04.19.2016 12:00 AM

In this week’s Hill Times: Attawapiskat, and leaving home

CALGARY – What do you do when times get really bad where you are, and when your loved ones are at risk?

Well, you either stay where you are, and hope that things finally get better. Or you move.

Around here, that question isn’t an abstraction. Around here, a majority of Calgary’s residents came from somewhere else, to get a piece of Alberta’s (formerly) limitless promise – better jobs, better services, better opportunities.

That’s why my own family came here, in fact: to escape Quebec’s cultural and language wars. We stayed three decades. This is home, still.

Presently, many Calgarians are agonizing about moving. The bottom has fallen out of the energy industry, and things aren’t going to get better anytime soon. So, for the first time in three decades, many Calgarians are pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere. Nova Scotia, Ontario, BC.

Anywhere they can get a job. Anywhere they can give their families a semblance of a future.

That dilemma – should we stay or should we go – is arguably a bit easier for Calgarians to resolve. They came here to get away from tough times, and they’re now readying to leave here to escape tough times. They know what families have to do, sometimes.

But what if your culture is wholly different? What if you were brought up to believe that you were, quite literally, part of the land beneath your feet? That you and the Earth are interchangeable?

In Attawapiskat, unlike Calgary, that’s what some folks may be feeling. Residents there know people are saying they should leave. That they should get away from the grinding, bottomless misery of the place.

But, but, but: to leave the reserve is to leave behind a part of who they are. Because the reserve isn’t a place. It’s them.

The issue came up in the House of Commons last week. My former boss, Jean Chretien, was on the Hill to meet someone, and the media caught up with him. They wanted to ask him about the state of emergency at Attawapiskat – about a youthful suicide pact that had been overheard, involving 13 kids. One of the kids was just nine years old.

They wanted to ask Canada’s best Prime Minister about the 39 recorded suicide attempts since the start of March. In a place with only 2,000 people in it.

Here’s what my former boss said to them: “People have to move sometimes. Sometimes it’s desirable to stay if they want to stay, but it’s not always possible.”

That doesn’t mean the reserve should be shut down or relocated, he said. “You can not have a statement that is generic, you know… it’s one case at a time.”

Chretien is father to an aboriginal boy. He is widely regarded as the best Indian Affairs minister Canada has ever had. He has spent time – lots of it, during and after politics – in remote places like Attawapiskat. And he always taught all of us on his staff to strive to improve the lives of the people who were here first.

But that didn’t stop the NDP from implying Chretien is a colonial antediluvian monster. An “assimilationist.”

Fresh from stabbing their leader in the back in Edmonton – fresh from immolating themselves by embracing a document that would economically emasculate Alberta and not a few other places – the NDP tried to change the channel on their own problems. Theirs is the party that represents Attawapiskat in the House of Commons, you see, and they would prefer you not remember that.

So they went after Jean Chretien.

Said NDP MP Niki Aston: “A former prime minister of Canada, when asked about the suicide epidemic in Attawapiskat, perpetuated such assimilationist views in suggesting that First Nations people should just leave their communities.”

She went on: “These views are unacceptable.”

Hearing this sort of thing from the NDP – from the party whose founder favoured eugenics, and the sterilization of some of the selfsame people Ashton claimed to be defending – was almost enough to make one throw up. But piety is standard operating procedure for the NDP. They’ve represented Attawapiskat for years in the House of Commons, and it’s difficult to think of single thing they have done to improve lives there.

They would prefer, instead, that the people of Attawapiskat stay where they are. And vainly hope – yet again – that things will somehow get better.

The time for waiting is over. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, per the cliché, is the definition of insanity.

The people of Attawapiskat were here first. We – the ones who took away their culture, their language, their religion, their land – owe them.
And if that means paying for them to move to a better place, then so be it. In places like Calgary, they know what that is.

It’s not assimilation. It’s protecting the ones you love.


Michael de Adder’s view is like mine.


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    Kevin says:

    Spending more money on Attawapiskat is precisely the wrong thing to do. We are only encouraging and giving false hope to people to stay in an unsustainable place. This fiction must be ended immediately. If you dropped 2000 Swiss into a remote location on James Bay they too soon would be in despair and social pathologies would multiply.

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    Dave says:

    Offer any family that asks for it cash and support to move somewhere else. Not mandatory. Completely optional. Fully reversible.

    “If you want out, here’s how”.

