Until not that many years ago it was the common belief that people from aboriginal communities would, over time, merge with the general population. As they acquired job skills, people would leave reserves and compete for jobs with other Canadians.
That was certainly the belief of the men who wrote the Indian Act. Reserves, and the demeaning classification of aboriginal people as wards, were supposed to come to a natural end when aboriginal people became a part of the modern community.
That kind of thinking is now considered passé, almost quaint. It is now widely believed that aboriginal people should remain separate from the general population in self-governing tribal nations, where they are subject to a separate set of rights and benefits determined at birth by the race of their parents. These tribal nations are envisioned as having their own economies. The Indian Act, or something similar, would forever treat aboriginal people differently from other Canadians.
Aboriginal activists passionately support this “separateness” model. The last federal government chose to ignore it, but the current government appears to enthusiastically support separateness. In fact, this model has become so fashionable that to even question it is considered an affront.
But does separateness make sense in today’s world? Could it be that the quaint assumption that integration is both desirable and inevitable has been right all along?
I think separateness is the wrong way to go, and is already a proven.
First, where does the idea of separateness come from?
The answer is clear. Keeping a distance between cultures was a natural response by aboriginal people to past assaults on their culture and traditions. The government, churches, and the general population told them their culture was inferior, and that they must learn to be just like white people.
This continued unabated, but aboriginal people refused to succumb. They simply would not let their culture die. Just like the people of Quebec, who knew that their culture must be preserved, aboriginal people insisted -– against all odds -- on remaining aboriginal.
They won the battle. Aboriginal people now take pride in their identity. Their culture is strong. Prominent aboriginal people have proven that an aboriginal person can be successful and proudly retain his or her identity.
So the idea behind maintaining a degree of separateness was absolutely necessary to preserve a culture. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way a good idea was distorted. The determination to hang on to a cultural identity morphed into the destructive concept of a permanent apartheid type of system, with separate laws and separate economies based on racial lines.
This bad idea was formalized in the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996. According to their plan, the individual reserves, or First Nations, would be self-governing – meaning that the money coming to these communities from Ottawa to keep them functioning would be handed to local elected leaders, and not federal appointees.
These communities would, by some unexplained process, develop separate economies, and residents would find decent jobs without having to move from their communities. Although Ottawa did not accept all of the legal changes demanded by the Report, it has transferred massive sums of money to First Nations during the last twenty years with this model in mind.
The RCAP report said that this money from Ottawa would be needed initially, but that tribal nation self-government and independence would eventually result. In fact, RCAP set out the number of years this would take. Twenty, to be exact. That was in 1996. It is now 2016. The twenty years is up, but the reserves are no closer to being self-sustaining than they were in 1996. In fact, they are even more dependent now.
The RCAP plan was not realistic. The reality is that most of Manitoba’s reserves will never be economically viable. Welfare has become a way of life. Although people hunt and fish to supplement their food supply, a welfare cheque usually pays the bills. “Government money” in one form or another sustains these communities. This is not to say there aren’t many good people in these communities. But their communities are not able to produce all of the good jobs their growing populations need, and never will be.
Many people in these communities are trapped in a cycle of dependency. Calvin Helin, an aboriginal lawyer from the west coast, discusses the debilitating effects of the welfare trap in aboriginal communities in his book “Dances with Dependency”.
He describes how dependency inevitably leads to social disintegration, and how it sucks the life out of communities. The massive government subsidies needed to finance separateness further entrench dependency.
The federal government and the aboriginal leaders should admit that the notion of separate aboriginal economies with good jobs for everyone is a fairy tale. They cannot buy people the lives that they want. There is but one economy – one is either part of it, or on the margins.
Educations and entry into the job market is the answer. Aboriginal youth face the same challenge as every young person -- to prepare themselves to succeed, and then to move to where the jobs are.
It is a fact of life in rural Manitoba that a young person will probably not find the job he or she wants in their home community. There is no separate path to success for aboriginal youth.
The good news is that a growing number of successful aboriginal people have shown their young people the path to follow. They have become fully integrated into the Canadian economy, and have done so without losing their cultural identity.
So, the question of separateness or integration is of vital importance to our future. Do we really want a Canada that officially separates races by means of concepts such as “blood quantum” and “status Indian” – a Canada of subsidized, racially segregated mini-nations?
Or shall we finally rid ourselves of these outdated vestiges of yesterday, and recognize that we are all part of one Canadian mosaic?