Separate and Unequal

Money for crimes committed at residential schools may be forthcoming, but problems with the reserve system remain

Photograph by Eamon MacMahon

To get to Peepeekisis, Saskatchewan, you head northeast out of Regina, a pleasant trip for about an hour and a half on a wide road with few cars, big sky, wide open spaces, and not much else. After dipping in and out of the gentle folds of the Qu’Appelle River Valley, you make a left turn off provincial highway 10—at which point you bump into a Canadian cliché. Just past the green sign announcing Peepeekisis and its neighbouring First Nations—Okanese, Star Blanket, and Little Black Bear—the road disintegrates. What had been a substantial coating of gravel turns into potholes and the kind of dirt that the slightest rain transforms into mud. Bad roads, you are reminded, go hand in hand with native reserves.

I have come to see Maurice Nokusis, who is waiting in the damp morning grass just outside the band office. Nokusis, forty-five years old with a thick moustache and an eagle emblazoned on his baseball hat, is a band councillor. He greets me with good humour—a journalist with notebook in hand represents, it seems, an opportunity—but when I ask him about the subject of my research, the recently proposed residential-schools settlement, Nokusis launches into an aggressive diatribe about First Nations’ grievances. “We aren’t even Canadian citizens,” he pronounces, pausing to check whether the assertion registers the requisite shock. “And the Indian Act is a prisoner-of-war act. The Indian,” he states as if nothing much more needs to be said to sum up two centuries of sordid history, “is always told what to do, where to dig a shithouse, what to sell. And they wonder why our people are dysfunctional.”

Examples of that dysfunction are abundant. Though some reserves are well run and prosperous, report after report details a host of issues at others: chronic alcoholism; a youth suicide rate five times that of non-aboriginals; abnormally high rates of aids, tuberculosis, and diabetes; substandard education; overcrowded housing that provides little shelter from the cold; and discoveries of E. coli in the water supply, as was the case at Kashechewan, near James Bay, in October 2005. In a recent interview on cbc Radio, Patrick Brazeau, National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the group responsible for off-reserve natives in Canada, suggested that the problem might be the reserves themselves—the series of discontinuous, federally mandated and financed enclaves inhabited by native people across Canada—and proposed that perhaps they ought to be shut down. Echoing Maurice Nokusis, Brazeau declared, “The Indian Act is the single biggest factor in perpetuating aboriginal poverty in Canada.”

Most attempts to explain the gulf between native and non-native societies in Canada point to the past—to colonialism, paternalism, and racism. In this litany, the government-sanctioned, church-run Indian residential schools that existed for over a century up to the 1980s are a central demon, responsible for everything including tuberculosis outbreaks (early on) that killed large numbers of students; regular and severe corporal punishment (often for minor infractions or transgressions); slave labour, in some instances, and little if any genuine efforts to educate in others; cultural deprivation; and acts of sexual and psychological abuse. In 2005, then federal minister of justice Irwin Cotler described the sending of aboriginal children to residential schools as “the single most disgraceful, harmful, and racist act in our history.”

Yet my question to Maurice Nokusis about the residential-schools settlement got lost in a barrage of angry words, all about the present. When I pressed once more, he answered abruptly: “If people feel that a dollar will solve things, they’re wrong.”

Nevertheless, dollars will be coming to Peepeekisis, and soon. Late in 2005, in a process initiated by the Martin Liberals and later re-approved by the incoming Harper Conservatives, the federal government set aside $1.9 billion to settle claims of former students of Indian residential schools against Canadian churches and, by extension, the government itself. The deal, crafted under the guiding hand of former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, is complex. It consolidates some 13,000 individual lawsuits and nineteen class actions into a single class-action suit filed by the Assembly of First Nations and prescribes a financial remedy not just for those who were physically or sexually abused, but for all former students. Simply having attended one of the dozens of residential schools has been deemed worthy of compensation. The formula offers a fixed amount for each year of schooling ($10,000 for the first year, $3,000 for every year after that) to nearly 80,000 survivors, with additional money available for those who demonstrate (via an “independent assessment process”) that they suffered some form of abuse. The package also includes $125 million for a common healing fund and more than $100 million to pay lawyers who laboured for up to ten years on individual claims only to see those files now closed.

