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Canada's dirty little secret too well-known

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Depending on who you talk to, Canada's dirty secret is the Alberta tarsands, the export of asbestos, our outdated laws on animal rights, the testing of Agent Orange on Canadian soldiers in the 1960s, inaction on the environment and even the problems caused by subprime mortgages, which everyone thinks was an American-only phenomenon.

The cliché is obviously overused, but I remember first reading it in a New York Times reference book, circa 1970. The editors said Canada's dirty secret -- probably our original sin -- was the shameful treatment of its aboriginal population, which was described as living in Third World conditions on grubby little reserves far removed from polite society. Out of sight and out of mind.

There have been many solutions for Canada's aboriginal question over the decades. We've relocated them from one place to another, sent their children to residential schools, put them on welfare and locked them up.

In 1969, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and his Indian Affairs minister, Jean Chretien, proposed a radical solution, as none of the other measures seemed to be working. The White Paper on Indian Policy proposed the complete obliteration of the special status and legal rights of aboriginals. They were to be treated like any other ethnic minority.

SDLqThe policies proposed recognize the simple reality that the separate legal status of Indians and the policies which have flowed from it have kept the Indian people apart from and behind other Canadians. The Indian people have not been full citizens of the communities and provinces in which they live and have not enjoyed the equality and benefits that such participation offers," it said.

It was just the latest in a series of failed solutions and collapsed quickly in the face of opposition. Trudeau, of course, later introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which recognizes aboriginal rights and freedoms without actually defining them.

Today, Canada spends about $10 billion a year on aboriginals, but some First Nations communities still can't get a drink of clean water. The rates of crime, unemployment, suicide and other indications of social dysfunction are several times higher than the Canadian average. Everything about them, in fact, would tend to suggest that not much has changed since the New York Times first exposed our national secret.

Progress is being made, but at a snail's pace. Thousands of aboriginals have university degrees and are well employed in the professions, the arts and skilled trades, although not on the reserves, which remain, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, "a riddle wrapped up in an enigma." How, for example, do you create wealth and opportunity in a tribal, collectivist society where everything is owned in common, meaning no one is responsible for anything and no one can obtain the individual equity needed to build the better lives they claim they want?

There have been proposals -- more solutions -- to grant some form of land title or leaseholder rights to individual aboriginals, who presumably could then apply for a mortgage, but what would this mean for the principle of tribal rights?

Recently, newly installed Liberal Leader Bob Rae and retiring auditor general Sheila Fraser both said something has to be done about the aboriginal conundrum. Rae called it "the most profoundly difficult question we face as a country," and Fraser said the situation is "simply unacceptable."

They weren't asked to offer any solutions, but the odds are both would say a combination of more government money and tougher rules of accountability are the ticket. History, however, shows they are not the solution, which is not to say more investment is not warranted.

Meanwhile, more than one-third of Manitobans who were evacuated because of the spring flood are aboriginal, yet their plight seems to garner less public sympathy than the struggles of vegetable growers. Hundreds of people from the Lake St. Martin First Nation are stranded in Winnipeg and it's unlikely any of them will ever go home, at least not to the home they left behind, so extensive was the destruction.

One evacuee is reported to have committed suicide in Winnipeg and two others attempted it, reportedly as a result of the stress of living in what they consider a strange and hostile land.

And there is the rub. Aboriginals want clean drinking water and better living conditions, but not at the expense of their ties to the land and their tribal society. Many First Nations people have abandoned their communities for the big city with varying degrees of success, but others choose to stay where they are because it is home.

Solutions to the despair are needed, but they must come from aboriginals themselves. Unfortunately, native leaders do not seem very interested in fundamental reforms other than the elusive and undefined goal of self-government.

If none is found, then Canada's original dirty secret will outlive all the other pretenders to the title.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2011 A14

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