The shame of our home and native lands

It’s so quiet you can hear the pine needles swoosh in the morning breeze. The occasional birdsong splits the air. It’s a decidedly spiritual place. The house nestled in the grove of white pine trees is off the beaten path of this Six Nations reserve near Hamilton in southwestern Ontario. The owner chose it as a place to heal.

After 20 years on the front line of righting the wrongs for First Nations women, Reva Bomberry, 47, moved her family from their riverside home near the centre of the reserve to this wooded haven. She needed to recover from burnout. “It’s soothing here, medicinal, a gift from Mother Earth,” she says in her whispery soft voice.

A few kilometres away, a confrontational collection of young aboriginal men and women stand at a barricade that was erected to block Provincial Highway 6 at Caledonia when negotiations failed to protect the land they were granted by treaty almost 223 years ago. A passerby hollers at the protesters, “This is Canada, not Iraq.” Another bellows, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

This contrast between Reva Bomberry’s hushed Valhalla and te ugly scene at the barricades is the story of the First Nations in Canada. Along with breathtaking vistas of pristine forests and rushing rapids and vast resources of oil, gas and diamonds, there is also the fouled water, failed promises, band council corruption and dishonest intentions.

The route from Bomberry’s house in the woods to the barricade is dotted with a logo for the Esso station and directions to tax-free tobacco shops. Today, those markings of everyday living are joined by a handwritten sign of the times, Never Surrender. This is the most populous (24,000 residents) and prosperous of all reserves in Canada. But today, like the 633 other reserves that are home to 756,000 Aboriginal Peoples, it’s ready to explode.

It’s hard to imagine how Canada, a country known for its tolerance, compromise and proud stand on human rights is the same country that for more than two centuries has not been able to make a fair arrangement with the people who were here first. The consequences of lingering treaty disputes, a breach of the fiduciary and improper surrender of land have seeped into the reserves like acid rain, corroding family values, staining the young, ravaging the old.

“This is a social ticking time bomb,” says David Ramsay, Ontario’s minister of aboriginal affairs. Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says, “Hate and racism are things that my people experience every day. That is a sad reality but a reality nonetheless.” Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, adds, “There is a whole range of child welfare services available to all Canadian children. First Nations are the only families in Canada denied those services.”

The Treaties and the Canadian Constitution were meant to avoid these consequences. But the devil is in the details. An analysis of the documents shows that the current “ticking time bomb” is a result of malignant neglect. Consider:

• There’s still a bounty on Indians in the law books of Nova Scotia – 10 pounds per scalp.
• The dispute about the Six Nations land is not about ownership; it was granted to the Six Nations in 1783. The dispute is about a proper accounting for the land being sold.
• A child called Jordan from a reserve in Manitoba remained in hospital for a prolonged period of time due to jurisdictional wrangling between federal departments as to which department was responsible for paying his home-care costs. They took so long to shuffle the paper work back and forth, Jordan died before the financial issue was resolved and never had the chance to go home.

Historically, native issues have been simply relegated to the back burner. Leave the proclamation to annihilate Indians on the law books. Delay the resolution of land claims. Let a blameless child die in a hospital instead of getting him home.

Now, the First Nations are making it everyone’s issue. During the last decade, a lethal cocktail of logging blockades in the West and fishing rights frenzies in the East and out-of-control gangs in Winnipeg have made the consequences of failure clear. Today, the demographics of the First Nations add a sobering reality: at four children per family as opposed to 1.5 per non-native family, the majority of the population in Saskatchewan will be aboriginal in five years. In 15 years, the majority from Thunder Bay west will be aboriginal, and so will the work force in Northern Ontario. And 50 per cent of that population is under the age of 25 – angry young people who witnessed what happened to their parents and grandparents. The war cry today is reconciliation or revenge.

Chief Fontaine, an Ojibwa from northern Manitoba, conducts his nation’s business from an office in Ottawa that is filled with paraphernalia – paddles, paintings, drums and feathers – the spiritual essence of the people he represents. His business suit and long grey hair tied in a pony tail are the signatures of the tightrope he walks between the First Nations and the federal government. He’s soft-spoken but doesn’t mince words when he explains the current debacle in dollars and cents. “We had no real sense of the incredible pressure that would come to bear on us. That we would have more than 30 million people living all over the country with an incredible thirst and hunger for what we occupy and possess, the land and the resources on our land.”

Like other leaders of the three Aboriginal Peoples recognized in section 35 of Canada’s Constitution (First Nations, Métis and Inuit), Fontaine says the problem we all face today lies in the fact that Canadians have not been told the whole story of the arrangements made between the indigenous people and the government.

