No boat trip in Manitoba is prettier than the one between Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point, dodging dozens of tiny, pincushion islands made of bedrock and pine trees.
The Island Lake region should be a quintessentially Canadian jackpot of mining, logging, hydro development and high-end tourism catering to eco-adventurers and rich American sport fishermen.
Instead, it's a national shame.
There appears to be only one thing that will make reserves in northern Manitoba viable communities able to rise above the poverty that's shackled generations: natural resources.
At the recent Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa, chiefs had education, health care and housing on the brain. But the one resounding theme was a desire to get Ottawa and the provinces to the table so First Nations can finally start reaping the benefits of the natural resources they believe are bountiful on their traditional lands.
"I'm not just talking about being at the end of the line of recipients of the wealth of the resources," said Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.
"I'm talking about actual participation."
There are 31 reserves in northern Manitoba, 18 of them so remote that, for 10 months a year, the only way in or out is by plane. They are all located in pristine wilderness, surrounded by dense forests and likely mineral-laden rocks, but few of these reserves have any local economy to speak of.
There are no paper mills, no logging operations, no gold or nickel mines, few fishing lodges.
Some bands own small stores, a gas bar or a laundromat. A few have a share in local airlines. But, for the most part, every job is tied to the only real source of revenue on reserve -- the nearly $1 billion that flows annually from the federal government to Manitoba First Nations.
On remote reserves, fewer than one in three people over age 15 have a job. More than seven in 10 people don't graduate from high school. Most homes need major repairs.
They are the Attawapiskats of Manitoba, communities that have struggled for generations, with little notable improvement and little progress toward a measure of self-sufficiency. It's hard to know whether places like Shamattawa, Red Sucker Lake or Oxford House have a future.
"Absolutely yes, they do," said former prime minister Paul Martin, now an advocate on aboriginal issues, especially education.
But the future involves working with bands from the start, not imposing solutions from wood-panelled meetings rooms in Ottawa.
"We've tried that for two or three hundred years, and it has simply not worked," said Martin.
Over the years, many have proposed moving remote First Nations closer to major centres where there are more obvious economic activities and easier access to supplies, health care, good schools.
Laurie Gough, a writer and teacher from Quebec, strongly believes remote reserves simply can't survive where they are. She spent three months teaching in Kashechewan, Ont., and left frustrated by the lack of connection anyone still had there to their culture. She says she knows she will get labelled a racist for saying it, but there is too much wrong in remote northern reserves to save them.
The government did consider moving Kashechewan in 2006 after an E. coli outbreak in the reserve's water supply forced everyone on the reserve out of their homes. Ottawa hired a former Ontario provincial cabinet minister to review the situation, and Alan Pope recommended the entire band be moved to Timmins. The land on the shores of James Bay would remain in the band's control but be used for recreation and traditional hunting-and-gathering purposes.
Kashechewan's band leadership said no, and in 2007 Ottawa offered $200 million to rebuild the reserve where it was.
But many First Nations leaders say abolishing remote or dysfunctional reserves won't work for two reasons.
First, those lands are all that's left of a wide swath of traditional nomadic territory, and they were guaranteed to First Nations through binding treaties.
Attempts to relocate bands in the past have been, in the words of one expert, disastrous. The Chemawawin Cree Nation is still reeling from a forced relocation to Easterville in the 1960s that badly damaged the band's social structure.
And First Nations people have an attachment to the land most non-aboriginal people have yet to understand. Even if an education and career have taken a First Nations person to Bay Street, he or she will still consider the reserve home and will return often.
When journalists ask people living in struggling remote reserves why they stay, most people offer roughly the same reasons. Their aunts and cousins and elders are on the reserve. Cities like Thompson and Winnipeg seem unfriendly -- their kids might join gangs or lose touch with their Cree or Ojibwa language and traditions. And they would miss the fishing, hunting and going out on the land.
The fact is, First Nations, especially the remote ones, are not dying. They are growing at an astounding rate. Manitoba's reserves are expected to grow nearly five times as fast as non-aboriginal cities and towns in the coming years. In the Burntwood Regional Health Authority, which covers most of the province's remote reserves, the birth rate is twice the provincial average. More than half the residents on the remotest reserves are under 20 years old.
In his speech to the chiefs at last month's summit in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pointed to several reserves that have escaped the cycle of unemployment and decay.
There are some in Alberta reaping the benefits of oil, for example, and reserves close to major cities can tap into nearby markets.
According to the Community Well-Being Index, which measures community health based on labour activity, housing and education, Tsawwassen First Nation near Vancouver and Westbank First Nation near Kelowna are among the top five healthiest reserves in the country. Their economies were built on their proximity to people.
Manitoba's 63 reserves are much closer to the bottom of the list. Out of more than 5,400 communities measured, the top Manitoba First Nations don't make an appearance until the 4,040 mark.
