Stark Choices

During her ill-fated campaign as Prime Minister, Kim Campbell famously noted that elections are no time for serious policy debate. It comes as no surprise, then, that we are hearing more this spring about tiny tax credits for piano lessons than about Canada’s most durable and egregious social injustice. That may be a bigger mistake than many realize.

Despite high levels of public awareness, the third world conditions on reserve and the despair and dysfunction that accompany those conditions remain.

There is still a 30% income gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers with equivalent education in this country. After 135 years, the blatantly racist Indian Act remains the legislative basis for the governance of First Nations and self-government is still only an aspiration for over 600 communities. Yet this abject failure has not brought about fundamental policy change. Intriguingly, real change is an option in this election.

The choice is between continuing the policy of assimilation – dissolving Aboriginal people into the mythical mainstream – and reconciliation, balancing the rights and interests of all citizens to ensure that each is fully respected. Stepping back from the details of misunderstandings and misinformation, the stark clarity of this choice is striking.

With the possible brief exceptions of the Martin and Clark administrations, every federal government since before Confederation, Liberal and Conservative alike, has pursued a policy of assimilation.

In 2008, Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons to declare that he now understood the policy of assimilation had been wrong, at least as it applied to residential schools. However, the evidence both before and since would suggest that he did not understand the broader application of that statement, or that he did not mean it.

Conservatives want to end “special” or “race-based” rights to provide everyone with formal equality, denying both equity and the Aboriginal and treaty rights recognized in Canada’s Constitution. Making everyone the same is the very essence of assimilation.

Denying self-government, the Conservatives make the legally spurious claim that First Nations exercise delegated rather than inherent jurisdiction. That way they can deny jurisdiction to First Nations or define it however they wish. And then they blame First Nation incompetence, or corruption, or “the reserve system” for problems over which the federal government has insisted on maintaining authority.

They deny the debt owed for treaties, for the exploitation of the land that built Canada’s economy, and claim that spending “our tax dollars” on programs for Aboriginal people is a generosity on their part, not a legal obligation.

Denying equal funding to First Nations education, they handicap children from the outset, spawning cynicism and despair. They refuse to provide clean water or adequate housing, choking capacity and incentivizing assimilation. Starving them off the reserves appears to be the idea; the inverse of the 19th century bison slaughters that filled some prairie reserves. And, of course, Harper ended the long-form census, preventing documentation of what is actually happening and allowing ideology to replace information.

The surprise is not that the policy of assimilation continues despite its failure for Aboriginal people, although that history is both clear and abhorrent. The irony is that the policy has failed to achieve its more obvious goal of actually assimilating Aboriginal people. There are more First Nations citizens living on reserve than at any time in history. Nor are the numbers of Inuit or Métis declining. And there is an awakening to Aboriginal ancestry and identity occurring in the broader Canadian populace that would suggest a growing readiness to engage in assimilation’s alternative, reconciliation.

There are good reasons for that choice.

More than half the Aboriginal population in Canada is under the age of 25 and unemployment runs at two and a half times the national average. But Harper’s policies on education, employment and economic development for Aboriginal youth remain rooted in his failed ideology.

With more than twice the average birth rate, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people are the fastest growing demographic in the country. Along with newcomers, they are essential to Canada’s labour force replacement and their earnings will be needed to support baby boomers in retirement. The economic benefits to all Canadians from investing in Aboriginal youth are significant.

If social justice and economic self-interest aren’t enough to spur action in this election campaign, consider this. Add a spike in food prices to the high number of young Aboriginal men with a legitimate grievance, few economic prospects and a lot of time on their hands, and the political analogy with this winter’s striking events across the Maghreb might provide impetus for reconsideration.

The good news, however, is that Canadians could use the opportunity of this election to choose between two policy alternatives, two visions of Canada, that are entirely distinct both in conception and effect. We could use this election to maintain the failed policy of assimilation or to adopt the policy of reconciliation and radically improve the future of Canada for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. It really is as simple as that.


  1. Unless settler Canadians reconcile with Aboriginal peoples, the conditions on reserves will continue to be a shameful reminder of the racism of the past and a telling sign of racism today. When the Harper government scuttled the Kelona Accord, it was as if decades of work and struggle were just heaved into the garbage bin along with the hope for better lives of thousands of young Aboriginal men and women, boys and girls. It makes me angry.

  2. Jeanne Fay – I completely understand your anger and I completely agree with you about Canadians reaching out for reconciliation. I would caution against putting too much emphasis on the Kelowna Accord, however, as no matter how much difference that funding would have made in alleviating the daily struggle, the fundamental structures of this country remain stacked against Indigenous rights and reconciliation. We need to take a longer, deeper look at the idea of Canada, to recognize what has driven the mistakes and find ways to correct them, together.

  3. Canadians should know that, appalling as the living conditions are in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, they are WORSE on many reserves. I used to occasionally buy a bus ticket for any aboriginal woman I met who really wanted to get out of the Hell we call the DTES, but I quit after the third one came back in tears to tell me that things were even worse back home. As one woman told me, at least it’s safe to drink the water here. Canadians, if they knew the truth, would be deeply ashamed to know the third world conditions that exist on many reserves. Canadians should be ashamed that they do NOT know; at least I hope they don’t; I hope they are caring but ignorant, as opposed to the alternative.

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