To begin at the beginning, they were here first. There is carbon-dated evidence that the indigenous people have been here for more than 10,000 years. For their troubles – lost land to the settlers, destroyed hunting grounds, surrendered fishing sites and for their help in defeating the American rebels during the American Revolution – the First Nations people were given tracts of land by way of treaties. The land would be held in trust by the government (the de facto owner of the land today is Queen Elizabeth). It was never assumed that the native people would live on all of the land. It was assumed that they would lease some of it, sell some of it and choose sections to build their communities. Generally speaking, that’s what happened. Land was leased, some parcels were sold and others were reserved for various bands to live on. The money from the sales and the leases was deposited in trust by the Indian agents, non-natives appointed by the federal government. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement for people who gave up their entire territory but it was done.

It wasn’t until the Six Nations people asked the Indian agent for the money kept in trust in the bank that today’s trouble began. The money was gone. What’s more, some of the treaty-promised land had been sold, presumably without any discussion with the indigenous people who owned it. The money hadn’t been used to stuff the pockets of bureaucrats like most scams. It had been used to build Canada – the highways, the railroads, McGill University in Montreal, the law courts in Toronto. A noble enough investment no doubt, but the funds were taken illegally from the people who signed the treaties in good faith. “They left us with little barren pieces of land and figured we’d die out or be assimilated,” says Lynda Powless, publisher of Turtle Island News on the Six Nations reserve.

Between 1492 and confederation in 1867, 80 per cent of them did die. It took a 20th-century anomaly to very nearly wipe out the rest. Residential schools were the brainchild of the governors and God-fearing rectors who saw the solution to the “Indian problem” as removing the offspring from the source. The schools opened officially in 1928, and native children were scooped up from the reserves and carted off to where they were forbidden to speak their own language and, as we now know, were ill treated, both physically and sexually, and told they were inferior humans. The mandate of the residential schools was “to take the Indian out of the child.” Most of the schools closed in the mid-’70s, the last one stopped operating in 1996.

After 12 horrendous school years – their childhoods spent – they were dumped back onto the reserves presumably de-Indianed and ready to make a contribution, but to what? Not parenting – they’d had no role models whatsoever. Not the native life – they no longer belonged. The only contribution they could make was in the form of despair – the ugly consequences of hopelessness. They turned to alcohol, drugs, glue sniffing, and they became parents and band councillors and ultimately were accused of being the authors of their own demise. Eighty thousand people who attended the residential schools are alive today.

Reva Bomberry explains the situation. “We became passive because we were overpowered by the whites, defeated, low in numbers, ousted from our homeland. Our only option was survival, not even as a nation, just as individuals. Even our language was beaten out of us. That social calamity led to family breakdown,” she says. “Kids came home from school and felt they didn’t belong anywhere. They had no healthy coping mechanisms so they resorted to physical, social, sexual and spiritual abuse. The work we’re doing now is the beginning of the recovery.”

In a nutshell that is the underlying cause of the national disgrace that faces Canada today.

It was a sunny day this past May in Geneva when Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, stood up in front of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) annual meeting and delivered a report that gave a whopping black eye to her home and native land. She did it with numbers – the inarguable plain statistics behind the conditions for the children of Canada’s First Nations.

“Between 1995 and 2001, the number of registered Indian children entering into care rose an astonishing 71.5 per cent nationally.” Indian children are taken into foster care predominantly because of neglect. Most often, there are issues of poverty, inadequate housing and parent substance abuse. Blackstock explains why: “The government of Canada provides 22 per cent less funding per child to First Nations Child and Family Service agencies than the average province.”

Her report – a withering indictment of inequality, obfuscation and racism – will likely drop Canada from the UN’s number 5 position of the best places in the world to live down to number 12.

Blackstock isn’t into revenge. A striking-looking woman with high cheekbones, piercing dark eyes and brown hair streaked blond, she’s successful, cosmopolitan and an exemplary model for the change she seeks for the children she serves.

A member of the Gitxsan Nation, known as the People of the River of Mist, she was born and grew up on the stunningly awesome Gitxsan lands in northern British Columbia. Her father is aboriginal, her mother is Austrian. Her story is typical of many First Nations children. “We moved a lot. My mom always registered us for school. But one time, Dad took us to register. Soon after I started at that school, I complained to my mom that I was bored. She talked to me, as moms do, about getting used to a new place and giving it a chance. A few weeks later, I was still bored. She looked at the school work I was doing and realized I’d done it all the year before. So she went to the principal and discovered I’d been put in a remedial class. ‘Why would you do that?’ she asked. His answer was, ‘Indian children need extra help.’”

Blackstock was moved to another class. But the slights to her and her siblings throughout those years were duly noted, to be locked into her consciousness. She was still a little girl when she began to weave together the threads of discrimination, racism and intolerance that were as much a part of her growing-up years as were the powerfully spiritual surroundings that she says shaped her.

