A Diamond is Forever

Perhaps the most iconic irony of the whole crisis at Attawapiskat is the presence, a scant 90 km away, of the De Beers Diamond Mine at Victor Lake. The top 1% and some of us 98%ers could be wearing diamonds pulled from the traditional territories of the poorest 1%. If you know your history, you’ll know that De Beers is the creation of Cecil Rhodes who rode roughshod over the Indigenous peoples of Africa on his way to amassing a fortune from diamond mining. He was the quintessential colonizer.

Image for Sunmedia Forum article by Paul Lachine (http://www.paullachine.com)

“A diamond is forever” but a diamond mine is not. The one near Attawapiskat will last 11 years; then the jobs (few and mostly menial) and the project funding are gone. Still, credit where credit’s due – De Beers did not start digging until an Impact and Benefit Agreement had been signed with Attawapiskat.

However, it is not corporate Canada’s duty to solve First Nations’ housing or health or educational problems. It’s ours through the fiduciary obligation owed to First Nations by the Crown which, according to our constitution, is the feds, and these days, that’s the Harper Government.

So much for finger-pointing. That and $1.60 will get you a large double-double at Timmy’s because it will do nothing to resolve the atrocious living conditions in Attawapiskat and the 100 other Attawapiskats waiting in the wings.

But the notion that First Nations retain residual ownership rights to their traditional territories might help. The treaties took the land, but I don’t know any that took the water, and the river beds and lake beds under the water, or the minerals and oil under the land.

Canada got the deal of the millennium when it signed those treaties. According to a recent valuation, the little Bruce Peninsula that juts into Lake Huron is worth somewhere around 70 billion dollars. And that’s without diamonds. De Beers expects close to $3 billion to come out of its Victor mine. Just think of how much the whole country is worth. I’d say First Nations have already paid for their houses and the $6 billion a year in transfer payments from the Aboriginal Affairs Department.

The way we interpreted the treaties, we got other things besides land: the fish and game First Nations relied on for their economy, their forests, their clean water, their children. Now that we have made their homelands nearly uninhabitable, we have the temerity to ask (politely, we’re Canadians eh?) whether reserves are “sustainable.”

It’s an old colonizer’s trick. First, hunt out Indigenous peoples’ territories and then, with a dollop of human feeling, offer to take the empty lands off their hands in return for food, as the Canadian government did to Big Bear in 1882. Then, allow reserves to fall into such disrepair and despair that people will flee them for the cities and assimilation.

Let’s be honest, our relationship with First Nations is as a colonizer to the colonized. If we are really serious about fixing Attawapiskat and preventing others, then we need to re-think that. It will take a paradigm shift on our part. We tried to force a paradigm shift on Aboriginal peoples with a 200-year campaign to remake them in our image. That didn’t turn out well. So now it’s our turn.

Where to start? Well, let’s start with some essential history – the wampum belts. Never heard of them? These are the codified understandings of the proper relationship between First Nations and us newcomers in the 18th Century.

The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Two-Row wampum is two strips of purple shells separated by one of white. One purple row represents the British ship and the other the Haudenosaunee canoe. The British understood that they were only co-travellers in North America and that the Haudenosaunee were separate but equal and neither nation could interfere with the other. It is as eloquent a statement of Aboriginal sovereignty as any number of speeches and documents. And it illuminates confrontations with the Haudenosaunee from Oka to Caledonia.

The understanding between Britain and the Anishinaabek is different. The 24 Nations wampum depicts 24 figures, hands clasped, forming a chain between a mountain (Turtle Island) and a ship (Great Britain). It documents what Sir William Johnson promised in 1764 at the great meeting at Niagara Falls: should the First Nations want anything, he would go aboard his ship and get it. What he would get were not only blankets and guns, but also respect, fair dealing, and honour.

Somewhere, probably about the time we negotiated the treaties, we slipped back into our colonial ways. We not only rammed the Aboriginal canoe, but boarded it, plundered it and, in trying to steer it through their own waters, have all but wrecked it.

Yes, we need to rethink this relationship.

© David McLaren December 2011.

This article appeared in the opinion section of QMI’s Sunmedia papers in Ontario, December 10, 2011.

The Two-Row wampum belt: an understanding between the British and the Haudenosaunee that each was separate but equal.

The 24-Nations Belt: an understanding that the British would deal honourably with the Anishinaabek


We can do better

The dialogue around the tragedy at Attawapiskat has taken a nasty turn in the last few days. From justifiable shock and outrage that a community in Canada (any community in Canada) can be living in such squalor, to blame and finger-pointing.

A reporter on the CBC’s The National confronted the Attawapiskat chief with evidence of a flight to Toronto that cost over $8,000. The flight was for her and her whole council to attend meetings. Anyone who knows anything about the north knows that everything costs two to ten times more than in the south. One million dollars will buy you four small, one-story houses. We’re not talking Boardwalk here.

Then Peter Mansbridge confronted Grand Chief Shawn Atleo about the $90 million spent at Attawapiskat over the past 6 years and wondered if that was “sustainable.”

Now, the Harper government has put the Band into third party management saying that they have to get to the bottom of the mystery of the $90 million.

But Indian Affairs has been co-managing the Band for the last ten years. Why don’t they just ask their own bureaucrats where the money’s gone? They should know. After all, some $2 billion a year goes to civil servants’ salaries and expenses. By the way, third party management in the past has proven much more expensive that Aboriginal management.

There is a real humanitarian emergency at Attawapiskat. Since when do we Canadians blame first and act later? When a soldier dies in Afghanistan, do we confront his commanding officer with the cost of the mission that killed him? Did we demand Haiti open its books before we responded to its earthquake?

There are a lot of reasons why Attawapiskat is in crisis. But, as someone who has worked with First Nations for 20 years, I can tell you that trying to deliver decent housing, clean water, sewage treatment, safe roads, policing, adequate education, and proper health care to 2000 Natives in the north is not one of them.

But first, there’s some people in our backyard who need help.

© David McLaren November 2011. (Comment on Owen Sound radio CFOS)

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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One Response to A Diamond is Forever

  1. Pingback: “We have a different understanding” | David McLaren

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