In a Sun Media op-ed column this week, Jerry Agar suggests a solution for the people of Attawapiskat, the embattled Northern Ontario reserve: leave it.
He points out that doing the same ineffective thing over and over again is, in general, a good definition of insanity. His second point is that, in order to solve problems, individuals need to take action themselves. I agree with both points.
But his solution – go to where the opportunities are – has also been tried and doesn’t work that well. The shantytowns of Mexico City are testament to the decisions and actions of individuals to leave their rural homes in search of employment and a better life in the city. On a small scale, it works. On a mass scale, not so much.
Will it help individuals and Canada as a whole to have everyone flocking to Toronto or Winnipeg? What about the rest of the landmass we call our country? The government has to pay incentives to medical students to get them to practice in rural areas. Everybody, it seems, wants to be a doctor in Toronto, not so many in Nippers Harbour.
I give Mr. Agar credit for thinking laterally. But let’s go a little further than just “leave the reserve.” Why not make the reserve a centre of enterprise itself? If people want to stay in the north or in rural areas, why shouldn’t they? Who exactly benefits in the long run by having overcrowded megacities and vast expanses of unpopulated land? In making First Nations communities viable wherever they are, the big stumbling block is the Indian Act. So let’s think way outside the box and change that.
Let’s use the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq reserve Miawpukek as an example. It was created from the village of Conne River and surrounding land in 1987. At that time, Indian Affairs was promoting new measures of band self-government. The people of Conne River, never before officially recognized as Mi’kmaq, were accustomed to the control afforded over life and actions afforded by regular municipal, provincial and federal government. They were not about to give that up. So, from the beginning, Miawpukek had a degree of control over economic and educational development that went beyond the Indian Act.
The prosperity of the community speaks to the success of that. In the 1990s, former chief Shane McDonald showed me around. Driving in, he laughed, “see, we’re on reserve land now, and the pavement starts. Usually the pavement ends when you come into a reserve.”
The reason for its success? The people used Indian Affairs money in ways that worked best for their community. They built up a local economy that had people moving back there to find employment. That development is largely connected with their traditional methods of land use. The culture and the environment are alive and healthy.
So my solution for reserves like Attawapiskat starts with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Redraft the Indian Act so that those who come under it have the same freedom to develop businesses and own property that other Canadians have. Don’t force depopulation of northern and rural communities by action or inaction. Let them develop in a way that makes sense for their people and their environment.