Before cash disbursements can be made, courts in nine jurisdictions across Canada have to certify the class-action suit, and detailed notices must be sent to all those who comprise the class, giving them 150 days to opt out. Otherwise, all claimants will be bound by court order. But these legal proceedings are expected to go smoothly. In fact, on the premise that due to their advanced age they shouldn’t be required to wait, initial payments of $8,000 were sent to some elderly people as early as last June. These cheques can be cashed even if the settlement somehow gets derailed. Nonetheless, the vast majority of payments still have to be made, a matter that raises substantial questions.

By any measure this is an extraordinary settlement, an admission of guilt on an epic scale toward a specific group of a country’s citizens. But will the settlement close the door with some finality on a shameful history? Can such a complicated and sizable settlement be executed in a manner that is fair and efficient? What will this redistribution of wealth mean to the people and the communities where the money ends up? And where does the settlement fit in the perennially thorny relationship between Canada and the descendants of its original people?

To look for answers I travelled to Saskatchewan, the epicentre, one might say, of the tortured relationship between aboriginal peoples and the waves of settlers and immigrants who came to farm and build towns and railways, and continue to come to this day. There are, of course, other flashpoints across the national map: the Mohawk territories of southern Quebec, the Cree and Ojibwa lands across the north, the Blackfoot reserves in Alberta, the British Columbia coastal villages. Over the past year, skirmishes between Six Nations protesters, the Ontario provincial government, and local developers over disputed lands have grown increasingly acrimonious. But Saskatchewan stands as obviously as any place for the harshness and relentlessness of history’s wheel.

Here the rolling grasslands once supported vast herds of buffalo, and the Néhiyawak, or Plains Cree, disassembled their teepees on short notice to gallop off on the hunt. The land and the herds were aboriginal lifeblood before the arrival of the white settlers turned Saskatchewan into the domain of the North West Mounted Police (framed in mythology on horseback and sporting their crisp red coats) and the place of wars with Big Bear and Louis Riel.

The hard questions soon followed: How were the people who rode their horses in chase of the buffalo going to be handled now that the herds were gone? How were they going to be moved out of the way of farmers and grain fields and railways? There were some futile attempts to turn aboriginals into farmers, as in a celebrated project run by the File Hills Indian agent between 1900 and 1932. But the main point, held with firm conviction in the colonial mind, was that the savages who followed false idols and roaming herds needed to be civilized and Christianized. Only then could they be rendered harmless. And so, in came the missionaries, the residential schools, the reserve system, and the treaties. It was a schizophrenic package, designed on the one hand to tame and assimilate and on the other to hide and segregate.

On an aluminum pole in front of the school at Peepeekisis, somewhat tattered by the wind, flaps a blue, white, green, and yellow flag—a sun rising over water. It is the flag of Treaty Four, signed in 1874. In exchange for most of southern Saskatchewan, the Cree of Peepeekisis and their three neighbouring tribes were given 345 square kilometres north of the meandering Qu’Appelle River, an area called File Hills. On these four reserves, in little knots of scattered houses, now live fewer than a thousand people, nearly half of whom are under the age of twenty. At the edge of the reserve lands, machinery dealerships and co-op stores in the white towns of Balcarres and Abernethy leave no doubt that this is farmland, and good farmland, prosperous with crops of hay, wheat, and canola. The reserve lands, however, are little farmed. Here and there a few cows or horses graze, a hayfield as likely as not leased to an outside farmer. For the most part, Indian territory in Saskatchewan remains as it has for centuries: prairie grass and bits of bush, land to wander across and do a bit of hunting; land to squint at when the sun is low on the horizon; land devoted not to industry but to replenishing the rhythms of the spirit. And for someone like Maurice Nokusis, land also to guard like a talisman. “We’ve got something they [non-natives] want. We have rightful title to it all. That’s what it’s all about. White society can’t grasp our bitterness.”

