I’ve been impressed by some of Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson’s recent works, particularly on the dictatorial tendencies of the federal government and on the need for Canadians to take health care costs seriously. But his column Saturday on the Idle No More movement, First Nations chief Teresa Spence and aboriginal Canadians in general was an ill-researched diatribe compared to those other writings.
His main argument was that many aboriginal Canadians live in a “dream palace”: believing they can return to a glorious, mythical past, where all their communities live in perfect balance with nature. Because they persist in this illusion instead of getting down to the real business of developing their natural resources, they end up reliant on handouts – like in the isolated northern Cree community of Attawapiskat.
Attawapiskat is infamous as the First Nation to which the Canadian Red Cross launched a humanitarian mission last winter because of an acute shortage of liveable housing. Nearly one month ago, Attawapiskat Chief Teresa Spence began a hunger strike in protest of the federal government’s neglect of indigenous people’s concerns, demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
How, writes Simpson, could communities such as these – 1,000 or so people living on land of “marginal value” – dream of becoming “vibrant and self-sustaining, capable of discharging the panoply of responsibilities of sovereignty?”
In fact, Attawapiskat’s leaders began living that dream years ago. In 1999 they signed a memorandum of understanding with global diamond giant De Beers, which had discovered some of the world’s highest-quality diamonds buried in their ‘marginal’ lands. The First Nation pocketed a $1 million signing bonus and $2 million in royalties. Today one-fifth of the workforce at the Victor Diamond Mine (100 of 500 workers) is from Attawapiskat, according to De Beers.
This hardly sounds like the actions of a community content to wallow in dreams of past glories, as Simpson would have us believe First Nations are wont to do.
Then there’s the Nisga’a. After decades of requests, the northern British Columbia First Nation convinced the Canadian government to begin negotiating a treaty in 1973. The deal was finalised in 1998 and in 2000 the Crown transferred 2,000 square km of land to the Nisga’a, whose self-government was recognised in the treaty. Today, among its other responsibilities, the Nisga’a Lisims Government manages all surface, forest and mineral rights and resources on its land, and controls fisheries on the Nass River in partnership with the Government of Canada. In 2010 it opened up specific lands for private sale.
And yet Simpson argues that too many aboriginals are wasting their time fighting “… for the restoration of ‘rights’ that, even if defined, would make little tangible difference in the lives of aboriginal people.”
This is not to pretend that all is rosy on Nisga’a land – where economic development remains a challenge – and certainly not in Attawapiskat. That community still lacks housing that would meet basic Canadian standards, is recovering from the costs of responding to a series of environmental emergencies, and faces renewed questions about its financial management, according to a CBC news story on Monday.
The First Nation is also still trying to understand why the Impact Benefit Agreement it signed with De Beers has not lived up to its promise.
Yet faced with these challenges the First Nation has, rightly, rejected Simpson’s approach: “…exploitation of natural resources near their communities … should be the driving thrust of all public policy.” Attawapiskat’s agreement with De Beers includes the creation of a locally-based Environmental Monitoring Committee (EMC), which draws on local traditional knowledge and expertise to identify changing patterns of movement by nearby Caribou herds, likely as a result of the mine.
Attawapiskat recognises that caribou hunting, and other traditional activities, must not be sacrificed in the name of the wage economy. (In the same way, other First Nations are also fighting against the excesses of Alberta’s oilsands industry, whose health and environmental risks are real and must be open to public debate.) Certainly the leadership is acting responsibly in taking steps to generate income, but I suspect that for many First Nations, simply swapping traditional ways for financial security would be a losing proposition: once lost how can a culture be regained?