Aboriginal apartheid sentences Canadian natives to misery

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NationalPost.com – FullComment
Nov 30, 2011.    Tasha Kheiriddin

When MP Charlie Angus posted video of the squalid living conditions in Attawapiskat, what struck me most were the images of children. A boy of ten, his face covered in a scabbing rash. A family of six, including four children under the age of five, living in an uninsulated tent for two years. A trio of small children, staring vacantly at the camera (while, incongruously, a big flat screen television played cartoons in the background).

This isn’t the first documentation of the conditions in Attawapiskat. Another videoposted in 2009 by supporters of Shannen Koostachin, an aboriginal girl who lost her life at 15 in a car accident, has children describing their health problems themselves: hair falling out, bleeding noses, puking.

As the doctor in Angus’s video described, 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. Indian children commit suicide at a rate 5-7 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, has effectively taken this option off the table for native kids. The result is that they are left to suffer in places like Attawapiskat, Davis Inlet, and the like, while the rest of the country remains ignorant of their plight, until its hits crisis levels, or a politician takes a personal interest.

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, sometimes with the ulterior motive of asserting Canada’s sovereignty in far flung northern locations. Inuit communities were resettled to places such as Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay in the 1950’s, purportedly to place them closer to food sources, but in reality to serve as the equivalent of human flagposts, bolstering Canadian claims to the High Arctic. Attawapiskat was also not a permanent settlement until the 1970’s: it was the summer home of the Omushkego James Bay Cree, who would head inland or down the coast in the wintertime to hunt and trap.

Aboriginal apartheid benefits no one, except the Indian industry. That’s the term coined to describe 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.

The reality is that Canada’s reserve system is economically unsustainable in the twenty-first century. For communities which 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.

And according to research published by the Frontier Centre in 2008, it generally is. On the Kahnawake reserve next to Montreal, median earnings for all persons over 15 were $15,744. By contrast, aboriginals who live in Montreal took in $22,269, far closer to the median income for all Montrealers, which was $26,731. The study also found that “Aboriginals in Montreal show a higher level of educational achievement, a higher participation rate in the labour force, and unemployment and government transfers which are lower when compared to the reserve.”

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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