“The truth is that neither Canadian political leaders nor Canadians themselves have the stomach for an honest conversation about the disgrace that is the state of too many First Nations, the grotesque and bewildering array of rules which govern the federal-aboriginal relationship and the paternalistic and ultimately poisonous nature of that relationship in the first place.”
- Christie Blatchford: Little hope for change in Attawapiskat, Christie Blatchford, National Post, Dec 2, 2011
One of the first actions of the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper was to cancel the Kelowna Accord. The simplest explanation for the Kelowna Accord was one I found on Wikipedia: “a series of agreements between the Government of Canada, First Ministers of the Provinces, Territorial Leaders, and the leaders of five aboriginal organizations in Canada. The Accord sought to improve the education, employment, and living conditions for Aboriginal peoples through governmental funding and other programs”.
It was to be the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin’s legacy and, as a result, an action of a Liberal Government. Given that the new Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, was partisan, it was not a surprise that he cancelled the project. Given that Mr. Harper is also heavily ideologically, he did not ask whether the programme would attain the results that all Canadians wanted. He simply cancelled it and did not replace it with another programme or accord. In my opinion, we are seeing the results of that action.
To make this argument, though, I must first show that Aboriginal Bands are systematically underfunded and “under-resourced”. Furthermore, I must show that additional resources will solve the problem. In my mind, the easiest way to do this is to compare aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadian communities.
Let us take the most recent example, Attawapiskat. The federal government has argued that they have provided enough money to the community. Records indicate that the community has received $81 million dollars since 2006. Or put differently, the Federal Government has given the reserve between $15,869,270 and $17,948,132 a year. Now that might seem like a lot of money to run a community but it will become clear that that is not enough.
To get an idea of the needs of Attawapiskat, one must get an idea of size of the community and compare it to another of similar size. According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada statistics, Attawapiskat has 2,800 registered members. While, Statistics Canada reports that the on-reserve population for Attawapiskat was 1,293 in the 2001 Census. The community has over 200 houses and households.
If I want to compare Attawapiskat, I can choose any small town in Alberta. According to the 2001 census, Chestermere has 2,595. Chestermere is a small community, on the outskirts of Calgary, in Alberta
They raise $15,074,994 in taxes for the general municipality and $321, 008 for the county. One might think that Attawapiskat has about the same amount of revenue as Chestermere. However, if you look at the services provided you will see the difference.
In Chestermere, its tax base pays for elementary and high schools, municipal services and municipal utilities. They would include emergency services, libraries and recycling. However, in Attawapiskat, the band government must pay for much more. They Attawapiskat Band Council has to pay for elementary, high school, special and post-secondary education. They have to pay for environmental stewardship and community infrastructure. Furthermore, the band has to pay for housing. While, Chestermere has the same about of money, they have fewer services to provide.
In a community like Chestermere, housing is built by private sector developer and sold to home owners. Chestermere, Strathmore, Banff or other Alberta towns charge their developers for part, or the full cost of development. So much of the cost of developing new houses is borne by developers and is eventually paid by homeowners. However, this is not the case in an Aboriginal Community. Since, Aboriginal Communities – for a variety of reasons – are required to build their own homes. Accordingly, in an aboriginal community, the private market does not bare or shoulder any of the temporary or long term costs that come with the development and maintenance of houses.
Now some, like Margaret Wente on CBC’s ‘Q’ or Tom Flanagan, might argue that not having a private market on reserves is the problem. As Marci McDonald reported in the Walrus in October 2004, it is very clear that many Conservative commentators would love to replace existing Aboriginal Rights and/or systems with a form of private property rights. As she wrote, “Most voters have never heard of Flanagan, who has managed to elude the media while helping choreography, Harper’s shrewd, three-year consolidation of power. But among aboriginal activists, his name set off alarms. For the past three decades, Flanagan has churned out scholarly studies debunking the heroism of Metis icon Louis Riel, arguing against native land claims, and calling for an end to aboriginal rights. Those stands have already made him a controversial figure, but four years ago, his book, “First Nations? Second Thoughts”, sent tempers off the charts.”
However, a private market would not solve anything. For communities, like Attawapiskat, have very little economic opportunity. Where there is little economic opportunity, people from outside the community will not buy homes within the community. Furthermore, there is little incentive for people from Dryden, Hearst, Timmins or Kirkland Lake, Ontario to travel to Attawapiskat, so tourism is out. Lastly, if you give the band or the people title, experience may not exist in the community to develop that asset into an income. So market creation may not be an option.
And we can see this by looking at Newfoundland. For years, Newfoundland had problems with economic development. Rural communities, accessible only by boats, existed in name only. Their populations left for other parts of the country and the world. This meant that economic performance was dependent on money coming in from “abroad”. These communities had huge unpaid property debt burdens and so communities turned to the province. It was a scary downward cycle. That cycle has only been reversed by the creation of an oil exploration industry due to federal and provincial government intervention. Those governments provided money, tax breaks, structural changes and legislation to start the industry.
In other communities, the Federal Government has created economic development agencies or programmes. One can easily find a number of them online. There is the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, Nova Scotia Business Development Programme, Western Economic Diversification Canada, Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions and the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. This could be done for Aboriginal Groups in much of Canada. The creation of an Economic Development Agency could provide our Aboriginal Groups with a start.
This is what a Liberal Policy should be. It should be to provide a hand-up to our countrymen. We should remember the “Golden Rule” and provide assistance to the “other”. However, that assistance should not be without any measurement and it should not be without goals. The Federal Government should sit down with an Aboriginal Nation(s) as equals and develop clear goals and work to implement those goals.
And this is where I get back to the Kelowna Accord. It was a structure that could work toward the idea of a partnership. A place where various levels of governments – Federal, Provincial and Aboriginal – could come up with a plan to provide both experience and resources to our First Peoples. That is what Paul Martin tried to do. This is a Liberal Solution to our Aboriginal Challenge.