Brokenhead and Opaskwayak Cree Nation, both with an overall score of 61 out of 100, are tied. They are among the few that are slowly developing local economies, thanks to proximity to Winnipeg and The Pas as well as successful casinos.
There are other bright spots.
Chief Norman Bone of the Keeseekoowenin First Nation near Elphinstone, Man., has partnered with two other bands to buy 200 hectares of land on the outskirts of Brandon. The land is so valuable, developers are knocking down their doors to get at it, and the bands are working on a business-development plan with much excitement.
Southern bands like Bone's are surrounded by private property, not Crown land, which can be tricky. But they can capitalize on nearby towns and cities to develop property, build casinos, invest in VLTs and open small businesses.
Bone said northern bands in remote areas of the province don't have the luxury of looking at economic solutions such as his own plan to turn the land into a housing development or mix of businesses, community facilities and homes. Investors are knocking down his door with interest in the land because it is close to a large population in Brandon.
"Who is going to invest in an area where nobody comes?" he asked.
-- -- --
After generations of flooding and mistrust, the next three Manitoba Hydro dams are being built following the completion of massive and complex partnership agreements with several northern bands. Those agreements make the bands full-fledged, profit-sharing investors in the dams, and earmark a big chunk of the construction jobs for aboriginal people.
And the new all-weather road now inching its way slowly up the east side of Lake Winnipeg will be built by a workforce that's one-third aboriginal.
Those partnerships make Manitoba a model.
But First Nations leaders say they want to develop the bounty on their lands themselves instead of working for others -- own the resource companies rather than merely work for them.
In Manitoba, though, it's hard to know what resources bands can tap into. In northern B.C. and Alberta, it's oil and natural gas. In Saskatchewan, it's oil and potash -- two lucky strikes that have made northern Saskatchewan's bands much better off than their neighbours to the east.
In Manitoba, it could be mining, but so far that's been slow going.
Bands are constrained by the boundaries of relatively tiny reserves and by archaic legislation in the form of the Indian Act. The act stifles economic development because bands need Ottawa's approval to so much as sell a head of lettuce grown in a community garden. If they want to start a new business, they need to get permission.
And any minerals that lie beneath the surface on land around reserves are owned by the province. Many bands consider these lands their traditional territories, but the province has control of natural resources, making any minerals off limits to First Nations without the province's permission.
Nepinak said much of Manitoba has been mapped out, but there are still large swaths of unknowns.
"Manitoba is every bit as bountiful as Alberta could be considering the rich resources we have in our territories," said Nepinak. "We're just not realizing them right now because the human relationships aren't there."
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper sees dollar signs in having First Nations build power lines or dams in the north and sell the power back to Manitoba Hydro. MKO is already negotiating with possible Bay Street investors to get certain projects off the ground.
But currently, provincial law limits any power generation in Manitoba to Manitoba Hydro so MKO's dream to generate power and sell it to Hydro is laden with bureaucratic hurdles.
Nepinak is pushing for a meeting with the prime minister, all the premiers and the chiefs to sort out the jurisdictional battles, and get all the players to hammer out agreements to deem First Nations partners in development.
"The first ministers meeting would offer the opportunity to create legitimacy and perhaps open that door for us to actually be able to participate meaningfully in resource management and the development of indigenous regulatory regimes right from application to the first shovel," he said.
Nepinak said the provincial government was interested but, thus far Prime Minister Harper has been cool to the idea.
Former prime minister Paul Martin said the "duty to consult" mandated less than a decade ago by the Supreme Court could be the doctrine that enables bands to become more fulsome partners in resource projects happening in their own backyards.
Right now, said Martin, many bands don't have the expertise to deal on a level playing field with mining giants or oil and gas companies. That's why Attawapiskat earns little from a diamond mine located minutes from the reserve.
If the government helped bands on their side of the negotiating table with funding and expertise -- much like Manitoba Hydro does with bands on the Nelson River -- that could help bands reap some value from nearby lucrative projects.
It could also make for smoother relations, opening the market up to companies who might be hesitant to do business with politically unpredictable First Nations.
In 2010-11, Ottawa spent $955.6 million in Manitoba, nearly 98 per cent on direct grants and contributions to the 63 First Nations. That does not include other money from Health Canada, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation or Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
Nearly every job on remote reserves -- in the band office, the school, the health centre -- is tied to that money. It's never been enough to create healthy communities, and many Canadians are growing weary of picking up the tab.
Nepinak said the solution lies in giving First Nations the ability to do things on their own.
"To build a fiscal capacity where people can take back the responsibility for issues of housing, health, education, economic sustainability, our children. A lot of it is tied to our poverty. As long as the poverty is there, we're always going to be faced with these consequences."