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    JH says:

    Get the politicians looking for photo ops out of there. Same gang was doing the same thing in 2012 kissing Chief Spence’s hunger striking butt – till the story of the financial mis-mangement, cadillacs, high salaries and consultant fees to boyfriends came out. Then they ran for the hill. Ask Matthew Coon Come of the Quebec Cree and the Quebec government for advice, rather than these political leeches.

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    Peter says:

    I am unaware of any resident of Attawapiskat or any aboriginal person at all who is calling for this. If not, relocation would be forced in some measure. Who believes that’s desirable or possible politically?

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      Warren says:

      Where in the column is “forced relocation” advocated? Are you an idiot?

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        Peter says:

        Nowhere and I never thought for a moment that is what you were saying. All I’m saying is that this would need aboriginal support and that may be a long time in coming.

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    Steve T says:

    When I heard Chretien’s comment, I thought “Finally, someone is saying what everyone else is afraid to say.” Thank goodness he said it – if it had come from the Conservatives, the NDP’s vitriol would have been even greater.

    As Kevin points out above, the idea that proper services and support can be given to anyone, anywhere, in any corner of the country, is crazy. “Reserve” lands were carved out many years ago, and were done for historical reasons, as well quite frankly for xenophobic reasons. Many of them, like Attawapiskat, are not located in a servicable location. It is an endless money pit to treat them as though they were 100 km from a major city.

    As you point out, WK, any relocation would have to be voluntary (and funded by government). However, it needs to be offered.

    Having known a few aboriginals who lived on reserves, one challenge is that some vocal residents will call you a traitor (and much worse names) if you try to “escape”. I use that word because, for many of these suicidal youth, escape is really what they need. No realistic amount of change on the remote reserve will resolve the fundamental issues they are facing.

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    Michael Clifton says:

    There was a time when any First Nations person might have considered all of the land his or her land, and all of it available for connection. There should be no magic in Reserve boundaries — indeed, respecting the boundaries seems, in and of itself, simply kowtowing to colonialist imposition. Seems that me that anyone over-attached to the limits of the Reserve is over-attached to the power and control they represent.

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    davie says:

    If people living in Attawaspikat want to move, what is stopping them?

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      Cory says:

      What road should they take?

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      Kaplan says:

      Look at a map. Notice the lack of roads. Now add the lack of prospects or connections in other communities, and throw in some general poverty and health issues, and you’ve got a slight understanding of what’s stopping people from leaving.

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        davie says:

        I see what you mean. $600 for a flip to Timmins for one adult!
        I lived in a fly in or boat in only community like this in Northern Manitoba circa 1970. I agree with the point in the article about a community being one with the land, that the and is one with the community and with individual identity. But that community also had two scheduled flights a day, and people did leave…not many over a year (everybody was busy, fishing the lake or trapping), but some did leave. A couple of families went to other communities where they had relatives.
        Good to see the Liberal cabinet minister and the local MP working together on this!

        A couple of days ago on here was discussion on an article on sexism by a young woman of some achievement. The article, and some of the discussion here, mentioned the attitudes revealed by language. Choice of language is part of the irritation, and reaction, here.

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    JH says:

    Thought this young man asked a great question of Bennett – just got more bafflegarb.

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    Francis says:

    Nikki Ashton and her Dippers are so full of shit.

    Everything is a goddamn political game for them, even when its concerns matters they claim to care so much about and pretend to champion. Its f*cking blatant opportunism at any chance they can get to be outraged about something without contributing something meaningful to the discussion. Someone should ask Ashton what the hell she’s ever done for FN communities in her northern riding; or for that matter, what her fathers done for FNs in Manitoba while he was a cabinet minister. Because I know both of them personally, and know for a fact that they’ve spent more time strategizing political coups rather than do actual work.

    The truth of the matter is that we have a societal and systemic problem with the way we treat FN of Canada. We dump shitloads of compassion for these communities when the media turns it cameras on them. Then when the media turns its attention over to something else, we’re inundated with new information. Its sensationalism at its worst.

    I’m glad to see people at least attempting to keep this issue in the spot light in order to afford it the proper attention it deserves. Hopefully we can use this situation as a litmus test for possible solutions to the problems plaguing these communities across Canada.

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:


    I’m being generous here: all past federal governments have earned an F. And so will this one, if they don’t finally get this right.

