Hearing story after story about the tragic living conditions of natives in Canada, including the recent developments at the remote Kashechewan reserve in Northern Ontario, I often wonder why so many people choose to live in communities that are unviable. Heritage is important, but even so, many cultures have disappeared from the face of the earth, and many more still will.
While no one wishes to say these things, they are no less true. Our native peoples once ruled this land. They are a proud people, and have a distinct heritage that no one could ever deny them of. They were here before the white man, and for the most part, did very well for themselves. In fact, the biggest threat that they ever had to endure was the arrival of the European’s; our ancestors.
Every land mass on the face of this earth, save for the Garden of Eden and Antarctica, has been either subdued or conquered, and Canada is no exception. Our forefathers were conquerors. We have been portrayed as settlers, but for the most part, this is a deceptive description. The lands that we occupy were inhabited before we arrived. If not inhabited, then at the very least visited and hunted. We prevailed because we were ruthless, cunning, and had firearms. We also arrived en masse.
With that said, we should look at world history, and to what happened to a people once they were conquered. The people of a conquered land fell into one of four main categories. They were sometimes eradicated, or exterminated to put it frankly. They were enslaved and used as laborers for the empire who defeated them. They were sometimes forced off of the land into the barren places to be scattered or to perish. The fourth group, the most common, were the inhabitants who were spared and were assimilated. To their detriment, the conquerors of Canada followed none of these paths, but instead signed treaties with the aboriginal peoples of this land. I say to their detriment, not because I devalue their worth, but because it has worked for no one. As a result we have issues that have been unsettled for generations now, and we have watched our nations first inhabitants be decimated, culturally, spiritually, and physically.
Successive Canadian governments have dragged their feet on this issue. It is brought up only because we like to exude a compassionate image. We have politicians that travel the globe espousing how culturally tolerant and understanding we are. On the flip side of this compassionate image is a government that has tied every anchor to this problem that it could. Every bit of movement on this issue has been exacted by the blood of suffering and dying native peoples. We seem to be willing to do more to help foreign peoples in distress when they endure hardships from natural disasters. What about the disaster that is our first nations settlements and communities?
Over my short lifetime, I can recall countless horrific stories regarding our native peoples. There has been abuse at the hands of so called religious schools, annihilation of their hunting and fishing grounds, the flooding of their territorial lands for hydro-electric development, ongoing water contamination, broken treaties, the creation of an entirely new class of welfare state, and a disproportionate rate of teenage suicides and substance abuse.
One only has to visit a northern Ontario town to see the devastation. There is an extremely high rate of substance abuse among our native population. On a camping trip last year, I lamented the fact that my sons and I drove for almost 8 hours and were unable to find any marshmallows in the small towns we passed through. They were looking forward to roasting them by the fire. If they had have contained alcohol, we would have had no problem acquiring some, as we passed liquor store after liquor store. In fact, I found it kind of sad that out in the middle of nowhere, with no gas station or support, Ontario had found it profitable to build yet another liquor store.
While the great North American native experiment has been costly, it has been a complete failure. Our first nations peoples have been reduced to beggars, unable to care for their own, and waiting with hands outstretched for another handout. To be absolutely fair, this is through no fault of their own, but by the failure of countless governments to do anything meaningful.
There are only two roads that will change the plight of these peoples. One is absolute self government, with their own land, and with absolute sovereignty over the land, the minerals, the airspace, and waters. I am talking about perhaps taking Nunavut, and creating a new country. While we covet the land for its resources, we must also covet our national soul. Our country has signed treaty after treaty after treaty. We have honored some of them, but we have always denied the basic right of self-government.
Then, and only then, would our native peoples have a real choice. They could establish provinces and nations within Nunavut or some other area to be negotiated, and could make their own laws, rules, and cultural communities. They could build their own system of justice based on their ways. After that is accomplished, success or failure is theirs and theirs alone. Those who wish to be part of it could be. Those who choose to remain Canadians could relocate to communities that are viable and where there is an opportunity to succeed. All others who choose neither could be said to be on their own, no longer a responsibility of the government.
The second road, one that should be avoided, is to assimilate the first nations culture into our own. This option is the only other alternative to self determination, and one that would fail just as badly as the options that we have already exhausted. I listed it only because it hasn’t been done.
While many will disagree with this idea, that is fine. It is only an idea, and I am no one important. For those who would claim that all of this land was theirs, I say that is not the case any longer. Times change. If you were to go back through history, you would find that mostly everybody is living on somebody else’s former lands. That is a fact of history, and history cannot be undone. What we must learn to do is accept it.
As long as we “pen” our aboriginal peoples in camps of squalor, and continue to throw good money after bad, Canada will be home to the only third world country located on the North American continent. We have stripped away a nation’s pride, its hope, and its promise. Perhaps it is time to recognize the mistake and correct it.