Economic opportunity ends First Nation culture of dependence

Posted on November 21, 2013 in Equality Delivery System – business – Fruits of success: Councils need to consider projects that can provide members social stability and prosperity
November 21, 2013.   Ellis Ross

In 2003, I was first elected to Haisla Nation Council and I was intent on opposing just about every economic development project coming our way, from fish farms to natural gas. Fortunately, experienced councillors suggested that before I took any hard and fast positions I consider unbiased facts and the community’s social situation.

It didn’t take long before the full extent of our community’s problems hit home, angering and saddening me at the same time. Before my political career, I was one of those who applauded political speeches on unemployment, poverty, independence, and the relationship between First Nations and the Crown. But it was clear that 30 years of speeches and government programs had changed nothing for the average Haisla person who just wanted a job. Unemployment was still at 60 per cent, housing was based on handouts from Ottawa, and, worst of all, substance abuse and suicide were commonplace and were destroying our people’s hopes for a brighter future.

I was fortunate to have found work outside of my reserve for most of my adult life, but there are only so many jobs in depressed economies, and the long-term jobs were kept out of our reach by organizations associated with the corporations set up in our territory. The result was our young men and women either had to leave home for employment or stay home and accept seasonal work (and unemployment insurance) or welfare. Leaving ancestral homes is a hard decision for First Nations people to make. The land is connected to our protocols, our culture, and to our past.

Many reasons have contributed to the demise of our peoples and communities, but perhaps the foremost is the culture of dependence. Dependence in our case was from the top down – from a council dependant on government funding to the individual band member being dependent on council or welfare.

Our people are not lazy. Our traditional culture was one of hard work to bring in food, resources, and wealth. Perhaps our culture has not worked so well with non-Haisla culture, but our work ethic cannot be questioned.

If poverty is the only lifestyle you know, it is very difficult to realize there is a way out. Any band member who is watching development and wealth generation in his territory without having an opportunity to be a part of it is going to grow resentful.

Those First Nations that are succeeding – strong employment levels, healthy communities, few social ills – appear to have gained a level of independence, and have achieved it mostly through economic development. Discussions in these communities increasingly concern shift work, double time, new bosses, and how paycheques will go toward the next hunting trip or holiday vacations.

The Haisla now have many proposals in front of us that we have to consider. When we look at these proposals we have to find accurate information in terms of impacts, benefits, and feasibility. Sub-topics might be rights of way, fracking, logging practices, financing, permitting, corporate structures, emissions, land ownership – the list goes on. We do have to consider the future, but we also have to consider the present situation our membership is in and try to put them in a position where they can help themselves.

So far, the outlook has been positive.

Our people have jobs. They have hope. They are confident about their futures. The despair that comes with poverty is slowly disappearing, but we have more work to do to ensure their confidence can be sustained. We know that to become a strong independent nation, we need to have strong independent members.

We will continue to look at the contentious issues that are in front of us. We will work with the Crown and the development proponents to resolve issues, but we can never lose sight of why we’re working around the council table and in boardrooms in Vancouver and Victoria and Ottawa – our members need a future.

What we have achieved to date has not only helped our members, but has boosted the region and the non-aboriginal community in ways that we have not yet even started to measure.

Ellis Ross is the elected chief councillor of the Haisla Nation in Kitamaat Village.

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