I remember four years ago, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was about to apologize on behalf of the Canadian government to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools. Images of rooms in Native Friendship Centres across the country crowded with people waiting for something that was owed to them long ago. Standing in front of the House of Commons in front of federal politicians, the media, and the leaders of the major Indigenous organizations, on June 11, 2008, Harper delivered what many survivors needed to hear. However, while he played the remorseful part by choking back tears during his delivery, he missed mentioning that his government had no intention of changing Canada’s shameful colonial relationship with Indigenous people, which the residential schools were born out of in the first place. But, why ruin the moment, right?
While survivors and the rest of people in Canada were told that this apology would bring a new beginning and forge real change for Canada’s relationship to Indigenous people, the last four years have proven that the government’s agenda of denying Indigenous people’s rights and dignity have has stayed its course.
Conditions on reserves a growing crisis
Imagine some of those survivors as residents of Attawapiskat, the small Cree community of 1800 people in Northern Ontario. What should they think of Harper’s comments when his government literally left them out in the cold. In October 2011, a state of emergency was declared for the third time in three years in that community in response to dropping temperatures and the health and safety concerns from inadequate housing. Because of government neglect, community members were living in makeshift ply-wood sheds, enduring sub-zero temperature without insulation. The Canadian Red Cross was even called in with humanitarian aid to meet the drastic needs of the community.
The government response demonstrated Canada’s unchanging approach towards Indigenous people. Despite the long history of squalor living conditions and numerous government visits, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan claimed that officials in his department were unaware of the housing problems until the state of emergency was declared! Once the crisis attracted international media to expose the mess under Canada’s rug, and United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous people intervened to address the government’s inaction over the crisis, the government moved swiftly to place the blame squarely on mismanagement by the First Nation band council, and sent in a third party manager to oversee the community. Attawapiskat’s state of emergency is still in effect today. There is still a crisis with their housing situation as community members continue to live in temporary housing units which were brought in as only a temporary solution. We may have to wait until the next winter cold comes before the government is pushed to deal with the next crisis.
Attawapiskat was only a glimpse in to the reality facing many Native reserves. Infrastructure, mould, and lack of sanitation systems plague reserves across the country. It is estimated that more than 120 Indigenous communities are under a drinking water advisory. In 2011, the federal government released a report stating that $490 Million would be needed annually over the next ten years to help clean up the water supply on reserves. Despite that, their new budget split only $330 Million over two years. Coupled with the rampant poverty that exists in Indigenous communities, the situation is so bad across the country that in 2004, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), studied and applied the United Nations Human Development Index to Native reserves in Canada. While Canada ranked 4th place, the average ranking for First Nations reserves would have placed them 68th on that list of 186 countries. Today, their ranking would be somewhere around 74th place.
Effects Run Deep
Obviously, these living conditions are having an effect on the overall well-being of Indigenous people. From health to education and employment, Indigenous people fare much worse than non-Indigenous people. For example,the extremely high levels of tuberculosis prevalent among Indigenous people is directly related to poverty and cramped living conditions. In 2010, the Public Health Agency of Canada released figures showing the TB rate among status Indians is 31 times higher than that of non-Indigenous Canadians. Even more alarmingly, the Inuit of Northern Canada who often live in isolated communities, have an infection rate of 185 times the national average. In May, another state of emergency, this time on Vancouver Island, attracted national attention as the Cowichan First Nation was asking for help to deal with the drastic level of suicides and attempts in that community (more than 276 in 2010).
For Native youth, the conditions of growing up with the legacy of residential schools and under these conditions laid a heavy impact on them. According to the 2009 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada, unemployment rates of Aboriginal youth were at least twice as high as non-Aboriginal youth in the Western provinces. School dropouts are as high as 70 percent, and while Indigenous people make up just over 3 percent of the Canadian population, they make up more than 20 percent of jail and prison populations.
Same Response to the Crisis
Given the ongoing crisis facing Native people and this so-called ‘new path’ between government and Indigenous people, one would expect Canada to step in. Not only did they not help, layers of government have systematically cut services to Indigenous people that are there to help them. In April, the government cut funding to the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO). Founded in 2000, NAHO oversaw many research and outreach programs, in crucial fields such as suicide prevention, tobacco cessation, housing and midwifery; issues that statistics show are critical to Indigenous people across Canada. The Conservative government also cut the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s one million dollar budget to provide health services for Aboriginal women. The Conservatives also cut the $22 Million of federal funding to the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth (CCAY), which supports at-risk Native youth. The list goes on, but is enough of an indication Harper and the Conservative government is not the least bit concerned with the complete deterioration of critical services for Indigenous people. If you follow the path that Harper has been leading, it is clear that his government is leading an offensive on the well-being of Indigenous people in this country.
This offensive goes far beyond the reaches of budgets and funding to the historic colonial interest in Indigenous people: their land and resources. When the Conservatives rushed in their Omnibus Bill C-38, it imposed a series of new regulations and policies that will alter opportunities for First Nations to examine and be engaged in the approval processes for major resource development projects. As one of its components, it will also gut the environmental protection provisions of the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Indigenous people already have to fight tooth and nail in order to even be heard by the companies that come in to their territories. These new provisions now make it harder for them to protect their title, rights, and treaty rights to the benefit of third party interests.
The Canadian government has a hard time taking criticism for its actions against Indigenous people and today is no exception. Because of the opposition among many Indigenous nations to the exploitation of their land by resource mega-projects, they were labelled a potential ‘terrorist threat’ and many leaders, activists and organizations were spied on by the Canadian Forces’ National Counter-Intelligence Unit. When the UN right-to-food envoy Oliver de Schutter arrived in Canada for an official visit where he addressed the staggering food crisis that exists among Inuit in Canada’s North, instead of meeting with him, the government worked at discrediting him in the media just as they had done when the UN special rapporteur on Indigenous rights visited about Attawapiskat. The message from the government is clear: if you oppose or even question our policies, you will be taken to task.
A Lie Told More Than Once
Harper’s residential school apology had the same intention as Canada’s so-called historic signing of the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Canada was one of only four countries to originally vote against it, and only had a change of heart once it established that the declaration was non-binding and wouldn’t at all improve the rights of Indigenous people within Canada. They did it to save face. The Prime Minister now champions these two ‘achievements’ as the hard work of his government. But, for all the Native people affected by neglect, cuts, and attacks over the last four years, these ‘achievements’ are known to be worthless. The government cannot preach reconciliation without bringing justice deserved.
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