Natives Respond to Royal Commission

To spend or not to spend - that is the question confronting the federal Liberal government. After five years and an expenditure of $58 million, the ROYAL COMMISSION on Aboriginal Peoples delivered its 3,537-page report last week.

Natives Respond to Royal Commission

To spend or not to spend - that is the question confronting the federal Liberal government. After five years and an expenditure of $58 million, the ROYAL COMMISSION on Aboriginal Peoples delivered its 3,537-page report last week. Its primary message: only a massive infusion of funding to native communities - $30 billion over 15 years - can eradicate the social ills facing most Canadian aboriginals and pave the way to a self-reliant future. Last week, Maclean's Calgary Bureau Chief Mary Nemeth and Halifax correspondent Susanne Hiller travelled to two very different reserves. As their reports indicate, money and resources are indeed the keys to a brighter tomorrow for Canada's natives - and lack of them a guarantee that little will change.

A sign by the road leading into Indian Brook reads "Hollywood Drive." But there is no glitter on this Micmac reserve in Nova Scotia, where more than 90 per cent of residents are unemployed. Bored welfare recipients wander out of dilapidated and overcrowded houses to walk along dusty roads strewn with abandoned cars and broken toys. Few ever leave; those who do often lack the skills to adapt to the outside world. Most children do not progress beyond Grade 6, while adults often drop out of government training programs because there are too few job opportunities even with training. Band elders say that the resulting frustration leads to high crime rates and rampant substance abuse. "I'd like to see a grocery store, a drug store, a hospital, a high school, a Zellers, a K-mart," says Chief Reg Maloney, as though reciting a Christmas wish list. "We should be able to get everything we need on the reserve."

For now, band members must make do with a nursery school, a small nursing station, a new pizza outlet, one gas station and several tiny canteens scattered throughout the community. And for the nearly 1,900 Micmac who live on the sprawling reserve, an hour's drive north of Halifax, there appears to be little hope that the thousands of pages churned out by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples will improve their lives overnight - if at all. That pessimism, and an overwhelming sense that the Nova Scotia government has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, contributes to their indignation. The reserve has no assets of its own, and aboriginal leaders bitterly complain that the province does not want to share revenues from natural resources - ensuring a dependency on government handouts. "We've not been given our fair share of the wealth of this country," Maloney says. "Every day, we see the forest being cut, oil being taken from the land, fish from the ocean. Everybody else is getting something out of it - we don't."

The royal commission's report says all the right things, say native leaders, but the tome could easily be shelved under the excuse of fiscal constraints. "I think they prepared this just to appease us for a while," says Peter Christmas of the Micmac Association of Cultural Studies. Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin's response about Ottawa lacking funds, he says, "was not positive." Christmas says he has a "gut feeling" that provincial and federal governments will not follow through on the recommendations. "They are hiding behind it," he says, "and the result will be a lot of violence. There is a lot of unrest, a lot of unemployment. Native people are breaking down in this province."

At the community centre, economic development officer David Nevin, who grew up at Indian Brook, says the province has a "deep psychological fear" of the possibility of reserves like his becoming self-sufficient. "That's the biggest problem," Nevin says. "Where there's money there is power, and I believe the province wants to limit our power." Still, the Micmacs have managed a minimal degree of self-sufficiency - through gambling. The community centre boasts three bingo games a week, and since September legal gambling machines have enticed non-natives onto the reserve. But gaming has created new problems: band members, most of them dependent on welfare, often gamble away their government cheques.

There is hope, if somewhat faint. In September, Ottawa agreed in principle to give Nova Scotia's 13 Micmac bands jurisdiction over their own education systems, from kindergarten through high school. To that end, about $130 million will be transferred to the bands over five years. The possible effect of that on Indian Brook remains unclear - the reserve has no schools, and children travel five miles to Shubenacadie for their education. "We are supposed to be getting input into the curriculum," Maloney says. "But what we need is our own school. That would bring much employment. We need role models here."

Just southeast of Hobbema, Alta., on the edge of the Samson Cree Nation townsite, stands the imposing wood and cement structure that houses the band council chamber and offices. Across the snowy, windswept street lies a shopping mall that includes a medical clinic, a band-owned pharmacy, a gas station and grocery store as well as Peace Hills Trust - a federally chartered trust company founded and operated by the Samson Cree. The band also farms some 10,000 acres of land, much of it off the reserve. Although individual wealth varies among its members, the Samson Cree Nation is collectively among the more prosperous in Canada - thanks to the way it has invested royalties from its oil reserves, as well as subsequent economic development. "Samson," says Roy Louis, a local businessman and former council member who helped found the trust company and other local enterprises, "is an example of things you can do - when you have the money or the resources."

In many ways, the Samson Cree have already made great strides towards the native self-reliance envisioned in last week's report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. In addition to businesses, they have invested in infrastructure and housing, a recreation centre and an education trust for young people. No one seems to be suggesting that the reserve's economic development has allowed the band to escape all the difficulties that affect other communities. For one thing, Samson still has a high unemployment rate. But, along with three neighboring nations, the Samson Cree have been able to capitalize on their oil reserves. And while they have distributed some funds among their members, they have also gone to great lengths to diversify their economy. But Louis, who is also a former president of the Alberta Indian Association, acknowledges that it would be very difficult for communities without similar resources to achieve the same results. His chief concern, he says, is that native interests will continue to be ignored in a general climate of fiscal restraint.

