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Canada’s Indigenous Model is Not Sustainable


11 minute read

From the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

By Brian Giesbrecht

The stated purpose of the extra indigenous spending that has always been there, and the virtual explosion on indigenous spending since 2015 is meant to fix that problem. But these massive expenditures have now reached the point where they risk destabilizing the country.

Canada’s parliamentary budget officer, Yves Giroux has spoken out about the alarming rise in Canada’s contingent liabilities related to indigenous claims. Todays estimated 76 billion dollars is many times the 15 billion dollars it was when the Liberals took power in 2015.

This is one part only of the massive increase in spending on indigenous matters that has taken place since then.

Federal spending per indigenous person has always been much higher than spending per non-indigenous person. The higher level of spending has been justified because most indigenous people do much worse on virtually every health and social indicator than the mainstream population. Their health is poorer, and their lives are shorter.

This disparity was generally known as Canada’s “Indian problem”. That term is no longer fashionable, and the extra spending is now said to be necessary to achieve “reconciliation”. Regardless of the terms, what is clear is that since Confederation there has always existed a large rural and urban indigenous underclass that does poorly compared to the mainstream. The stated purpose of the extra indigenous spending that has always been there, and the virtual explosion on indigenous spending since 2015 is meant to fix that problem. But these massive expenditures have now reached the point where they risk destabilizing the country.

Perhaps it’s time for Canadians to ask if the “nation to nation” reconciliation plan that spending is based on is working. Is it fixing the problem?

A recent CBC report proves that it is not. Instead, the problems are getting worse.

The CBC investigated an indigenous community at St. Theresa Point where 24 people sometime share one house. Almost all of the houses in the community are crumbling and need to be replaced. Families struggle to achieve basic hygiene. Living conditions resemble what one would expect to find in a third world community, and not in wealthy, modern Canada.

St. Theresa Point is typical of hundreds of other Indian remote reserves. Most are almost totally dependent on the federal government for their survival. There is virtually no real employment. The poorest people in those communities are directly dependent on welfare checks, but even the chief, councillors and other employees receive their paycheques from the transfer payments sent by Ottawa. In reality almost everyone in the community is on welfare of some type.

Unlike in other rural communities, people on poor reserves tend not to move when economic opportunities decline. In small-town Canada, the rules are simple: If the towns or farms can’t supply enough jobs, one moves to the city where the jobs and careers are. But on remote reserves, most people stay put, even if there are no jobs or careers there for them. And most of those who do move to the city do not do well. A lack of education, poor job skills, and lack of motivation usually consign reserve residents who move to the mean parts of town where many end up in gangs, crime and prostitution. The result is that the people who stay in uneconomic remote reserves become more and more dependent. Low education levels sink even further. And succeeding generations become ever less likely to be able to provide for themselves and their families.

To make matters much worse, addiction problems are endemic. At one time, alcohol was the drug of choice. Now, amphetamines, fentanyl, and prescription drugs have been added to the list, with the family violence, sexual abuse, crime, teenage pregnancy and fetal alcohol births that inevitably follow from chronic drug use.

And reserve populations are growing. Although status Indians living on reserves currently comprise only about 1% of the total population, they are the country’s fastest growing demographic. The cost of operating these communities is crippling now, but in a few years, it will be completely unsustainable. Pretending that these desperately poor reserves are sovereign “nations” that will somehow magically become prosperous and self-supporting is a cruel joke on the young people hopelessly trapped on them. The prospect of hundreds of dependent reserves teeming with, unemployed, and largely unemployable young people, with massive social problems, is a frightening dystopia – hundreds of Gaza strips. But it is where we are headed. To make things even worse, the government-promoted false genocide and “missing children” narratives have made many of these people very angry.

Although there is no treaty right, or any other right to free housing on a reserve the reality is that if the government did not provide housing for the reserve residents, they would be unable to provide housing for themselves. The strange result is that Canadian taxpayers – many of whom will never be able to afford to buy a house themselves – pay through their tax dollars for houses for the rapidly growing reserve population. These houses deteriorate quickly, because they are considered “free” by the residents, and have to be fixed and replaced in a wasteful and expensive cycle.

And it is a national disgrace that most reserves are dead ends for most of the young people born into them.

The late Farley Mowat described northern indigenous settlements as “unguarded concentration camps”. That might be a somewhat harsh way to describe reserves, but at best most are human warehouses, plagued with social problems. The young people living there deserve some hope, and Canada’s current plan for them offers them none.

So, Canada’s current indigenous plan is clearly not working. Is there a better plan for success?

Maybe we should ask Wab Kinew, Manitoba’s new premier. He is indigenous and highly successful. How did he get there?

The formula is actually not complicated. It has nothing to do with massive welfare giveaways, “nation to nation” utopias, or incredibly expensive “reconciliation” projects. It definitely has nothing to do with staying in a community that lacks economic opportunities, and waiting for handouts. It involves education, hard work, and going where the jobs are. Kinew’s parents realized that a stable home and education were key. Wab did the rest. He worked his way up the ladder in the usual way, and went where the jobs were. He did that with his indigenous identity intact.

