It’s always about money [Aboriginal Protest of Olympics]

TheGlobeandMail.com – It’s always about money: VANOC and the aboriginal torch relay. Dependency spending doesn’t work, as some native leaders understand
Published on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010. Last updated on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010.   Gary Mason

From the day organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics began their planning, the role that Canada’s aboriginal communities would play in the Games was interwoven into virtually every discussion.

They would be full partners, VANOC chief John Furlong insisted, not guilty-conscience afterthoughts. The Games were to reflect the rich, cultural influence Canada’s first nations have had on the country.

VANOC would choose the inukshuk, an Inuit landmark, as its symbol. It would make sure that aboriginals got Games-related jobs and positions on Olympic-related committees and boards. The Olympic torch would travel to remote aboriginal communities in the Far North where the flame had never been before. Olympic tickets would be made available to first nations communities.

And those were just a fraction of the efforts VANOC was making to ensure that Canada’s aboriginal communities didn’t feel left out.

So you might have imagined VANOC’s surprise when a group of B.C. native leaders announced last week that they were going to use the Games to protest against their people’s miserable lot in life.

The group represented the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council. At a news conference, its spokesmen said that, since there were going to be 14,000 journalists in Vancouver during the Games, it would be a perfect opportunity to tell the world how horribly treated Canada’s native people were. And, oh yeah, they were upset that the B.C. government hadn’t coughed up $6.2-million in funding to help aboriginal forestry businesses. The insinuation was that if the group got the money, the protests might not happen.

What the group’s representatives failed to mention was that they hadn’t given the B.C. government any type of business plan that showed how they were going to spend the millions. The government said it wasn’t prepared to hand over the money with no questions asked.

The problem with a certain sector of the aboriginal leadership in B.C. – and much of Canada, for that matter – is that it’s always about money. There’s never enough of it from government to address aboriginals’ many problems. And I don’t say that disrespectfully.

We all know about the horrific situation that exists in too many aboriginal communities. And it persists despite the billions of dollars that have been spent over the decades on a wide array of (mostly failed) programs aimed at addressing the problems.

Let’s face it: Dependency spending doesn’t work. That’s surely been proved by now. And many of the more enlightened native leaders in Canada understand that. The way to halt the cycle of welfare addiction, with the societal and health-related issues it promotes, is through the stability provided by economic independence.

There are a growing number of first nations communities, most notably the Osoyoos and Westbank in B.C., that recognize this. Many of these groups, led by young, smart, charismatic leaders, aren’t waiting to sign treaties – an agonizingly slow process. They’re just moving ahead, building wineries and housing developments, and leaving their grievances with the government for the courts to sort out.

But standing on your own two feet isn’t easy. Northern B.C.’s Nisga’a, who signed the first modern-day treaty in the province in 1998, are discovering this for themselves. Encouraging entrepreneurship is difficult. Getting your citizens off welfare is no fun. Finding a way to get kids to graduate from high school and then get job training afterward is challenging stuff.

For many native leaders, it’s easier to rail against the government as the source of all that ails first nations people. Many of these leaders, it should be noted, are actually doing quite well themselves. They’ve been able to profit handsomely by overseeing projects of all manner of description and worthiness, for various levels of governments. But their poor people. If only the government would hand over more money to help them out.

Those who want to see Canada’s aboriginals live longer, healthier lives, who want to see their pride and self-confidence restored, know that cashing welfare cheques isn’t the answer. Things will only truly begin to change when our aboriginal communities, and their leadership, assume personal responsibility for their future happiness.

Some first nations are already doing that. Maybe that’s the story native leaders should be talking about at the Olympics.

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