Volume 41, Number 1: January/February 2007

New Clothes, Same Old Canadian Thinking

There are Aboriginal lawyers, doctors, judges, professors, teachers, architects, engineers, writers, musicians, artists, politicians, corporate executives, bureaucrats. In fact, Aboriginal peoples can be found in all walks of life today. But for most Aboriginal people in Canada, descendants of the first occupants of this land, whether they live in the cities or the country, poverty is an everyday reality. In this time and place, poverty means shame, constant worry and fear.

In Canada, we newcomers take pride in not having fought Indian wars in order to take possession of the territory. We take pride, that is, in having made solemn treaty promises and then broken them. We used economic deprivation to drive Aboriginal peoples into signing treaties. And then we ignored the solemn promises that were made. Today, as in the past, economic deprivation is the great piston that drives the capitalist motor. That means the poverty, and the shame, and the constant worry, and the fear are tools of this system. And so, modern treaties get signed. More promises are made. Everyone shakes hands and smiles for the cameras and feels good. Real optimistic.

Another kind of poverty lies in the ideas that continue to be the foundation of Aboriginal policy-making, in the smugness of the cozy consensus that has circulated among political elites around Aboriginal issues for the last century and a half. The party of the Right and the party of the far Right, and the media that serve their interests, want to see “progress” in Aboriginal communities through “modernization” and “development.” Each new set of proposals comes with these three heralds: development, modernization, progress. Each generation brings a new set of the same proposals with the same heralds. If you follow this long enough, and read some of the history around it, it gets rather depressing. How much more progress can these communities take?

When the poorly funded infrastructure problems on reserves reach epidemic levels, as recently at Kashechewan in northern Ontario, the response is nothing short of an incredible wave of breathtaking stupidity: Politicians and their media friends are talking seriously about wholesale relocation of the community to Timmons. Anyone contemplating the relocation of Kashechewan should read Ila Bussidor and Usten Bilgen-Reinart’s Night Spirits, which deals with the relocation of the Sayasi Dene from Duck Lake to Churchill and, after more than a decade of misery in a government-built, locally stigmatized shantytown; the courageous return of the people to their traditional lands; and the setting-up of the community of Tadoule Lake. In spit of compelling historical examples and in spite of the fact that Cree from Kashechewan have lived since the world was new in their northern territories, and signed a treaty that promised they could live their life ways “for as long as the sun shines, the grasses grow and the rivers flow,” one hundred years later it has become convenient to forget those promises, ignore all those historical examples and get on with full-scale assimilation. Again.

Isn’t it interesting that Aboriginal communities, which will be in the north for the indefinite future, have vastly poorer infrastructures than non-Aboriginal industry towns in the north, which will last a couple of generations at most? The Aboriginal communities have no tax base. They rely on the federal government for funding. The industry towns have a real-estate tax base. No one has ever thought of funding infrastructure on reserves based on taxes from any “development” on their home territories. The mines, the hydro projects, the timber would be a source of some local wealth, rather than, when all the dollars are pumped south and environmental degradation is left up north, a source of local misery.

While the Left has a strong empathy for Aboriginal issues and feels a natural constituency among Aboriginal peoples, it has not in practice done very well at reaching across the cultural boundary. Like the Right, it comes with a self-enclosed set of prescriptions and solutions, and, like the Right, it comes educated in a sanctioned ignorance of colonial history and reality. Yet, we have much to learn from Aboriginal peoples, many of whom are far more “developed” than their Western neighbours when it comes to democratic decision-making forms; when it comes to building communities that deserve the name of community; when it comes to maintaining a sustainable balance with their ecological settings; and when it comes to asking spiritual questions in an open, curious, non-sectarian and non-institutional way.

There are leaders among Aboriginal peoples in urban centres and rural communities all across Canada. Their messages do not come in pre-packaged words that we can fit into our already-existing ideologies. But they are compelling, and it is our urgent task to have the patience and openness to listen, to learn.