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 firstname.lastname@example.org.