Idling in the past dashes hope for the future

Peter Jackson
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A decade ago, Mushuau Innu were leaving the beleaguered town of Davis Inlet, Labrador, for the brand new community of Natuashish, 15 kilometres away. The new homes, roads and infrastructure were funded by Ottawa at a cost of about $200 million.

The residents were elated to escape their old hellhole, with its legacy of poverty, drinking, no running water and — most notoriously — gas-sniffing children.

The national media heralded it as a new beginning. A new hope, new horizon.

Except that within a year, they had slipped back to their old ways.

In 2005, the CBC’s Peter Gullage headed an investigative report on Natuashish. Children had reverted to gas-sniffing. Alcohol was still a scourge. Corruption and poor accounting was the rule rather than the exception.

Last year, the CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault uncovered similar problems in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat, the town that declared a state of emergency in 2011 over inadequate housing. Millions of federal dollars had been wasted. Perfectly good homes remained uninhabited. An audit of the band council released this week revealed next to nothing in the way of proper accounting or federal oversight.

The native problem in Canada is a cultural problem, not one of means.

No community will survive without a solid sense of purpose, without a sense of familial and societal responsibility, without education and strong leadership.

Last week, I argued that the message of the Idle No More movement — at least that offered by most First Nations voices — will lead nowhere but to the status quo. It advocates a reversion to tired old ideas of native sovereignty and increased isolation. Reaffirming divisive treaty rights, chasing an untenable dream of maintaining pre-colonial enclaves in the 21st century.

A few readers seemed to appreciate the blunt appraisal, but most were inclined to lecture me on constitutional law and native rights. My comments were deemed “brutal” and “embarrassing.”

Here’s what’s brutal and embarrassing. It’s the determination of armchair romantics to indulge and even encourage the perpetuation of native grievance, freezing in time the moment of supreme injustice. It is a paralyzing force, propped up by a veritable industry of native and non-native lawyers, artists and academics. And while this grand charade of righteousness prevails, many ordinary native citizens are condemned to a life of ignorance and squalour.

On the weekend, a reader shared some of his many years of experience teaching in native communities across Canada. I won’t name him, only to spare him the barrage of contempt that greeted me.

“I never had a class that numbered above the single digits,” he wrote. “Many days, I would sit and wait for students to appear and would be thankful to have four or five to instruct.”

He spoke of one telling encounter with a young man on a snowmobile in northern Ontario:

“I asked him his name and what work he was involved in. He told me his name and said that he didn’t work. When I inquired why not, he said that he was 23, had dropped out of school in Grade 5, and

couldn’t do anything. He hated the community. I asked why he didn’t go somewhere else; he replied, ‘I can’t. I’m too old to return to school and I don’t have the skills to find employment. … I’m stuck here.’”

It’s a familiar refrain, one I’ve heard before.

In 2008, Natuashish narrowly voted to ban alcohol from the community. The ban was upheld in 2010. But a few children still resort to inhaling gas fumes.

It will take a major change in attitude to improve lives in such communities. It will take a rigid dedication to proper schooling

and transparent leadership. It will require some assimilation of basic concepts of democracy and fiscal prudence.

And it will require an end to so much energy being wasted conjuring ghosts of the past.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email

Organizations: CBC, First Nations

Geographic location: Northern Ontario, Davis Inlet, Ottawa Canada Attawapiskat

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Recent comments

  • david
    January 15, 2013 - 09:03

    There's no problem at's just a unique form of politics and that has no foreseeable end, and complete with a surplus of emotional outcry, and embellished outrage. It's just the bidnez and politics of a moral gulit trip, supprted by an immemse loot bag, sought after by the most professional of legitimatized mercenray shysters at every turn.

  • Jay
    January 10, 2013 - 06:53

    Wow, I don't think I've ever seen anybody's words twisted around like that before. No wonder politicians are so careful.

  • Winston Adams
    January 09, 2013 - 18:55

    Peter, you deserve some credit for putting out this piece, as it is a touchy subject.About 4 out of five comments on your first piece were very critial against you and your view, describing your views as cruel, embarrasing, jiberish, incoherent ramblings etc. A couple suggests you told the truth. What is surprising is the amount of support for the Idle No more Movement, whether by those than demonstrate, or even online comments. And even more amazing is the amount of support from the white population. I support the movement, as long as it's agenda is one of non violence,and it could rapidly lose support if that changes. Your first piece said changes are needed , but you didn't say what type of changes. Here you say it will take a major change in attitude to improve lives in aboriginal communities. You suggest all the changes needed is by the aboriginal side, none by people with your view and attitude. Don't you think we can learn from each other, to the benefit of both? You say we require an end to so much energy being wasted conjuring ghosts of the past. This is , might I suggest, a subtle rasist comment. I'd rather not suggest a rasist intent on your part, but Conjuring is considered an aboriginal practise, and Ghosts... well it implies the real injustices against aboriginals are not real afterall, just make beleive. You may not know that we whites have hidden much of the history even from our own education system. As to the reconsilation process for the abuses of the native schooling process. I saw more on TV, more openness about what happened in South Africa, than what happened to the aboriginals here in Canada. Little media attention, and more victimization, forcing court actions to get at documentation, just typical of how our system always operates to deny , deny, deny. And just yesterday, on TV, there is the South Africa rep thanking Harper for his assistance to eradicate poverty in Africa, as Harper avoids answering how he plans to improve the plight of the Canadian aboriginals. My father , Capt Esau Adams, wrote over half a century ago, about the Naskaupi Indians in labrador,that " they were robbed and cheated by our forefathers". And that "millions of dollars are being sent to Africa with little or no help for the Indians who are much more deserving" It is surreal to see how little things have changed since the 1930s. Decades later I went and saw and learned first hand how this continues, to this day. What you may consider as 'ghosts beings conjured', was and is real enough. My father's journals, like much of our history, remains, yet, hidden from the public. If you have any journalistic ability, come read, ( I'm at Logy Bay) and see why this remains out of the public domain, like much of our real history. Perhaps you accept and prefer the Holywood cowboy and Indian versions. I don't fit your description of armchair romantics, being neither a lawyer, artist, or academic. I don't operate on a grand charage of righteousness as many ordinary native citizens are condemned to a life of ignorance and squalor. I beleive the aboriginals are owed big time by our generation, and until such time as they have living standards, by their judgement , to be as good, if not better, than the average Canadian. My personal efforts to promote that view, with real assistance, has had little success, perhaps because I have not tried hard enough or in the right way. I'd like to share with you my experience of trying to work with white teachers, as well as the band officials, in the aboriginal community, but don't wish to hog this forum.

  • Max Rowe
    January 09, 2013 - 12:59

    Peter: Until now your frequent defense of the self said "industry of native and non-native lawyers, artists and academics" on similar politically correct issues has been comical at best. With this piece I find myself admiring your "brutal" truth. What a strange feeling. I trust any future articles on climate change, social engineering, and other PC "bandwagon" issues will be addressed in the same forthright manner. Max