It will take more than money and politics to heal aboriginal communities

first nation


Amid the darkness that surrounds tales of aboriginal life in Canada one story offered a glimmer of optimism.  Buzzfeed Canada reported on a summit of aboriginal teenagers in the bleak reserve of Attawapiskat, Ontario who had gathered together to brainstorm positive solutions to the problems of their troubled community.

On one sheet of paper they wrote “what we need.”  The list included “more sports,” “library,” and “parenting centre” as well as “drug/alcohol FREE.”  On another, they wrote what “activities” they wanted.  This included “team building games,” “breakfast club,” and “parental teachings.”  Last, they brainstormed what they “need to do.”  Though this list was thinner, the answers remained obvious: “work together,” “stand up against bullying,” “take responsibility.”

A forgotten skill of youth is the ability to summon frank moral clarity in times of crisis.  Teenagers can be harshly judgmental, but the inverse is a quick and instinctive sense of right and wrong.  Attawapiskat’s teens observed their lot with blunt honesty.  Their recommendations were modest, utilitarian, and deeply human.  Themes of self-restraint and personal improvement were as prominent as material demands.

Such common-sense requests will almost certainly be ignored, alas.  The children of Attawapiskat — and indeed children on Indian reservations across Canada — rely heavily on adult authorities, and adult authorities in this country have abdicated their responsibility to do what’s moral and necessary for the next generation of aboriginals in favor of what the adult world says is ideologically proper.

Indian leaders in their 50s and 60s often believe the personal traumas of their own past, particularly the dark experience of residential schooling, should define the core of aboriginal existence.  For this injustice, they believe there must be endless litigation and constant displays of atonement and restitution.  In seeking to linger the identity of their community on the grimmest events of its collective past, they reflect familiarity with a Canada that values perpetual victimhood and resentment.

White politicians in Ottawa and the provinces, for their part, wallow in shame and noblesse oblige.  They feel guilty about being a product of Canada in the 1970s, ‘60s, ‘50s, or earlier, a society where the dominant conception of aboriginal life and culture was often crude and cruel.  Having inherited the cold authority of the state, whose powers were used to launch the crimes of history, they feel personal responsibility to engage in showy acts of penance to vindicate their profession.  They use their blunt tools to do the things politicians can: increase transfers to reserves (Attawapiskat got over $90 million from the Harper administration), nod thoughtfully at complaints of chiefs, wear culturally-sensitive clothing, and so on.



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Then there is the slice of adultdom whom Irving Kristol dubbed the “new class” — journalists, civil servants, and academics.  As men and women of ideas and policy, they feel the need to subordinate their opinions on aboriginal affairs to the fashionable ideologies of our time: broad themes of non-judgmentalism and anti-majoritarianism.  Since these philosophies are animated by an overarching thesis that Canada’s mainstream culture and historic norms are oppressive and insensitive, they insist Canadians outside the aboriginal community must avoid advising natives about life strategies and solutions — even if such advice has positivity benefited their own lives — because it may appear condescending or “privileged.”

If you’re a happy, healthy, and productive person, it’s likely because you enjoy strong, trusting, mutually affectionate relationships both inside and outside your family.  You probably have a career where you feel valued and useful, and hobbies and interests that provide stimulation and identity.  You also likely have a defined moral code and a spirit of self-discipline and personal responsibility that keeps you cautious, and focuses your mind on how to preserve, expand, and improve for the future the things you savor in the present.

It easy to file lawsuits over land claims and easy to organize seminars about the legacies of colonialism.  It is easy to write cheques and learn new terminology.  For some people it’s even better than easy — it’s a path to wealth and power.  What is difficult is to turn a community of people enslaved by the pathologies of drugs, violence, ignorance, promiscuity, distrust, apathy, and depression into one where positive attitudes reign.

A wise start would be abandoning some of the arrogance of the adult world and start listening to those who have not yet reached the age where they subordinate their imaginations to the tyranny of failed ideas.

Photo Credit: The Guardian

Follow J.J. on twitter: @JJ_McCullough

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