Volume 38, Number 2: March/April 2004

John Richards’ Howlers on Aboriginal Policy

As I have had occasion to remark before, “God save me from intellectuals!” especially right-wing Canadian intellectuals, when they take unto themselves the impulse to discourse on Aboriginal policy.

In recent years, these people have perpetrated some real howlers, whose only use has been to indicate how deep the gap remains between the beliefs and posture of Aboriginal people in Canada, and what could at a pinch be described as the thinking of many influential, fuzzy-minded, well- intentioned, ill-informed Canadians of European background.

From Thomas Flanagon to John Richards

A couple of years ago the leader of the right-wing pack was Thomas Flanagan, the intellectual powerhouse of the Reform, aka the Alliance, aka the Conservative, party. Mr. Flanagan wrote a book, highly regarded and widely reviewed in the media, apparently before he had ever set foot in an Aboriginal community. I never read the book, but so far as I remember, it was stern stuff, calling on the Aboriginals to shape up, and espousing the line that the cure to all problems was for them to assimilate in Canadian society. This was welcomed by the press as a bold new policy.

At around the same time Jonathan Kay, the neanderthal right-wing editor of the editorial page of the National Post, (incidentally, he’s a favourite commentator for CBC television), took an active interest in Aboriginal policy, recommending the same bold policy.

And now John Richards, professor at Simon Fraser University, who has turned dramatically right and become an acolyte of the C.D. Howe Institute, has been getting a lot of attention for an article that recently appeared in the magazine Policy Options in which he recommends that Paul Martin must “rethink Aboriginal policy independently of the premises of tribal chiefs and their organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations.”

In other words, Aboriginal policy should ignore what the Indians and their leaders say they want, and instead hand over delivery of most Indian services to the provinces, which are, for the most part, regarded by Aboriginal people as unfriendly to Indians.

What alarms Richards the most, apparently, is the insistence of Aboriginal leaders that their people should be governed by the treaties signed with them as Europeans marched westward to take over their lands. There is a great deal of emphasis in Richards’ article on the $7 billion paid to (or for) Indians every year: but no recognition that this is a bargain price for what Europeans have gained from the exchange. The most recent of these exchanges, for example, that between the Crees of James Bay and the Quebec and Canadian governments, saw the Crees initially paid $139 million for privileges which now allow the governments and their corporate hangers-on to take $5 billion worth of electrical, mineral and forestry production every year from the lands they “bought” from the Indians.

Since many of the provisions of the original agreement were not fulfilled (for example, those covering economic development, under which the Crees were supposed to benefit in training and jobs), the Crees have recently made a new agreement which pays them $70 million a year – still a great bargain for the $5 billion wealth exchange. To get even this, the Crees have had to sell to Hydro-Quebec their central river, the Rupert, which they had spent 25 years defending, and agree that it should become part of the huge James Bay hydro scheme, a humiliation which is leading to increasing anger in the Cree communities, and has sullied the Cree reputation outside Quebec.

Richards also worries that under current policies, which provide free health care to Aboriginals, including dental care, a second tier of health insurance is created in Canada that “invites resentment among non-Aboriginals who pay taxes and yet receive fewer insured health services.”

There are a number of wonders about all these learned prescriptions for Indians by Canadian intellectuals. First, I suppose, is the naked assumption that Indians have proven themselves incapable of making decisions about their own lives: what else is to be assumed from Richards’ prescription, that the very bases of Aboriginal policy must be rethought by government without any reference to Indian chiefs or organizations? Second, and perhaps more important, is the blind ignorance of these people, who apparently have never heard that it has been Canadian policy since before the nation was founded to assimilate Indians into “the body politic,” and that pursuit of this policy led to monstrous legislation whose aim was to strip Indians of everything that might mean anything to them ‹- their languages, their beliefs, their religions, their rituals, their economies ‹- you name it, and Canadian policy in the past has tried to abolish or forbid or destroy it.

What are they teaching these professors? (Leaving aside that these guys are themselves actually teaching this stuff to people!)

Casual reference to diseases like diabetes omit to mention that the epidemic of this disease among Canada’s Aboriginals can be directly traced to the Euro success in destroying the Indian economies, leaving the native people bereft and at a loss to know what to do. In hardly any part of the country was a serious effort ever made to build a viable life around the remarkable skills of the native occupants of the land. More likely, they were just swept aside ruthlessly to make way for roads, railways, airports, farms, mines and all the paraphernalia of modern, industrialized life, including even parks and protected areas.