Two residential schools were established for the children of File Hills. A half hour’s drive to the south, a formidable stone Catholic church squats like a well-fed bishop on his throne still dominating the village of Lebret. An entranceway and a couple of outbuildings, including a healing centre, remain, but the ground upon which the Indian Industrial School once stood is now nothing but flat, hardpacked turf pocked with gopher holes and shards of concrete. In the other direction, a search for the Presbyterian (later United Church) File Hills Residential School leads along a winding dirt road, but no one seems quite sure of its exact location. Finally, an elderly man seated on his front step says, “Oh yes, just keep on until you reach the end of this road.” The end of the road turns out to be a private yard filled with fifteen dilapidated, broken-down cars. Just past the wreckage is a cairn, pink and grey stone and roughly six feet high. There is a plaque, dated 1939, that celebrates “the fiftieth anniversary of the File Hills Residential School and Christian service among the Indians.” Beyond the cairn, only the horizon and a windy emptiness.

As early as 1827, the Ojibwa who lived in the woodlands of central Ontario petitioned the government of Upper Canada for a school for their children. Subsequent to the commission established by Governor General Charles Bagot, the renowned educator Egerton Ryerson recommended setting up boarding schools not dissimilar to those in the school systems of Britain and the United States. In 1849, the first official residential school for aboriginal children was constructed at Alderville, near Peterborough. Shortly thereafter, in 1857, the parliament of the Province of Canada passed into law an “Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes.” It offered enfranchisement to Indian men who were of “good moral character,” able to read and write, and who renounced their Indian status. A decade later, in 1869, the parliament of the new Dominion of Canada passed the Gradual Enfranchisement Act.

As the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples observed, it was believed that the problems of aboriginal independence and savagery could be largely resolved by “taking children from their families at an early age and instilling the ways of the dominant society during 8 or 9 years of residential schooling far from home.” Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches saw the task of running the schools as a logical extension of their missionary work, and the government of the newly minted Dominion was only too happy to have them undertake it.

For the next century, grievances nursed by native families and former students tended to be kept private and out of the national spotlight. Indeed, the system was sometimes praised. Manitoba’s Elijah Harper, former member of Parliament and Meech Lake resistance hero, once told an interviewer that residential school was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It was, after all, the only schooling available for most native children, certainly if you came—as Harper did—from remote Red Sucker Lake. Yet in native communities a profound disjunction and unhappiness led to sporadic episodes of personal and communal depression, and sometimes to violence. Complaints about the schools began to trickle in during the early 1990s, and they soon became a flood—and a massive policy problem.

Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, inhabits a sunlit office just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Entering his third term heading up the organization that represents 750,000 status Indians across Canada, he has secured his hold on the position he was first elected to in 1997, then lost to Quebec’s Matthew Coon Come in 2000, then regained in 2003. Fontaine was re-elected last summer. In 1990, as head of the provincial Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Fontaine was forty-six years old and toiling away in Winnipeg. One chilly October night he appeared on cbc Television’s The Journal and told interviewer Barbara Frum that thousands of aboriginal people had been abused at residential schools, and he was one of them. The dirty little secret was out.

During interviews over the next few weeks, Fontaine expanded on his confession, saying that much of the alcoholism, crime, lethargy, family violence, and a host of other social and economic problems in reserve communities could be traced back to people’s residential-school experiences. “Many of our people were students at residential schools and suffered abuses of many kinds,” he said. “Sexual abuse is just one kind. There’s physical abuse, there’s psychological abuse, denial, deprivation. Three, four generations share this . . . . We have to purge ourselves of this sad experience to enable us to have a clearer vision of the future and to go forward with some peace.”

It was a shot across the bow and a gutsy move for someone who harboured high political ambitions. At the time, victim confessions were not the surefire winners they have since become. But “that was the time of Mount Cashel,” the Newfoundland orphanage where rampant abuse of boys by the Catholic Christian Brothers led to court cases and massive settlements, he recalls now, “and I knew the situation for our people was far worse than even that.”

Fontaine asked for and received a meeting with the Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Boniface, but beyond that few plans were made and no certain strategy adopted. Nonetheless, his public disclosure started the ball rolling in ways Fontaine could never have predicted, much less orchestrated. By the mid-1990s, the first criminal charges were laid and a conviction was secured against Arthur Plint, an elderly former dormitory supervisor at a United Church-run school in British Columbia. Plint went to jail, and two dozen of his victims launched a lawsuit against the church and the federal government. “A few bad apples,” religious leaders protested. “Isolated incidents.” Still, one by one, newly emboldened native people stepped forward. “A similar thing happened to me,” became the common refrain. Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government attempted to restrict the blame, stressing that churches had operated and staffed the schools. The churches were stuck. They had nowhere near the resources necessary to handle the lawsuits that were sure to come.

