Once again our Nation’s attention has turned to the modern-day fourth-world horrors of Canada’s northern First Nations reserves. This time the focus is on Attawapskat, Ontario, for the housing prolonged housing crisis, where many will go to sleep tonight in shacks and tents and brave the already-sub-zero temperatures. Like usual, the response from the government has been utterly ignorant of context or history – treating the issue like a “crisis” where normality and order need to be re-established, and where no colossal problem existed before. Attempting to “take charge ” of the situation Harper has seized financial control of the reserve from the Band Council and demanded to know where the tens of millions of dollars it’s received went.

It takes an incredible ignorance of First Nations people and issues to see the problems of Attawapiskat in this way. The first obvious objection might be that the Band Councils are Federal Government institutions, at least as much as they are representatives of the band. If Harper wants to know where the money’s going, he need only ask around his own government – for they know full well exactly what’s happening to it. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples showed years ago, there’s enough money already being spent on First Nations to address all of the issues brought fourth – if only they’d cut the budgets being spent on paternalistic bureaucracies overseeing them.

Harper says he wants “responsible Self Government”. Responsible to whom? Taking control in this manner is the epitome of the colonial mentality which still crops up constantly in these issues. It may be racist and unbelievably historically ignorant, but these ideas are very popular. The notion that white statesmen have a duty to take over and rule dysfunctional communities of coloured folks is as alive and well as it was when “White Man’s Burden” was written. It’s also just as false, and every bit as destructive.

Like safe drinking water, education, political representation and nutritious food, housing is in “crisis” on reserves across the country. Take a drive through a few of them if you don’t believe me. When have Canada’s reserves been any different? This isn’t a case of some silly natives squandering their funding and screwing up their homes, this has been the status quo since these reserves were established. A century of “Northern Development” policies have been a grandiose disaster, hoping to replicate Southern, “civilized” life with a utopian naivete which is all too familiar. Populations were settled for the sake of being settled, in the middle of nowhere, and neglected for generations. Large scale resource extraction companies never left much money behind for communities, but they did often leave entire landscapes toxified (pulp mills, Tar Sands, uranium mines etc) and unable to support traditional lifestyles like hunting game or drinking from rivers. There never was a chance of another Toronto or Calgary rising in the Yukon, nor was there ever any real funding for such a dream. Were this not enough, countless millions were spent on the indigenous populations, policing them, stripping them of land abducting their children. The harm caused by Residential Schools, the Indian Act and RCMP will endure for generations, leaving a legacy of pain, depression and shattered communities.

Without a view of this context, First Nations issues are impossible to discuss honestly. How can we talk of a “two tiered justice system” without mentioning the incredibly disproportionate number of Native people in jail? How can we talk about the lack of property rights on reserves when so many valuable resources are extracted from native lands without compensation? Indigenous issues are not some marginal issue of Canadian identity politics, they’re a very serious concern in nearly any country you can name. Wherever you look, from South America to Australia and everywhere in between, these issues sit uncomfortably under all discussions on economics, ecology and development.

We all need to stop thinking about “Northern Development” like people from Southern Ontario. We’re not cowboys or pioneers settling a “frontier”. The kind of expensive and extensive state-supported infrastructure which exists here is financially impossible there, and beyond unwelcome politically. Corporations owned and here and listed on the TSX care about as much about the indigenous populations their Canadian diamond and uranium mines here as they do in Equador or Bolivia. We need something far more sustainable.

Venture out into Canada. Virtually all of this country makes Toronto or Vancouver seem like the distant future or another planet. Forget about cell phone signals – most of these places barely get one radio station. These communities are small and remote. Mills and processing plants have been vanishing for decades in favour of larger consolidated ones elsewhere. These communities often exist in environments of unbelievable bounty, which all too often is is shipped off our way with little left behind. Communities are vanishing – small towns, family farms and reserves are all struggling to keep their young people from fleeing to the south. This isn’t just true of First Nations people, but they bare some of the worst of it. This situation was spawned by centuries of distant rule and from Ottawa, Toronto and overseas, and more of it isn’t going to fix the problem.

(Next I’ll look into these houses themselves – did you know it takes ~$250 000 to build a single house in Attawapiskat? And do you know what happens next to those houses in that Arctic floodplain?)

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