Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
December 5, 2005
Reserves padlock aboriginals
The federal government's announcement of a compensation package for tens of thousands of Aboriginal people who were forced into residential schools should be a happy day for all. For Catholics, it not only means an end to the sword of Damocles that thousands of lawsuits held over Church institutions, it means the opportunity to renew what was, in many ways, a good relationship between the Church and native people.
In many other ways, that relationship was not so happy. In recent years, it had become strife-ridden because of contestation over the residential schools.
For Aboriginal people too, reaching a settlement should bring some happiness. There is clear acknowledgement that the schools were part of a policy of assimilation, that that policy ought to be rejected, and that, beyond assimilation, the schools perpetrated many instances of abuse on their students.
More than the financial compensation provided, the real hope provided by the settlement lies in the campaign and programs for healing and reconciliation. The scars on Aboriginal people and cultures are deep and lasting - churches and religious orders are well placed to be instruments of healing.
No doubt financial compensation is important too. But money is always a mixed bag. In itself, it solves nothing. However, giving money can represent an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a step towards reconciliation.
Residential schools left a legacy that was sometimes negative, sometimes positive, in native communities. Many outstanding native leaders of the past 30 years were themselves graduates of residential schools. While the experience may have scarred them, it also gave them the education and drive to speak out on behalf of their people.
Given all that, we need to take issue with Justice Minister Irwin Cotler's statement that the schools were "the single most disgraceful, harmful and racist act in our history."
Probably a better nominee for the single most disgraceful, harmful and racist act in Canadian history would be the system of Indian reserves - Canada's own apartheid. Perhaps the reserve system is worse than apartheid. The $8 billion the federal government pumps into the reserves every year has built a class of people with a vested interest in preserving the reserves while, at the same time, the system keeps thousands of people living in squalor with little hope for the future.
Aboriginal people have rates of suicide, incarceration, school dropout and unemployment that far outstrip the Canadian norm. To blame it all on residential schools - whose enrolments never amounted to even a majority of native children - is a bit much.
Canada's governments have now agreed to pump $5.1 billion more over 10 years into the reserve system aimed at improving health care, education and housing. Some of the new programs - such as one for home ownership on reserves - may make a difference.
But it is idealistic in the extreme to expect isolated reserves to have an economically viable future where native people can expect to get a good education and a good career (other than by serving in the band administration).
More and more Aboriginal people are making a mark for themselves in Canadian life. But most are doing it off-reserve.
Nevertheless, the treaties and the reserves have become a fixed and immutable part of Canadian life, enshrined as they are in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Programs on some reserves are making a difference and providing some hope. But the tipping point for making hope abundant and squalor extinct will not come from shovelling out money. It will have to come from the native people themselves who see that the present course is intolerable and that only they have the power to forge a better future. Government money can help them in that course, but it will not be the sparkplug that starts the engine running.
- Glen Argan
Letter to the Editor - 12/12/05
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