Establishment of Canada’s first National Park at Banff resulted in bands of Indians wandering the countryside in a desperate effort to find enough food to live on. They were unwanted either in the reserves that were set up for them (where they quickly became dependent on government food handouts), or in the countryside where they normally operated, because there they were constantly getting in the way of Western development. Anyone who arrived from Europe with any money-making scheme was given priority in land use over the original occupants of the land. I’m not making this up. That is a fact.

In the most recent such takeover, which I am familiar with, the Crees of James Bay were not even consulted before the Quebec government announced its plan to inundate their hunting territories and build one of the continent’s biggest hydro-electric generating schemes. The ignorance of the proponents of this scheme was so vast that when the natives protested the likely effects on the moose and caribou on which they depended for food, the engineers on the other side of the table said this was of no concern, because the Manitoba port of Churchill was open in the summer, and cattle could be shipped across Hudson’s Bay to the hungry Crees. (Remember, I am not making this up).

If Mr. Richards has any doubt about any of this having happened, he could consult Sarah Carter’s remarkable book, Lost Harvests, in which she proves without a doubt that even when Indians accepted the bases of Euro policy, and tried to become farmers, as they were intended to do, suddenly, in response to pressure from neighbouring white farmers, measures were taken by government to prevent the Indian farmers from selling their produce. In other words, successful Indians were never part of the Euro plan (an assertion supported by the fact that any Indian who attained a university degree was “deemed to be no longer an Indian”.)

Is this relevant to John Richards’ prescriptions for the Aboriginal future? One would think that any intellectual would be able to grasp the fact that the policy of integrating Aboriginals into the Canadian society has been the main determinant of their present desperate conditions. And that, the policy having failed, a more promising policy might rest in the rebuilding of Aboriginal confidence and pride in their heritage, the transfer to them of the resources on which alone they can build a promising economic future, and the establishment of mechanisms by which they can govern themselves, make their own decisions, within the Canadian polity.

What Richards is proposing.

  1. Government should adopt new policies without bothering about Aboriginal perceptions.
  2. Aboriginals should not be treated as separate from other Canadians, either in payments for welfare (social assistance), or for health and education benefits.
  3. Possibly, payments to Aboriginals should be cut in half by the payment of $2,500 a year to every adult Aboriginal, which would then be taxed by their local reserve authorities, putting Aboriginals on a par with other Canadians.
  4. Aboriginals should be subject, as other Canadians have been, to the modern trend towards making welfare dependent on “more meaningful work or training obligations for those seeking benefits.” This is standard right-wing stuff, designed to cut to the minimum payments to those who have been left behind in this competitive society.
  5. Aboriginals have apparently failed as administrators of social assistance. “Arguably the rules for government access to social assistance should be equal among all, independent of race.” Social assistance could be integrated with provincial social assistance programs, which “would entail professional social workers, most of them non-Aboriginal, determining eligibility for social assistance.”
  6. A compromise would be to withdraw from individual bands the authority to distribute welfare and entrust the function and budget to an intertribal social assistance agency for each province.
  7. Government should work to improve conditions for off-reserve Indians, which in turn would improve education.
  8. Finally, Paul Martin should insist that Aboriginal problems cannot be solved by “an exaggerated stress of otherness.” Concentration on treaties “is no substitute for better social policy.” These Indians! They can’t govern themselves! They are savages! Everything they touch, they create a mess! And they are, these days, demanding too much! This seems to be the thinking lying behind the prescriptions of this professor, which, so the media says, are now being treated with the greatest respect by thinkers in the government.

One gets a feeling that Mr. Richards is not familiar with reserves or Aboriginal communities. If he had spent 25 years, as I have, wandering the country from one Aboriginal community to the next, he would have gathered a sense of the really impressive effort that Aboriginal people are making all across the country to pull themselves out of their desperate situation by their boot-straps.

Everywhere, they are trying to build a viable economy (although hampered in that by the miserable resources left to them); trying to overcome the many pathologies with which their communities have been saddled after their 200 years of history as whipping boys for Euro arrogance; trying to re-establish the importance of their own languages, beliefs, and rituals, their profound understanding of the relationship between people and the Earth.

In my view, the future of Aboriginals in Canada depends on generous recognition by both government and public opinion of Aboriginal rights and title as the bedrock of relationship between our two peoples. And we not only need to recognize these rights, but to fulfil the deals we have made with them.

Surely our intellectuals can come up with something better, as a prescription for the future, than this melancholy right-wing stuff.

Boyce Richardson is a former journalist and filmmaker and a Member of the Order of Canada. This article and many others of interest may be found on BR’s website at www.boycespaper.com.