Idle No More protests choose the wrong targets

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

In the wake of the Idle No More protests that have blocked railway lines and have hinted at more mischief, multiple grievances have been advanced in place of clear-headed analyses. But none of the slogans, clichés and guilt-tripping get to the bottom of why some Aboriginals, especially on reserves, are in a sorry state.

First, some misinformation about one supposed reason for the protests, that reserves will be broken up by Bill C-45, should be debunked.

That recent federal legislation allows First Nations to lease some of their land to others if they so choose.

In British Columbia, the Westbank and Osoyoos First Nations have prospered using such lease arrangements to create housing subdivisions and commercial complexes. The money flows back to the reserve’s owners.

All Bill C-45 would do is to allow even more reserves to imitate those successful models. But the bill does not mandate that path nor does it allow for reserve land to be sold (as has been incorrectly claimed).

Another mistaken assertion is that taxpayers have not done enough for Canada’s native peoples.

Let’s be clear about the benefits some First Nations and Inuit peoples receive that other Canadians do not.

To use one example, every Canadian has access to universal and taxpayer-funded health care through their provincial ministry of health. However, Health Canada runs the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program which gives additional health care benefits to First Nations and Inuit peoples.

Health Canada notes that 846,024 First Nation and Inuit peoples have access to “medically necessary drugs, dental care, vision care, medical supplies and equipment, short-term crisis intervention mental health counselling and medical transportation.” The cost of dental treatment, eyeglasses, ambulatory services and everything else on that list is not cheap: in 2010/11, the bill to taxpayers was just over $1-billion.

That amounts to a $1,200 health care benefit per eligible enrollee, this while the other 34-million Canadians must buy insurance for such services and goods or pay out of pocket.

In the federal department of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, the main ministry for Aboriginal spending, $115 billion will have been spent on services and programs for Aboriginals between 1994/95 and this year, according to that department and the Public Accounts. That figure excludes other federal departments and provincial government spending.

This year, 84 per cent of that department’s money will go directly to Aboriginals, band governments or programs for Aboriginals. (The remaining 16 per cent is chewed up in departmental operating costs.)

One could argue more money should be spent. But that would ignore the broken governance structure on too many reserves. Such structures already allow some chiefs, such as hunger striker/Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and her colleagues, to earn salaries far above that earned by other politicians in similar-sized hamlets.

For example, in the remote Ontario township of Algonquin Highlands (halfway between Toronto and North Bay) with 2,100 people, the entire council was paid just $119,220 in 2011. In Attawapiskat, with 1,500 people, the total bill for political salaries in 2011 was $607,364. Moreover, all of that came tax-free to Spence and her band colleagues.

Ironically, that tax-free status is courtesy of Section 87 of the Indian Act, the Act that is routinely (but quite properly) derided for interfering in the lives of Canada’s “Indian” and Inuit peoples.

Double-standards aside, Idle protesters miss a critical reason why so many reserves are in poor shape: they are in the middle of nowhere and cannot be sustained by the local economy because there isn’t one.

It is impossible to bring the opportunities available in urban Canada to rural Canada. Even in non-reserve villages, educational, health and career options are severely limited. That’s why the only people who live in such remote areas are those who already have money, or have the skills to work in nearby mines, mills, or in other industries (where they exist). Otherwise, poverty is guaranteed.

Additionally problematic for reserves is the lack of proper governance. In non-native towns and cities, most money flows up from local taxpayers via property taxes. That creates a natural taxpayer-politician link and accountability.

On reserves, taxpayer money mostly flows down from Ottawa into reserve coffers. That creates a demand for more cash from far-away taxpayers, or from the nearby resource company, rather than answers from reserve politicians about existing money flows.

Just as tragic, that structure allows band politicians to spend money on unreasonable political salaries and on housing for friends, family and political allies first, with everyone else put in the queue.

Such fundamental problems with how reserves are run—and the unsustainable nature of some of those rural collectives—is what protesters should ponder. That would be more useful than making up grievances about private companies and taxpayers.

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