Not every young person has Kinew’s talent, but everyone can follow the formula that made Kinew, and many other indigenous achievers successful.

The alternative – spending ever increasing amounts on a steadily increasing list of demands from a growing dependent reserve population is not an option. We don’t need the parliamentary budget officer to tell us that it is not sustainable.

As for remote, uneconomic reserves, like St. Theresa Point, they should be gradually and humanely closed down. It has been recognized for many years that reserves long ago had served their purpose, and should be phased out. As far back as 1911, it was said:

“Department officials were increasingly coming to the view that reserves had outlived their usefulness. Frank Pedley suggested that they resulted in the isolation and segregation of Indians, and thereby hindered progress…and encouraged the tribal form of government.”

The reserve system was not ended in 1911 because the chiefs and ruling families refused to give up their privileged positions. It isn’t happening today for the same reasons. We still have the same Indian Act and reserve system that has held indigenous people back for almost 150 years. (Senior Ontario lawyer, Peter Best, describes the toxicity of the reserve system in his important book, There Is No Difference)

So, the long-term plan should be to find a way to overcome that resistance, and find a fair way to phase out reserves, and the antiquated Indian Act. The reserves that are economically viable can merge into existing rural municipalities, or become stand-alone municipalities. Opportunities should be made available for young people from uneconomic communities to move to job centres, and receive help to succeed there.

In the meantime, the example of Wab Kinew is proof that there has never been a better time or place than today’s Canada to be an educated and ambitious young indigenous person who is willing to study, work hard, and go where the jobs are.

Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and senior fellow at Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Watch Brian on Return to Reason here.

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LNG leader: Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith on the world’s first Indigenous project

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Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith during a press conference announcing that the Cedar LNG project has been given environmental approval in Vancouver, Tuesday March 14, 2023. CP Images photo

From the Canadian Energy Centre

By Will Gibson

‘Now we are working together to make our own opportunities as owners and developers of the resource’

Growing up in the 1980s, Crystal Smith felt supported and nourished by her community, the Haisla Nation along the shores of Kitimat, British Columbia. But at the same time, she also sensed the outside world had placed some limitations on her future. 

“I enjoyed a wonderful childhood with a solid foundation and lots of love, especially from my grandma Cecilia Smith. She raised me because I lost my mother and stepdad at a young age. But it wasn’t popular to be Indigenous when I grew up,” says Smith.  

“A lot of people would talk about how Indigenous people were not expected to be successful. That kind of talk really affected my confidence about what I could be.” 

Smith, now the Haisla Nation’s elected chief councillor, never wants children in her community to feel those constraints.  

Her community has seized on a major opportunity to build prosperity and resiliency for future generations. The Haisla Nation is a partner in the proposed $3.4 billion Cedar LNG project, the world’s first to have Indigenous ownership. A final go-ahead decision for the project to proceed is expected by the middle of this year 

Smith, who has served as board chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance since 2019, has already seen tangible changes in her community since the project was announced. 

“It’s hard to put into words about the impact on the ground in terms of how this opportunity has affected our members in their lives,” she says.  

“We were just interviewing candidates to serve as board directors on our economic development corporation and one candidate, who is from our community, just amazed me with how far he has come in terms of pursuing his education and how much his career has progressed.” 

The town of Kitimat on British Columbia’s west coast. LNG Canada site in background. Photo courtesy District of Kitimat

Of her own career, Smith says she knew since college that her future was in serving the community. She started working in the Haisla band administration in 2009 and was first elected chief councillor in 2017.  

“I was lucky because my family really pushed me to seek an education after high school, so I took the business program at Coast Mountain College. I also helped that I had mentors in my community, including my father Albert Robinson, who served as an elected Haisla councillor, and Ellis Ross (now an elected MLA in B.C), who was very inspiring in terms of his vision as chief councillor and encouraged me to take the step into elected office,” Smith says.  

“When I came back to the community from school, I knew I would end up working in our band office. I wanted to see more opportunities for people in my community and LNG provides that.” 

She already sees the benefits of the development, as well as the Haisla Nation’s participation in the LNG Canada project, within her own family including for her grandsons.  

“Xavier is six and he goes to the same school I attended as a child. He gets to learn parts of our culture, our teachings, as well as the value and importance of family and community. There’s more of an emphasis on our language and culture in the curriculum, which really makes me happy. Luka, who just turned two, will also attend that school when he’s old enough,” Smith says.  

“I want programs and services to meet our needs, not the level of government’s needs. And we need to make sure that it is sustainable not just for my grandsons or their peers but for seven generations beyond this one.” 

Cedar LNG is coming closer and closer to fruition, with all permits in place and early construction underway 

An eight-kilometre pipeline will be built connecting the recently completed Coastal GasLink pipeline to deliver natural gas to the floating Cedar LNG terminal located along the Douglas Channel near Kitimat.  

