Blame game doesn’t help First Nations

Posted on June 6, 2015 in Equality Debates – Opinion
June 05, 2015.   By John Snobelen

Way back when I toiled as Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources, I had a rather optimistic view on First Nations.

I thought that fixing the perpetual problems that plague indigenous communities should be a top priority.

The challenges were well known.

High unemployment. Dramatically lower life expectancy. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Drug abuse. High rates of incarceration. High rates of teen suicide.

The list of social issues persists generation after generation.

We need something to break the cycle.

In my naivety, I thought government should engage the issue in a dramatically new way.

I heard from a lot of dedicated First Nations leaders.

I visited reserves across the province.

I came to the conclusion First Nations issues cried out for not just improvement, but change.

In my view, no amount of cash or bureaucratic engagement would or will alter the future for the next generation.

We need a new model of engagement.

I also had the wise council of people who had previously dented their ax on these issues.

They said the First Nations file was a quagmire of blame, entitlement, constitutional wrangling and bureaucratic overlap.

Maybe they were right.

It seems every politician who touches the First Nations’ file gets burned.

As Ontario opposition leader, Dalton McGuinty had a field day blaming then-premier Mike Harris for responding too quickly to the illegal occupation of a provincial park and the subsequent tragic death of a protester.

But when McGuinty became premier, he was burned by the occupation of private land in Caledonia and his government’s failure to enforce the law.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on the side of the angels in apologizing for the sad history of residential schools in Canada.

But his bold initiative to invest in the education of First Nations children died in a torrent of indigenous politics.

This week the commission Harper sent out to hear the stories of residential schools reported.

It wasn’t a fact-finding mission.

Harper asked three people with strong links to the First Nations to report on the truth.

The truth they found was not surprising.

Two hundred years ago the government of what became Canada was certain indigenous people were doomed if they couldn’t assimilate.

That conclusion drove a policy that took 150,000 indigenous children from their communities and placed them in the supposedly caring hands of religious schools.

It was a tragic blunder. Thousands of children died. The religious institutions allowed unspeakable crimes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard stories from those who felt the effects of a terrible, government-initiated attack on the cultures of the First Nations.

Committing those stories to a permanent record, which will, when it is released, fill six volumes, is a useful thing.

The recommendations of the commission are, sadly, not.

The 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission range from the obvious, like allowing name changes, to the ludicrous, like changing the oath of citizenship.

But the theme of all these recommendations is familiar — more money, more bureaucracy, no substantive change.

To find the change we need the commission should have looked to the First Nations communities that are doing well, often without government help, and learned from their efforts.

But, like most commissions, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in the business of blame.

All of which sets the stage for the next opportunistic and naive politician to get burned.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has endorsed the commission’s recommendations in full. Good luck with that.

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