This is going to be a long one… so buckle up.
I’ve been looking for a job lately. More than a few people have come up and suggested I look at Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs. Some step back at the look of horror that must flash across my face. Maybe it’s the eyes burning below knitted brow at the suggestion? The jutting of the jaw? Or the dismissive “Pah!” that escapes my lips. Most take the hint. A few go on to the next question: “Why not?”
I might tell a story of another time when I was jobless and desperate. It happened awhile ago, but the memory is strong. I had something like 85 cents in the bank, no unemployment enjoyment coming in, and no immediate prospects on the horizon. Luckily, I had a partner. She was an “artiste;” she drew pogey cheques. We barely got by but we needed little but the barest essentials.
A call came late one winter afternoon. Interested in working for Indian Affairs? Not just anywhere, but in the Minister’s office? Damn good salary. Excellent benefits. Lots of travel. Set my own but long hours. Good chance to influence. All I needed was to say “OK” and I could begin immediately as a ministerial appointee.
The pause on my end of the line must’ve been deafening. It also dragged for a half minute or more. “Take your time,” the voice on the other end eventually said. “Sleep on it. Call me when you have an answer.”
I thought about the offer, long and hard. I talked it over with my then-wife. We were broke, with few job prospects but no crushing debt. We also lived far from the most available jobs because she wanted us to move to the country, to her rez. I’m not begrudging her choice. In fact, I look back at that time mostly with fond memories. But it wasn’t easy being poor and feeling useless most of the time. The question, however, boiled down to this:
Could I surrender my principles, my self-respect, my beliefs and work for an agency whose core purpose was assimilation – the complete destruction of my people, my nation, and denial of our rights?
The usual comeback went something like this: “Compromise. You can work for change from within, like a termite.” I know what happens to termites – in homes and institutions. Been there. I got the scars to prove it. You go in with good intentions and a goal. You end up compromising so much in your struggle to open the door for others like yourself, to bring new ideas to the institution, that you lose sight of the prize.
Your hard edges get worn down. You become part of the very machinery that you set out to change. You give up so much that whatever was unique and real in your soul evaporates. Sometimes it happens quickly. Othertimes, it happens so slowly you barely notice. Before you know it, like Bootstrap Bill in those Pirates movies, you’re absorbed into the ship’s superstructure and become the very thing you hated or feared going in.
What provoked these thoughts? CBC Radio’s The Current on Monday’s (nov 23) program. Susan Ormiston interviewed two women about unequal funding in Indigenous education, family support programs, child welfare. It was a good package, good questions, great answers. Give it a listen. It’s worth the time. Here’s part of the intro:
Cindy Blackstock is… the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. She is to be awarded the Economic Justice Fellowship today from The Atkinson Charitable Foundation. She was in Montreal. And Carolyn Buffalo is Chief of the Montana Cree Nation in Hobbema, Alberta and mother of Noah.
We invited Chuck Strahl, the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and Janis Tarchuk, Alberta’s Minister of Children and Youth Services to appear on the program. They both declined our invitation.
Of course, the 23 minutes or so just scratched the surface about this long-running international scandal. The host and these two amazing Indian women lay out in simple, honest, human terms the deliberate underfunding of status Indian programs, especially on reserves, by the Canadian Government. These actions, the program makes clear, discriminates against Indians precisely because they are Indians and living on their own territories (reserves). It’s part of a Federal policy that not only sanctions racial discrimination against Indians – it violates international conventions on the rights of Indigenous peoples.
As the program makes clear, every attempt to press the Federal Government to do the right thing, to end these policies, are not just ignored but actively and vigorously opposed in every forum, at every instance, and at great cost to the Canadian taxpayer. Normally well-educated and intelligent lawyers and bureaucrats keep this policy chugging away, decade after decade, without questioning the ethics or morality of their actions in denying people of another race their rights in Canadian law. Nor do they seem to ponder their role in the human suffering that such actions (or deliberate inaction) not only continue but guarantees. They don’t seem to consider their responsibilities. The question is: Why? Not the surface “why,” or the easy “why,” but the beads of sweat in the middle of the night “why.”
This is where the interviews on The Current fall short. They don’t quite reach that point, or provide hard answers that explain to listeners what drives these policies. If they had pursued this line of questioning to the extent I suggest, they might have had to confront the foundation of a set of racial prejudices expressed, articulated, codified in laws and regulations aimed at extinguishing Indigenous peoples as painlessly as possible – for the colonizer. Lawyers and bureaucrats pulled together all of these various imperatives of the Canadian Government about 140 years ago. They called it the Indian Act.
