said to the media: “The homes and the costs associated is not our immediate concern. This is an emergency-management response. We will worry about who’s paying for this afterwards.”

Prime Minister Harper appeared to be complaining to the media that the federal government had spent $90 million on the Attawapiskat reserve over the past five years. However, as reserve chief Theresa Spence claimed, 80% of the funds go to education, with the remainder going to the community’s needs. Not much is left for housing, which is the core of the problem. The elementary school, which had to be torn down because it was located on pools of toxic gas, has yet to be replaced and is only in the design phase. Children attend classes in cold portables, wearing coats to stay warm.

As a sidebar, Chief Spence’s credibility is on the line with the revelation that her boyfriend was hired last year by the Attawapiskat Council to be the financial co-manager. And on the federal side, despite Minister Duncan’s assertion that the government was unaware of the reserve’s situation, former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl (now out of politics, but a Conservative just as Stephen Harper) contradicted Duncan, stating that the Government of Canada was well aware of what was going on several years ago. In Strahl’s words, Attawapiskat “…is a slow moving trainwreck.”

Former Liberal Aboriginal Affairs Minister from a decade ago, Robert Nault, waded into the debate, noting that Conservative PM Harper seems to be as much as he can, perhaps more than other Prime Minsters. Past Liberal governments, Nault states, “did everything with money,” in contrast to Harper who is oriented towards structural and legislative changes. Nault was also direct when he stated that the Indian Act needs to be abolished and that this needs to be done within five years.

Where’s the truth in all of this?

Economists and political analysts have been commenting on this media spectacle in. What I’ve found intriguing is how little most of these pseudo experts actually know about the issues facing First Nations peoples. Each of these “experts” has an angle and a solution. Indeed, one CBC TV panel consisting of three people, usually bright commentators on socio-economic and political issues, was embarrassingly clueless on the challenges facing First Nations reserves.

Regardless of political party over many decades, Canada’s federal government has proven to be abjectly impotent when it comes to demonstrating a sustained commitment to the country’s Aboriginal peoples. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (aka Big Brother) controls Canada’s First Nations reserve system, keeping people in a disempowered state. However, some 30 federal departments are involved in various ways with First Nations.

Of interest, the Attawapiskat Reserve sits almost on top of a diamond mine owned by De Beers, which apparently donated two large construction trailers to the reserve when it learned of the housing shortage (about 100 people live in them).

But don’t let that modest act of generosity by an international mining giant make you feel too warm and fuzzy. The mine, 90 kilometers west of Attawapiskat, does employ some reserve members. However, little of the earnings from employment flow back to the reserve due to miners moving away and also because of the restrictive conditions imposed by the reserve system when it comes to investing savings.

The situation facing this small First Nation’s reserve is a horrific mess, but it’s emblematic of what many reserves across Canada face. Bureaucrats certainly won’t solve the problem.

Enter Romeo Saganash, a member of the Cree First Nation in northern Quebec. Saganash, the first Cree to become a lawyer in Quebec, ran for office as a member of the New Democratic Party in Canada’s May 2011 election. Despite strong odds against his getting elected, Saganash won in his riding. Now he has his work cut out for him, and not just with the many interconnected issues facing Aboriginal peoples in Quebec, but with a massive riding that spans the northern half of the province.

And a new challenge is that he’s the first Aboriginal candidate in Canadian history who is running for leader of a political party (former NDP leader Jack Layton died a few months ago of prostate cancer).

Saganash, 49, began his political involvement almost 30 years ago. For example, in 1985 he founded the Cree Nation Youth Council. Later on, his interest in regional economic development prompted him to get involved in Aboriginal businesses. As he gained experience and built his networks, Saganash took on key positions with the Grand Council of Crees. He was first the Deputy Grand Chief, and then Director of Quebec relations and international affairs. He also was vice-chairman of the Cree Regional Authority, and chaired the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment between 1997 and 2000.

Romeo Saganash is but one Aboriginal leader who has stepped up to the plate over the years to confront the horrendous problems facing Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Unfortunately, most Canadians would no doubt think about some of the controversial events between First Nations and government. Some of these have been ended violently with both sides sharing responsibility.

(Please note that I am apolitical. With some 40 years of voting experience I’ve cast ballots across the mainstream political spectrum.)

However, what gets overlooked or ignored is the perseverance and enormous dedication by Aboriginal leaders who want to improve not just the living conditions of their people but their economic wellbeing by creating their own wealth through employment and business start-ups.

There’s an opposing tension between taking an assertive stance to addressing the plight of Aboriginal peoples, and aggression, which the media loves and which plays into the hands of those Canadians who believe that these people are complainers.

Perhaps one analogy is the Gandhian approach used by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who won the 1964 Noble Peace Prize, as opposed to the more aggression-prone Malcolm X. Both men fought for the civil rights of black Americans, but used different approaches. Both were assassinated within a few years of one another.

One outstanding First Nations leader is Taiaiake Alfred, who I had the privilege of meeting at Royal Roads University (Victoria, British Columbia) in 1999. Alfred spoke to my Masters leadership class on Aboriginal leadership. Although he comes across as easy going and is very articulate, he is tough as nails when it comes to addressing the issues of First Nations people.

Listen to this fascinating conversation with Alfred by interviewer Allen Gregg.

Canadians can no longer continue to ignore the needs of its Aboriginal peoples, leaving Inuit communities and First Nations reserves to fend for themselves. This is not the developing world. This is Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, which likes to pretend that it has a social conscious.

Our Caucasian (mostly male) politicians have failed to live up to their promises. More Aboriginal leaders need to emerge to keep the issue front and center in the minds of Canadians. It’s not about pumping in endless amount of money, but rather creating the conditions where self-empowerment prevails. Aboriginal leadership needs to be listened to and respected. The “us versus them mindset” needs to be abandoned and new ways of finding solutions for the issues of Aboriginal peoples need to be found.

Aboriginal leaders such as Romeo Saganash and Taiaiake Alfred, among many, offer great talent in finding the solutions.

How would you solve the plight of Aboriginal peoples, whether in Canada, the United States, Australia, or wherever around the world?

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.
– Cree Proverb


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2011 6:10 pm

    Extraordinary speaker. I’ll be writing a followup post to yours regarding this speaker.

    • December 4, 2011 6:15 pm

      Alfred’s a very bright guy. That would be great if you wrote something. Be sure to share this link with your network. Thanks Lynne.

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