The first casualty landed when the Anglican Diocese of Cariboo, in British Columbia, crippled by legal fees, declared bankruptcy. Elsewhere lawyers, sensing a vast opportunity, started trolling for clients. One, Regina’s Tony Merchant, ended up with 8,300 individual claims. As these started to go to court, it became apparent that the judicial system would not be able to handle the load or prevent another injustice: the afn estimated that fifty years of court time lay ahead and that $4 would be spent on legal and administrative costs for every dollar of compensation. White people, once again, would profit from aboriginal misery. The federal government had no choice but to step in.

It was not just the residential-schools question that threatened the quiet sanctimony of official Ottawa. While attempts had been made to ameliorate the worst aspects of the past—everything from recognizing land titles and treaty rights dating back to 1763 to accommodating clauses in the 1982 Constitution Act to the residential-schools settlement itself—the Indian Act of Canada, proclaimed in 1876, remained, by any measure, paradoxical legislation. It at once affirmed assimilationist policies that provided the legal framework for the residential schools while enshrining the segregation that led to the reserve system. Other countries, such as the United States, had struck down “separate but equal” legislation (most notably with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education), but Canada had failed to move on to the same degree.

In 1969, the new Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau attempted to push the issue with a White Paper that, in essence, advocated repealing the Indian Act, dismantling the ministry of Indian Affairs, and transferring responsibility for aboriginals to provinces. Almost in unison, the aboriginal leadership condemned the initiative. It threatened, they argued, to shred existing arrangements between the Crown and indigenous communities vis-à-vis treaty rights. Trudeau and then Indian Affairs minister Jean Chrétien were rebuked, the White Paper was shelved, and the status quo prevailed, as it does today.

Meanwhile, Canada was not immune to external criticism. In 1987, the South African ambassador, Glenn Babb, toured a reserve in Manitoba and then told a Johannesburg newspaper that Canada’s criticism of apartheid was hypocritical as it had its own “deplorable situation” on native reserves. It was a publicity stunt but it drew blood. Canadians were infuriated. Some attempts at reform from the inside were initiated; in 2001, Matthew Coon Come, then the head of the afn, scolded the chiefs for alcohol abuse and said that they needed “to clean up [their] act.” He further argued that ballots for his position should be cast not by the chiefs but by individual status Indians themselves, a swipe at segments of the aboriginal leadership thought to be corrupt and not attentive to the needs of their constituents. He was thanked for his trouble by being turfed from office. You could not air dirty laundry in public or suggest such a derogation of power.

Today, though, Babb’s critique and Coon Come’s prescriptions resonate: for many, the on-the-ground reality of the reserves represents the soft underbelly of Canadian democracy, the shadow behind the door, the one big problem never properly addressed or even properly acknowledged.

For nearly a decade after beginning his first term as afn chief in 1997, Phil Fontaine looked on as a series of negotiations on the residential-schools issue produced little of substance. Then, at a conference at the University of Calgary called “The Residential Schools Legacy: Is Reconciliation Possible?” he sensed an opening. “The feds were stymied, and I felt finally they might be willing to bend in our favour,” he told me. It was March 2004. During a break Fontaine approached deputy minister Mario Dion, there to deliver a speech on behalf of the prime minister. “Give us a chance,” Fontaine proposed. “I’ll put the best minds in the country together, and we’ll come up with a plan for your consideration.”

With the federal government’s approval, the afn assembled a group of lawyers, academics, class-action specialists, human-rights experts, and genocide scholars, and got down to business. One of their first stops was Ireland, where the Catholic Church had just made a gigantic settlement with former students of that country’s industrial-school system. Within months they hammered out the fundamental principles of the settlement about to be activated. It has been a long journey from those first lonely moments in 1990. “Here it is sixteen years later,” Fontaine says now. “The government has agreed to a lump-sum payment, agreed to a truth and reconciliation process. The complete package is very just. It will enable us to turn the page on this.”