They didn’t call it cultural genocide back then, and still don’t even if that is what it was. Nope, back then, they dressed up this collection of racial prejudices as valiant attempts at “civilizing” the Indian, “assimilating” Indians into Canadian society, and bettering lives of these poor misbegotten stone age peoples through “education” – presumably, of course, to make us just like them. Eventually, we would be christianized, civilized, and… well, we could never be quite white enough to be seen as equals.
Ludicrous, right? Laughable. Hah! Welcome to a certain kind of Canadian reality. From an Indigenous perspective, the government’s actions were supremely arrogant, barbaric and uncivilized. We called it, both then and now, cultural genocide because that is exactly what these Indian policies were designed to do then, and continue to promote today. In today’s Canada, these polices are made possible with a history of denial, made possible by the ignorance of the average Canadian citizen about their own history.
They can thank their education system for that, by supporting the pretense that Indigenous peoples were bit players and irrelevant to Canadian history, economics, and society. In other words, we didn’t exist except when pissing off de Maisonneuve’s dog, Pilote (who seems to play a more heroic role than any Indian in the Canadian elementary school curricula.)
A big part of the reason why more Indian children are taken from their families and communities and placed into the custody of child welfare that ever before can be summed up with one word: underfunding. This underfunding exists in housing, job creation, health care, family support, education, and so on. Systemic underfunding creates communities where poverty is high, and living standards are low. Perfect conditions to deem parents unable or unfit to raise their children properly. Solution: Let’s take them into custody. Institutionalize them in droves far from their homes. Take them away from their parents and families, extended families, community, language, culture. Let’s finish the job that the residential schools started.
Support for status Indians has declined in terms of real dollars per capita as both population numbers and costs have risen. Funding has not kept pace with inflation, rising costs in labour, materials, tuition, books, infrastructure, and so on. Who says? Track down and read a report written, produced and published by the Department of Indian Affairs itself nearly 30 years ago entitled Indian Conditions: A Report. It was both an assessment – and a warning – to Indian Affairs ministers and the Federal Cabinet of the human cost accumulating even then due to underfunding.
But adequate funding, really improving lives, was never the game plan. The elimination of reserves, tearing up of treaties, removal of so-called “special rights” and “status” was and remains the objective. These were the same goals articulated in the 1969 White Paper, which many Indians feel is still in effect. They are both right and wrong, however, as the White Paper called for “forced” assimilation by decree of the Federal Government of Canada. What is taking place today is “coercive” assimilation.
Ottawa doesn’t need to cut funding and attract attention, not when it can simply do nothing instead. Let inflation do the dirty work. Just don’t raise the dollar levels of programs for status Indians and reserves. Do the same with off-reserve Indian populations too. Nickle and dime these communities and their programs to death. Force “third party partnerships” on them while leaving funding levels at 1980 levels, or with only slight increases that are far outstripped by much faster rising population numbers, inflationary increases, material costs and so on.
What will this accomplish? It will force Indians, both on- and off-reserve, into the provincial sphere of jurisdiction. Houses still need to be built. Clinics still need to open. Schools still need to operate. If Indians want these things, they’ll have to go along or their communities will collapse.
If they do as the Indian Affairs game plan expects, this will allow the federal government to avoid or even offload its responsibilities for Indians. In effect it will render the federal responsibility for “Indians… and lands reserved for Indians” in the Canadian Constitution irrelevant. Kazaa! One of the main goals of the 1969 White Paper done.
At the same time, keep pushing the idea of “voluntary” assimilation, an option which has always been there. The Indian Act allows Indians to give up their status whenever they want. The very concept is mind-blowing for simplicity and understated malevolence. What other group is expected – almost required – to give up their identity, their claims to culture, and even their community in order to be treated with respect in both law and by society in general?
Are Ukrainian-Canadians expected to turn their backs on their Orthodox religion, stop speaking their language, leave their communities in order to be considered “Canadian”? Are Indo-Canadians expected – forced – to give up their ceremonies and cultures in order to become full participants in Canadian society? Integration does not mean obliteration of their full identity, their histories, cultures, languages, identities. The such is imposed upon, expected of, Indians in Canada – a country that claims to celebrate and respect multicultural heritages from every else in the world – makes those claims a sham and a lie.
These racist federal Indian policies continue decade after decade, with the apparent or implied support of the average Canada (how else to take their silence). It continues regardless which political party wins in the political game of musical chairs in Ottawa. It will continue with Indigenous people paying the price until this country decides to end the hypocrisy and stop lying to itself.