Canada’s native peoples, Indians and Inuit, have not been oppressed. They have not had their land stolen. That is part of the legend of the Noble Savage, not the real history.
Nevertheless, anyone can see that the current situation of Canadian Indians is not good. Right?
“The Assembly of First Nations reports that a young person on a reserve is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate from high school. Suicide rates are five times higher than for young non-aboriginal Canadians.” (Don Tapscott, “A Homegrown Solution to First Nations Poverty,” Toronto Star, Mon., Nov. 4, 2013). In Quebec, according to the government authorities, “the death rate among Aboriginal children is triple the death rate among non-Aboriginal children,” diabetes is two or three times more common, aboriginal children are three to five times more likely to experience poverty, neglect, and abandonment, nearly half of families are single-parent, one out of four adults is unemployed, and rates of tuberculosis are high” (AFNQL, 2007; Réseau de recherche en santé des populations du Québec, 2008; Health Canada, 2003; FNQLHSSC, 2006). None of this sounds good. In her recent book The New Trail of Tears, Naomi Schaefer Riley gives similar statistics from the US: “Involvement in gang activity is more prevalent among Native Americans than it is among Latinos and African Americans. Native American women report being raped two and half times as often as the national average. The rate of child abuse among Native Americans is twice as high as the national average” (NY: Encounter Books, 2016, location 89, Kindle version). As of 2006, median income for aboriginals was 30% lower than for other Canadians (Daniel Wilson and David Macdonald, “The Income Gap Between Aboriginal Peoples and the Rest of Canada,” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2010, p. 3).
But wait. Is it really true of Indians generally? Remember, a good portion of Canadians actually have Indian blood. They are your neighbours. They might be you. They are not showing up in those figures. So far as any of the rest of us can tell, they are us. They are folded in the statistics for non-aboriginal Canadians, and doing far better, it seems, on average, than those who still self-identify as Indians.
In other words, Indians are not doing poorly. They are, in world terms, doing very well. Those who are doing poorly are those who have failed to integrate; who cling to the old ways, the reserves, and the romantic idea of being a people apart.
The real problem is failure to integrate.
Self-identified “Metis”--half-integrated--do significantly better than Indians or Inuit on almost any measure, while Indians and Inuit, with widely differing cultures and genetic makeups, do almost the same. Identifying with a failed culture is a failing strategy. Obviously.
And the solution is obvious, simple--and profoundly politically incorrect.
Even for the segregated aboriginal remnant, the poverty problem, at least, may be exaggerated. The figures we see are actually properly taken as on top of whatever their traditional way of life might bring in. A traditional way of life, with their freedom from hunting or fishing regulations, still entirely viable for most residents of remote reserves. None of that—everything they would have had before the white men came, and more—is shown here. Anything derived from hunting, gathering, or fishing is simply excluded from their income figures, because no money changed hands. “Aboriginal people in rural communities and on reserve have non-monetary sources of income that are not captured in the census, such as food from gardening/farming and hunting/trapping. For example, the value of a moose — which would provide an average of 150 kilograms of usable meat — cannot be estimated in dollars because governments made selling wild game meat illegal.” “Information on this point is limited. However, a study of the Mitchikabibikok Inik (Algonquins of Barriere Lake) is informative. The study, conducted in the early1990s, found that ... in a given year, the land provided the community with 60,000 kgs of edible meat (780 kgs per household and 130 kgs per person). On average each household harvested meat at a value of $6,623. Families burned an average of 10.5 face cords of wood, which gives a fuel value of $4,800. In addition, non-meat resources from the bush added at least $845 per household. The estimated value of goods taken by the Algonquin economy was $575,245 a year from the land base” (Wilson and Macdonald, p. 12).
It is hard to be sure, but it seems entirely possible that, adding this to the official tally, aboriginal people on reserve are actually doing as well as or even better than anyone else. And this does not yet factor in free housing, free schools, free college, tax breaks, and free medical care.
This certainly does not yet mean that all is jolly. We are still apparently left with appalling levels of single parenthood, child abuse and neglect, youth suicide, crime, diabetes and tuberculosis. It still sounds hellish to be a young Canadian aboriginal.
Nevertheless, this strongly suggests that the solution is not shovelling in more money. Even on the ground at the individual level, there seems to be enough money. Even letting alone the vast sums that seem to disappear on the way there.
And how can merely being poor by itself hold a people back for a dozen generations? Most immigrants to Canada in the last two centuries arrived desperately poor. The Irish of the famine, the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Scots of the Highland clearances, the Poles, the Ukrainians—and yet their descendents now are mostly doing quite well, thank you.
What’s the difference?
Surely it is obvious.
It is certainly not, despite the prevalent Noble Savage myth, that traditional Indian culture has been insufficiently nurtured or respected or hugged or protected. Everyone loves Indian culture. Absolutely nothing has been done in this country, until the recent misguided dogma of multiculturalism, to officially preserve traditional Jewish or Irish or Lebanese traditions. Yet these groups have survived the terrible cultural trauma well enough.
