Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

North acutely aware of First Nations woes

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FLIN FLON -- "Yep, that's a reserve, all right."

That was my initial nonplussed reaction to those now-infamous images of Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario.

I wasn't trying to make light of anything. I'm not aboriginal, but I am as devastated as anyone to see my fellow Canadians live in hopeless desolation.

It's just that growing up in northern Manitoba, an expanse that is at least two-thirds aboriginal with 30-plus reserves, you could say I'm numb to the tragedy of it all.

Many others are not; they can't afford to be. So, unsurprisingly, the Idle No More movement sweeping the nation has found prominence in northern Manitoba.

Recent weeks have brought Idle No More rallies to each of the region's three major centres of Thompson, The Pas and Flin Flon, as well as reserves such as Nelson House, Pukatawagan, Cross Lake, Garden Hill, Red Sucker Lake and Tadoule Lake.

The Idle No More Northern Manitoba Facebook page, still relatively new, had amassed 2,460 members as this column was being written. Among the more familiar members are Churchill MP Niki Ashton, Thompson MLA and provincial cabinet minister Steve Ashton and Thompson Coun. Charlene Lafreniere.

Idle No More is ostensibly about treaty rights and environmental laws, but it's also a natural extension of the outrage over conditions on reserves.

One might presume that, based on the north's demographics and political leadership, the region is united behind Idle No More. In fact, it has divided many of us.

There may not be anti-Idle protests on the streets, but talk to northerners about the protests and you're likely to hear as much hostility as sympathy. Don't First Nations people already get enough breaks? Why can't they just live like the rest of us?

Not all of the opposition is rooted in racism, but it tends to run along racial lines, along the borders between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.

Jasyn Lucas, a renowned aboriginal artist based in Thompson, knows not every northerner shares his enthusiasm for Idle No More.

But Lucas, 33, says those who have not grown up in addiction, poverty and Third World lifestyles -- all too common for First Nations -- fail to understand the harsh realities that exist.

"A lot of modern-day aboriginals are direct echoes and products of... different generations of struggle and obstacles," he says.

If Idle No More is divisive, there is unanimous agreement that the social experiment of government-dependent reserves has proven disastrous.

Here in the north, we are acutely aware of this failure. Crime on reserves is frequently sky-high. Aboriginal students often lag behind their non-aboriginal peers. Social problems that dominate reserves spill over into larger centres as aboriginals increasingly leave their home communities.

So change is needed. But what change?

Lucas says technology is key. He wants all reserves to have the same Internet access that allowed him to more broadly sell his wilderness-inspired paintings.

"I'm a businessman, so I definitely believe in ways of making money regardless of what obstacles are in the way, and being resourceful," he says, adding education is vital.

Idle No More protests in northern Manitoba have so far been peaceful. No one has tried blocking highways or closing industries (though through a separate beef with the NDP government, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents most northern reserves, has threatened to shut down mining across the province).

Any escalation into some of the more aggressive tactics seen at Idle No More rallies in other parts of the country will only damage already-fragile race relations in the region. It is also unlikely to garner enough attention to sway federal politicians.

For his part, Lucas stresses the importance of humility and of holding not only Ottawa accountable, but also individual band councils.

It seems unlikely given the come-and-go nature of protest movements, but hopefully Idle No More can somehow be the beginning of a better life for the bulk of northern Manitoba.

No one, including me, should ever be so accustomed to suffering that we are numb to the tragedy of First Nations people.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2013 A13

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