Forced equality fails

Posted on June 10, 2009 in Equality Debates – Full Comment – Forced equality fails
Posted: June 09, 2009.  James B. Wilson

Can a conservative response to a social crisis lead to greater equity and justice for First Nations people in Canada? Absolutely, but those crises must be met head on, not hidden from. Contrary to popular liberal rhetoric, one cannot mandate restorative justice or legislate prosperity. Colonization, patronizing promises and smothering assimilation policies by successive Canadian governments stand as a testimony of continuous social injustice toward First Nations people. After the dismal track record of successive Liberal Canadian governments on this front, conservatives should take on this chronic social catastrophe; it may be our only long term hope for equality.

What hasn’t worked? Big-government responses that deny individual agency have failed miserably — residential schools are a glaring example. As are media-driven events that favour show over substance, such as the Kelowna Accord (a $5-billion Liberal showpiece that had no objectives, measures or indicators attached to it). What has worked in the past is small government approaches that enable and encourage individual and collective agency. Such policies give First Nations people access to equal opportunity — the same access as mainstream Canadians.

Canada’s First Nations are plagued with the societal indicators of a culture brutalized by colonization and forced assimilation. Historical policies denying individual and community agency have led to self-victimization and despairing cycles of dependency. However, many communities have “seen the future by wiping the tears from their eyes,” and embracing individual and collective agency through conservative approaches, such as free markets, property rights, economic development and strong accountable governance structures. They have broken from the cycle of dependency and flourished, emerging as strong, healthy and vibrant. They have overcome the social crisis and have forged a new trail for those in struggling reserve communities.

Best described by Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah in Rescuing Canada’s Right, a conservative approach to creating social equality entails creating equal opportunity for groups like Canada’s First Nations, not the forced equality bantered about in the past. For the government, that means creating supportive systems that will level the playing field so that First Nations people can climb out of crisis and into prosperity.

The first policy that can enable equal opportunity is one that addresses property rights and home ownership. Currently in Canada, in order to own a house on reserve banks need a guarantee from a mortgagee’s chief and council (regardless of their credit rating). Since this policy results in the vast majority of property and homes on Canadian reserves not being privately owned, there is no long-term wealth creation. Reserve economies have become largely cash-based. A conservative approach supports home ownership and property, thereby creating the building blocks for a viable on-reserve economy.

First Nations schooling across Canada is a second clear example. Schools on reserve operate on roughly 30% to 40% less funding per student than their provincial counterparts and are more often situated in remote locations, where distance increases costs and factors related to lower socio-economic status further impede learning. The inequity results in lower academic achievement and graduation rates, overcrowding and less access to postsecondary opportunities. As level of education is the most substantial indicator of future employment and income it would seem self-evident that providing equality in funding of education to First Nations students will result in an equalizing of economic opportunity.

Conservatives must confront the social justice issues of First Nations people directly if they wish to demonstrate that their approach is in fact the best way for First Nations to achieve long-term justice, freedom and independence in society. Failing to act, for fear of being labelled either politically incorrect or racist, will not help. Providing equality of opportunity will allow First Nations people to assert agency in their lives, and finally get over the vicious cycle of colonization and dependency.

-James B. Wilson is director of education of the Opaskwayak Educational Authority.

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