But how that page turns for the tens of thousands of people affected is less certain. Anita McLeod and Doris Bellegarde were both at the Catholic school at Lebret, Saskatchewan, more than half a century ago. McLeod, a sixty-seven year old with glasses and silver hair, was a student from 1946 until 1953; Bellegarde, now seventy-two, was there from 1941 to 1950. “No amount of money can compensate for what we went through in that place, the physical and mental cruelty. They called us little savages, ‘les sauvages,’” McLeod told me. “The nuns and the priests did that,” added Bellegarde.

After graduating from grade ten, both McLeod and Bellegarde fled their home province—Anita to BC, Doris to Manitoba. But each soon returned and, paradoxically, joined the staff of the very institution they professed to hate. Anita signed on as a child-care worker, Doris as a cook, eventually becoming the main chef. There they stayed through the school’s final years under the Catholics, then as the government ran it on a non-sectarian basis, and finally when the local Star Blanket band took over in the ’80s before tearing it down in 1999. The two women offer individual justifications that attempt to right old wrongs. “Nobody was going to hurt the kids like we were hurt,” declares McLeod of her motivation to become a child-care worker. “There’d be no more porridge left over from breakfast served for dessert,” says Bellegarde of her time in the kitchen. The two women remain devout members of the church. “It wasn’t God that did this,” says McLeod. As for the money, it will be like something found, they agree. “It’ll be like money I never had,” says Bellegarde.

As a student at Lebret in the 1950s, George Poitras was abused by a priest. In 1999, he filed a lawsuit, and in the fall of 2004, just a year before he died, he received a cheque for $20,000. Lawrence Poitras is George’s son. His job on the Peepeekisis reserve is to drive the road grader, trying to smooth out the potholed roads. Driving around on the noisy machine gives him ample time to think. He describes his father as a philosophical man concerned about what a windfall of residential-schools settlement money would mean for individuals, families, and the community. “In most cases it will not be enough to do anything really positive,” says Lawrence, adopting the attitude of his late father. “But if you have bad habits—drugs or alcohol—it could be enough to ruin your life. People have to be prepared to handle the money.”

Lawrence Poitras suggests that it might be a good idea if victims pooled the money and did something positive for the community as a whole, but immediately acknowledges that this is unlikely. The argument to make sure the money went to individuals and not to bands was waged (and won) years ago. Still, he worries. “We could use some counselling in money management,” he reiterates. Just before George Poitras died he bought a second-hand truck that Lawrence’s brothers could use to start a small haulage business. It soon broke down, and there was no money left for repairs. It sits idle in the back yard. Now, Lawrence says, car dealers are showing up trying to line up deals with people expecting payments.

Predators may be circling and recipients may be ill-prepared, but—Lawrence Poitras’s concerns about money management aside—the greater anxiety is about the fair distribution of payments. Though those involved put a good face on it, it cannot be taken for granted that all will go smoothly. Phil Fontaine reasons that a five-year timeline ensures the matter won’t drag on forever. For individuals claiming abuse and seeking additional compensation, the government’s commitment is to process a minimum of 2,500 cases each year. But if the 13,000 individuals, as well as those in the class-action suits, decide to proceed this way, five years may not be enough time. “More staff will be needed,” admits Fontaine.

For its part, the government has an office called Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada (irsrc), whose website carries general information and helpful instructions for those wanting to make a claim. On the convenient premise that the matter is still before the courts, no government official would speak on the record for this article. But the Liberals’ Indian Affairs critic, Anita Neville of Winnipeg, was sanguine, saying that the government “does give out large sums of money in all kinds of ways to individuals, so there are templates to adjust.” Nonetheless, there is no firm list of school enrolments upon which to base settlement claims, and John Phillips, an afn lawyer, told me that it’s only a guess that there are 80,000 survivors. “It could be as few as 60,000, or as many as 100,000,” he said. The afn has a database of 35,000 names but has not been asked to share this information or confirm it against lists the government is assembling. As yet, there is no firm vetting process in place, and on the reserves there is confusion.

