A national day of protest will change nothing


Today's national "day of action," called by the Assembly of First Nations, will receive a bumper crop of media coverage, perhaps inconvenience some non-aboriginals, but otherwise do nothing.
There have been many incidents of protest in the past without fundamentally changing anything on a national basis. It is hard to imagine how this "day of action" will result in something different.
The "day of action" is designed by AFN organizers to draw attention to what national chief Phil Fontaine calls the "dirty little secret" of aboriginal poverty. With respect, this is hardly a "dirty little secret." Almost every Canadian knows about aboriginal poverty, even if few spend much time thinking about it. (But then there are lots of issues Canadians don't think about.) Like most aboriginal issues, native poverty has been relegated to the list of subjects for which no easy answers exist.
The spending of additional billions on native education won't solve the problem, because poverty arises from a mixture of family breakdown, dysfunctional communities, lack of employment, geographic isolation, alienation, poor health, few skills for which a market demand exists, discrimination, poorly equipped schools, no incentives for being well-educated. Money can help improve some of these conditions, but only some.
To these and other factors can be added a determination to remain apart from mainstream society as self-governing "nations," geographically, politically and culturally, a determination that has driven much intellectual aboriginal thinking for many decades.
It was that thinking that guided the royal commission on aboriginal affairs, with its majority of aboriginal commissioners and non-aboriginal theorists such as former Supreme Court justice Bertha Wilson. Needless to say, the royal commission provided a practical guide to nowhere, but offered an intellectual guide to how aboriginals continue to think about their problems.
Certainly, the settlement of aboriginal land claims won't solve the problem, although it might help at the margin. Hundreds of these claims have been festering for years, even decades, and now a new tribunal has been established to settle them. This tribunal is designed to adjudicate these claims to the satisfaction of the claimants, the assumption being that all, or almost all, claims are valid. But, of course, if the tribunal so rules, it wouldn't be a tribunal but rather a sort of quasi-juridical advocacy group.
Aboriginals, like other Canadians, are migrating to cities. They are leaving reserves that are, too frequently, economic dead ends and political straitjackets. Adding land to these reserves by settling specific claims won't change those facts. All of rural and hinterland Canada's population is contracting, except for those spots lucky enough to have exploitable and desirable natural resources. Aboriginals, therefore, are going with the national flow when they go urban, as anyone who spends time in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina and Thunder Bay understands.
Aboriginals on reserves, whose chiefs dominate AFN thinking, are welcome to continue their "traditional" practices of hunting, fishing and trapping, but these, too, are economic dead ends beyond subsistence. The best bet for some reserves lies in sharing natural resource exploitation money and jobs, and there are encouraging examples of this co-operation across Canada.
The reserve system, however, is at the heart of the aboriginal conundrum. It provides cultural reassurances and, in some cases, a limited ability to keep aboriginal languages alive. It sustains certain political traditions, not all of which are terribly inclusive. It provides for a sense of community, continuity and contact with traditions.
The reserves usually have far too few people to run the services modern society demands: justice, education, health, policing, housing. They lack a critical mass of people, because most aboriginal "nations" are small. Many are cursed by isolated geography and/or a determination to limit contacts with mainstream society.
To imagine that poverty can be eradicated, let alone substantially reduced, under these conditions is to engage in cruel dreams. The same fate would befall non-aboriginals consigned to live, or who chose to live, in this way. If wage employment exists, it is usually in one industry nearby, and we all know the vagaries of "one industry" towns. Mines get exhausted, forest cuts get reduced (as in Quebec), construction ebbs and flows, and projects get too expensive (Mackenzie Valley pipeline).
National days of protest will not change these realities.

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