Somehow, in my ten years of drawing and writing on all things Canadian for this site, I’ve never bothered to address the issue of Canada’s aboriginal people. Though I could lamely attempt to argue that there just haven’t been any good native-related stories to comment on until now, in all honesty, I just find the entire aboriginal beat incredibly tiresome, frustrating, and depressing. The issue is basically a black hole for commentary. Everything that can be said has already been said countless times in countless contexts, yet no insight, observation, or critique — no matter how profound or true — will ever actually move government policy in any meaningful direction. Canada’s Indian affairs status quo is about as static and entrenched as you can get, which is really quite disgusting when you consider how the status quo is failing practically everyone involved.
The Attawapiskat Indian reserve in northern Ontario has recently become the flash point de jure in Canada’s long, sad saga of aboriginal pathos. Home to around 1,800 members of the Cree First Nation, Attawapiskat has nevertheless managed to decay into the conditions of an overcrowded, third-world slum. Residents sleep in mouldy, dilapidated shacks and tents separated by mud roads and deep, opaque puddles sprung from broken sewer pipes. Many lack potable water and indoor heating. No one has a job.
In October, after the reserve declared itself to be in a state of emergency, Prime Minister Harper finally placed the entire reservation under a kind of receivership, appointing a third-party auditor to temporarily oversee the community and make recommendations to Ottawa as to how its deplorable conditions could be best addressed. The tribal government, in response, has blasted the move as an infringement on their local sovereignty, and last week, only hours after his arrival, successfully expelled the mediator from the reserve altogether.
What does the band council want instead of audits? You can probably guess.
Since the Attawapiskat story first broke, Canada’s newspapers have been crammed with daily outraged editorials, as the national pundit brigade opine with angry sorrow over How This Sort of Thing Is Allowed to Happen. Attawapiskat is not unusual at all, they all begin by noting. Third world conditions on Canadian aboriginal reserves are exceedingly common, as are a whole depressing host of other social ills and dysfunction, including poverty, illiteracy, crime, violence, suicide, addiction, and poverty. Nor is a lack of government handouts the obvious culprit. In the case of Attawapiskat, few reporters have failed to observe that the small reservation has received 90 million dollars in federal funds since 2006, greatly subsidizing the band’s traditional annual operating budget of $3o million. As Mark Milke in the National Post noted, this makes the Attawapiskat reserve considerably better funded on a per-capita basis than many of its larger, non-aboriginal surrounding municipalities — you know, the ones that can somehow provide running water to all their residents.
Aboriginal policy in Canada is a complicated mess of laws and ministries that date back to the 19th century (or earlier), but if you’re ever interested in reading a succinct summary of the whole consolidated, messy “system,” I highly recommend Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard. Among many other points, the authors’ thesis is that no system of government can ever be truly effective so long as it fails to tax its citizens. Yet Canada’s Indian Act, which lays out the contemporary reserve regime, greatly discourages band councils from pursuing this right. Rather than by making deductions to the incomes or purchases of its residents, reserve revenue arrives mostly through federal subsidies, provincial subsidies, municipal subsidies, loophole profits from things like casinos or cigarettes, lawsuits over historic acts of discrimination (such as Harper’s famous residential schools reparations) or royalties from mines, factories, or shopping malls set up within tribal borders (Attawapiskat, for instance, is home to a De Beers diamond mine that pays the band generously for granting access).
When all money flows to a government from the top down, and when all funds for services and entitlements are syphoned from external (and often heavily demonized), off-reserve figures like big corporations and the white-run federal government, corruption and laze inevitably follow. Corruption, because a band council in control of such an ample spigot of cash will inevitably be tempted to feather its own nest without fear of taxpayer revolt, and laze because what remains can be easily used to bribe residents into quiet compliance through exceedingly generous welfare programs, bureaucratic make-work, and other disincentives to actually becoming economically self-sufficient, engaged citizens.
It’s also true, of course, that the entire reserve idea itself is fundamentally flawed at its core, since it presumes that one’s place of residence should be determined primarily by tradition, rather than economic opportunity. Reservations are thus something of a grotesque abomination from an economist’s point of view, since they so heavily incentivize something which has no potential for generating long-term gain. Elsewhere in Canada and around the word, lebensraum-type schemes to push settlers to inhabit pointless stretches of land solely on the basis of patriotic duty have predictably failed once the settlers burn through their initial subsidies, and realize that there’s no other way to make money. It’s only because Canada’s aboriginal bureaucracies and tribal politicians are so enamored with the romantic idea of Natives “getting back to the land” and returning to “traditional lifestyles” amid 21st century modernity that such obviously unsustainable living conditions are still earnestly promoted as sensible and safe.
The last Canadian prime minister to honestly suggest revising the flawed aboriginal status quo was Pierre Trudeau, who, despite his leftist tendencies, was still quite hostile to the idea of special rights for certain races. In 1969 he suggested that Canada turf the Indian Act and the reserve system, and that Indians begin to integrate as ordinary Canadians, bound by the same constitutional rights and obligations as everyone else. Predictably, the aboriginal industry came down hard. There were simply too many powerful chiefs, lawyers, advisors, and bureaucrats who benefited from the present elaborate arrangement of special rights and special governments and all the rest of it, and Trudeau was forced to back down. Since then, the Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly ruled that native self-government and native title to the lands they wish to occupy are inherent rights, effectively slamming the door on future opportunities for reform.
Trudeau’s views were based on a sort of common-sense analysis that I think most Canadians share, and probably share in greater numbers than ever, in this post-Attawapiskat era. It’s too bad Canadian aboriginal policy is the place common sense goes to die.