In the autumn of 2011, the remote community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario found itself in a state of emergency. With winter setting in, the community of about 2000 found itself in dire circumstances with crumbling infrastructure, squalid living conditions and a lack of proper educational and healthcare facilities.
The images that came out of Attawapiskat were nothing terribly new to us Canadians. If anything, we seem to have gotten used to them. As over the decades, innumerable similar incidents have emerged across the country, fading from our consciousness almost as quickly as they entered. These leading to national awkward moments, similar to when a cousin brings up an uncomfortable topic at a family get together, only to have an aunt quickly change the subject to the weather. There was a sense of collective embarrassment in Canada with what was unfolding in the remote community. This embarrassment, however, seemed more related to the fact that the Red Cross was brought in to conduct a relief operation in the community, rather than the actual situation unfolding in Attawapiskat.
Despite the media frenzy surrounding Attawapiskat, an incredulous attitude persists towards the general state that many Aboriginal Canadians find themselves in, not wanting to believe that things are as bad as they are. However, deep down we know. We know Attawapiskat is not an exception as other northern communities still remain in a state of emergency. We know incarceration rates are more than seven times higher among Aboriginal Canadians. We know that dropout rates and youth-suicide rates among Aboriginal Canadians are six times those of non-Aboriginals. The list goes on. Yet we as a government and people remain more just as observers than actors in confronting this far reaching societal crisis.
To say that the government of Canada’s track record in working with Aboriginal Canadians to help resolve the myriad of issues facing their communities has been poor, would be a monumental understatement. However, it does not have to be this way. If the Canadian government and people are serious about helping its aboriginal communities, there needs to be a shift towards understanding aboriginal affairs through a developmental perspective instead of the current top-down bureaucratic system that is in place.
In Canada the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is responsible for, well, aboriginal affairs. That is to say, it is through this department and its bureaucrats that relations and engagement between the government of Canada and aboriginal communities take place. This is also the problem. Crystallized by a friend who’s employed there, saying “a bureaucrat thinking that putting on jeans and a leather jacket to go meet with a band council is going to help solve not just issues facing the community, but also the baggage in the relationship, is delusional.” There is, unfortunately, not much that the government of Canada has gotten right in its relationship with Aboriginal Canadians and there is a great deal of baggage as a result of it.
CIDA to the Rescue?
Though Canada has not lived up to the idea of providing equal opportunity and equal quality of services to all its citizens, there does exist in our collective lexicon the words to fix that. Canadians are familiar with the idea of development assistance, as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is a successful and highly respected federal agency that is responsible for providing development assistance internationally. It works in partnership with Canadian and international organizations, both private and public, to administer foreign aid to developing countries. Canadians were shocked when the Red Cross conducted its relief operation to Attawapiskat; however, it is that kind of involvement with NGO’s that is needed in Canada. The government department that is to work with aboriginal communities should operate domestically in the same way CIDA works internationally: funding and coordinating domestic and international organizations that work with aboriginal communities to address issues of healthcare, infrastructure, education, and economic sustainability. By changing the way we conceptualize the obstacle, we change the way we approach it. Recognizing that many of the issues faced by aboriginal communities are developmental in nature, engaging in partnership with organizations that have experience in working with communities on such issues may go a long way.
Canada prides itself as being a country where equal opportunity is provided to all; however, we can no longer continue to hide from the fact that this is not yet truly the case. Addressing aboriginal issues in Canada is a challenge rooted far deeper than what the reforming of a government department can fix, there is no doubt in that. No structural or operational alterations will provide a silver bullet solution to either the issues faced by aboriginal communities or the relationship between the government of Canada and its aboriginal communities. For reconciliation and healing to take place, trust needs to be re-earned. Re-earning trust requires that correct actions be taken, and correct actions can only be taken when the obstacle is properly understood. Through reframing the obstacle to one that is developmental and community driven rather than one which is bureaucratic and top-down, we can set ourselves on the right path to providing an equal Canada for all its citizens.