There is no lack of analysis of the challenges facing First Nations populations, especially in the north where resources are scarcer. And almost all of it is peppered with an undertone that is, at the very least, gravely disturbing.
In Macleans last August, we read:
Before the water and housing crises in Attawapiskat, Ont., before its chief, Theresa Spence, held her hunger strike, the Cree First Nations community near the shores of James Bay faced an educational crisis. Its primary school was shut in 2000 because of site contamination and health issues from a 1979 diesel fuel leak. Despite federal government promises of a new school, students were still in mould-contaminated portables seven years later when they learned that Ottawa had cancelled the project. The news sparked a rebellion among Attawapiskat youth who reached out to students across the country, inspiring the largest youth-driven rights campaign in Canadian history. Click here.
Then just this past April, in The Globe and Mail:
Conditions on reserves lag behind those in the rest of Canada in more respects than just suicide and health: Unemployment, lack of access to education and substandard infrastructure are factors too. Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency five years ago over a housing crisis that James Anaya, then UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, said “seems to represent the condition of many First Nation communities living on reserves throughout Canada, which is allegedly akin to Third World conditions.” Click here.
And there, we have the problem: outsiders imposing their values on communities that are not theirs to judge.
Let me explain.
I have been witness to many conversations in which the “plight” of First Nations peoples are portrayed in these terms. In one, the presenter even asked those in the audience to “imagine” that little children up north could even “see their breath” when those of us in southern Ontario had yet to even celebrate Hallowe’en. The presenter went on to say how “freezing cold” the people in the north were, and how we should send blankets and pyjamas.
I lived in Moose Factory for five years in the 1990s. Moose Factory is just down the coast from Attawapiskat and Fort Albany. The communities are linked in terms of health and other resources. I was also the editor of a local newspaper that served all the communities of the James Bay Coast. In my experience, no children in the communities were “freezing cold.” People in First Nations communities on the coast dress for the weather. They wear moose mitts and moccassins that are far warmer than the boots and coats we wear in southern Ontario. I struggled with my distaste for the way outsiders presented James Bay Coasters until I realized that it stems from guilt.
You see, the thrust behind this form of sympathizing became stronger after the Truth and Reconciliation Report was tabled in the fall of 2015, and it has continued to gain momentum. I have reached out to others who share my feelings, and to those who do not, to find an explanation that fits my experience of First Nations people.
Fortunately, recently, a former fellow Moose Factory resident (Cecil Chabot) put into words what I needed to read.
He writes about a youth program that a local couple – John and Grace Delaney (whom I knew well) – put on with the help of some others at Ministik School in Moose Factory. On the surface, it was an after-school gym program, but his genius twist on this was to put older children in the position of mentoring the younger ones. In the end, Cecil points out, the youths discovered the gifts they had to offer others.
While many communities in Canada could benefit from government help, including help to improve drinking water, and despite the fact that Attawapiskat does need clean water and help with housing, these are not the “fundamental” needs. These are not Third World communities. These are communities that have too long been forgotten, and now must be asked the simple question that is not the one we are asking.
Rather than, “How can we help you?” we must ask, “How can you help us?” In that way, the youth and the adults, the community leaders, the educators, and the elders, will be bound to discover the gifts that lie within them, and those are the gifts that will restore self-worth and confidence where it is most needed. Empowerment is the true gift.