Signs of change in the native agenda

Peter
Peter Jackson
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"You gotta be kidding me! These losers get enough of my tax dollars; why keep giving them more?"

- Reader comment on a Globe and Mail story about interim funding for First Nations University in Saskatchewan

It would be folly to gauge public opinion solely on the basis of guttersnipes who post poisonous insights on media websites. But there's something sadly credible about many of the raw and even racist criticisms of aboriginal policy in this country.

There's a glaring beam of truth in what they say.

"You gotta be kidding me! These losers get enough of my tax dollars; why keep giving them more?"

- Reader comment on a Globe and Mail story about interim funding for First Nations University in Saskatchewan

It would be folly to gauge public opinion solely on the basis of guttersnipes who post poisonous insights on media websites. But there's something sadly credible about many of the raw and even racist criticisms of aboriginal policy in this country.

There's a glaring beam of truth in what they say.

Why do governments throw billions of dollars at native communities with no real oversight and no evidence that anything will improve? In fact, matters have hardly improved at all since the earliest days of native displacement. And in recent decades, tax dollars have done little more than prop up a stagnant, miserable, meaningless existence for natives all across the land.

This is a shame, because Canadians of all backgrounds take obvious pride in the indigenous heritage of the country. It is celebrated from coast to coast - in arts and music, in place names, in traditional ceremonies and at gala events such as the 2010 Olympics.

But that pride in heritage is perpetually undermined by the fact that original grievances against encroaching Europeans have been resurrected and played out on a daily basis like some sort of secular passion play. Occasionally, it deteriorates into very real threats and violence.

Why do we keep shocking life into this Frankenstein's monster of aggrievement?

Frances Widdowson has a theory.

Widdowson is co-author (with Albert Howard) of "Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation."

Her argument is that a vast industry has grown up around native issues, one that consists of lawyers, bureaucrats, academics and other non-aboriginal advocates who immerse themselves in the notion that a Stone Age society can actually survive and flourish in a 21st-century democracy.

(To that list, I'd add judges who rule that centuries-old treaties supersede the modern need for resource management.)

Needless to say, Widdowson has felt the sting of rebuke for her views. In fact, she has become something of a lightning rod in a highly polarized debate.

Conventional aboriginal experts - those who lobby aggressively for huge land claims, monetary redress, etc., - say she has produced no evidence for her claim that billions in poorly monitored funding have helped prop up a bloated construct of non-aboriginal advocacy. (Widdowson even admits she was unable to pursue any money trails at length.)

At the same time, she's become a darling of right-wing interests who would like to see aboriginal funding slashed, and who inevitably cater to the less-tolerant elements in society.

The latter intolerant coat-tailers we know.

But what about Widdowson's critics?

They would include professors such as the University of Regina's Joyce Green. Green has been a vocal critic of Widdowson, and it's not hard to see why. With stated academic interests that include "aboriginal-settler relations and the possibility of decolonization in Canada," she is clearly the sort of person Widdowson has in her crosshairs.

Perhaps one can argue with many of Widdowson's specific findings, but I can't help feeling her fundamental assessment of aboriginal policy in this country is pretty clear-minded.

We have seen so many of these issues play out in the saga of Natuashish, the Mushuau Innu community in Labrador built only eight years ago to replace the troubled town of Davis Inlet (itself the home for Innu displaced by the abandonment of Hebron in 1959).

When the construction of Natuashish was announced, it was heralded as a new beginning, a horizon of hope, a gateway to the promised land. At the time, I predicted that new houses and a change of scenery - at a cost of about $250,000 per resident - would do little to address the woes of Innu life.

And I was right - at first. The drinking, the gas-sniffing and the crime continued.

But Natuashish has come a long way since then. One can only hope it signals a new "ground up" movement.

On March 26, a majority of residents voted, against intense internal opposition, to maintain an alcohol ban that has greatly reduced crime and other social ills. It was the most hopeful signal in many years that the Mushuau were determined to pull themselves out of the despair that has plagued their lives for decades. (The community has also been striving to place greater emphasis on education.)

The town's new chief, Simeon Tshakapesh - who at first vowed to end the alcohol ban, then flip-flopped - has tendered some other interesting proposals in his leadership platform. One major plan is to put more funding directly into the hands of individuals.

Given the propensity of band leaders to squander and misappropriate huge infusions of cash, this would indeed be a refreshing step forward.

A major shift is long overdue in this country's aboriginal policy. It is time for clearer thinking about the practical implications of trying to turn back the clock.

