First Nations

The terrible situation in Attawapiskat is, by now, known to many.

Families, children, living in tents and plywood shacks. No running water, no electricity, buckets serving as toilets. Sickness, despair, disease. Mould coating the walls of homes, and winter setting in.

The 1,800 Cree who reside in the remote northern Ontario community are Canadians, but their reserve doesn’t look much like Canada. It looks like something out of medieval times, when life was brutish and short. It shames all of us, in every part of Canada, that children live in conditions like that.

Over the years, I have advised many native bands. I have worked in communities almost as bad as Attawapiskat found in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I have advised successive governments — Jean Chretien’s, Paul Martin’s and Stephen Harper’s — about dealing with problems which are quite similar to Attawapiskat.

As the father to an aboriginal daughter, I was so proud to do that work, but I cannot tell you that I ever succeeded in what I tried to do.

I was a failure.

Now, in respect of our ongoing struggle to assist our aboriginal peoples, every federal government has had moments of which they can be proud. Chretien was, by all accounts, the finest Indian Affairs minister this country has ever seen.

Martin devoted himself to the Kelowna Accord, which would have assisted many native Canadians. Harper’s finest moment — the act which I believe history will always regard as his greatest success — was his apology to, and reparations for, those native children whose lives were destroyed in hellish residential schools.

But all of those governments, too, have ultimately been failures, as they have grappled with the issue that is Canada’s enduring shame — our relationship with those who were here first, the First Nations.

All those prime ministers have tried to prevent future Attawapiskats, and all have been unable to do so.

The blame — because that is what these sad situations typically become, exercises in blame-shifting — does not rest with governments alone. Aboriginal leaders, too, bear much of the responsibility for the ongoing crises faced by some (but by no means all) native communities.

Too often, I have been in reserves where black mould covered every surface, and the house had been condemned, but scores of children could be found living in it, peeking out at me through cracked windows and filthy curtains. While rumours circulated within the reserve about a band member who recently bought a big boat, or a big car.

Reading the paper, trying to understand the Attawapiskat situation, we shake our heads. The federal government only this week put the band in “third party management” — akin to trusteeship in a bankruptcy. But what took them so long?

Why did they pour millions into Attawapiskat for years, and only now decide that there was a problem? It defies sense.

Reading about Attawapiskat, we are reminded that such stories seem to come up all the time.

Two, three, four times a year, someone at a reserve calls up a reporter, and the terrible tales get told.

There is sameness to the stories — and there is sameness to the response.

Fingers get pointed across the aisle, the media write columns like this one, money gets spent, reports get written, and then everyone moves on.

Everyone forgets, until the next Attawapiskat happens.

There’s a understandable temptation, in the midst of stories like this one, to simply throw up our hands and call the problem one without a solution. To give up.

We cannot, cannot, do that. Right now, somewhere not far from where you live, there is a native child who is living in conditions to which you would not subject your dog.

Until we change that, all of us, this is not a country.

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