Many of my teaching positions have been on northern Indian reservations in Canada. Conditions are quite variable. I have been on northern reserves with white picket fences and mowed lawns. I have been on reserves with no running water, ramshackle housing and diesel-powered electrical services limited to 35 Amperes or less. Some reserves have plywood shacks for housing yet are surrounded by forests of spruce and pine.
Northern reserves are in the news again as the Red Cross is making a fact-finding visit to aid a reserve that declared an emergency. It’s like the frog cooked in slowly heated water. Many reserves have not even bothered to declare an emergency even though they are in similar conditions and have been for a decade or longer. The federal government claims $80 million has been ear-marked for housing in the Attawapiskat reserve, population 1300, since 2006. Do the maths. $80 million/6/1300 comes to $10K per person per annum, just for housing. Where did the money go?
There’s no accountability so you can bet it was siphoned off 8 ways until there was nothing left. At the same time you can bet kids did not go to school, kids did not get fed and Chief and Council and members of the Board of Education were well paid and had huge travel budgets… I have been on a reserve where each of those prestigious folk got a fly-out trip each weekend all year long accompanied with hotel accommodation for “meetings”. I have been in schools where despite multi-million dollar budgets for education there was nothing available for IT in schools and infrastructure was so unreliable the school could not be kept open the regulation number of days. In the whole of this mess there is no restoring force to ensure the next generation is not in a similar situation.
The agreements made between the government and the aboriginal people protect certain land for aboriginal people, rights to hunt and gather, a school and medical assistance. The government and the people of Canada do not owe aboriginal people a living. They have to produce their own entrepreneurs. They have to take Canada Student Loans to finish their formal education. They have to feed and clothe their children. They can do it if they hold their leaders accountable, demand open budgets and financial statements, require reasonable compensation for those leaders, not all expenses paid vacations, and they have to support and participate in the education of their children. Nothing else will fix the problems. Ottawa won’t do it. The treaties and Indian Affairs won’t do it. They were set up to assimilate Indians.
At the same time, Indian Affairs supplies woefully inadequate funding for schools. Teachers salaries have not been increased since about 2001. Teachers can make more money in southern schools so many unemployable teachers go north. The result is schools on reserves cannot prepare enough aboriginal people to take the teaching, nursing and technical jobs on the reserves and welfare/social assistance is “normal”. On reserve, I have seen more money spent on chips and pop than proper food for children. I have seen freight planes unload pallets of chips and pop while groceries could fit in the trunk of a car. I have seen families living in shacks they don’t own spending all their money on motorboats and snowmobiles for hunting calling it “traditional” while they do not maintain the equipment so it is wrecked in a few years.
I was on one northern reserve where the possessions of suicides were routinely burned to drive away evil. A home was burned this way even when housing was too scarce to provide me a teacherage. I was on one reserve where a family on welfare, instead of fetching firewood from the forest disassembled their house from the inside to heat the place. Money is not going to solve such problems. It takes a lot of hard work and cooperation within the community.
One of the regrets of my life is that I did not go North many years sooner. I enjoyed teaching young people the amazing things they could do with their abilities and a little knowledge and resources. I remember one day a teacher found two rifles at the dump. They were both .243 Winchester, good brands but with broken stocks and salvaged sights. Examining the bore we saw these rifles seem never to have been cleaned. You could barely see light at the end of the tunnel. I applied Ed’s Red (1/4 each acetone, ATF, paint thinner and kerosene). After the first pull, we could actually begin to see the rifling. On the second pull, factory-new rifling appeared. The teacher spliced the stock and ordered replacement sights for about $100. Instead of doing that the practice was to buy new rifles, wasting $hundreds that could go to feed kids.
Hunters find ammunition is so expensive they rarely bother to practice or test their equipment. They could make their own bullets or reload empty cartridges and recycle valuable resources. In all the years I was in the North offering to teach such technology, no one took up the offer. Even the guys at Rankin Inlet paying $3 per shot for .300 H&H Magnum did not bother. They could have cut costs to $1 for very little effort and they had the time and sea-lift to bring in the material and equipment.
The only really good use of technology I saw in northern reserves was the ability to survive on the land and sharpen an axe with a file. Far too much money and time was spent on drugs and alcohol instead of helping the next generation live better. That has to end and the Red Cross cannot fix that. The first step is acknowledging the sources of problems, not blaming others.