Indeed the Gitxsan land is as close to paradise as one can imagine. Here, the Skeena River flows fast – burbling and splashing its way through lush forests and majestic mountains. The towering spruce trees, the moss-covered forest floors that provide fertile ground for mushrooms, the open plateau rich with wild berries and the grazing grounds for deer, moose and grizzly bears is like the Garden of Eden. And hanging over the scene like a primeval custodian is the gigantic snow capped Stekyaden, which means Mountain That Stands Alone. This is also home to the elusive spirit bear – the all-white bear that is neither polar bear nor albino. It is distinct, ancient, respected – just as Blackstock says her ancestors should be.

Packing up to get ready for her trip to Geneva and the damning report she will file about Canada’s treatment of aboriginal children, she talks about how perplexed she is by the profound ignorance of Canadians about First Nations. “People go such a long way to see antiquity. They go to the pyramids in Egypt, to ancient sites all over Europe. They don’t see this country for its antiquity. It’s as though the history of the indigenous people doesn’t exist.”

She makes a point. We name our summer camps after Indian Nations, we buy souvenirs of Canada at airport gift shops to carry to our friends abroad – maple syrup, salmon, totem poles, dream catchers and T-shirts that say Canada, an Algonquian word for village. “It’s the First Nations people who told the settlers about maple syrup, showed them the salmon pools.” She can’t understand why no one embraces that cultural gift. “Look at the Iroquois Confederacy – it informed democracy,” she says.

There’s more. “Canadians don’t see us as contributing members of society. We’ve been cast in the role of being takers, of people who put others at risk. There’s a stereotype that we don’t care about other peoples’ well being. Yet it was the indigenous people who reached out to the settlers. Even today, our reconciliation movement is that it has to benefit all children in Canada.”

She wonders how non-native people in Canada would feel if they had to carry status cards, had to prove their biological roots by blood quantum, if all the voluntary services for children and families were cancelled – no hockey rinks or swimming pools, no libraries, no safe play areas.

She says, “Canadians look at us as the other, the sad other in the blame game, the at-risk, and she’s fed up with what she calls “the arrogance of improvement.” When a government official said, “I don’t want to turn child care over to the aboriginals, they might make mistakes, Blackstock shot back, “For 10,000 years, we survived our own mistakes. I’m not sure we can survive yours.”

Blackstock stirs her tea thoughtfully and says, “Canada is host to the only piece of race-based legislation in the western industrialized world.” The Indian Act, written in 1876, effectively makes all aboriginals wards of the state. It shaped every single aspect of indigenous life from birth to burial rights, denying the right to vote and to sit on juries until 1960, and until the Act was revised again in 1985, forbidding cultural mainstays such as potlatches and sun dances and denying the status of “person” unless the individual renounces his or her Indian status. “What we need is a Martin Luther King figure who people would listen to, someone who could tell our story to this multi-ethnic nation of people who don’t know who we are.”

Some have already told the story. Daniel N. Paul, 67, a Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia, is the author of a searing indictment called

We Were Not the Savages (Fernwood Publishing, 2000). Its documented evidence is an uncompromising account about how the Mi’kmaq people were brought to the edge of extinction by greed, brutality and ignorance. He quotes from the edict that called for a bounty on Indians and from the letters he has written today to have the bounty removed from the law books and the condescending reply that tells him to let bygones be bygones. He remembers being a four-year-old, standing with his mother in front of the Indian agent asking for food. “He made her beg, made us wait. I was told in school that I came from inferior people and that we needed white people to tell us how to do our jobs.” Paul sees his boyhood as a soupçon of racism and white supremacist thinking. He worked for Indian Affairs for 15 years and says he witnessed underhanded methods to get native land for less money than white people were paid and the poisoning of lakes with industrial waste because according to the engineer working on the project, “The people who live there are only Indians.” He can barely conceal his anger when asked to explain why native communities have more than their share of social ills. “Lack of self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence. It’s humiliating when people talk down to you. You have to have a thick skin to work off the reserve.”

Ontario’s Minister Ramsay thinks he may have the formula for the future. “Aboriginal people have been left behind economically over the last 100 years.” He cites education as an example. For non-native Canadians, there are three institutions that support education: the Ministry of Education, the school board and the school itself. Not so on the reserves. “They don’t have the systems and structures in place that non-natives take for granted,” he says.

Bomberry, now a teacher at Six Nations, knows exactly what he’s talking about. “Our school board is the Department of Indian Affairs. They decide everything. So if it costs money, we’re not going to get it. Our teachers are underpaid. We live with this insidious oppression every day of our lives.”

