Friday, December 2, 2011

They're Whipping Attawapiskat

So, Attawapiskat.

Maybe you've never heard of it. It's a First Nations community on the shore of James Bay. A couple of weeks ago, hardly anyone outside of northern Ontario would have heard of it, but now it's rampaging across national news. I myself heard about it a bit earlier than when it broke into the headlines, from a post on Boing Boing talking about the dire straits the community was in - with winter approaching and its shelter inadequate when you consider just how cold it gets in northern Ontario in December, the town declared a state of emergency and for days the Feds did nothing. Which I'm sure is totally in keeping with how the Constitution gives the federal government "exclusive legislative authority" over First Nations and their lands, just like the census and the military and Canada Post. I was hesitant about making a post on the matter, because to be perfectly honest I'm not really up to speed on this subject and was unwilling to stumble into making an ass of myself.

Now, though, things have changed. Earlier this week, the federal government announced that it was taking direct control of Attawapiskat's funding and organizing an audit to figure out how the $90 million invested in it - since 2006, mind you; the government has been particularly careful to avoid noting the timescale involved, but the Attawapiskat First Nation's audited schedule of funding from the year ended March 31, 2011 is pretty clear in that the total amount of federal funding received for that year was $17.6 million - considerably less than an F-35, in other words.

For me, it's not surprising that the government's first reaction seems to have been "seize control" - Harper acting dictatorial is, honestly, nothing new. It's not surprising but it is extremely regrettable; in my mind, seizing control of finances in situations like this should require the presentation of a great deal of evidence justifying it, whereas from what I've seen in the media, the government's takeover of Attawapiskat's finances has been more along the lines of "we think you're misappropriating funds, so we're just going to take over right now."

Not just for that reason, though. Also because it feeds into the extremely negative historical precedent that seems to have been established with regard to the federal government versus the First Nations. What I get from the government's actions is the sense that, yet again, it's telling us that "those Indians just can't look after themselves."


The history of Canada's treatment of its First Nations population is a sad and sorry one, a centuries-long litany of theft and abuse with the ultimate goal being for the First Nations, as a distinct group, to cease to exist. I'm not editorializing here - this was stated explicitly in 1931 by Duncan Campbell Scott, at the time Canada's Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Here's a relevant quote from his The Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada:

"It is the opinion of the writer... that by policies and activities such as have been outlined, the Government will in time reach the end of its responsibility as the Indians progress into civilization and finally disappear as a separate and distinct people, not by race extinction but by gradual assimilation with their fellow citizens."

Incidentally, the idea of a government official in 1931 referring to Natives as "fellow citizens" is something of a laugh in its own right - "second-class citizens" would be more appropriate; after all, it was not until 1960 that First Nations people were allowed to vote in federal elections while retaining their treaty status. 1960! This isn't deep-past stuff; this is within Prime Minister Harper's own lifetime! That doesn't sound much like equal citizenship to me - and if it's not equal, what the hell kind of citizenship is it anyway?

My point is that I feel the government has a particular responsibility to the First Nations, considering the role the Canadian government has had in, bluntly, fucking the First Nations for practically as long as there has been a Canadian government. The fact that it's not the current government that did those things is immaterial - it is still the Government of Canada, and by dint of being Canada's government, still bears the responsibility to set things right.

This should have been a time for the government to walk carefully - but I'm forgetting myself. This is Stephen Harper's Majority! The government doesn't have to give a fuck about anything aside staying in power, because what are you going to do about it, huh? Four years is an awfully long time.


  1. Agree 100%.
    First Nations have a "special relationship" with the Feds; they are essentially "wards of the state". If individual bands decide to axe the Indian Act (and some have) then they can move beyond this paternalistic system, but for remote bands without an obvious economic base this is almost impossible. So the Feds can continue ignoring them. Or how about this gem, from Harper's advisor Mr. Flanagan:
    (remote communities are not viable, ie. we should just move'em into town!). Nice.

    Oh, and 4 years for Harper? More like 10, if you ask me, with the opposition in the state it's in, our non-representative electoral system, and the active efforts by the Cons to get people NOT to vote. He'll be in again next time with another 40% of the 40% who bother to vote.

  2. From the time of European contact, the First Nations people have definitely had a rough go.

    But I will disagree with you on some points - mainly the idea that the government should assume responsibility/needs to set it right.

    Trying to "assume responsibility" functions under the inherent assumption that the other party is unable to be responsible.

    The Indian Act is all about this "responsibility" that the government has over the First Nations people. Alas, it was written by white men, many who were still convinced that intelligence was related to race (white being most intelligent). Therefore they decided to assume responsibility for their poor First Nations brethren who could not care for themselves.

    The Indian Act is inherently racist. Designed to help our First Nations brethren, it has done nothing but dis-empower them.

  3. I can see your point - for me, I'm not trying to suggest that the racist attitudes that helped create the situation we've got. It's more that the First Nations did not get themselves into this situation, but had it roughly imposed upon them by the government of Canada; given that, I just feel that the government of Canada has a moral obligation to address the problems that it bears ultimate responsibility for.

  4. I disagree, again.

    The current problems are getting worse, not better. Even with money and services and realizing that residential schools were an epic fail.

    It is because of the learned helplessness that many First Nation reserves have from relying on getting everything from someone else.

    If the government continues to bear the responsibility, First Nations people will continue to be helpless. And really, we all need to be responsible for ourselves.