As the Roman historian Polybius wrote, learning from history can avert repetition of past mistakes. Most name-changing unnecessarily corrupts history.
One lesson from history, and geography, is that Aboriginal leaders—and grandstanding busybodies—don’t speak for the burgeoning cohort of followers doubling every twenty years. Multigenerational welfare recipients need help that works. Why don’t ostensible leaders demand the opportunities for education, sports and skills training that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commissioner, now a Senator, Murray Sinclair had, for example, when growing up in Selkirk, Manitoba?
Egerton Ryerson represented the admittedly paternalistic views of the nineteenth century, and he’s much derided for saying that the purpose of residential schools was to take the Indian out of the Indian. But I ask: What was there about traditional culture that was valid for the times? And what is there today? Whatever the immense shortcomings in implementation, Ryerson and Prime Minister Macdonald intended that residential schools enable students to earn a living in the modern economy.
When taking Treaty in 1876, Chief Poundmaker said, “When I commence to settle on the lands to make a living for myself and my children, I beg of you to assist me in every way possible. When I am at a loss how to proceed, I want the advice and assistance of the government. The children yet unborn, I wish you to treat them in like manner as they advance in civilization like the white man.”
Chief Poundmaker evidently thought he was getting equality of opportunity and citizenship, along with help to make that happen. Almost at once, of course, betrayal set in, leading to the brief rebellion in 1885.
Even today there’s no reconciliation of the romance of the pre-industrial Garden of Eden that never was with the opportunities and rewards of the modern world. The 1995 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples wrote about suicide in its report Choosing Life:
Aboriginal youth described both the exclusion from the dominant society and the alienation from the now-idealized but once-real life on the land that is stereotypically associated with aboriginality. The terrible emptiness of feeling strung between two cultures and psychologically at home in neither has been described.
France’s GEO magazine reported, for example, that a young man in Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, would have dearly loved to move to the South for the opportunity to become an airline pilot, and his wife would have liked to be an interior designer. They lamented that their circumstances made that dream impossible. Drum dancing and throat-singing are in. Calculus and chemistry are out. Nunavut starts teaching children to read English only in Grade 4, using books for pre-schoolers. One young man told me his schooling in Iqaluit was torture by boredom.
Decades ago, when I was the advisor on education for an inquiry into conditions in northern Ontario, we asked these questions: Should we deliver education for the industrial economy? Should we deliver education for life on a remote northern lake? Or should we combine these objectives? And, if we aim to combine them, do you think we can do that successfully?
Overwhelmingly, Indians said they wanted education for both objectives, and they were emphatic that it would work. But the government never got to first base on delivery.
Recently, I asked an Ojibwa grandmother in Ottawa whether she would consider returning to her reserve in northern Ontario. “No!” she answered explosively, “I hate that place, with all the violence and rape and murder and suicide. There’s nothing to do and there’s nothing there for our young people except trouble.” Later, I asked her niece how she had come to move to Ottawa. She said that aged thirteen she was not going to school for fear of getting gang-raped on the way home. Unusually, her mother had a job in the band office and could save money for the move.
Maclean’s magazine had a special edition about racism in Winnipeg. It said the circumstances for Aboriginals in Canada are a national disgrace, and statistically worse on all major counts, except for the incarceration rate, than for African Americans in the United States. Exceptionally, in Vancouver Indians run a comprehensive program that starts by helping with housing and addictions issues and goes on to education, skills training and job placement. Why isn’t it replicated across Canada?
A recent press release from Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said how proud she was that a community on Manitoulin Island is getting six new houses. Six houses! The immediate requirement in arctic and subarctic settlements is for a hundred thousand! Assuming ongoing support for remote settlements, I estimate that achieving Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s stated aim of closing the gap would require $150 billion, or twice the entire market value of General Motors, plus a multiple of the current operating budget. Faced with similar challenges half a century ago, the Government of Newfoundland helped 30,000 people to move from outports because delivering services was unaffordable. In any case, you can’t put a shoe factory into a remote settlement and expect it to compete with China.
It’s clear from suicide, crime, teenage pregnancy and unemployment statistics that, overall, Indians and Inuit have fallen far behind since the speech the Indian chief and film actor Dan George delivered fifty years ago under the title Lament for Confederation:
Oh Canada, how can I celebrate with you this Centenary, this hundred years? ... Oh God! Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success - his education, his skills - and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society.
Mr. Trudeau has written: “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.” Recently in Hamburg he said, “Citizens across the political spectrum are looking .., for a voice, and so far, they’re feeling a little let down.”
Aboriginals I talk to feel let down to the antipodes. Never mind name-changing. There’s real history unfolding, and it sickens me.
Colin Alexander was publisher of the Yellowknife News of the North and the advisor on education for the Ontario Royal Commission on the Northern Environment. He lives in Ottawa and has family living in Nunavut.Commenting Policy
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