While the Jews or the Irish have, in all that is not essential to their identity and their conscience, tended to assimilate, more or less everything we have done “for” the Indians and other aboriginal groups has tended to preserve their difference from the mainstream. Beginning with the determination, in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, to deal with them always as corporate entities, not as individuals.
And why did we deliberately do something so perverse? Blame the myth of the Noble Savage, of the innocent Indian Eden, as influential in 1763 as it remains today. Indians were in the end not full humans with free will and capable of safely making their own responsible decisions. They had, therefore, to be patronized and protected by the Great White Father or Mother. The upshot was, they had no rights as individuals.
At the same time, the poor unlucky Indians owed it to the Noble Savage myth to be forever declining and dying out, never doing well. If this could not be accomplished by any natural means, the vested interests of the bureaucrats given the job of looking after them dictated that they must not ever succeed at anything on their own.
The residential schools did not, as commonly charged, exist or act to assimilate them. The very notion of a separate Indian school system, as opposed to having them attend the regular schools with everyone else, was apartheid, and calculated, surely, to preserve their separate identity. Far from “taking the Indian out of the man,” according to Claire Hutchings, “[f]ollowing the ideas of Sifton and others like him, the academic goals of these schools were ‘dumbed down.’ As Campbell Scott stated at the time, they didn’t want students that were ‘made too smart for the Indian villages’: ‘To this end the curriculum in residential schools has been simplified and the practical instruction given is such as may be immediately of use to the pupil when he returns to the reserve after leaving school.’” (Claire Hutchings, “Canada’s First Nations: A Legacy of Institutional Racism,” http://www.tolerance.cz/courses/papers/hutchin.htm). Once an Indian, always an Indian.
Were this not enough, for many years, on their own initiative and without any legal warrant, the bureaucrats of Indian Affairs prohibited natives from even leaving their reserves without a permit. Assimilation was the last thing they were promoting.
Nor did the missionaries, counter to the standard madcap accusation, practice the imagined “cultural imperialism” or “cultural genocide.” As serious Christians, they inevitably considered themselves “in the world but not of it”; they felt no special allegiance to the majority culture, which was, after all, the kingdom of this world. Most often, for all that they also disapproved of elements of Indian culture, they saw themselves as a bulwark for the native people against the mainstream’s evils. Even had they been driven by sheer self-interest, as some of them no doubt might have been, self-interest was to keep the Indians apart. This magnified their own importance and influence, with both the Indians and the government, as mediators, advisers, and interpreters. Jesuits are not dumb.
Even more, it has always been in the raw self-interest of bureaucrats of the Department of Indian Affairs, its predecessors, heirs, and successors, to keep the Indians a separate and distinct group. If they ever ceased to be so, all such bureaucrats would lose their lovely jobs, after all. As well as all their power. If you want a problem fixed, the worst thing to do is to form a government department to do it. “Many of those charged with fixing the problem are too busy profiting by it” explains Frank Busch (“Is This the Solution to Native Poverty?” Huffington Post Canada, 08/13/2013).
And, of course, there was not going to be any pushback from the band leaders, ever. Preserving Indian segregation was always also utterly in their self-interest. Governments dealing always and only directly with them, and not with Indian individuals, increased and still increases their personal wealth and power. They are feudal lords. Are they going to overturn their own regime?
The general population has, in turn, always considered all this reasonable, and has never raised the uproar that they ought, because it all meshes so well with the Noble Savage archetype. Of course, Indians must not ever be given individual responsibility. That would ruin their innocence. They must be taken care of, like the lovely children they are. They, and their idyllic culture, must be protected from civilization; civilization is dirty and evil. And they are of course not supposed to be doing well, now surrounded by it. They are supposed to be poor, disconsolate, depressed, and nostalgic for a perfect but irretrievably lost past: our collective childhood.
An impossible expectation for any poor Indian to fulfill. Apart from external considerations, many aboriginals have probably, within their own psyche, in the darkness of their mights, influenced as much as the rest of us by popular culture, been trapped by this double bind. If they succeed, if they are happy in the world, if they do anything by and for themselves, if they try to make things better, they have betrayed their imagined heritage. They have let everyone down.
And their only alternative, again sadly, is ironically to walk away from their aboriginal heritage in toto, to forget they were ever Indian. Because being Indian now means by definition being lost in the modern world. By seeking to artificially preserve an artificial Indian culture, we are killing both Indians and real Indian culture.
The urgent need, in sum, is to deny the glamour of the familiar stage-Indianness. It is a simple truth, a simply reality, that traditional Indian culture and social organization as a structural whole is not viable in the modern world, or at least, is vastly inferior in what it can offer in comparison to the mainstream. It was barely viable for most individuals in its heyday. Elements of it, certainly, are useful and admirable. But it should go without saying that such elements have mostly already been integrated into the mainstream culture. People given their own head are unlikely to reject what is useful. Any useful Indian traditions that oddly have not yet would naturally be so, left alone, with general integration, over time. Like Italian pizza, or German hamburgers and hot dogs, or African rock and roll.
