End native apartheid
NationalPost.com – news
Dec. 1, 2011. Tasha Kheiriddin, National Post
When NDP MP Charlie Angus posted video of the squalid living conditions in Attawapiskat, what struck me most were the children. A boy of 10, his face covered in a scabbing rash. Four children under the age of five, living in an uninsulated tent. A trio of small children, staring vacantly at the camera (while, incongruously, a big flat screen TV played in the background). Other children have described worse: Hair falling out, bleeding noses, puking.
Due to the squalid housing conditions on the reserve – cold, mould, smoky air from wood burning stoves – these kids suffer from frequent respiratory infections, ear infections, strep throat and rashes. Due to overcrowding, neglect and abuse, they suffer from mental-health issues. Native children commit suicide at a rate five to seven times higher than the non-native population; for Inuit children, the rate is 11 times higher, one of the highest in the world.
Children living in such squalor in non-native environments would be likely removed from their families and placed in foster care. But the grim legacy of the residential school system, and the political incorrectness of jeopardizing the maintenance of their aboriginal heritage, means native kids are left to suffer while the rest of Canada remains largely ignorant.
No one is advocating that First Nations children be subjected to the cruelties of residential schools, where previous generations were told to be ashamed of being Indian, deliberately turned against their culture, and subjected to sexual and physical abuse. But the reality is that by leaving them in environments like Attawapiskat, we are knowingly condemning them to a cycle of poverty, abuse and neglect, a cycle that no amount of tax dollars has been able – or will be able – to break.
Yet that is exactly what governments have done for the past six decades under the Indian Act, by perpetuating a system of aboriginal apartheid.
Aboriginal apartheid benefits no one, except the thousands of bureaucrats, lawyers, advisors and activists whose livelihoods depend on the continued misery of aboriginal Canadians – and the exploitation of the legal relationship between them and Ottawa, carved out by the Indian Act and treaties signed centuries ago. Land claims negotiations drag on, law conferences are held, aboriginal leaders collect salaries that in some cases are higher than the Prime Minister’s. Yet kids are still sniffing glue and hanging themselves, all in the name of maintaining connections to the land and aboriginal traditions.
Canada’s reserve system is economically unsustainable in the 21st century. For communities that have no resources to exploit, or are so remote as to be completely reliant on outside aid, the system means eternal dependence on Ottawa and a life devoid of opportunity. For those who do have resources, or are proximate to major urban centres, government support should logically eventually become unnecessary, as industries develop and trade increases. Yet under the current regime, the latter doesn’t seem to happen, because the reserve system’s tax benefits and transfers provide a perverse incentive for people to stay put, even when opportunity may be better elsewhere.
What is the answer to improving the lives of those aboriginal children in Charlie Angus’ video? It is scrapping the Indian Act and putting a stop to aboriginal apartheid. It is getting them and their families out of Attawapiskat, to places where they can access opportunity and make something of their lives. Their land may give aboriginals a past, but unless it also gives them a future, it should not yoke generation after generation of kids to a life of poverty and despair.
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