Natuashish is not there yet, but there are signs of a grassroots movement to change.

Native people should stop letting themselves be yanked around by untenable notions of turning back the clock, and instead do what they know is best for their communities in these modern times.

Widdowson is right. The native agenda has been usurped by a costly industry of litigation and romanticism. It needs to be leaner, more accountable and - most importantly - rooted in reality.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Globe and Mail, First Nations University, Stone Age society University of Regina

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canada, Labrador Davis Inlet

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Recent comments

  • Aboriginal
    July 02, 2010 - 13:35

    Well, here at the Poorest Community in the country Even though we have a lawyer/chief, UN-accounted casino about as many years. Four Liberal politicians, former chief & now Deputy Aboriginal Sec't, and the Lt. Gov of N.B. all from here and we are at a WHOPPING $ 40+ MILL in DEBT. Tobique Last Nation is the poster child. br br If we can't make it ... I don't know who can! br br I am angered at everyone for not bringing this atrocity to the forefront. br br Billions go to a black hole of corruption, nepotism and favoritism. The canadaian gov holds the purse strings and these are all puppet governments. br br The modus operandi of the legal establishment and its collaborating Indian accomplices is the suppression of the constitutional and international law that the establishment intentionally is breaking.

  • W
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    Hebron was an Inuit settlement, whose inhabitants ended up scattered in other northern Labrador communities, and as far afield as Ungava Bay and North West River.

    The Mushuau Innu of Natuashish relocated there from ''new'' Davis Inlet as part of the housing program of 1960s which also saw permanent settlement in Sheshatshiu. Before that, the Innu seasonally inhabited Sheshatshiu and ''old'' Davis Inlet, the site of the HBC post and Catholic mission.

    There was also an ill-conceived attempt in the late pre-Confederation days to resettle some Innu near the Inuit-Moravian settlement at Nutak, not Hebron.

  • Peter
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    My mistake, W. Thanks for the overview.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Peter you ask the question-----Why do we keep shocking life into this Frankenstein's monster of aggrievement?---- Let us define aggrieve --- to cause distress or pain to somebody . Have we not a recorded history that tells us of the atrocities committed against our First Peoples , a history written with a slant towards bias and outright fabrication towards these people. From the arrival of the first European settlers there appears to have been and still is with us today the desire to crush the indomitable spirit of our First Peoples. Residential schools , reservations , vilification , stereotyping , are these not the tools with which to dominate a culture ? To answer your question , we have created a COMMODITY , one which pays a handsome dividend .

  • Aboriginal
    July 01, 2010 - 20:24

    Well, here at the Poorest Community in the country Even though we have a lawyer/chief, UN-accounted casino about as many years. Four Liberal politicians, former chief & now Deputy Aboriginal Sec't, and the Lt. Gov of N.B. all from here and we are at a WHOPPING $ 40+ MILL in DEBT. Tobique Last Nation is the poster child. br br If we can't make it ... I don't know who can! br br I am angered at everyone for not bringing this atrocity to the forefront. br br Billions go to a black hole of corruption, nepotism and favoritism. The canadaian gov holds the purse strings and these are all puppet governments. br br The modus operandi of the legal establishment and its collaborating Indian accomplices is the suppression of the constitutional and international law that the establishment intentionally is breaking.

  • W
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    Hebron was an Inuit settlement, whose inhabitants ended up scattered in other northern Labrador communities, and as far afield as Ungava Bay and North West River.

    The Mushuau Innu of Natuashish relocated there from ''new'' Davis Inlet as part of the housing program of 1960s which also saw permanent settlement in Sheshatshiu. Before that, the Innu seasonally inhabited Sheshatshiu and ''old'' Davis Inlet, the site of the HBC post and Catholic mission.

    There was also an ill-conceived attempt in the late pre-Confederation days to resettle some Innu near the Inuit-Moravian settlement at Nutak, not Hebron.

  • Peter
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    My mistake, W. Thanks for the overview.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    Peter you ask the question-----Why do we keep shocking life into this Frankenstein's monster of aggrievement?---- Let us define aggrieve --- to cause distress or pain to somebody . Have we not a recorded history that tells us of the atrocities committed against our First Peoples , a history written with a slant towards bias and outright fabrication towards these people. From the arrival of the first European settlers there appears to have been and still is with us today the desire to crush the indomitable spirit of our First Peoples. Residential schools , reservations , vilification , stereotyping , are these not the tools with which to dominate a culture ? To answer your question , we have created a COMMODITY , one which pays a handsome dividend .