For Preventing Canada’s Natives from Being a Burden to the County and for making them Beneficial to the Public …
It is a melancholy object to Canadians who visit our Indian
Reserves when they see the third world conditions in which these poor people
live. One is naturally embarrassed that such conditions exist in a country
sometimes thought to be the best in the world. You cannot drive your SUV along
the pot-holed roads and look at the shanties that pass as houses for several
families or watch the children choking back bags of solvents without feeling a
stomach-churning mix of revulsion and guilt.
So we must look favourably at the modest proposal put forth
by the current Minister of Indian Affairs, Jim Prentice, as a small step in the
right direction. He has at least tried to grapple with the shameful state of
First Nations by giving the people of Kashechewan (a desperately poor reserve
north of Kenora that has sometimes been in the news because of its tainted
drinking water) an option they never had before: move to the outskirts of
Timmins, where a kind of suburban reserve would be created for them.
In the Minister’s proposal, there is some recognition that
the desperate straits the people of Kashechewan find themselves in are not
entirely of their own making. In 1957, according to the wisdom of the day, the
Canadian government moved the entire community (very much against its will) to
its present location on the flood plain of the Albany River. The land on which
Kashechewan was built floods in the spring, backing up a sewage system poorly
designed and shoddily built by agents of the Crown.
In March 2007, the people of Kashechewan voted to take the
government up on an option recommended in a report commissioned by Minister
Prentice – to move to higher ground in their traditional territories. The
Minister, acting with the utmost common sense, has rejected the community’s
choice. Instead, he is insisting the whole community move to Timmins. Indeed,
there are many reasons to recommend his plan.
For first, the people, particularly the elderly, will be
closer to quality health care which, is so obviously lacking in the bush.
Diabetes is a like a plague in Native communities, but it can be controlled
with drugs and instruction on diet.
Secondly, there will be so many more diversions for the
young people, that they will not have to resort to drug sniffing for
entertainment or to suicide to escape the burden of living. Easier access to
video games and blockbuster movies will surely prove both entertaining and
Thirdly, the Kashechewan children will be able to attend
good quality schools. These will help to put their misery in the bush out of
their minds and prepare them for a productive life in Canadian society.
Fourthly, Band Members will be able to find jobs locally and
pull themselves and their families out of the debilitating cycle of poverty.
They will provide a willing and welcome work force for industry and business in
Fifthly, once the people of Kashechewan are moved off their
land, and no long practice hunting and fishing and gathering rights, that will
clear the way for much needed economic development in that area of the north.
Mining and logging jobs will benefit both Native and non-Native alike.
Of course there is the matter of cost. It will cost roughly
$300 million more to re-establish them in a more hospitable place in the
wilderness than to move the community to Timmins. Even though some politicians
like to either deplore or applaud the billions spent on Natives (depending on
their audience), I am confident that the welfare of the people of Kashechewan
far outweighed considerations of cost in the Minister’s mind.
Here I must pause and blow the whistle on myself. I fear
that many readers will not spot the irony in what I have written so far, in
spite of the many syntactical breadcrumbs I have left on the trail back to
Johnathan Swift’s own “Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children in Ireland
from Being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial
to the Public.”
Swift recommended, in his 1729 essay, that government could
at once control the population of the poor, ameliorate their starvation and
provide novelty to the wealthy (who desperately needed it) by taking a certain
number of one-year old infants born to poor Irish families and selling them to
well-off families as meat for their tables.
His brilliant satire advocating cannibalism to cure what
ailed Ireland skewered the many well-meaning social engineers and cynical
politicians in England who were busily proposing ineffective solutions to the
There are enough parallels between Swift’s and Prentice’s
solutions to merit another look at the so-called benefits of the Conservative’s
own modest proposal (although it’s looking more and more like an edict).
First, the people are sick because they were moved, over
their objections, to a flood plain in their traditional territories which they
must have known was not a healthy location. Diabetes plague Native communities
because, divorced from harvesting traditional foods, they have come to rely on
diets of prepared foods, high in sugar content.
Second, the diversions available to young Natives in urban
and suburban settings further separate them from the land and its teachings.
Native culture and language is so tied to the land that to separate First
Nations from their traditional territories is to uproot a people.
Third, schools in white communities neither recognize Native
history nor honour the profound contributions Native ways have made to Canadian
culture. The land lost in treaties alone is paying the way of Canadians even
Fourth, Kashechewan Band Members, if they move to Timmins
will have access to only a few, low paying jobs. Discrimination and the
scarcity of jobs will keep them on the margins of the city’s economy, as they
are just about everywhere else.
The fifth reason is probably the most honest. Once First
Nations leave their lands there is nothing to stop government and industry from
assuming they have free access. And, in fact they will, for without First
Nations on the land, using the land, the land will be considered, as the old
maps of Canada put it: terra nullius – empty land. More’s the
pity for that because great damage is already being done to Ontario’s north as
a scientist with Global Forest Watch has determined from satellite images from
Sault Ste Marie to Moosonee. Half of Ontario is no longer suitable for woodland
The problem with the government’s preference to remove
Kashechewan from the maps is that the eradication of reserves is Conservative
policy. Tom Flanagan, remains a key
advisor to Prime Minister Harper. His book, First Nations Second Thoughts,
is an ethnocentric (to put it kindly) argument for policies that would end in
the complete cultural and economic assimilation of Native people into the
There is little distinction between Native people and the
land they have lived in for thousands of years. The judge in the Platinex
decision that hammered Ontario for not consulting with Kitchenuhmaykoosib
Inninuwug First Nation before allowing test drilling in their traditional
territories put it this way:
“The relationship that aboriginal peoples have with the land
cannot be understated. The land is the very essence of their being. It is their
very heart and soul. No amount of money can compensate for its lost. Aboriginal
identity, spirituality, laws, traditions, culture, and rights are connected to
and arise from this relationship to the land. This is a perspective that is
foreign to and often difficult to understand from a non-Aboriginal viewpoint.”
I’ve used the word “eradication” in describing Tory policy.
To “eradicate” derives from the Latin and means, literally, to tear out the
roots. Its synonyms include “abolish”, “eliminate”, “expel”, “dispossess” and
“exterminate”. And that is exactly what will happen to Kashechewan if the
Conservatives are allowed to practice their policy.
There are other, more humane solutions than eradication that
would permit First Nations to flourish on their lands. They are not the subject
of this article, for, like Swift, there are those who are “wearied out for many
years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts” on the matter and many more
who are weary of hearing them. But they will work, and you can find some of
them for yourself in the pages of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,
in the decisions of the Supreme Court on the Crown’s duty to consult First
Nations, and in the Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry.
We should look at some of these solutions before
entertaining any more “modest proposals”. In the meantime, here is a little
test for all you crossword players. What’s an eight-letter word for the
eradication of a people?
© David McLaren, April 2007
David McLaren has worked with First Nations in Ontario
for 17 years. He is the author of two reports for the Ipperwash Inquiry for the
Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.