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    Kelly says:

    The NDP hasn’t been able to do anything for Aboriginals on reserves because they have never formed Government. It’s been Conservative and Liberal governments that have caused all the problems. Those parties need to look in the mirror, suck it up and be willing to spend real money …not 3 or 4 or 5 billion…20 billion might be enough. It is expensive building safe comfortable modern housing on remote reserves, building water treatment plants, etc. Then people need enough money to pay for $20 jugs of milk. Most Canadians are too damn cheap to pay for good social programs. They’re too selfish. Instead of a 1500 sq ft house they want a 3000 sq ft house on a Walmart greeter’s salary . . . then go into debt to pay for it…then scream they want tax cuts. First Nations people have been way way too polite….and peaceful.

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    e.a.f. says:

    There is nothing the NDP could ever have done for the A. They were never in government.

    Chretien made the statement. Judge Sinclair said it wasn’t up to others, as I understood his response.

    Treaties were signed and then reneged on. Canada has an obligation to the A. and all other tribes to ensure their needs are met. The children of these communities deserve the same opportunities all children in Canada have, but they don’t. government’s don’t spend as much on northern children, as they do on southern children. Health care stinks on ice. Housing is a disgrace because the houses are built for southern standards and there is no maintence budget.

    if First Nations want to stay in the location they are in, then that is where they stay and the government has an obligation to ensure the needs of the First Nations are met, to the same standard the south is given.

    You may like Chretien and he may have been a good Minister, but really things didn’t change. That is the whole problem. Nothing much has changed and in my opinion that is because all of this has been driven by southerners and not northerners. We don’t even provide decent health care.

    yes we see the photo ops and every once in awhile the FN in the north receive attention, but then it goes away. To deal with the issues, will be expensive, intensive, and way beyond what any government is willing to commit.

    We now hear the kids will get a youth centre, but will there be money for staff and programs? they build schools but are they getting the best teachers and ones which will stay. they build medical clinics but are the best nurses assigned? some times, not so much.

    The problem has been there since Europeans started messing with F.N. way of life. The solution is to ensure the younger generation is provided with education so they can provide the services required within the communities.

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      The Doctor says:

      Full disclosure, I’m no expert on the specifics of Aboriginal treaty rights in Canada. But I see you use the words “Canada has an obligation. . . to ensure their needs are met.”. But that begs the question as to what exactly “needs” encompasses. And then beyond the first-level delivery of services and infrastructure, there are second-level issues.

      Anyway, most people would agree that services and infrastructure such as education, health care and municipal-style services would be required, but what about income? You can have a cadillac school, but if all the kids are dirt-poor and living in homes where everyone is on social assistance, is that really a healthy, sustainable situation? And if there is no viable economic base, and thus there are no real jobs to be had, are you saying that our treaty obligations are such that we are obligated to build, maintain and financially sustain entire communities into perpetuity regardless of that? Does that include, for instance, providing all residents with an income, no strings attached, into perpetuity? If so, at what level?

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    Martin Gomez says:

    I have trouble with the premise that “we” took “their” land. I didn’t take anybody’s land. I’m paying a hefty mortgage for the house I’m in. Some of my ancestors, like many others were refugees. Are the newly arrived Syrian refugees stealing aboriginals’ land by finding refuge here?
    None of my ancestors took anybody’s land that I know of. Even if they did, since when are grandchildren responsible for the crimes of their grandparents? A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian was a defining statement in the last election.
    If Canada has signed treaties, then we should honor them. If a person was unjustly harmed by a previous government policy, then they should obtain damages. But at some point, all Canadians should be equal, no matter how long ago your ancestors settled here.
    Attawapiskat should be funded, and maintained, because there are Canadians living there. It is in the interest of Canada to have Canadians living in remote areas. We can’t have all of Canada living in condos piled on top of each other in Toronto. These people need transportation and communication networks to the outside world so that they can maintain where they live, while interacting with the rest of the World.
    Why not pay these communities to house newly arrived Syrian refugees? They could experience other cultures that could produce synergies. What about tourism- northern sub-polar living could be an opportunity for extreme vacation enthusiasts. There are many things that could be done with some creative thinking and optimism.

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    John from Missasauga says:

    I understand that NDP MP Charlie Angus was once again in there for the photo-ops.Just curious ,did he also once again bring a duffel bag full of used hockey equipment and autographed pictures of the late Jack Layton ?

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