A chequebook alone won't solve First Nations problems

Money for child welfare on reserves is clearly long overdue and can only help, Neil Macdonald writes. But the other big issue — of isolation — and the despair, hopelessness and anger it inspires, may be more intractable.

Money will help, but another big barrier will be getting Canadians to care

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde looks on as Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, speaks about the effect of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling on indigenous children in care. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It was shameful, but obvious, why the Harper government stonewalled and blocked and even retaliated against Cindy Blackstock, the advocate for native children, who finally triumphed Tuesday at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

The former government did this for nine years. And not just because the issues of indigenous people were not a government priority (they clearly weren't); or because Stephen Harper's default position was to reduce social services, not increase them.

No, the only possible rationale for why Ottawa spent more than $5 million trying to quash a complaint that the government of Canada was systematically discriminating against native children in providing child welfare services was because it knew there wouldn't be any uproar; the Canadian public itself just doesn't care enough about aboriginal problems.

In fact, until the tribunal ruled yesterday that systemic discrimination had indeed been taking place, and ordered immediate remedial action, most people were unaware the complaint had even been lodged.

Not much had been written about it in mainstream Canadian media, probably because assignment editors know viewers and readers are largely indifferent to most stories that deal with aboriginal problems.

Yes, sometimes indigenous issues flare into big news: The video of the Innu teens in Labrador, minds unhinged from "huffing" gasoline fumes, talking about suicide pacts, shamed Canada worldwide in the 1990s.

The shootings in La Loche, in northern Saskatchewan, last week, which almost certainly had something to do with isolation and mental distress (among other things, the leadership of the Dene town has asked for more child welfare services), was a big story.

But probably not nearly so big as it would have been had the violence erupted in, say, some suburb of Ottawa, or Vancouver.

Angus talks about discrimination against children in his riding

6 years ago
Charlie Angus a NDP MP from Northern Ontario gives his reaction to the Human Rights Tribunal decision on Indigenous Children 1:29

Oka's legacy

One really big story, of course, was the Oka Crisis of 1990, when, after the town's mayor greedily decided to expand a private golf course, in which he was a member, onto a traditional burial ground, and called in police to enforce his will, militant Mohawks took up arms and fought back.

A SWAT team attacked a group of women and children who were holding a sit-in, and a police corporal was shot dead in an exchange of gunfire.

The militants then built a barrier of crushed police cars and closed the highway through Oka's Kanesatake lands; sympathetic Mohawks from Kahnawake, across the St. Lawrence River, closed access to a major bridge to Montreal.  

The federal government had to send in the army. The Mohawk "Warriors" who acted as the muscle behind the uprising, were widely demonized, especially in Quebec media, as something close to terrorists. Most were charged criminally once it was all over.

But they won. Put simply, had it not been for those warriors and their willingness to pick up guns, there would be eighteen holes in that golf course today.

I was there for the entire 77 days, and I couldn't help thinking that if I were a young Mohawk, marginalized and excluded and ignored by the larger society around me, I'd have been on that barricade with a rifle, too. (Just as I'd have probably reached for the bag of gasoline if I'd been one of those kids in Labrador.)

In the end, though, Oka was only a narrow victory; a patch of land was held, nothing more.

There were all sorts of promises of reform to native affairs policy, and a new page was promised, and speeches were made, but once the bridge and highway were re-opened, public indifference and ennui returned.

Whose land?

Now, it is true that attitudes have changed in recent years, at least in certain circles.

Our new prime minister has a Haida tattoo, and he immediately accepted all the 90-plus recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

His heart's in the right place. During his swearing-in at Rideau Hall in November, the presiding official began by declaring:

"I would like to begin by acknowledging we are meeting today on the traditional lands of the Algonquin people."

That's something you hear a lot nowadays at public events, particularly at government or university functions; generally, the sentiment is that everyone is standing on the unceded land of such-and-such a people.

But there is something irritating about the moral smugness of it all.

Bellegarde says the Tribunal decision is a win for First Nations children

6 years ago
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde told reporters the Human Rights Tribunal decision today is the end of a long road 1:56

Just once, I'd like to hear someone stand up and ask: "OK, great. So what are you proposing? Handing this land back? Or is this just to make us feel a little less guilty?"

That's not an empty question.

Just as the federal government immediately accepted the ruling of the Canadian Human Rights tribunal yesterday, and promised the money necessary to provide proper health and welfare services to native populations, it could, if it wanted, settle all outstanding native land claims, which have been dragging on for decades.

That is a money issue — a lot of money, maybe $15 billion or so, and it would have to be either gathered in taxes or reallocated from other spending and parcelled out over years. But it's doable if the political will is there.


The other issue — of isolation — and the despair, hopelessness and anger it inspires, is something more intractable.

There is a reason that up to half of inmates in some Canadian prisons are native, and it has nothing to do with innate criminality.

Immigrants are expected to acculturate, if not assimilate. Indigenous people are special; they have the absolute right to remain separate.

But there is a price in that: they are easily forgotten. Their isolation, and depression, and hopelessness, and atrocious rate of substance abuse and suicide, are simply pushed out of mind.

Back in the days when Canada was in the forefront of trying to end apartheid in South Africa, that reviled nation's ambassador in Ottawa, Glenn Babb, used to love visiting hardscrabble native communities, with reporters in tow, and muse about how similar they were to the black townships back home.

It drove Canadian liberals crazy, mainly because he had a point.

Since then, South Africa has changed tremendously. But when it comes to the treatment of indigenous people, Canada really hasn't.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.