Accordingly, the only possible outcome of artificially seeking to preserve Indian culture by outside intervention is to keep Indians and even Indian culture down.
Governments should no longer deal with band councils, but with Indians as individuals. Indians as individuals should be granted full equality before the law, and should not have to deal directly with governments in any manner that other Canadians do not. Government is not their friend. Even without malice, government is by its nature massively inefficient and unresponsive. From this fact has come most of the real suffering of aboriginals since the signing of the original “government-to-government” treaties.
Reserves should be broken up and the land divided among band members. Should they then choose to set up a band as a voluntary organization, great. Let it work to preserve traditional Indian culture, too, if that is what they want. But that should be no business of government. Indians ought as Canadian citizens to have the same right to free association as all the rest of us.
Indianness as a legal status must be abolished. By it’s very existence, it preserves the idea of two different classes of citizenship. This is anathema to the universal doctrine of human rights. Many Indians may suppose that this is against their sheer self-interest: that legally, they are currently given a superior status, and a lot of free stuff. This is superficially true, but in the long run, false. The proof is in the statistics already quoted: those who persist in their Indian status are simply and plainly not doing as well over time as those who do not.
Some have argued that the sheer absence of private property on reserves explains the general despair, disorder, and disrepair found there. Communist societies have failed world wide. Why should we expect any different on James Bay? How can we, in conscience, force some of our citizens, on purely racial grounds, to live in a Third World situation in the midst of our freedom and prosperity?
Indeed, all the problems reported of native people seem to be worse on reserves: “for example,” Riley says in The New Trail of Tears, “an estimated one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys in Indian country is molested before the age of 18…. Violent crime on the country’s 310 reservations is on average about 2.5 times as high as the national average” (op cit, location 89).
Nor is the absence of private property the only problem on reserve. It is also, and perhaps inevitably, given the resultant weakening of the individual, a little haven of totalitarianism.
The traditional Indian social structure is, in its petty way, always totalitarian: to paraphrase Mussolini, everything within the band, everything for the band, nothing outside the band, nothing against the band. Without property of their own, without rule of law, all individuals were utterly dependent on the band. Yes, matters were commonly decided by “consensus.” That sounds good at first hearing. It is often contrasted glowingly with our own insistence on majority rule. It seems to suggest everyone was nice to each other and got along, that everyone’s view was heard and accommodated. But what it actually means is that there is no room for any sustained or principled dissent. Those who did not support or otherwise disturbed the general “consensus” could be driven out or killed. Nobody got to do their own thing. It was the consensus of the choir in Lord of the Flies. If everything must be done by consensus, no dissent can ever be tolerated.
Non-band-members, including those driven out, could be seen as less than human; they had no rights. There was no structure or organization or generally accepted legal or even moral code (such as an ethical religion) that could restrain band actions.
Indian culture, or the band structure, also commonly suppressed the family. It might, after all, otherwise be a separate source of authority, allegiance, or power. Indian children often did not know who their father was—which is why descent was commonly reckoned through the mother. Any older male vaguely or theoretically related might be considered “father.” Families often lived communally, for example in longhouses. Marriages tended to be impermanent, polygamy common, and divorce trivial.
As an obvious result, family ties were weak. No one male was naturally inclined to take any special responsibility for any one child. Kids tended largely to be left to fend for themselves.
It takes a village to neglect a child.
This was not obviously great for child welfare. It is notable that most of the problems we see among Indians and on reserves seem to be problems of youth and of the family: child abuse, lack of educational attainment, disappearance of young females, teenage suicide, juvenile crime, youth suicide, alcoholism, substance abuse, and so forth and so on.
Encouraging traditional Indian culture and band identity must needs exacerbate this, given that it tends to devalue the family. Yes, one might argue that the residential schools did too—but only in the same sense that orphanages do. Which is what many of them eventually became.
This by itself is bad enough—but shovelling more free money into the band and to Indians makes it all worse. When we refuse to allow Indians to make any decisions for themselves, when we infantilize them, this is especially difficult for men, who are naturally most inclined to rugged independence and who are traditionally the family protectors and providers. No wonder they tend towards escape through alcohol or otherwise. A reliance on welfare removes the husband and father from any obvious family role. Given no purpose in the family or in life, and told in literal terms that he is not responsible for the children, why try anything? Why not just go out and get drunk? Why not sex with any woman who consents? Or, for that matter, doesn’t--given that he has so frustratingly little to offer. With no financial power, how else maintain his family position, should he hang around, but physical force?
Granted, a good man should rise above all that. But why make it so hard?
Much of this is a problem shared with the poor in Canada everywhere; it is hard to see any real fix without fixing welfare generally. But it is several steps worse for Indian men: their families often don’t need them, for example, for housing or to pay for college. Everyone gets everything laid on, by government and the band. They are all just being paid for being Indian. Indian men are systematically humiliated.
The proposal for a guaranteed annual income, not lost or all clawed back if work is found, could help. In the meantime, getting Indians off reserves and into areas where jobs might plausibly be seems a self-evident first step.