Denial and blame in Aboriginal communities

In the decade since I began writing for the Citizen many things have changed. Not always for the better. But even on many issues where debate has not ended, the tone and specifics of 1997 would sound quaint. Except on my very first topic, aboriginal policy, where almost nothing has changed. And that’s a tragedy. Ten years ago people denied there were health care waiting lists; balancing budgets was controversial; Japan was a rising economic power; terrorism was a minor issue in the post-Soviet era. Our personal lives were different, too. We didn’t have cell phones. And where did this grey hair come from?

Now read this passage from my first Citizen column: “There is no doubt that the economic and social situation of too many of [Canada’s aboriginals] is appalling. Nor is there any doubt that the devastating impact of European technology and Old World diseases on their culture was exacerbated by policies that were usually just as harmful when well-intentioned as when hostile. But there is something of a cargo cult mentality among them, as they wait for their ancestors, or at least the treaties they signed, to bestow perpetual abundance on them. The difference here is that those in the larger society who profess to be their friends encourage this mentality when they ought to be discouraging it.” Is there one word that doesn’t still resonate?

Consider that the B. C. government spent 13 years and a billion dollars negotiating land claims. This year, finally, the first deal was voted on by the 234-member Lheidli T’enneh band. And rejected. Whereupon Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs declared the whole formal treaty process useless because it required aboriginals to give up too many traditional rights for too few concrete benefits. Leaving what, beyond a conviction that stubborn adherence to something nebulous can make wonderful things fall from the sky?

I do not know what aboriginal leaders and activists think or say about the rest of us when we are not around. They have a lot invested in the notion that most of their problems come from our bigotry. But that’s unfair. If we non-aboriginals really had a piece of paper we could sign that would right historical wrongs and end present-day social pathologies that resulted from them, 98 per cent of us would sign without hesitation even if the costs were enormous. The problem is, we don’t. And as long as aboriginal leaders insist that we do, and that only racism prevents us from signing it, and that sufficient political militancy can make us one day give in and sign it, no progress can be made. We can’t even surrender to militancy.

No one can give back the ways of the ancestors. If they were brave, wise, compassionate people, those virtues are timeless, but they cannot be conferred from outside. As to the specific cultural patterns of pre-Columbian North America, they are long gone and I don’t imagine most aboriginal Canadians have the slightest interest in giving up electricity, metal and central heating. So what do they want?

The excessive, even millenarian expectations raised by aboriginal leaders mean no practical, limited settlement can ever be put on the table from their side nor accepted by them if it comes from others. Their basic negotiating proposal is “Deal with us and get burned.” Note that the B. C. negotiations started under NDP governments, as politically correct a bunch of do-gooders as you could find on the planet. If anyone had the desire and ability to satisfy aboriginal demands it was them. And it ended like this. Now who’d like to stake his reputation on another go? It is obviously very bad public relations for non-aboriginal politicians to seem indifferent to native issues. But any serious effort to find solutions ends in policy failure and PR disaster.

So the rational response is to stall. Make sympathetic noises. Stage photo ops. Welcome any number of meetings to devise consultations to develop frameworks for progress toward a process intended to lay the groundwork for a meaningful settlement of preliminary questions to set conditions for forward movement. Make sure your staff knows nothing is ever to emerge from all these meetings except more meetings. And let existing levels of funding continue or gently increase; though expensive, the payments are not unaffordable and any effort to cut or significantly restructure them would cause political disaster.

How does that sound? Familiar, I’m afraid. It’s exactly where we were 10 years ago. Except we’re all 10 years older and many more aboriginal lives have been blighted by hopeless living conditions.

I really don’t want to write this again in another decade.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

UncategorizedJohn Robson