Reading through this report on the upcoming summit between Canadian First Nations’ leaders and conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, there seems no clear agreement on how to improve First Nations communities, or even on what the ultimate goal may actually be.
United Nations officials have frequently criticized the Canadian government, describing First Nations communities as embodying “Third World conditions” within a rich country. The focus of this criticism is on poor housing conditions, described as run-down shacks, with unreliable access to basic necessities like running water.
But that’s not the worst of it. It’s long been known that reserve communities in many parts of the country have been plagued by child abuse, substance abuse and an abnormally high suicide rate. We can certainly all agree that there’s a problem, but not on the solution or even the precise goal.
In quotes from the summit report, Harper has been downplaying the upcoming meeting, suggesting that an incremental approach is best. He doesn’t seem inclined to make any major decisions or commitments at the first meeting. Quoted chiefs, however, want significant and concrete actions taken quickly, preferably within the year.
Of interest is some of the phrasing used by Harper and his team quoted in the article. The article writes that “Harper has been adamant that the gathering won’t be a ‘big bang’ approach to First Nations, with grand announcements or buckets of money.” Another official was quoted as saying “It can’t just be a question of pouring more money into a system that will always require more money.”
The Harper government has formerly defended itself against criticisms of reserve conditions by citing “financial mismanagement” by First Nations governments. Corruption amongst First Nations chiefs is an acknowledged problem. But if both sides enter these talks with preconceived notions, First Nations leaders citing insufficient funding and the federal government citing a financial black hole, it will be difficult to move forward.
In reality, serious structural changes are likely necessary to the current systems of First Nations reservations, self-governance and federal funding. The actual human beings who are suffering have no political power at all. Their prime minister is not helping them and their chiefs are not helping them. To me it’s clear that the system is broken.
Breaking the cycles of abuse, dependency, and sickness will require a concerted effort from both parties. It will certainly require some politically unpopular decisions. One of my province’s local chiefs spends more than six months of the year vacationing in Florida instead of living amongst the people he is supposed to govern. Vampires like this use First Nations autonomy as a shield against accountability.
Meanwhile, our conservative government tries to score points with a certain sector of constituents by tightening the purse strings, as if limiting funding will force First Nations people to spontaneously start using it better. Yet the actual people on the ground clearly are not receiving the basic resources they need. They’re in the middle, suffering from the politicking being done in their name. Actual changes need to be made.
I hope both sides will consider making some compromises for the sake of moving forward.
Photo credit: Padraic Ryan via Wikimedia Commons.