The Tragic Tale of Attawapiskat, and What It Might Mean for Canada

The Tragic Tale of Attawapiskat, and What It Might Mean for Canada

Fact #1: About 90% of Canadians live within 200 kilometres of the USborder. As a result, they are connected not only to the rest of the Western world but to each other. They generally share the same typical Western, post-globalisation experiences: driving on paved roads, eating fresh fruit, going to well-built schools and hospitals staffed by well-trained teachers and doctors. What about the other ten percent of Canadians? Most of them share these experiences too. But some don't. And you are far less likely to share these experiences if you are among the ten percent.

Fact #2: Regardless of where in Canada you live, you are generally much worse off if you happen to be an aboriginal Canadian. You are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses, alcoholism, depression, and homelessness. You are less likely to graduate high school. This is true both for the thirty percent of natives who live on government-sanctioned reserves and the seventy percent who live off-reserve in cities and rural communities. It's true primarily because to be an aboriginal Canadian is often to be poor, and poverty brings with a slew of health and social disadvantages. Societal and structural discrimination also play an important role.

These two facts were brought into sharp relief in the past few weeks as the Canadian media caught wind of the on-going tragedy that is Attawapiskat, a small, remote settlement of almost 2,000 people on the shore of James Bay in northern Ontario. Two months ago, the First Nations community declared a state of emergency, announcing that it had a critical housing shortage and was in dire need of assistance. The government's response has been disorganised and inadequate.

First, a small amount of money was allocated to retrofit homes. When the problem didn't miraculously disappear, the government unhelpfully suggested that residents could move into a local recreation centre, where there were no showers or other basic facilities. Then some unknown whiz in the government decided that the crisis must be the result of financial mismanagement on the part of the community - despite the fact that there is no evidence of such misconduct. Since the Canadian federal government provides native reserves with their funding, it retains control over how that funding is administered. In the case of Attawapiskat, a third-party manager was recruited from the private sector to administer the community's finances, against the expressed wishes of the community leaders. The fee: $1,300 per day, to be taken out of the very pot of money the community was already finding insufficient to meet their needs.

The chief of Attawapiskat flew to Ottawa and held a press conference, in which she described the community's desperation and condemned the imposition of external control over the town's finances. Almost instantly, the story went from buried brief to headline, and the political discourse switched into high gear. The Attawapiskat band council voted to prohibit the appointed financial manager from entering the community. The Official Opposition called for the government to send in the army. The government announced that it would send new mobile homes to the community, at a cost of over $1.2 million - but then added that it didn't know where the money would come from, and that the homes couldn't be delivered until late January, when the ice supporting the roads into the community becomes sufficiently solid. In the meantime, the government has called for an evacuation of the community.

The case of Attawapiskat is only the latest in a series of sad stories concerning Canada's aboriginal communities. It raises serious questions about the system of reserves and the political treatment of native peoples more broadly. The whole point of the reserve system is to provide aboriginal Canadians with the financial and social support necessary for them to continue to live in their traditional communities, with the challenges that lifestyle necessarily brings but without suffering Third World conditions. Clearly this objective is not being reached in Attawapiskat, but the difference between Attawapiskat and many other native communities, particularly those in remote parts of the country, is one of degree (and media attention) rather than kind.

There is a very real possibility that the ultimate result of this embarrassing pattern of crises will be the effective end of the system of native reserves. The system is constitutionally protected, so it cannot easily be ended outright, but the government could try to circumvent that obstacle by providing significant incentives for Canadian aboriginals to move off-reserve and into cities. Already, the demographic trend in Canada is strongly toward urbanization. The vast majority of Canadians today take for granted the amenities and facilities of urban centres. And they can do so because it is relatively easy for government to provide such services in cities, far easier than it is to make them available in remote areas.

But Canada, perhaps more than any other country, has always been about the places where most people do not live. Its national mythology is based around wilderness, and the resilient few who make their life there. The aboriginal peoples of Canada were the first to demonstrate such resilience, and many of them still do today. If the tradition of living in places like Attawapiskat is allowed (or encouraged) to die, the 'True North' will have become a little less true.


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