Back at Peepeekisis, Oscar Pinay fishes around in a box on his kitchen table and pulls out two letters. “This one,” he says, “tells me that I’m going to get $50,000.” Pinay, who is in his early sixties, lives with his older brother Wesley and a couple of dogs in a tidy bungalow on the edge of a sloping pasture where the two brothers run a few cows. Neighbours come by to fill their water containers from his artesian well. On the kitchen wall are photographs of racehorses another brother used to train. When he was thirteen, Oscar was put on a train and shipped east to the Presbyterian Church’s residential school at Birtle, Manitoba. He lasted a month before squeezing under the fence on a frigid January night and hitchhiking home. At the Birtle school his head was shaved and doused with coal oil to treat lice, his mail was opened, letters to his parents were rewritten, and he was not permitted to talk to his older brother in the schoolyard or visit him in the dorm. “It was more a jail than a residential school,” he declares.

In 1998, after learning that other former residential-school students were filing lawsuits against the churches and the government, Pinay contacted Regina lawyer Fran Huck. He paid $75 to have his suit registered in court, but the letter he shows me is all he ever got in response. “I’m afraid it doesn’t say you’re getting $50,000,” I have to tell him. “It says only that your lawyer is asking for $50,000.” He then brings out the second letter bearing the crest of the government of Canada. “This one says I was at the residential school.” I examine it. “No, it says they will institute a search to see if there is any record of your being there.” Pinay doesn’t appear to understand that the two projects—his individual claim and the class-action suit—are mutually exclusive.

Oscar’s brother Wesley attended the local File Hills school for a year. When it was closed in 1949, he was sent on to Birtle. Wesley then filed a suit that got a discovery hearing. At that point, disturbed by the fact that lawyers from the United Church, to which he had belonged for more than fifty years, were calling him a liar, Wesley walked away. Now he is waiting for the money he believes he is eligible for under the classaction settlement.

In the generation since the last residential school closed its doors, a sea change has taken place in the education of native children. Central to a burgeoning self-government strategy, control has been handed back to local communities. By 2004, all but seven out of 503 schools on Indian reserves across Canada were managed by native bands. Almost the entire system is financed by the government. Fully 20 percent of the Indian Affairs budget, about $1 billion a year, goes to native bands to run schools. Outside of supposedly adhering to provincial standards, local councils call the shots.

The school at Peepeekisis—an airy, low-slung red brick building with a green metal roof—was built in 1991 and has a hundred students from kindergarten to grade nine. Every attempt is made to be culturally relevant and to provide racial uplift. Signage is bilingual: the school is called Pesakastew Kiskinahamatowik Amik, the principal’s office Kihei Okiskinohamakew. In the entranceway, under a large mural of an eagle spreading its wings, is the school’s mission statement: “We want education to give our children the knowledge to understand and be proud of themselves and the knowledge to understand the world around them.”

Underneath such optimistic impulses, however, there is unease. Alma Poitras, a teacher in the Cree language program, complains about a lack of resources. In her classroom, English phrases and their Cree translations cover the blackboard. A circle of grade three girls diligently stitch beads into designs on cloth. But Poitras laments, “I’m at the bottom of the ladder; there is no funding.” A recent meeting of Cree language teachers from across southern Saskatchewan attracted only five, and Poitras worries both that her beloved language is in danger of extinction and that basic lack of interest is spreading up the ladder from student to teacher.

The pressures of life in the twenty-first century descend on children everywhere, but on Indian reserves most abjectly so. Mass culture is beamed in via satellite television, enticing but unattainable, while drugs, another scourge, ravage young teenagers. At Fort Qu’Appelle a nineteen-year-old native boy had just been found murdered. No one knew why.

Native-run schools were supposed to be a bridge, a way to bring local control as well as respect for traditional languages and culture together with universal concepts of modern education. In some cases the schools succeed, but everywhere they are under scrutiny, and alarms are going off. Because the money supporting them is tax money, one of those keeping a close eye on not just the expenditure but the results is the federal auditor general. In two recent reports to Parliament, in 2000 and 2004, Sheila Fraser highlighted a distressing lag between reserve-educated young people and the rest of young Canadians. Using the measuring stick of high-school graduation rates, she said, “I am concerned by the limited progress in closing the gap between people living on reserves and other Canadians.”

