A few weeks ago, someone asked former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien if he thought the troubled Attawapiskat reserve community should be moved to a different location. Obviously caught off guard, he mused that maybe it should. Predictably, this caused a minor uproar. Now, I happen to think there’s something a little unseemly about baiting an 82 year old retired politician with a question to which there is no good answer and then getting pissed off when he doesn’t give a canned answer, but the question itself is an interesting (if controversial) one.
I was speaking to someone recently who’s probably pretty representative of the average view. They couldn’t understand why certain parts of the reserve system persist, and they had a point: certain reserves are unlikely to ever be economically viable. While there may be certain people who want to live their lives in purely traditional ways, there are also a number of people who would like to be able to, say, leave their community without having to fly in and out during the summer. In the worst cases this can lead to young people who don’t have any hope for the future, which in turn leads to a suicide crisis the likes of which have been seen in Attawapiskat, or Pimicikamak in Manitoba.
Moreover, it might seem a bit odd that some people would be so attached to their communities, given that reserves were colonial creations of the British Crown and the Canadian federal government in the first place.
And yet. While I admit I see the logic in some of the suggestions to move communities, I also return to a basic point that’s fundamental on these issues: just about every time the federal government has made a promise to improve the conditions of First Nations in Canada, they’ve wound up either worse off or, at best, with the status quo unchanged.
That’s crucial, because it means when a reserve community like Attawapiskat is faced with suggestions like “Hey, why don’t you move? We promise things will be better”, there’s no reason in the world anyone on that community (or off it) should believe that promise. It’s not even about malicious intent. One of the most challenging things to understand around Aboriginal issues in Canada is how good intentions fail. First Nations people don’t suffer from worse outcomes on most measures because the average Canadian, or the average civil servant, is actively rooting against them. There are a number of causes, but understanding the issue means moving past intent.
There may be cases where the lives of members of a remote community would clearly be improved by moving the community. There may even be cases where that can be accomplished in a way that respects culture and history. But that’s a tall order, and members of those communities are entirely right to be skeptical of the chances for success.