The treatment and conditions of living for Canadian Aboriginals has long been a source of embarrassment and discontent within a country that has been known for its human rights record.
Canada has long been considered one of the best places to live on this planet due to the high standards of living, good quality education and health care, safe and secure society and an economy that is relatively strong compared to its developed peers. That is not to say Canada is without problems. The treatment and conditions of living for Canadian Aboriginals has long been a source of embarrassment and discontent within a country that has been known for its human rights record. From the residential school system of decades past to contemporary issues of teen suicide, housing, and water crises on native reserves it is clear that much more can and should be done in Canada. These conditions are not only a black eye for Canadians within Canada but they have drawn international criticism from the United Nations and organizations like Amnesty International.
So the question becomes what can be done about it? There has long been an unspoken belief amongst Canadians and natives that if the First Nation peoples are simply left alone and are able to maintain their traditional cultures and beliefs it would result in a reconnection and reestablishment of their cultural pride and wellbeing that would allow them to overcome the socio-economic challenges that plague many reserves. The method to support this “solution” has for many years been to simply put more money towards a problem. Unfortunately this hasn’t solved the problems as issues of financial competence and accountability of some band leaders have resulted in millions of dollars disappearing whether through waste, inefficiencies, corruption or simply poor accounting. All of this has led to a situation where the status quo is far from ideal and the average Canadian blames all parties involved and they want some form of financial accountability from the native bands while an equitable solution is established.
There are two fundamental obstacles in my view preventing the rehabilitation of aboriginal communities. The first is simply geography. Canada is a massive country and some of the aboriginal communities that face the worst conditions are also some of the most remote. These remote northern communities suffer from a variety of additional challenges that are not faced by aboriginal lands further to the south. The isolation to these communities makes providing services to them very costly and difficult as some communities are only accessible by float plane or ice road. As a result, the cost of everyday goods are exorbitant ($38 Cranberry Juice, $28 Cheese Wiz) as individuals face massive markup compared to their suggested shelf price found in southern communities. Although these prices do vary between communities, this isolation also results in difficulties attracting nurses, doctors, dentists, teachers, social workers and other role model citizens to provide basic services to the populace of these communities. Those who do decide to work in these communities often do so on short term contract basis for a year or two before moving on to a less demanding position in southern Canada. The resulting turnover means that there is little continuity for inhabitants of these northern aboriginal communities who require these services.
This isolation also breeds its own form of hopelessness. When individuals are raised in such small and isolated communities it creates a vision of the world that also seems equally small. As a result of no economic opportunities, few wholesome activities and a culture of dependency many youths turn to alcohol and substance abuse and these factors of course contribute to the aforementioned suicide issues. Although access to high speed internet has opened up connections to the outside world and allowed for a broadening of horizons and the voicing of issues for those who can/choose to leave the reserves for education, training and a chance at a better life they rarely return to their ancestral lands and as a result a brain drain of the most talented and skilled individuals, is occurring leaving those who are left with few skills and little hope in an ever shrinking community.
The only solution to this issue is of course a highly controversial relocation and resettlement program. With so many far-flung communities it is nearly impossible for the efficient allocation of resources, while economies of scale for local development and commerce see prices set at exorbitant levels. Now this resettlement doesn’t necessarily have to be to the South but just the merging of various far flung northern settlements to central locations where they can be more easily serviced from the South and infrastructure can be developed in a practical manor. Naturally this course of action will be opposed by many communities and portrayed as another attempt to destroy aboriginal culture and heritage but given the floundering conditions that exist in some communities this option is preferable to another day of living in third world conditions in a first world country.
The second issue emerges from a basic aspect of human nature: the idea that humans tend to maintain possessions that they own. When an individual owns something they are much more likely to properly maintain and take care of the possession. Property on Canadian native reserves is held in commons and as a result, for the vast majority of these reserves, individual families do not own the house or the land that is built on. Aboriginal Canadian families are guaranteed housing under the Indian Act, with funding to build coming to the reserves from the federal government, but the property on these Canadian native reserves is held in commons. As a result, individual families do not own the houses they live in or the land those houses are built on. This lack of ownership is the root of many problems on Canadian reserves.
In many cases the housing issues that are faced on many remote reserves are a result of this lack of ownership. Houses are often poorly maintained with construction of new housing stopping and starting due to money and supply problems. According to Jonathan Kay, during a discussion for the Fraser Institute Student Seminar about aboriginal property issues, he stated that many of the new houses that are built on reserves already have mold problems before construction is complete and in some cases a house only lasts 10 years before requiring replacement.
Since the individual bands collect their money from the federal government and the lack of home ownership means no property taxes exist on the reserves it alters the dynamic of democratic responsibility and accountability of tribal leadership. Although elected by the members of the tribe, the band leadership can only effect change through their financial dependency on the federal government by garnering additional funds from Ottawa, and the most effective way to do this seems to be through highlighting the third world conditions on reserves, blocking road or rail lines in protest or staging hunger strikes. Since the tribal leadership is not financially tied to the members of the tribe this can result in poor accountability within the tribe, where your name and family relations can determine whether or not you receive new housing or not.
This lack of codified property rights compounds issues of economic development as numerous oil and mining companies have made millions if not billions of dollars in investment in and around reserve lands while offering job training, community development funds, and infrastructure, for example. Yet despite contracts being signed these companies find that they still face obstacles from a band or its members who become disgruntled and decide that they would want to squeeze a little more blood from the proverbial stone by blocking key (often only) roads to and from a project .
This lawlessness and disrespect for signed contracts ties back to the fact that these communities have no instilled rights of private property. In many cases these bands and individuals within them have not experienced the rights and responsibilities that come with property rights so it should come as little surprise that they then have little respect for contractual rights. As a result corporations are becoming hesitant in dealing with aboriginal groups thus limiting the ability for economic development to occur which of course feeds back into the cycles of isolation and poverty.
So what should be done? Well there is an unfortunate difference between what should be done and what is politically feasible to be done. What should be done of course is the implementation of private property rights across native reserves in Canada while simultaneously voluntarily relocating certain isolated communities to larger aboriginal population centers. This action would likely result in an aboriginal crisis the likes of which have not been since the Oka Crisis of 1990.
This past summer a more viable alternative was proposed by the federal government which would create a program under the Indian Act to allow tribes to opt out of the collective property management system and establish individual property rights on reserves. The hope would be that if a handful of pilot tribes found success and improving conditions on their reserve that other tribes would choose to opt-out themselves. The widespread adoption would not only be good for the aboriginal communities but Canada as whole.
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