And the gap shows no sign of closing any time soon. In a 2006 Caledon Institute study on the education levels of aboriginal Canadians, social policy analyst Michael Mendelson determined that 59 percent of people living on reserves lack a high-school education. The figure for Canada as a whole is 31 percent. For aboriginal young people between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, the figure is a wholly unacceptable 43 percent, compared with 16 percent in the same age bracket for the rest of Canada. As Mendelson explains, aboriginals in their early twenties would have attended high school in the 1990s, “not in some distant past of discredited old policies and old programs.” He bleakly points out that “every effort over the past generation to raise outcomes for on-reserve Indians has been a complete waste of time and money.” This assessment is shared by native leaders like Charles Fox, formerly of the Regional Chiefs of Ontario, who in 2005 admitted to the Toronto Star, “Our academic standards don’t compare at all to schools in the rest of Canada.”

The residential-schools settlement will deal with the past, but what will address the present and future aspirations of aboriginal people? On the one side, the native leadership is adamant that constitutional recognition of First Nations as a third order of government is a necessary, if still insufficient, condition. On top of this, they argue it will continue to take a great deal of money: initiatives like the 2005 Kelowna Accord—a $5.1-billion package designed principally to address native housing, education, and health matters that was ushered in by the federal Liberals but shelved by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government—are deemed essential to improve current conditions, to ensure self-government takes root and is responsive, and ultimately, to allow aboriginal peoples to make greater contributions to Canadian society. But as too many reports suggest, the recent history of self-government—from local and unique policing and justice systems, to child welfare, social services, and housing, to natural-resources policies and taxation, to education—is decidedly mixed and, in many cases, disastrous. On top of that, efforts to modernize or make native self-government more responsive—whether from within, as Matthew Coon Come attempted, or from without, as when Liberal Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault proposed a governance act that would have increased the accountability of reserve administrations—have gone down in flames.

The problem is that Canadian public policy regarding aboriginal peoples, instituted with the general agreement of the native leadership, has created and continues to support a parallel system that suffers the curse of most all separate systems: it is by no means equal. Those who cling to it fear assimilation; what they have forfeited is participation. While we might aspire to celebrate unique cultures and reconcile the injustices of history, in reality we have created a system wherein people are paid to be Indian; where they are legislated to be different; where they are not deliberately condemned to be poor, but where that is the result; and where the aboriginal political class goes to work each day with a vested interest in keeping things as they are.

The evidence clearly suggests that the greater the segregation, the more marginalized aboriginal people become. Statistics show that native people who integrate into mainstream society are more successful. Towns and cities can be difficult places, but Michael Mendelson’s findings are clear: where urban aboriginals are not part of a distinct minority group, in cities such as Toronto and Montreal, they outperform other minority groups. In these two cities, urban aboriginals earn 75 to 80 percent of the average income for the population as a whole, compared with 72 percent for members of other visible minority groups. In Winnipeg and Regina, by contrast, where aboriginal people are part of a more identifiable and segregated group, they do less well, making only 66 percent of the average income in Winnipeg. Aboriginals living on reserves, however, are the worst off by a dramatic margin: their incomes are just 49 percent of the national average.

When Patrick Brazeau told cbc Radio’s The Current that the reserve system should perhaps be dismantled, he swung a stick at a hornet’s nest of controversy. But was he proposing the only move that might, finally, end a century and a half of deeply ingrained inequality? On the same program, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, a professor of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto, pointed out that though the reserve system is tied to land-title negotiations, the reality is that aboriginals control a mere 0.5 percent of Canada’s land south of the sixtieth parallel—“half the size of Nova Scotia.” These critiques cut to the heart of a very thorny issue: Indian status, treaties, land claims, reserves, and aboriginal self-government are all tied up together. The best aspects of this intricate web seek human rights and justice. The worst set up a race-based system that defies reform and that excludes or at least inhibits its members from participation in the larger society.

Meanwhile, the auditor general’s reports underline an additional urgency. The aboriginal birth rate is approximately twice that of the Canadian population as a whole. In the years to come, there will be more and more native children. The residential-schools settlement addresses some of the worst abuses of the past, but what about the future of these children? Without a change of course, there will be no real resolution to the problems faced by aboriginal people in this country.

Larry Krotz
Larry Krotz has written extensively for magazines and newspapers, including The United Church Observer.