Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Canada: A nation of Redmen

What makes an indigenous person - an Indian - in Canada to-day? One requirement is needed - you have to be recognized as belonging to a tribal band. This has lead to a multicultural microcosm of people who legitimately claim 'band status' in Canada - they are 'status' Indians entitled to all the rights and privileges with which the crown has endowed our native peoples. There are another group who would match perfectly the DNA profile of any First Nations person, but who aren't. They aren't Indians because they do not belong to a tribal group - they have no 'band status'. I have distant relatives who are freckled, red-haired Irish-dancing Mohawks. There are children on reserves who would fit equally well in Cairo, or Kingale, Acapulco or Hong Kong - yet in Canada they are considered 'status' Indians.

Status Indians live either on or off their reserve. Reserves are areas set-aside for bands of Native people. On the reserve, they are not taxed for work they do, on any goods they buy or sell. Off the reserve, they can be taxed like other working people, but remain exempt from other forms of taxation and government user-fees. Many Native people are very successful at what they do. Often , at retirement, they consider returning to their reserve to build their retirement home under the tax-free aegis of the band. Other native people remain on the reserve all their lives. Once again, many are financially successful in business, trade or vocation. Others, particularly on more remote reserves, do not do as well and social problems relating to youth, alcohol and drug abuse mark them in the public mind as truly needy and dependent places. Often native people bring these needs and dependencies with them into larger Urban settings. Native people, for instance, are the group in which the spread of HIV/AIDS is presently most prevalent.

Non-status Indians are not permitted to live on a reserve, unless they marry a status person.

In Canada to-day two major areas of concern affect the interaction of Native and non-native people. The first is unsettled land claims. Large areas of Canada, particularly in the north have never been 'ceded ' officially to the crown. Perhaps because there was no one there to cede them years ago. Now there are people who claim a right to negotiate for the settlement and use of the land. The Canadian government works steadily on these. The second area is he current set of lawsuits in regard to abuse claims in residential schools. These court settlements have to be paid by to-day's citizens for incidents that were done by our predecessors. They run into the billions of dollars.

A third element that from time-to-time roiled the situation is the re-interpretation of treaty rights. It seems that virtually every government has to reinvent the wheel by renegotiating treaty rights that are challenged by the current generation of native people. Some of this could have massive effect on property rights. For instance, one group is claiming rights to one of the Great Lakes and the ability to charge fees for use. Another group has obtained full and sole access to commercial fishing in an area of Ontario. The MiqMaq of Nova Scotia were awarded virtual rights to the provincial lobster fishery. In most of Canadian Lake Huron there are now no non-native commercial fishing operations, the government bought them out, and gave them to the native groups. Recent court interpretations have changed significantly the traditional application of some native treaties.

The government annually spends billions of dollars to support the Native people of Canada. Much of this money is funneled through an inept bureaucracy to individual band councils for their use. Very little accountability has been applied to these moneys over the years and significant sums have been misused or wasted in an exercise in 'self-reliance': the Kashechewan reserve in Northern Ontario for example. The people there have been relocated three times in the past year. The first time due to bad water, the latter due to spring flooding. The people of the reserve claim, now, that they were forced to move onto what they considered to be a poor town site. For a number of years they have dealt with water problems due to faults in a purification system that was never operated correctly and exacerbated by a little home-town engineering which interfered with the intake of clean water. There was some engineering that resulted in the failure of a dike around the town site that led to this year's flooding - a broken valve. Of course all costs of food, clothing, relocation and up-keep are covered from the Indian affairs purse. This reserve is not alone, many face such recurrent tragedies.

This time the government swears to fix it!

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