But Ramsay’s plan includes a sparkling future for the First Nations in northern Ontario – presuming he can get his new initiative to work. “The focus has to be on economic development,” he says. In June 2006, the De Beers Diamond Mines started construction near Attawapiskat on James Bay in Northern Ontario. The resource is so big it will make the area the diamond capital of Canada. (Canada is the third largest diamond producer in the world.) That means jobs. But, as Ramsay points out, it means workers with an education. There aren’t as many aboriginals with high-school education as non-natives, so training is part of his plan. “This is an opportunity for native people. We have to make sure this time that they get their share of the benefits.”

The road to that opportunity is paved with the bumps and curves of internal dispute on the reserves. The rights of women, the violence among the youth, the disagreement over the Indian Act to keep it or get rid of it, fractious quarrelling between band leaders and misspent funds are just some of the issues that confound the reserves today. “Because of the conditions we were kept under, our society broke down and we became dysfunctional,” says Reva Bomberry. “No family has been spared the alcohol, drug abuse or violence that plagues First Nations people.”

But Bamberry remains hopeful. When she opened the first women’s shelter called Ganohkwasra, which means Love Among Us, in 1983, some referred to the shelter as the place where women who don’t listen to their husbands go. “You don’t hear that anymore,” she says.

Fontaine is hopeful as well. In 1952, there were two aboriginal students attending university in Canada. In 1969, that number had grown to 100. Today, there are 30,000 registered in university studies. There are judges and professors, doctors and dentists, pharmacists, professional athletes and Olympians. There are 30,000 small businesses owned and managed by First Nations people. There are airlines and hotels and a fortune of money waiting to be made on the resource-rich lands they own – diamonds, oil, gas and water.

Two of the three barricades are still up months after the debacle began at Six Nations. Furthermore, the Stephen Harper government delivered a body blow by cancelling the agreement made in Kelowna with the First Ministers and the First Nations in November 2005 that would have invested $5 billion over five years in education and housing.

The view from the white pine grove at Reva Bomberry’s house is soothing and peaceful. The potentially violent crucible everyplace else is not. Ironically, as I drive away from the reserve, the car radio is playing an old Pete Seeger song of struggle. “When will they ever learn?” he croons. When, indeed.

A sad reality for Canada’s native people
• There are 756,000 status Indians – those who are registered as Indian and are entitled to live on reserves. Including those who do not live on reserves, the number is 1.3 million.
• About 70 per cent of First Nations students on reserves don’t complete high school.
• Mould contaminates almost half of First Nations households.
• Of the 633 reserves in Canada, 30 per cent have unsafe drinking water.
• The United Nations Human Development Index ranks First Nations in Canada 63rd in the world, which puts them in a category of Third World conditions.
• The suicide rate for First Nations is double the Canadian rate.
• Infant mortality among First Nations is 1.5 times higher than for non-natives.
• The $9.1 billion a year the government invests in aboriginal people in Canada works out to $6,500 a person to supply all government services. Non-aboriginals receive more than $15,000 in government services per person.
• Prisons have a disproportionate number of aboriginals. Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, wrote in the 10th Anniversary of the Arbour Report that within prisons, aboriginal offenders are more likely to be lodged in maximum security, and their prospects for release are unaccountably slimmer. She says, “The race connotation screams out for scrutiny.”
• Indigenous people couldn’t vote in Canada until 1960. They couldn’t buy liquor until 1985. They couldn’t get a mortgage until 2002.

Separating fact from fiction
Myth: “They don’t even take care of their houses.”
Fact: Until four years ago, you couldn’t get a mortgage to build a house. Even now the money you can secure is only enough to build a basement. So, many of the homes are only partially finished.

Myth: “Not everyone can depend on a monthly cheque from the government,” the mayor of Caledonia told CBC Radio when the barricades went up and disrupted traffic to and from her town.
Fact: Actually “everyone” doesn’t get a cheque. Those on welfare do, just like anyone else in Canada whose monthly income is below the poverty line.

Myth: “Must be nice to have everything handed to you.”
Fact: Aboriginal people are entitled under the Indian Act to live on the reserve tax-free, receive goods on the reserve tax-free and receive medical and dental services free of charge (if, like other Canadians, they can access those services). They are also entitled to $800 a month to pay for university fees, books and board if registered at a university.

Myth: “Clean up your own act. Stop blaming the government.”
Fact: Sections 91 and 92 of Canada’s constitution have a list of federal “authorities,” items that are counted and controlled by the government. “Indians” are on that list. So are immigrants. The list includes currency and coinage, patents and beacons, buoys and lighthouses. “Indians” are number 24 on the list between copyright and aliens. The fact is they cannot construct a clean water well or even attend school without permission from the government.