Our national shame [Aboriginal living conditions] – by Mia Rabson and Mary Agnes Welch (Winnipeg Free Press – February 4, 2012)

This article came from: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/

Natural resources may transform northern Manitoba reserves from poverty-stricken to prosperous. Human resources may transform First Nations from have-nots to self-sufficient

No boat trip in Manitoba is prettier than the one between Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point, dodging dozens of tiny, pincushion islands made of bedrock and pine trees.

The Island Lake region should be a quintessentially Canadian jackpot of mining, logging, hydro development and high-end tourism catering to eco-adventurers and rich American sport fishermen. Instead, it’s a national shame.

There appears to be only one thing that will make reserves in northern Manitoba viable communities able to rise above the poverty that’s shackled generations: natural resources.

At the recent Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa, chiefs had education, health care and housing on the brain. But the one resounding theme was a desire to get Ottawa and the provinces to the table so First Nations can finally start reaping the benefits of the natural resources they believe are bountiful on their traditional lands.

“I’m not just talking about being at the end of the line of recipients of the wealth of the resources,” said Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.

“I’m talking about actual participation.”

There are 31 reserves in northern Manitoba, 18 of them so remote that, for 10 months a year, the only way in or out is by plane. They are all located in pristine wilderness, surrounded by dense forests and likely mineral-laden rocks, but few of these reserves have any local economy to speak of.

There are no paper mills, no logging operations, no gold or nickel mines, few fishing lodges.

Some bands own small stores, a gas bar or a laundromat. A few have a share in local airlines. But, for the most part, every job is tied to the only real source of revenue on reserve — the nearly $1 billion that flows annually from the federal government to Manitoba First Nations.

On remote reserves, fewer than one in three people over age 15 have a job. More than seven in 10 people don’t graduate from high school. Most homes need major repairs.

They are the Attawapiskats of Manitoba, communities that have struggled for generations, with little notable improvement and little progress toward a measure of self-sufficiency. It’s hard to know whether places like Shamattawa, Red Sucker Lake or Oxford House have a future.

“Absolutely yes, they do,” said former prime minister Paul Martin, now an advocate on aboriginal issues, especially education.

But the future involves working with bands from the start, not imposing solutions from wood-panelled meetings rooms in Ottawa.

“We’ve tried that for two or three hundred years, and it has simply not worked,” said Martin.

Over the years, many have proposed moving remote First Nations closer to major centres where there are more obvious economic activities and easier access to supplies, health care, good schools.

Laurie Gough, a writer and teacher from Quebec, strongly believes remote reserves simply can’t survive where they are. She spent three months teaching in Kashechewan, Ont., and left frustrated by the lack of connection anyone still had there to their culture. She says she knows she will get labelled a racist for saying it, but there is too much wrong in remote northern reserves to save them.

The government did consider moving Kashechewan in 2006 after an E. coli outbreak in the reserve’s water supply forced everyone on the reserve out of their homes. Ottawa hired a former Ontario provincial cabinet minister to review the situation, and Alan Pope recommended the entire band be moved to Timmins. The land on the shores of James Bay would remain in the band’s control but be used for recreation and traditional hunting-and-gathering purposes.

Kashechewan’s band leadership said no, and in 2007 Ottawa offered $200 million to rebuild the reserve where it was.

But many First Nations leaders say abolishing remote or dysfunctional reserves won’t work for two reasons.

First, those lands are all that’s left of a wide swath of traditional nomadic territory, and they were guaranteed to First Nations through binding treaties.

Attempts to relocate bands in the past have been, in the words of one expert, disastrous. The Chemawawin Cree Nation is still reeling from a forced relocation to Easterville in the 1960s that badly damaged the band’s social structure.

And First Nations people have an attachment to the land most non-aboriginal people have yet to understand. Even if an education and career have taken a First Nations person to Bay Street, he or she will still consider the reserve home and will return often.

When journalists ask people living in struggling remote reserves why they stay, most people offer roughly the same reasons. Their aunts and cousins and elders are on the reserve. Cities like Thompson and Winnipeg seem unfriendly — their kids might join gangs or lose touch with their Cree or Ojibwa language and traditions. And they would miss the fishing, hunting and going out on the land.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Winnipeg Free Press website: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/fyi/our-national-shame-138700904.html


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