Time to help people escape dire reserves
Back in 2013, while working for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, I held a press conference and called on the federal government to consider helping aboriginal people move away from bleak, aboriginal reserves.
The idea was one of five policy solutions we put forward to help lift aboriginal people out of poverty. “Transition Support,” as we called it, would involve the government helping people living on dire reserves move to communities where there are jobs, better schools for their kids, running water and other amenities most of us take for granted.
If the idea sounds familiar, former Prime Minister Chretien recently suggested something similar. When asked about the suicide crisis on the Attawapiskat First Nation, he suggested the people living there consider moving to where there are jobs. His comments ruffled a few feathers, but thankfully, they’ve sparked a discussion about the viability of some aboriginal reserves.
The sad reality is that governments could pump millions of extra dollars into some aboriginal communities to build new homes, install new water systems and other infrastructure and yet the reserves will still languish. Why? Because the communities just aren’t economically viable.
While working for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, I used to receive calls from aboriginal whistleblowers regularly. On one occasion, while talking with someone from a fairly remote reserve, I asked, “What businesses are on your reserve?” The person responded by noting there was a band administration office, a community hall, a health care clinic and a couple other entities. All of her examples were government funded. Thus, her community was propped up almost entirely with tax dollars from the outside world.
Perhaps the example is an outlier, but it’s well known that on many remote reserves the band office is the main employer in town.
Some communities are simply too remote or too hard to get to in order for a viable economy to ever thrive. If there’s a lack of resources in the area, it’s especially hard for people to live off the land and expect a modern way of life.
If people on reserves want televisions, cars, computers and other modern conveniences, they have to produce something that others want to buy in order to earn money to buy products from the outside world. In the absence of self-generated wealth, band members have to rely on handouts from the federal government.
It’s easy to see why there’s a lack of hope on many reserves. Ottawa will never be able to afford to send “enough” money. At the same time, leaving the community must seem like an insurmountable task, especially if you have kids and can’t sell your band-owned home to help finance the transition.
Perhaps, instead of Ottawa spending $10,000 per year over the next 10 years for someone living on a reserve with high unemployment, the government could spend $30,000 up front to help them - if they want to - transition to a new community and job. If the person succeeds and finds gainful employment, the government could save money over the long-term as the person becomes self-sufficient.
One thing should be clear; having an honest discussion about the viability of some dire aboriginal communities should be the first step when exploring how to lift more aboriginal people out of poverty.
Colin Craig works for the Manning Centre in Calgary and is the author of The Government Wears Prada
This column was published by Sun newspapers on April 15, 2016