The facility will be capable of producing up to three million tonnes of liquefied natural gas every year, which will be transported by carriers through the Douglas Channel to Hecate Straight, using the existing deepwater shipping lane, to reach customers in the Asia-Pacific region.  

Powered entirely by renewable energy from BC Hydro, Cedar LNG will be one of the lowest carbon intensity LNG facilities in the world. Its so-called emissions intensity will be 0.08 per cent CO2 per tonne, compared to the global average of 0.35 per cent per tonne. 

Rendering courtesy Cedar LNG

 Up to 500 people will work on the project during the peak of construction. Approximately 100 people will be working at the facility full-time during operation, which is expected to start in the second half of 2028.  

Smith says the benefits of the project will extend beyond the 2,000 members of the Haisla Nation. 

“This work has really helped us reconnect with other Indigenous communities along pipelines and shipping routes,” she says.  

“When I was growing up, our communities never had the opportunity to come together because we were separated by the territorial boundaries imposed by the Indian Act. And we were fighting each other for financial scraps from Indian Affairs.  

“Now we are working together to make our own opportunities as owners and developers of the resource. That’s very empowering and the most important part. Participating in developing these resources provides independence. It’s the only solution for my nation and other Indigenous communities.” 

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Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Budget 2024 as the eve of 1984 in Canada

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From the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

By Michael Melanson

Those who claim there are unmarked burials have painted themselves into a corner. If there are unmarked burials, there have had to be murders because why else would anyone attempt to conceal the deaths?

The Federal Government released its Budget 2024 last week. In addition to hailing a 181% increase in spending on Indigenous priorities since 2016, “Budget 2024 also proposes to provide $5 million over three years, starting in 2025-26, to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to establish a program to combat Residential School denialism.” Earlier this spring, the government proclaimed:

The government anticipates the Special Interlocutor’s final report and recommendations in spring 2024. This report will support further action towards addressing the harmful legacy of residential schools through a framework relating to federal laws, regulations, policies, and practices surrounding unmarked graves and burials at former residential schools and associated sites. This will include addressing residential school denialism.

Like “Reconciliation,” the exact definition of what the Federal government means by “residential school denialism” is not clear. In this vague definition, there is, of course, a potential for legislating vindictiveness.

What further action is needed to address “the harmful legacy of residential schools” except to enforce a particular narrative about the schools as being only harmful? Is it denialism to point out that many students, such as Tomson Highway and Len Marchand, had positive experiences at the schools and that their successful careers were, in part, made possible by their time in residential school? If the study of history is subordinated to promoting a particular political narrative, is it still history or has it become venal propaganda?

Since the sensational May 27, 2021, claim that 215 children’s remains had been found in a Kamloops orchard, the Trudeau government has been chasing shibboleths. The Kamloops claim remains unsubstantiated to this day in two glaring ways: no names of children missing from the Kamloops IRS (Indian Residential Schools) have been presented and no human remains have been uncovered. For anyone daring to point out this absence of evidence, their reward is being the target of a witch hunt. As we recently witnessed in Quesnel, B.C., to be labeled as a residential school denialist is to be drummed out of civil society.

If we must accept a particular political narrative of the IRS as the history of the IRS, does our freedom of conscience and speech have any meaning?

To the discredit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, fictions of missing and murdered children circulating long before the Commission’s inception were subsumed by the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Unmarked graves and burials were incorporated into the TRC’s work as probable evidence of foul play. In the end, the TRC found no evidence of any murders committed by any staff against any students throughout the entirety history of the residential schools. Unmarked graves are explained as formerly marked and lawful graves that had since become lost due to neglect and abandonment. Unmarked burials, if they existed, could be construed as evidence of criminal acts, but such burials associated with the schools have never been proven to exist.

Those who claim there are unmarked burials have painted themselves into a corner. If there are unmarked burials, there have had to be murders because why else would anyone attempt to conceal the deaths? If there are thousands of unmarked burials, there are thousands of children who went missing from residential schools. How could thousands of children go missing from schools without even one parent, one teacher, or one Chief coming forward to complain?

There are, of course, neither any missing children nor unmarked burials and the Special Interlocutor told the Senate Committee on Indigenous People: “The children aren’t missing; they’re buried in the cemeteries. They’re missing because the families were never told where they’re buried.”

Is it denialism to repeat or emphasize what the Special Interlocutor testified before a Senate Committee? Is combating residential school denialism really an exercise in policing wrongthink? Like the beleaguered Winston in Orwell’s 1984, it is impossible to keep up with the state’s continual revision of the past, even the recent past.

For instance, the TRC’s massive report contains a chapter on the “Warm Memories” of the IRS. Drawing attention to those positive recollections is now considered “minimizing the harms of residential schools.”

In 1984, the state sought to preserve itself through historical revision and the enforcement of those revisions. In the Trudeau government’s efforts to enforce a revision of the IRS historical record, the state is not being preserved. How could it be if the IRS is now considered to be a colossal genocide? The intent is to preserve the party in government and if it means sending Canada irretrievably down a memory hole as a genocidaire, so be it.

Michael Melanson is a writer and tradesperson in Winnipeg.

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