At Samson, there was agricultural development back in the 1950s and 1960s, says band council member Barbara Louis. Oil was discovered in the early 1950s on land owned by the Samson Cree and the three neighboring bands. But it was not until they completed a favorable renegotiation of their oil royalty agreements in the mid-1970s that substantial commercial development took off, Roy Louis says. The band started upgrading infrastructure first, building more homes with water and sewer service. Then, it began buying up land. And, because Samson Cree members were finding it difficult to borrow money from financial institutions - in part because the Indian Act prohibits the use of reservation land as security - they created Peace Hills Trust in 1980 after much negotiation with officials from Indian Affairs, industry regulators and community members.

The profitable enterprise has grown steadily, and now has more than $600 million in assets under administration and six branches across the Prairies. Meanwhile, Samson members went on to create an insurance company and buy or build other properties, including apartment blocks in Edmonton and a shopping mall in Lake Louise. Recently, Barbara Louis was involved in developing the pharmacy and other retail outlets in the local mall. "I wanted our own dollars circulating within the community," she says, "so they didn't leave before they have run a few circles."

The Samson Cree have been able to achieve their current level of economic development without embarking on the thorny path of negotiated self-government. And although last week's royal commission report said that the inherent right of natives to self-government should be affirmed in the Constitution - a view that seems to have widespread support - not everyone is interested in negotiating specific, legislated self-government agreements with Ottawa. Some express concern that such an agreement might erode treaty rights, by ending the Crown's responsibility for services that the treaties provide. "We just wonder what would happen with our treaties," one Samson elder said. And Roy Louis argues that it would be simply beside the point. "I don't think we need it," he says. "We've done our own self-government process - without violating the treaty." It is self-reliance that continues to be the goal - and along that road, the Samson Cree have travelled far.

See also NATIVE PEOPLE, GOVERNMENT POLICY.

The Other Canada

1) Canada's native population is primarily Indian - 624,000 - with 153,000 Métis and 43,500 Inuit.

2) Ontario has the largest native population - 134,000 - while British Columbia has the most bands - 197.

3) The largest single band - population 18,634 - is the Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont. No other band has more than 8,500 members.

4) Cities are now home to 44 per cent of natives. Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg all have more than 40,000 aboriginal residents, but they form a higher percentage of the population in Regina (5.8) and Saskatoon (5.7).

5) More than half of Canada's natives are under 25 years of age.

6) Only 43 per cent of aboriginals have a job; the employment average for all Canadians is 61 per cent.

7) Life expectancy for natives is significantly less than the national average - 68 years to 75 for men; 75 to 81 for women.

8) Average annual income for aboriginals is $16,560; the Canadian average is $24,876.

9) Eight per cent of Canadians receive social assistance; 29 per cent of natives do.

Source: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

'Last Chance'

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples demands a sweeping new deal for Canadian aboriginals - but will they actually get it? Early indications were that the report would be quickly shelved. The Bloc Québécois and the Reform party bluntly rejected the plan as too costly. Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin pointed out it would be "very, very difficult" to find an additional $2 billion a year for natives at a time when all government departments - with the exception of Indian Affairs - are experiencing budget cuts. Those were discouraging words for natives. Ovide Mercredi, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called the report a "last chance" to end the inequity facing Canada's more than 800,000 aboriginals. The commission itself said that without a major infusion of cash, aboriginal communities will sink deeper into despair. And, the report warned, "Violence is in the wind."

Some of its key recommendations:

1) An extra $2 billion a year over 15 years to native communities to help them break their cycle of financial dependency on Ottawa. The funds would be used to improve housing and health services and create jobs on the nation's reserves - saving governments billions of dollars in the long term.

2) The creation of an aboriginal parliament, to be known as the House of First Peoples, which would provide advice to the House of Commons.

3) The creation of a dozen government bodies, tribunals and inquiries to look into and assess everything from land claims to the relocation of aboriginal communities.

4) The scrapping of the Indian affairs department. It would be replaced by two departments, one that would deal with aboriginal governments and another that would be in charge of native communities that feel they are not ready for self-government.

5) A land base and self-government for the Métis.

A Harder Line

Times change. Five years ago, aboriginal leaders participated at First Ministers' meetings, complete with sweet grass ceremonies. Support for Canada's natives, and a willingness to right past injustices, ran high. But recently, aboriginal leaders have found themselves out in the political cold, while an avalanche of native demands has provoked public opposition. According to a poll done by Insight Canada in July, 54 per cent of Canadians believed that natives were being unreasonable with land claims, compared with 46 per cent in 1994. And 40 per cent said that aboriginal people had only themselves to blame for their problems. Such sentiments have spilled over to Parliament, where the Reform party has led the charge. "More must be heard from the average people in this country," says Garry Breitkreuz, Reform's Indian affairs critic and a former principal at a native school in Saskatchewan. "It's as if they are being deliberately ignored."

Breitkreuz contends that ordinary Canadians are weary of native demands and armed confrontations - and that someone must speak out for them. Some of his colleagues have decided that words are not enough. Last month, John Cummins, a Reform MP from British Columbia, spent two nights in jail after protesting against what he called special rights for aboriginals - by fishing in waters reserved for natives. Reformers are confident that last week's royal commission report will be shelved. And, in fact, the prospect of wide-ranging concessions to natives is uncomfortable for some Liberals caught between aboriginal demands and growing public anger. Liberal MP Joe Comuzzi, who represents the Northern Ontario riding of Thunder Bay/Nipigon, says he has noted a heightened public hostility towards natives. "There is a real perception that natives simply have an inability to handle their own resources properly," he adds.

Such attitudes have aided in the creation of the Foundation for Independent Rights and Equality, whose members across Canada are dedicated to blocking native demands. Some observers say the phenomenon may be rooted in the prejudices of an older generation. "FIRE's support is from the elderly," says University of British Columbia professor Paul Tennant. "It is clear that the vast majority of young people are not upset at all." Reformers dismiss that view and have made clear their intentions to keep the issue alive.

Maclean's December 2, 1996