Canada’s federal and First Nations leaders will meet in January to discuss the condition of native reserves like Attawapiskat.

Show genuine care

By 
  • December 7, 2011

Before Canada’s federal and First Nations leaders hold a summit in late January to address the shameful state of native reserves, they should read Megan Blair’s plea for help in this issue of The Register.

They should feel the pain, share the despair and experience the sorrow she witnesses daily. A registered nurse in Moose Factory, Ont., Blair’s patients include the sick and dying from Attawapiskat, the small northern village that is Canada’s new symbol of neglect for its First Nations peoples.

“The poverty is immense,” she writes. “But it is not just a poverty of material things. It is a poverty of spirit. There is so much hopelessness and suffering.”

The deplorable situation in Attawapiskat — and at scores of other native communities — was not created overnight. None of these places was hit by a natural disaster that left people destitute. These communities were decimated by a creeping indifference that broke them over many decades, under several governments.

Canada needs an intelligent, honest debate about its First Nations people. It needs to admit that its record on native issues is abysmal, that the blame for this travesty is shared by a broad swath of political and native leaders, that Canada’s First Nations’ crisis is real, that it is shameful and that all sides need to do a better job to lift Canada’s founding people from poverty and despair.

The first question is should these remote, northern communities even exist?

The answer to that must come from the people who live there. If, for historical and cultural reasons, they choose to remain on traditional homelands, others have no right to demand forced resettlement and assimilation in a non-native culture. Surely, if we’ve learned anything over the past 150 years, it’s that arrogantly dismissing a culture with roots that pre-date Columbus is immoral and unwise. If the answer is yes, that these remote native communities are a part of Canada, then governments are morally obligated to ensure the inhabitants have decent housing, clean water,  education, health care, security and all the core services a wealthy industrialized nation can offer. 

That means more than just allocating additional millions of dollars to native issues. It means ensuring proper oversight of how the dollars are spent. It means genuinely caring about the people. It means taking a tough stand with some band leaders. It means elevating the interests of the suffering children and other vulnerable native people above political posturing.

“These deplorable living conditions are unacceptable for any human, no matter where in the world they live,” Blair wrote. “But they are even more unacceptable in a rich, kind, wonderful country like Canada. We are better than this.”

At least, we should be.

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