Choices for First Nations

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Dec 01 2011.    Christopher Alcantara

About a month ago, a state of emergency was declared for the Attawapiskat First Nation, approximately 500 kilometres north of Timmins.

The reason was the deplorable living conditions on the reserve. Many of the houses, for instance, lack proper insulation, reliable heating, running water and sewage disposal.

Unfortunately, the plight of Attawapiskat residents is not an isolated or unique event. Many reserves across Canada face a similar situation, with most commentators arguing that more money needs to be spent on improving living conditions on these reserves.

Lost in this debate is the larger question of whether remote indigenous communities are viable in the first place and if they are not, whether the federal and provincial governments should support them.

From a strictly economic perspective, the answer is probably no.

Unless there is a significant natural resource being developed, many remote locations offer few economic opportunities to make a decent wage and standard of living.

As well, the costs of living in these locations are frequently high, since the goods and services that many Canadians enjoy conveniently and cheaply in the south or in urban areas must be transported long distances at great expense.

From a moral and legal perspective, however, the answer is probably yes. The Crown, on behalf of all Canadian citizens, signed treaties with indigenous peoples in Canada, thus creating a special constitutional and fiduciary relationship between aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state.

This means we have a duty as Canadians to respect the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination, which includes supporting the decision of aboriginals to live in remote communities, whatever their reasons for doing so.

As well, subsidizing remote indigenous communities has moral force because indigenous peoples and their lands have long fuelled the Canadian economy. So paying for the right of indigenous peoples to live in remote communities would be one small way of recognizing this fact.

Nonetheless, these moral and legal reasons shouldn’t prevent policy-makers and community members from exploring other possible solutions, as long as these solutions are consistent with our constitutional and treaty relationship with aboriginal peoples.

One solution, for instance, might be for the federal and provincial governments to provide remote First Nations with special funds (either through a one-time grant or a low-interest loan) to invest or partner with larger First Nations to pursue economic development opportunities in the south.

A number of remote First Nations, for instance, might use special funding from the federal and provincial governments to partner together to invest in a casino or cultural centre located in an urban setting. The off-reserve revenue streams produced by these developments would then provide remote First Nations with sustainable funding to help maintain infrastructure and housing on their reserves and gradually allow them to redirect federal funding toward other priority areas, like social services and education.

A more radical solution would be to provide lucrative incentives for indigenous members to move out of remote communities and into places where standards of living are higher, costs of living lower, and economic opportunities more available.

Some might view this suggestion as a new form of assimilation and if this were the end of the policy suggestion, they would be right.

The key to the success of this scenario, however, would be to ensure that these members had access to sufficient resources to not only thrive in their new locations, but also to defend and cultivate their aboriginal rights and identities.

The Crown, for instance, would have to explicitly recognize that aboriginal rights and title travel with the individuals regardless of their geographic location and that the Canadian state has a constitutional obligation to protect and give meaning to these rights, as defined by the aboriginal groups themselves.

In practice, this might include creating new or modifying existing self-government structures to better reflect this new reality and ensuring that members have the ability to frequently access their traditional lands, however far those lands may be.

Of course, these alternative solutions are not the only ones that should be explored nor should they be implemented in isolation from each other.

Instead, the Crown needs to work with indigenous leaders and affected community members to develop a wide range of innovative solutions to a problem that cannot be adequately addressed by a one-size-fits-all solution.

Christopher Alcantara is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book, Negotiating the Deal: Comprehensive Land Claims Agreements in Canada, is forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.

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